What makes good nature writing?

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I continue to edit and conduct interviews for the literary website Five Books. I was particularly pleased with this recent interview with polymath barrister, vet, academic and author Charles Foster, about the best nature writing of 2017, and what it means to be a good nature writer. I was delighted too to see it picked up by The Browser, which called it “a rather wonderful conversation”.

As you may or may not know, I write quite a lot about the landscape and natural world (for example: this Granta essay on plantation forestry and the Flow Country, an upcoming piece I have written for the same publication about red deer in the Highlands, and a series of entries for the Guardian’s Country Diary slot) so it’s a subject close to my heart, and it was a pleasure to speak to Charles, whose writing (and clarity of thought and purpose) I admire greatly.

Full text can be found on the Five Books website here, or after the fold.

The Best Nature Writing of 2017,
recommended by Charles Foster

Sales of nature books have been booming, but only the most exacting of authors get right to the heart of our own interconnectedness with the natural world, says Charles Foster, bestselling author of Being A Beast. Here, he chooses five of the best books of nature writing published in 2017.

Tell me about the state of nature writing in 2017. Is it thriving? Surviving?

It seems to be doing very well. There are lots of nature books out there. I think the critics are kinder on nature writers than they are on other genres. I suspect that is because they realise that most nature writers are the ‘goodies’ – they’re on the side of the righteous against the forces of manifest evil. Everyone prefers a nature writer, however flabby and incoherent, to the chairman of Monsanto or an oilman.

So, yes, the shelves are groaning with nature books, and that’s hugely encouraging. They’re not always the sort of nature books that do the natural world as big a service as it needs or deserves, but the fact that there are plenty of people out there with a healthy appetite for nature books has to be a good thing.

What does a successful nature book need to achieve?

I think it needs to achieve a recognition that the boundary between us and the natural world is non-existent. I think it needs to make us realise that we are part of the natural world – not in some hermetically sealed compartment. That however besuited we are, however urban we are, we are wild creatures. They need to make us realise that a shopping mall is, in David Abram’s words, just a relatively unwild place. That to look at the back of your hand is to perceive a natural landscape: to look into your mind – the product of millions of years of interaction with the natural world – is to look into a wild place. So wildness is inescapable. The process of thriving as human beings, even in the middle of a throbbing metropolis, is to acknowledge the wild in you.

I think that should be the ultimate aim of nature writing and most modern nature writing aims at that. It tends at least to pay lip service to a notion of interconnectedness. But the really great nature writing, I think, goes a step beyond and says, ‘you’re not only connected to the wild world, you’re an integral part of it. You are part of the wild. So is your kitchen and your desk…’

Your 2016 book Being A Beast took this to its logical conclusion, in its attempt to perceive the world as if through animal eyes, and indeed mouths as you went so far as to taste worms while mimicking the behaviour of a badger. Do any of the books you have chosen take such a high concept approach?

Yes: Elena Passarello’s approach, for instance, is intellectually immersive in a way that my book is literally immersive. But I don’t see my book as a nature book at all – except insofar as I see all books as nature books. I see it as a book that addresses some epistemological questions: what is it possible to know about anything in the world? What is it possible to know about the tree that is in front of me; about the minds of my closest friends? I wrote the book in an effort to reassure myself that I could know something about those things. The fact that I chose to do it through this elaborate, bizarre piece of zoological method acting doesn’t, I think, turn it into a quintessential ‘nature’ book. Yes, I’m convinced of the premise of the porosity of the boundaries between myself and the natural world. But I wasn’t primarily concerned with that question in my strange book.

We once interviewed Robert Macfarlane, who enumerated for us the flaws of the nature writing genre: “sanctimonious piety; imperially purple prose; sentimentalism; and of course cliché.” Do you agree – and if so, how can one hope to avoid them?

I agree entirely with that very neat, if rather brutal, characterisation. How can one hope to avoid them? Purple prose is something which vanishes if you listen properly to wild voices. They don’t speak in purple. People who feel pressed to write in that elaborate way are people who need to get out more – or at least, get out to more strenuous places, to make themselves more vulnerable. They are people who do not realise that one of the dangers from which nature (or any other) writers need to escape is language itself. Language can intrude between us and the wild, or between us and anything else real. Being a good nature writer is to live with the paradox of writing books, necessarily in language, which subvert language itself. Language, properly used, allows us to transcend language. Proper language always points to something beyond itself: it always reminds us of its own inadequacies. That sort of humility, like all sorts of humility, is enormously potent.

Most of the other flaws enumerated by Macfarlane are, I think, symptoms of colonialism. What do we do when we write nature books? Our perspective as nature writers is typically from about six feet above the ground that we’re purporting to describe. We’re usually writing not about the ground at all, but about the presumptions we have carried into the wild. We’re describing the contents of our own heads.

So often nature writing is essentially masturbatory: self-referential and self-reverential. It’s narcissistic. We pride ourselves on our sensitivity; we applaud ourselves for our openness to something other than our usual urban environments.

When I walk into a wood and look at a tree, I get a visual image of that tree which is translated almost immediately into something which is nothing to do with that tree at all. When I start writing about that tree, I am writing about Charles Foster’s impressions of that tree: fragments of remembered poems about trees, fragments of remembered pieces of physiological information about trees: nothing whatever about the tree in front of me. That’s the epistemic crisis that I started out by describing. I think we do that in all our relationships with everything. Particularly, and most catastrophically, in our relationships with other human beings. We make dolls in our own image, copulate with them, and think that we are lovers. It’s very sad, and nothing like as much fun as proper relationships with real lovers.

Most of the time when we’re having conversations with the people that we love best, we’re just having conversations with ourselves. We live in a very lonely world inside our own heads: a virtual reality created by that disastrously tight linkage between cognition and language. We reduce the world to sets of numbered propositions which do scant service to the complexity and beauty and charisma of the world.

I wanted to escape from the tyranny of my own cognition, and therefore the tyranny of my own vision and the prison of my own head. I wanted to see if it was possible to relate, first of all, to something simple like a tree. My method was to see if it was possible to enter the mind of badgers, foxes, and so on – because I don’t think that they relate to trees in that reductionist way. If I could gain any access into their minds, I could begin to be reassured that it was possible to have a meaningful conversation with Cal Flyn, for example, or a meaningful conversation with my wife and children. I wanted to convince myself that I wasn’t forever disastrously alone in the world; trapped in my own head; trapped in my own network of presumptions about the way the world is.

Perhaps this might bring us to the concept of immersion. And 2017 has certainly been the year of the ‘waterbiography,’ to use Jenny Landreth’s subtitle. We’ve had her book Swell, Jessica J Lee’s Turning, and Victoria Whitworth’s Swimming with Seals. You’ve selected Whitworth’s book as your first book.

Victoria Whitworth is an early medieval historian who has also written some wonderful historical novels. Swimming With Seals tells us the story of her literal immersion in the seas off Orkney. The book originated as a series of Facebook posts – but there is a clear and arresting theme linking them.

She has, no doubt because of her professional background, an appreciation of the way that the past is always present that we don’t have. So when she is swimming in the sea off Orkney, she is marinated in substances from all the millennia. The sea is a soup of the Precambrian, the Jurassic, the early medieval, benighted modernity, and everything before and in between. Swimming in it connects her with the place, Orkney, which itself is an amalgam of all these times, none of which ever passes away.

For me the real fascination of Whitworth’s book is the fascination of writers like Alan Garner: the continued inhabitation of material objects by the continually resonant past; a past that can still speak to us. For Whitworth, the past is still present in the natural creatures, which of course were shaped by the past. These creatures speak with the authority of many millennia.

This isn’t really a book about swimming at all, but a book about how we are controlled by the voices of the dead; about how the whole of life is necessarily a seance. That’s a humbling perspective. I like to think of myself as a self-created being: autonomistic, atomistic. Whitworth’s reflections tell me that that’s ludicrous.

Why am I talking to you now in the way that I am? Answer: because I’m descended from a mollusc. Answer: because I’m channelling my dead parents, both human and non-human. I’m not a self-created being.

If I saw myself consistently that way I wouldn’t be as noxiously arrogant and presumptuous as I am.

The concept of redemption by nature often recurs in Whitworth’s book. Or, more specifically, redemption by cold water and the sheer physical shock of immersion. Roger Deakin talked of the curative effects of ‘wild swimming’ on the psyche, saying: “I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression and come out a whistling idiot.” Should we think of these books as descendants of Deakin’s Waterlog?

I don’t know whether the authors would acknowledge that ancestry explicitly, but I expect there is some debt owed. I see these parts of their writing as the descendants of longer-dead ancestors like Emerson and Thoreau, who talked in much more explicit terms than Deakin does about the need to be redeemed by the natural world. The more explicitly we acknowledge our need for redemption, the more complete our redemption will be.

I’ve been re-reading Emerson and Thoreau just recently, (going back to the discussion we were having before). They not only foreshadowed but expressly explicated many of the tectonic ‘discoveries’ of modern nature writers. It’s rather embarrassing. We’re always leaping out of the bath, shouting ‘Eureka’, only to hear Emerson and Thoreau saying, laconically: ‘But surely you’ve read what we said?’

Let’s move on to your second choice, Elena Passarello’s book Animals Strike Curious Poses, which you mentioned earlier. It takes the form of a series of biographies of famous animals, using them as a jumping off point.

Yes, it’s a collection of essays.

There’s a strand running clearly through almost all modern nature writers. It is, I think, respect for the notion of interconnectedness. But there is rarely any attempt to expound it. To get the ‘nature writing’ badge it’s generally thought to be enough simply to nod respectfully at the notion. Almost alone in modern nature writers of whom I know (Robert Macfarlane and Jay Griffiths are honourable exceptions) Passarello attempts a systematic anatomy of interconnectedness.

Her foundational essay describes the emergence of a mammoth from the Siberian permafrost. The gist of her argument is that animal images crawl and prance and gallop through our ruling subconscious. They contribute importantly to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the wider world. We will function better if these animal images come out of our subconscious into our consciousness.

On one level that’s a very trite thing to say. Darwin told us 150 years ago that we have furred and feathery and scaly faces just a few pages back in our family albums. But no one has described as eloquently as Passarello the place that animals have in our ruling collective unconscious. She makes it clear that there should be (for the health both of humans and animals) a vibrant reciprocity. St Francis looks after the wolf. And the wolf benefits. So the wolf is St Francis-ised – the wolf is humanised. But St Francis is also wolved. That’s what happens in any human relationships worth having. We need to abandon the idea of humans unilaterally ‘subduing’ the natural world. We need to be changed by it: to be subdued ourselves – or, better, humanised and vivified by it.

If you go into a bookshop, there are loads of bookshelves with the heading: ‘Birdwatching.’ It would be great if they were next to bookshelves headed ‘Being watched by birds’. That would put us properly in our place. That place would be a happy place to be. I think that is what Passarello’s book does. It tells us that for every twitcher looking through his binoculars at waders on a mudflat, there are tens of thousands of wader eyes looking in at us, and judging us with an antiquity which makes all our modern conceits look shallow, callow.

On the issue of reciprocity, I think of the case of Mozart’s starling. Passarello draws parallels between the classical four-part sonata form and the innate pattern of starling calls; she writes of how Mozart would whistle to his starling and the starling would sing back – but, Mozart felt, with improvements made to the tune. I suppose this is the perfect metaphor.

Absolutely. What we have hubristically dubbed as our ‘creation’ is wholly and gloriously derivative. The tutor who has dictated all the lines in our best writing is the whole of the universe – in all the iterations that there have ever been.

Let’s move to book number three, Science and Spiritual Practices by Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake trained as a biologist and biochemist and now writes on unexplained aspects of human and animal behaviour. I’d like to hear your take on this book in the context of nature writing.

Well, when you asked me for my list of five books about nature, I was tempted, in order to make the point that I’m about to make, to choose a book which no-one would ever think of as a nature book. A book about the architecture of the inner city, say, or the biography of business mogul – just to hammer home the point that everything is nature. The biography is just as much a nature book as anything that Robert Macfarlane has ever written.

Obviously the connection between Rupert Sheldrake’s book on spiritual practices and nature writing is clearer than the connection between the mogul’s biography and nature writing. Although Sheldrake is primarily concerned with the effect of various ‘spiritual’ practices on the human head and on the human ability to thrive, a lot of things advocated in the book demand the sort of express, ecstatic communion with the natural world that we’ve been talking about, and which is the main concern of lots of classic nature writing. Sheldrake talks about the need for us all to go and sit under a tree, and the need to be aware of the tide of our own breath in and out of our body.

Some of the lessons in this book will be familiar to modern readers. It has been conclusively demonstrated (and widely publicised) that human thriving depends on having a physical connection with the natural world. We know that there is much greater incidence of depression and ADHD in children brought up without access to a piece of green. We know that if you want to increase the productivity of your workers you should ensure that their workstations look out on trees. We know that hospital patients recover more quickly if they can look out on a field rather than the back of another building. In this book Sheldrake explores some of the reasons for these facts – as well as the reasons for the well documented benefits of gratitude, singing, religious affiliation, and so on. He also, appropriately and powerfully, uses the book to articulate some of the ideas for which he’s famous – for instance the idea of ‘morphic resonance.’

This being the idea of a sort of collective memory within species and nature more generally?

That laws of the universe are better described as a series of habits that the universe acquires. There are many exhilarating corollaries. We’ve touched on some of them already. The past continues to throb in every accumulation of molecules. We are profoundly affected by the things which have happened before. He speaks very potently about matters that relate to the way that we can appreciate a wood or a wild animal or a city street or our best friends, because he’s clear (as few people are) about the nature of the relationship between mind and matter.

I think the most disastrous event in intellectual history (with the arguable exception of the Neolithic revolution – which made us sedentary animals, when we are constitutionally travellers) was probably the Cartesian separation of matter and mind. It put everything that you might normally lump with God, angels and so on into the ontological compartment, separate from matter. It disenchanted matter. It desouled the material world. And it led to nature being seen as a machine. If you see something as a machine, there’s no moral evil in tinkering with it or destroying it. You can draw a direct line between Cartesian dualism and Monsanto.

Absolutely.

The practices Rupert Sheldrake discusses are informed by his understanding of the principle that mind is inherent in all matter. This resonates much better with many people’s intuitions than the mechanistic model of fundamentalist materialism.

We know that meditation is good for us. What happens in meditation? Well: many things. We discover something about the nature and functioning of our minds, and we realise that our minds are akin to other minds. To use some of the language that we’ve used already in our discussion, we discover that the boundary between us and the rest of the world (or at least that part of the world that can be called ‘mind’) is thin or non-existent. This entails humility – which generates gratitude. Sheldrake talks about the benefits of gratitude. To whom should we be grateful? We don’t have to be a theist in order to be grateful. It helps to say ‘thank you’ to the postman; it helps to say ‘thank you’ to the tree that shelters you. That sort of attitude (whether or not you accept the metaphysics behind it which Sheldrake wants you to accept), is exciting and rewarding both emotionally and intellectually.

This book is a useful exposé of the heresies of modern materialism. Those heresies are essentially religious in nature. The materialists assert, on the basis of little or no evidence, that mind is just a product of matter. The book is also an urgent call to arms. We are doing terrible damage to ourselves and to everything around us by hanging onto these fundamentalist materialist dogmas. The world is hugely more exciting and complex and vibrant than it appears in the materialist paradigm. It demands an ethical response from us which is entailed by animism, or a responsible view of stewardship, not by materialism.

Perhaps we might see this new and growing enthusiasm for nature books as reflecting a desperate unmet need for contact with nature – a need for the ‘spiritual practices’ that Sheldrake outlines – in an increasingly urban population.

I completely agree. People know, if they are reflective even for a moment, that the way we live now is not the way we are meant to be. People rush for contact with the ground of their being, to put it pompously, in meditation. They rush out in cars to the countryside. They spend huge amounts of money on holidays – typically not on city breaks but in green places and the edge of the sea. They spend millions of pounds on dog food because they know they ought to have a relationship with non-human animals. Why? Because non-human animals have been part of what has sculpted them into the shape they are at the moment. They know they are better off if they have contact with minds other than the sorts of minds that they themselves have.

So yes, I think this desperation is expressed on all sorts of levels. No doubt the reason that people spend money on nature books is part of the same phenomenon.

Let’s change tack and turn to Patrick Barkham’s book Islander: A Journey Around our Archipelago. The archipelago in question is the British Isles, which are made up of two large islands (Great Britain and Ireland) and a further 6,289 much smaller islands.

Patrick Barkham, who’s a nature writer for the Guardian, visits a number of the islands around the United Kingdom, wondering if there’s anything which makes life on those islands different from the mainland, and if so what it is – and, if there is something distinctive, if it is something from which we jaded mainlanders might benefit.

Many of us have a romantic idea about islands. Many of us dream about living on islands. Why should that be? Is it because islanders are, by necessity, physically ‘edge people,’ because on a small island you’re near the edge of the place where you live? Is it the resonance between that fact and the fact that we humans are always on an ontological edge – poised on the edge of eternity – that makes life on an island more fulfilling than our normal lives? Barkham explores this and other theses in a number of conversations.

One of the reasons I like this book is that Barkham is a wonderfully congenial travelling companion. He’s easy to talk to. And he’s a nice chap. He likes humans. He doesn’t want (as so many writers do) to sneer; to denigrate; to show how clever he is in relation to others. He is sunny company. It’s fun to wander with him through pages and along beaches. And it is also shrewd: his subjects trust him and open up to him. So, first of all, this is a book about how good it is to be good; how much more human beings reveal of themselves in the presence of mere kindness.

Jay Griffith’s book Wild, a few years ago, talked about consistently finding ‘wild kindness’ in indigenous, un-urbanised people. Patrick Barkham’s book is about how kindness can bring out the ‘wild best’ – and therefore (since we’re all, at bottom, wild creatures) the authentic best in everyone.

What’s his conclusion? It is, I think, that when island-ness is done properly (and it’s often done very badly – diminishing people and pushing them towards depression and alcoholism) it can be an exemplar of how we all ought to live.

The island as utopia. As was Thomas More’s original Utopia.

Exactly. This isn’t terribly surprising, but it is well worth saying. It’s not possible always in the communities in which we live – I live at the moment in Oxford, you in Edinburgh (how I envy you that) – to know our communities. They are physically far too big and far too complicated. There’s a self-protective tendency in Oxford and Edinburgh to build a carapace around yourself which prevents you from forming real relationships. I talk about that in Being A Beast. It’s an experience of relentless loneliness; of dispossession from the physical place that we notionally inhabit.

If you live in a community of several hundred, it’s possible to know the names and the concerns of everyone there. It’s less possible to maintain the corrosive Nietzsche-esque illusion that you’re a messianic superman. It’s possible, in a small community, to have a relationship with a physical place which I think is somehow – and I’m not sure why this is –impossible to have when there are a lot of people.

I know I keep returning again and again to the notion of ‘thriving as a human being,’ but, since our most recent ancestors seeped out of the land (although our ultimate material origins are in the sea – a theme I’m exploring in the book I’m trying to write at the moment), our roots are in the land: we grow there like trees. To soil we will return. If we’re not properly rooted there, we wither and die. It’s easier to have an organic connection with a physical place on an island. It’s also possible to model community on an island in a way that’s not possible to do elsewhere. The danger is that rootedness in place becomes stagnancy. We’re made to walk, not to sit. Unless we walk, we die. How can we be rooted in the land, while remaining wandering hunter-gatherers? By some sort of continual, restless, cyclical pilgrimage around ‘our’ piece of land, I think.

Lots of my academic work is devoted to arguing for a communitarian model of human identity. What is Charles Foster? Well: he can be described only in terms of the nexus of relationships in which he exists. Take away that nexus and he won’t just be wretched, lonely and miserable. He will evaporate. Charles Foster will cease to exist. The more visible and palpable the community, the more solid and real he will be. And therefore the more capable he will be of enjoying red wine, of realising what he really thinks, what he really is, and so on and so on.

When Barkham talks about the island of Eigg, he sees that rather sunny romantic model of island-ness made real. You have there, apparently, a community that works. When human beings work as humans (which is terribly unusual), everything else falls into place. Economy falls into place. Health falls into place. It’s ludicrous to think that you can sort out the economy without sorting out the hearts and minds and identities of people for whom economy is meant to be a servant. Perhaps islands can demonstrate that.

Speaking of islands, one of my favourite books on the topic is Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room (2001); ‘sea room’ being a sailing term that Nicolson redefined as: “the sense of enlargement that island life can give you.” You’ve chosen his most recent book, The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers as your final choice. It profiles ten species of seabirds, looking at their migration, behaviour and survival tactics. Is this one of Nicolson’s great works?

Yes. It’s not as great as Sea Room, which took me apart when I first read it. That was when I was up in the Outer Hebrides. In that book he took me back to childhood, to the experience of the ecstatic immediacy of the natural world, which I had lost. But here’s the thing. He took me back there using sophisticated words and ideas. That was tectonic. He convinced me that as an articulate, educated adult, it was still possible to be a child. Sea Room is the most powerful articulation that I know of the Romantic thesis: that in order to know about the world, or to know what is worth knowing about the world, you’ve got to become a child again. I’d assumed that in order to do that it was necessary to abandon my reading. I’d assumed that language was an impenetrable barrier between me and that sort of ecstatic understanding. He convinced me that wasn’t necessarily so: That was a huge relief. It made nature writing – which has to be done in words – possible.

But moving to The Seabird’s Cry, the most exciting thing about that book for me is the fact that you have – often in the course of a single sentence, sometimes in the course of a single clause within a sentence ­– both science and real poetic power. Let’s go back to the discussion we were having about the dislocation of the material and the ‘spiritual’ domains. Nicolson, in making the material and the spiritual cohabit and showing that each is more powerful because of that cohabitation, shows that they should never have been dislocated in the first place. And that that dislocation is not only unnecessary, but does a grave disservice to both. He demonstrates that science is sometimes best explicated in terms of ecstasy, and that ecstasy is sometimes best served by the invocation of scientific facts.

An example: he summarises a lot of data about where seabirds spend the winter. And this accumulation of data is a really powerful evocation of the mystery of the world. You couldn’t get the same effect even with the weirdest Blakeian poetry.

So he does in The Seabird’s Cry what he did in Sea Room: he puts back together the two human modes of understanding reality. The left brain and the right brain, if you want to put it that way. The rational and the intuitive, or the spiritual and the scientific. And the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts.

If we try to understand the world just by intuiting it, we will just be amorphous. If we try to understand the world just by dissecting it, we will kill it. Adam Nicolson’s achievement is to show that these two ways of describing the world to ourselves are complementary rather than antagonistic.

There’s a great political lesson here, of course. Political discourse tends to be conducted in the language of numbered reductionist propositions, and for that reason it doesn’t accurately describe the world, and it doesn’t engage people’s passion. The political elite (which has bought into the materialist worldview) tend to dismiss as fanciful less scientific ways of understanding the world. If those ways of understanding the world could be brought together, in the marriage that I think we see in Adam Nicolson’s book, that’s politically potent.

He doesn’t spare us the political impact of what he’s saying. Many of these birds are disastrously endangered by our frankly psychopathic policies towards the environment. If we treated humans as we treat the natural world, we’d be locked up, probably forever, in a secure psychiatric ward. Yet we blithely vote for these psychopathic policies. We have blood on our hands. The anger I’ve just expressed runs through this book. It’s implicit in every paragraph. But because he’s such a brilliant writer, it’s not intrusive. He never sermonises – as I’ve just done. The most impressive sermons, of course, are the sermons that don’t sermonise.

So: this is a masterly book. It brings together the fractured halves of human understanding, shows us how we can relate more holistically and therefore more satisfactorily to the world, and illustrates the techniques we need to use to persuade.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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