It’s the beginning of the season of festivals of literature, and writers’ summer schools, in the UK.
In the last two weeks I’ve presented my work in Chipping Campden and Swindon. At both festivals I felt warmed by the generosity of organisers, and the passion of my workshop participants.
In London, with a spare moment between commitments, I decided that what I wanted to do most in the world was to spend leisurely time in a gigantic bookshop with comfy chairs and a café. Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus was on my route, and fitted the bill very nicely.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, to find fiction, or non-fiction, that took connection with nature as a theme, I would have been crawling into the most obscure sections of the bookshop and dusting off cobwebs. No more.
Imagine my delight when centre-stage on the ground floor, and featured in the front window, were books collected under the shining title ‘New Nature Writing’.
But what exactly is ‘new nature writing’? In an article in The New Statesman, Robert Macfarlane (something of a king in this emerging literary genre), defines it well. Read here.
It has, as its core value, an appreciation that human beings are animals, that we are animals among other animals. It values community over commodity, modesty over mastery, connection over consumption, and the deep over the shallow.
It turns out that at Wild Words we’ve been trailblazing. The kind of writing many of us practice, is selling like hot cakes. We’ve become a trend. That makes me very happy. I’m happy that people who make a choice to cultivate an appreciation of the natural world around them, and to record it, are now considered amongst the coolest people you can meet (didn’t we always know it!)
I spent a glorious day in that bookshop, fuelled by carrot cake and Earl Grey, sifting through a pile of (as yet unbought, and untarnished) ‘new nature writing’ books.
What’s exciting is how broad, deep and wide the genre is. It takes in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. It fuses nature writing, travel writing, philosophy and psychology. (For specific examples, see Macfarlane’s article). An interesting strand is that of the memoir writers, such as Helen McDonald's H is for Hawk, and Amy Liptrot's The Outrun. These writers have turned to nature in times of difficulty and disillusionment, and have found it has everything to offer.
There can be a perception that nature writing is a little ‘tame’. The pastoral poetry tradition, that can be traced back to the Greeks, and extended into and through Renaissance England, idealised rural life and landscapes. It is partly, if not mostly, responsible for that view.
Central to what I communicate with Wild Words, is that writing inspired by contact with nature can be imbued with a force that goes way beyond that. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the beauty and majesty of nature. Recognition of its power to soothe us, and restore us to health is sorely needed. However, the new nature writing is much more than that. Rightly so, given we human beings dig ourselves ever deeper into a hole, in relationship to That Which Sustains Life.
It’s groundbreaking, thought-provoking, politically challenging, society changing. It’s awe inspiring stuff. It connects people. It’s a route to re-find the animal in us. The wild.
Not everyone who comes to Wild Words is interested in the genre of ‘nature-writing’ and that’s fine. Every skill we hone here is applicable to all writing in all genres. But, maybe, with this new take on an ancient tradition in writing, those of us who are interested to try their hand at it, can come out the shadows.
We’re no longer regarded as something akin to train spotters, we’re cooler than Madonna.
The Monthly Writing Prompt
Those of us who choose to spend time in nature, consider it normal. It isn’t. Most people only read about it in books. There’s even a term for the wide range of problems that can result from the modern phenomenon of dislocation from our environment- Nature Deficit Disorder.
Have you had contact and experiences in nature that have formed or informed you, or which have echoed other themes in your life? If so, that gives you something unique to say. Write about it. For those who haven’t.