The Nature Writing Debate – A Meta-Analysis


Here is a picture of a tree what has fallen down…but give me a healthy advance and I’ll write you 100,000 words on its ecological processes and about 500 on its aesthetic beauty, what it says about me as a human being and how it ‘makes my soul feel’

This was originally a much longer, wordier, more lyrical piece. However, I did a quick scope around and there was already a plethora of people speaking on the subject from a much loftier and more exalted position than I in a rather po-faced manner. Occasionally in a style that seemed almost perversely self-defeating. What there was a dearth of was fatuous, flippant fripperies not really addressing the point at all. So I thought what the argument really needed was a contribution from a non-writing barely-creditable scientist (ok, I didn’t think the argument needed that at all, but I felt I should probably come up with some kind of half-arsed justification for sticking my beak in). So here goes, it’s time for me to hold my breath and plunge headfirst into the recent ‘nature writing’ debate.

It’s an apt image; I do feel a little as though I’ve been water-boarded with opinions over the last fortnight. Like the Stephen Poole article a while back, an article by Mark Cocker in the New Statesman this year appears to have opened up divisions in the chummy world of green literature.

In an attempt to make a last grasp at brevity and concision on the subject, I did the only thing I know how to do. Over the weekend I read as many of the ‘thought pieces’ as I could and performed a meta-analysis using the most highly complex and powerful piece of analytical software I had available at the time – though what faculties my tiny little mind still possessed after a whole day out in the sun miscounting butterflies is debatable.

Through this unreliable prism I fed the dilemna ‘What is Nature Writing’ and waited for the resulting spew of stats and poorly formed notions. There were graphs, there were charts, phenological and chronological data on the public perception of the ‘nature writing’ phenomenon…did I mention there were graphs? It was fantastic, glorious to behold, but – I decided – possibly not for everyone. In a second attempt to curtail this rather ludicrous premise, I programmed my unreliable software to condense its findings down into a few, concise soundbites on ‘nature writing’:

  • ‘Nature writing’ must contain at least a 45.6% focus on non-human biological entities.

Thanks brain…A tad over-concise (though where this left dragon-based literature, I am still unsure).

By relaxing the parameters of my software by 5% increments and altering the language flexibility, I was able to increase the outputs and ascertain some fundamental concepts about ‘Nature Writing’:


  • Writing that does not educate the reader about nature is not ‘nature writing’.
  • It is easier to educate the casual reader about nature if you write engagingly.
  • Alas, as with all other genres, some of what is classed ‘nature writing’ is still tedious, pretentious, pompous, self-important or just plain crap.
  • Pigeonholing and genre definitions have their uses for the bookseller, but informative and engaging writing is priceless to the reader.
  • Arguing class, race, gender etc. in this context is redundant. Or at least it should be. Doing so is merely petty point scoring.
  • ‘Nature writing’ is not a whole, cohesive concept. It is amorphous and highly subjective.
  • In all the analysis of the analyses, and critiques of the critiques, something might just be lost. ‘Nature writing’ and writing about ‘nature writing’ has become about writing about the writing in ‘nature writing’ and not about writing about the nature in ‘nature writing’ – !Unexpected Logic Failure! Please Investigate and the Kill Process (Error Message 0x0EEJK).
  • The only real arbiter of whether something is ‘nature writing’ is the person reading it at that precise moment.
  • Who cares?
  • Stop taking it so seriously. It’s not like you’re doing proper work.

Examples of Source Materials:

Death of the Naturalist: Why is the ‘new nature writing’ so tame? – Mark Cocker

The Limits of Nature Writing – Richard Smyth

Is our love for nature writing bourgeois escapism – Stephen Poole

Tales of the City: Manning the Baricades – Melissa Harisson

Common Ground or Private Park: Whose (nature) writing is it anyway? – Richly Evocative

Limitations of the study:

Capacity and vocabulary of analytical software. Possible sun damage.

Suggestions for future studies:

For ease of comparison and to avoid future conflict, the study recommends the development of a Green to Purple ‘Nature Writing’ scale label for all future publications. Through facile chromatographic identification, individuals can assess their scope of literary preference and use this tool to aid further reading choices…

This child-like effort is the best my limited Paint skills could achieve

This child-like effort is the best my limited Paint skills could achieve

…Like that thing with the mattresses…you could probably justify hiking the prices in some way too…

You may have guessed that I am perhaps not taking the whole debate overly seriously, but then again it’s about time somebody didn’t. On the other hand, I’ve got form in this area, so this may not be the last you hear on this subject…


7 thoughts on “The Nature Writing Debate – A Meta-Analysis

  1. I had no idea there was a debate going on and, like you, I’m not planning to take it seriously. Writers, especially academic writers and critics, are capable of what my mother used to refer to as “causing an argument in an empty room”. Best let them get on with it and enjoy the writing you enjoy and ignore the writing you don’t enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s an odd one, and I can see why someone might get riled if you question the value of their work. I couldn’t give a fig if someone doesn’t like what I write, because it’s just me amusing myself, but I’d probably get a little peeved if they questioned my real work. There’s a type of nature writing I like, and a type I don’t like, but I can’t bring myself to get too worked up about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Some Unstructured Thoughts on Mushrooms | adventures in conservation

  3. Pingback: The Purple and the Green – More Nature Writing Guff | adventures in conservation

  4. Pingback: Common Ground or Private Park: Whose Nature (writing) is it anyway? | Richly Evocative

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