Nature writing’s ill-defined, thriving ecosystem

Earlier this month, the thought-provoking digital magazine Aeon published an article by nature writer Richard Smyth, the point of which I entirely missed on first reading. This was largely due to the article’s unhelpful title and introductory standfirst, which threw me off the scent. I assume they must have been written by someone else.

Smyth’s piece is 4,600 words long, and contains a lengthy digression on the TV show Mastermind. So here’s my attempt at a three-sentence summary:

  • Factual knowledge about the natural world is an important element of nature writing.
  • But all nature writing is, to some extent, human-centric, with different authors bringing different types of knowledge.
  • The best nature writing merges factual knowledge with other types of knowledge derived from observation, experience, culture, emotional responses, etc.

As someone who writes in the segment of the Venn diagram where science, history and nature intersect, and as someone currently 84,000 words into his first draft of a book about how Charles Darwin looked at the world, and enabled us to look at nature in new and better ways, I assumed the importance of incorporating factual knowledge and informed observation into nature writing must be patently obvious. This despite the fact that, although I have the temerity to write about nature, I don’t consider myself to be a naturalist. Neither, come to mention it, do I consider myself to be a scientist or historian.

I’m pretty sure, like me, most people who write about nature would agree with Smyth on the importance of at least some factual knowledge creeping into their work. Smyth cites a few examples of writers who seem to disagree, but I’m unfamiliar with their names and writing, so I’m not sure how representative of their views are the undeniably cringeworthy quoted passages. The one book I was familiar with that Smyth cites as arguing against formalised knowledge, the late novelist John Fowles’s The Tree, certainly infuriated the hell out of me for trying to set science at odds with an appreciation of nature: an idea most kindly described as bullshit. Smyth seems to have got more out of Fowles’s book than I did. Perhaps it’s time to do as I confidently predicted and revisit it—if only, as I said at the time I reviewed it, ‘so I can continue to distance myself from its central premise’.

One of the chapters in my Darwin book concerns the classification of species—or taxonomy, as more modern scientists would have it. I make the point that taxonomies for most things are pretty much arbitrary: people think of things in different ways; there in no correct way to group and arrange them. But in the case of living (and extinct) species there really is a correct way to classify them: Darwin’s way. Species should be grouped and classified according to genealogical descent; that is, by how closely they are related to each other.

Unlike with species, there is no correct way to classify writing. A hundred different authors or readers could easily come up with a hundred or more different taxonomies of varying degrees of usefulness. To complicate matters, whichever of these hypothetical taxonomies you might choose, most writing would fall into a combination of different genres within it. W.G. Sebald famously wanted his unclassifiable masterpiece The Rings of Saturn to be catalogued under every officially recognised publishing category, instead of being limited to a maximum of three.

My own writing isn’t pure science-, history- or nature-writing, whatever any of those terms might mean. My writing is, I hope, an enjoyably idiosyncratic amalgam of all three. Other people who write about nature occupy very different niches on the taxonomic Venn diagram, where nature intersects with memoir, say, or biography, or self-help, or fiction, or feminism, or writing by writers of colour, or poetry, or cooking, or WW2 prison journals, or motorcycle maintenance, or a whole host of other potentially fascinating possibilities.

In a recent interview, the groundbreaking modern nature writer Richard Mabey said that, for his next book, he is planning to reinvent the epistolary nature-writing format of his (and Charles Darwin’s) hero Gilbert White. Utter genius! Chalk me up for a pre-order. As a long-term incorrigible letter-writer, who can bang them out at the drop of a hat, I could have kicked myself for not having come up with that brilliant cross-genre idea.

There have been all manner of articles, and responses to articles, over recent years about what constitutes proper ‘nature writing’. This seems a peculiarly British preoccupation. As Mabey said in the introduction to his 1995 anthology The Oxford Book of Nature Writing, ‘In the United States, the best nature writers are regarded simply as writers.’

The idea of popular nature writing goes back at least as far as Gilbert White—and, some might argue, Thomas Browne, or even Pliny the Elder. But in recent years it has been seized on by book marketing departments as a convenient, highly popular catch-all classification for pigeonholing and promoting anything remotely to do with the natural world. As such, the term has become effectively meaningless, with many of its most respected practitioners actively disavowing the label. In one of his last interviews, Barry Lopez claimed he abhorred the term ‘nature writing’; in a 2012 interview in the Scottish Review of Books, Kathleen Jamie said she couldn’t bring herself to get the words ‘nature writers’ out of her gob.

To me, the best nature writing—indeed, the best writing full-stop—wears its knowledge lightly. I love to read intelligent, well-informed individuals thinking out loud, sharing and testing the limits of what they know, and exploring new ideas. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that my favourite form of writing is the essay. Like Smyth (and, I suspect, like Mabey and Tim Dee and Mark Cocker and many others) I have a predilection for what, in my own personal taxonomy, I like to think of as ‘natural history essays’: exploratory nature writing informed by factual knowledge, with a plain-speaking, enquiring, humanist/materialist world-view, and with little or no time for the ‘spiritual’. But I also greatly enjoy plenty of other nature writing that doesn’t perfectly intersect with my personal biases. One of my guiltiest pleasures, for example, are the deeply spiritual, sermon-like countryside essays of Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford Series.

‘Long live difference!’ as they say in France. Diversity has to be a good thing. Writing, like nature itself, does best when it evolves thriving ecosystems. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to whatever ‘nature writing’ is supposed to be these days. It might not all be to my personal taste, but what genre of writing is? Diversity in nature writing, as in all writing, has to be a good thing. So I’m all for it. Even the stuff that infuriates the hell out of me.

But when someone named Richard Carter, who dabbles in this ill-defined ‘nature writing’ genre, writes an over-long ‘sideline’ piece in response to an article written by someone else writing in that genre named Richard Smyth, and cites a recognised master in the genre named Richard Mabey, it looks as if we might also have an embarrassment of Richards.

So perhaps I’d better stop all this navel-gazing and get back to my Darwin book.

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