The Shock of the New Nature Writing
A surprising and wonderful development in the last fifteen years or so has been the resurgence in Britain of the nature writing genre. By this I mean literary nature writing – books, articles and newspaper columns (important in this genre) – as distinct from nature guides and scientific natural history for the general reader. Literary nature writing blends scientific information into narratives of encounters with wild places and creatures. Emotions are expressed. Symbolic and metaphorical meanings are explored. Traditional meanings are invoked, and compared with new meanings. Philosophical ideas are analysed. Personal stories are told. The twining together of these elements makes them inform and question each other. Traditionally, in our educational culture, they have been kept in separate spaces. Environmental crisis demands that they come together.
Recent years have seen a profusion of titles. Many have been memoirs about a lifelong love of a particular type of animal or landscape – a love that has interacted with other profound experiences and questions. Some have been studies of animals or landscapes without the memoir element, but still full of stories and encounters. Some have been ‘door-opener’ books that take a particular object, species or landscape and use it to explore history and ecology in all sorts of places. Some have been nature almanacs or journals, recording the natural events in a place as the year passes. Many are concerned with the seriousness and the urgency of the crisis.
When this resurgence began, several commentators called it ‘the New Nature Writing’, claiming that there are vital differences between these works and earlier books in the genre. Most obviously, these new works are informed and impelled by the crisis; they see nature differently in consequence. It is not territory beyond human influence, or a permanent state of being that stands in contrast to the fleeting nature of human affairs. Wild nature no longer functions as a place of refuge from modernity. To turn back and face the natural world, anxiously, is one of the definitively modern things we have to do. What, then, are the aspects of traditional nature writing that we should value and continue, and what are the aspects that should be rejected? Do any dangerous ideologies lurk in the genre’s habits? How should the genre develop? Is it, after that first explosive reappearance, in danger of slowing? What are the limitations the genre must overcome? Does it represent the full diversity of our community? Is it sufficiently responsive to concerns about inequality, or does it evade them? Does it experiment with new literary forms, and does it need to?
At the New Networks meeting in York, a panel consisting of Zakiya McKenzie, Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi and Richard Smyth will explore these questions. All are exciting new writers challenging tradition and taking the genre in new directions. The panel will open up new possibilities. I can’t wait to chair it.