The Nature Writing Debate – A Meta-Analysis

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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’:

Results:

  • 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…

Not a Book Review #2: Meadowland and My Favourite Nature Books

meadowlandI’m sure you’ll all be glad to know that I’ve had rather a pleasant few weeks, what with jollying off to treehouses in the Cotswolds and gadding about Mallory’s birthplace in Cheshire.

It was made even more pleasant by my chosen reading material – Meadowland by John Lewis Stempel. I was originally going to write another one of my rather ill-conceived non-reviews, but I drew rather a blank after my opening gambit of ‘it were reet bloody good’ (yes, in case you hadn’t noticed by now I have occasional Northern Tendencies, which makes my current state of captivity in the overbearing greyness of Stockwell even more unpalatable).

Informative without being facile or opaque, and gently lyrical and emotive rather than histrionic, it put me in mind of another book. Perhaps my favourite as it happens. And regrettably this is where the blog once more descends into another of my periodical bouts of listing things (in other words, I’m short on ideas again this week). That’s right; it’s time for my Top Nature Books:

Edward O. Wilson – The Diversity of Life

Despite his recent slightly childish spats with Dawkins (and he’s become such an objectionable character these days, it’s hard to blame him), I still can’t help but think of Wilson as some kind of benevolent, Grand Knight of Biodiversity. I recall once seeing him pop-up on a wildlife documentary with David Attenborough and immediately shouting ‘House!’ as if I’d just completed some personal game of Conservation Bingo. It was a peculiar knee-jerk reaction for which I received some very strange looks…I digress. The Diversity of Life is one of the first ‘straight’ ecology books I remember reading and I genuinely think it changed the way I see the world.

Aldo Leopold – A Sand County Almanac

Meadowland, with its light sprinkling of prose, detours on phenology and ecology and its obvious love of the land, evoked memories of the first time I read Sand County. I quite simply do not think I have read anything so wonderful. I loaned my copy out years ago and never saw again (always an indication of quality!) I’ve since bought another. It starts with the same premise as Thoreau’s Walden, (man takes himself to a cabin in the woods to ‘live deliberately, to front only the essential facts’) but Leopold is an eminently better naturalist and writer. Infinitely more readable than Thoreau’s impenetrable stocktaking. I have never made it past about page 50 of Walden but still re-read Sand County regularly.

Philip Hoare – The Sea Inside

I never really had much of an interest in Marine Ecology until I read The Sea Inside. The sea still remains a terrifying place in my mind (vast, deep, unknown and full of sharks), but The Sea Inside awakened an interest in the communities that depend on it and the creatures that inhabit it. So much so that I even went as far as taking a course in marine biology last year. Although I still don’t go in the sea. Are you mad? There’s all sort of weird stuff in there.

George Monbiot – Feral

Had to bring up Monbiot, didn’t I? Though I still have my reservations about some aspects of the whole rewilding ethos, Feral is jam-packed with ideas and knowledge and gives a damn good argument for some pretty drastic changes to the way we look at land management and conservation. Most of all it made me want to get the hell out of Stockwell!

…and there. I have managed, for once, to rein myself in, giving an appropriately idiosyncratic ‘Top 4’, rather than go on at length as, in truth, I would rather like to do so. These are merely 4 that are at the forefront of my mind at this moment (and also in a rather prominent position on my bookshelf and coffee table. The two are likely not unrelated). But once again, I strive for, and still overshoot, brevity. I have, to my eternal shame, still never finished any Rackham, Deakins or Mabey (though I’ve got copies around here somewhere) and this list is, of course, distressingly subjective. So feel free to put a plug in for your favourite piece of nature writing and I may one day get around to adding it to my pile.

What I Did on my Holidays and the Trials of an Ecologist’s Wife.

Nobody really wants to read about my holiday and how amazing it was, do they? Tough. After all the seriousness of last week’s post I’m drifting into levity and inconsequential fluff again. Don’t worry; I’ll keep it brief. Levity and brevity should probably be my blogging watchwords. It would make a change.

Mainly, I’m writing about this is to gloat. Well, OK, it’s to gloat and because I don’t have any better ideas this week. I thought it was exceedingly important that everyone knows that for the last week I’ve been loafing about here:

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Yeah, that’s right, it’s a treehouse. Not just that. It’s a treehouse with a hot tub. Which is all fine and dandy until a hornet takes it upon himself to do periodical flybys, sending yours truly damply scurrying back inside with the screaming heebie jeebies. I’m not sure I can accurately estimate its size, but I would say it was at least as big as your average domesticated cat. With wings.

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Bluebells in Ashton Wood: Picturesque. And blue.

One can’t spend all of one’s time jumping in and out of hot tubs avoiding oversized Vespidae though. It’s bad for one’s skin and one’s deportment, if nothing else. No matter, there were plenty of scenic villages to meander through, Bredon Hill to climb and Ashton Wood to explore.

It was in the latter that I discovered the largest badger sett I’ve ever seen. It put the ironworks on top of Bredon Hill to shame. Now, a word on my wife here (yes, I really am married): It takes a special kind of woman to nod tolerantly and say ‘oh, that’s nice’ when their lunatic husband yells from the undergrowth ‘Look at the size of this badger latrine!’

Considering her main interactions with nature through the week involved being menaced by an itinerant hornet and recoiling in horror at the mention of a tick on my leg (I lassoed it with a piece of cotton), I have to applaud her stoicism. Although she steadfastly refused to accompany me on a late night test of my shiny new bat detector (Soprano Pips, possible Natterer’s). Maybe next week I’ll write about the trials and tribulations of being bound by law to an ecologist.

So there you go, that was my holiday, interesting, wasn’t it? For now I have returned to the grim urban landscape of Stockwell, with its huge bus station that suspiciously thrums at ungodly hours. They’re building something that goes against man and nature in there, mark my words. Oh to live in a place where Red Kites soar whenever I turn my eyes skyward.

Not a Proper Book Review – H for Hawk and Hedge Britannia

Book pileStrewn willy-nilly about my flat is a rather scattershot collection of half-read books on everything from Charles Manson to natural history. I finally managed to tick-off two books in the latter category this week so I thought what better time to start the first in what may or may not be a series of very subjective book reviews. The wind this week has rather put paid to bat, bee and butterfly surveys and election fever is consumed all but the smuttiest corners of the internet* so I’ve had a chance to catch up on H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Hedge Britannia by Hugh Barker.

I began the Award-Winning, Thesaurus-bothering titan that is H is for Hawk with some expectation but perhaps expecting something else (ok, I didn’t exactly read up on its contents beforehand). It has been hugely well received and having finished it, I’m still not entirely sure what I feel about it. There were long stretches of descriptive, showy prose that I skipped over as I often felt these weren’t telling me much. There’s a chance that I just felt stupid and jealous of the obvious talent and literary dexterity on display, and there is also a chance that I’m just an emotionally dead robot.

What to take away from it? Well, the parts about Hawks are great. The rest, and the overly verbose, portentous, pretentious simile-fest style, I am less enamoured with. I’ll admit, I am, on occasion and though I try to deny it, capable of drifting from Green into Purple without bothering to consult any of the intermediary colours, but this is just obscene. For christsake, she even uses the word Palimpsest. Palimpsest!

Maybe my stop/start reading style, ‘reading pile’ method didn’t allow me to pick up the rhythms and themes and stick with them. More than likely I was caught out by the description of H is for Hawk as non-fiction – the tone, structure, lyricism and I would venture even some of the content (come on, no one has dreams quite that crystal-clear and overbearingly symbolic) are deeply indebted to fictitious styles and tropes. I suspect if I had got onboard with that earlier, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.

There were lines I couldn’t really wrap my head around:

(I had) ‘…assumed it was a fear of female emancipation that had made Goshawks so terribly frightening to later falconers.’

And passages that others clearly enjoyed but were a little too florid for me:

‘The argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay. Drifts of chalk beneath. Yellowhammers chipping in the hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea’

 But enough about the style, what about the substance? That is, after all, what I crave. The book clearly has managed to subconsciously inveigle some knowledge of falconry into my brain, particularly some of the rather wonderful words associated with it (yarak being a favourite). I also had a pressing desire to read more TH White.

I clearly have a predilection for the concise and informative over the lyrical and emotive, which is perhaps why I had much more fun with Hedge Britannia. This was an inspired purchase.

Where H is for Hawk strives for the poetic, the noble, the emotive and lyrical, Hedge Britannia aims to inform you about a subject you didn’t know, and could never have imagined, you would be interested in, and all laced with heavy doses of self-deprecation. There are so many random digressions into social history, literature and even at, at one point, anime. There’s also more information on hedging species, techniques and types than you could shake a stick at. Though what you would hope to achieve by doing that, I have no idea.

For both of these books I suspect my enjoyment depended a lot on my own mood and circumstances at the time, and it’s because of that subjectivity I’ve titled this very definitely not a book review. I suspect I’m being a little unfair on H is for Hawk, but then if you read it sat on the 319 overlooking bus-stops strewn with desiccated goat-legs, you might struggle to enjoy the expansive descriptions of glorious landscapes and rolling countryside.

*I’m presuming no one is really reading a niche wildlife blog right now

No I Will Not Use the Title Bear Necessities in a Post About Bears. You Can’t Make Me.

Just as ‘Yes’ by McAlmont and Butler is clearly the greatest pop song ever written, so there must logically be a ‘greatest fictional bear’ ever created. Yes, that’s right, the blog has degenerated to this – me discussing the pros and cons of cartoon bears. And no, I have not been paid to write this in order to promote the new Paddington film.

I could make a point about the dangerous anthropomorphism of animals and how this leads to misplaced confidence around those from the big, bite-your-head-off and not at all cuddly species (see Grizzly Man, or the recent photos taken by a student in New Jersey moments before being killed by a black bear). But I wont. I don’t really think I have it in me to make a serious point in what is a very flippant and facetious post I knocked up in the 30 minutes I have spare between getting the Tea on and developing my FIFA skills.

So here, in order of morphological and ecological accuracy, are my ‘Top Bears’

Hyper Camp

Hyper Camp

Rupert

Species: Polar? Who knows?

Location: Nutwood, England

Habits and preferences: Hyper-camp. I will cast no aspersions about his preferences.

Accuracy Points: 0

Seriously, what was it about these authors in the 20’s, were they trying to convince kids that the woodlands of the UK were thronged with super-friendly bears? Rupert…god I hate Rupert…maybe it’s those stupid check trousers. At least they aren’t red trousers. Maybe it’s Paul McCartney’s fault. Rupert is less a bear, more an effete young boy with a bears head stuck on him.

Not Really a Bear

Not Really a Bear

Pooh

Species: Teddy Bear

Location: Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Habits and preferences: Likes Honey, a bit slow

Accuracy Points: 2

Ok, so technically he’s a ‘Teddy Bear’ rather than an actual bear, but Ashdown Forest? I’m pretty sure there are no Bears in Sussex…pretty sure. Points for appearing to be in a pre-hibernation state most of the time and enjoying honey.

Nice Hat

Nice Hat

Paddington

Species: Spectacled Bear

Location: Peruvian Immigrant

Habits and preferences: Likes Marmalade sandwiches

Accuracy Points: 5

Points for getting species origin correct and overall appearance not too far off. I’d even concede that bears would like marmalade sandwiches, should they happen on one. He does however recklessly encourage the adoption of dangerous wild animals in contravention of the 1976 Act but may gain bonus points for inciting the wrath of UKIP.

yogi

Yogi Bear – In reality a remorseless killing machine

Yogi

Species: Grizzy

Location: Jellystone National Park

Habits and preferences: Stealing picnic baskets

Accuracy points: 6

Right species, right place (It’s supposed to be Yellowstone, obvs), vaguely correct appearance. Attraction to picnic baskets spot on whilst also carrying a genuine public warning. With his smart-casual dress sense (tie, hat and nothing else) he’s definitely the most stylish in the countdown. In reality would have ripped Park Ranger Smith’s face off and chewed-up his mangled body before going down in a hail of bullets.

baloo

Bill Murray

Baloo

Species: Sloth Bear

Location: Indian Jungle

Habits and preferences: Likes fruit, honey, ants, dancing and tomfoolery.

Accuracy points: 8

Actually looks like a bear, unlike most of the others. Right species, right place, right diet. I’ve also just found out the Bill Murray is voicing the character in a 2015 live action version, and that’s the best news I’ve heard in a long while.

Honourable(?) mentions for Bungle (super odd), but there was only room for one camp bear in the countdown.