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date: 18 January 2019

New British Nature Writing

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the emergence of “new British nature writing” in the twenty-first century and identifies new approaches to its subject and form produced in response to the scale of harm registered by the growing awareness of environmental crisis. It interrogates the notion of “new” nature writing and the ways that it has been received, considering its continuities and breaks with the legacies of the tradition in Britain alongside ecocritical arguments concerning the concept and representation of nature and human–nonhuman relations. The chapter examines defining characteristics of the form— interest in urban, suburban, and industrial landscapes; attention to spatial and temporal intersections of people and place; a re-evaluation of ideas such as “natural” and “wild”; and a critical self-consciousness regarding the representation of nature — in key works by writers including Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Helen Macdonald, Roger Deakin, and Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.

Keywords: new nature writing, British nature writing, ecocriticism, environmental crisis, climate change, landscape, place, nature, Robert Macfarlane

New British Nature Writing

Editor Jason Cowley introduces the 102nd edition of the British literary magazine Granta, a special on “the new nature writing,” by observing that the works included “share a sense that we are devouring our world, that there is simply no longer any natural landscape or ecosystem that is unchanged by humans.” In response, he argues, the new nature writers collected in the issue “don’t simply want to walk into the wild, to rhapsodize and commune: they aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect.”1 Here, ecological crisis is framed not simply as the provocation for these new writings about nature, but also as a provocation that demands new ways of writing about nature.

Neither the idea that some nature writing seeks to “rhapsodize and commune” nor that other examples might aspire to “see with a scientific eye” is particularly new.2 The limitations of rhapsodic nature writing have been well worked over, from the problems of perspective and privilege shown to compromise romantic visions of nature by Raymond Williams to the more recent excoriation of the form by Timothy Morton.3 The scientific orientation underpins both the “premium put on truth and accuracy” that W. J. Keith describes in his study of the rural writings of Gilbert White and William Cobbett and the ecologically and politically engaged strain of the form exemplified by Rachel Carson.4 So what is “new” about the nature writing celebrated in Granta 102?

The connections between environmental crisis and nature writing in Britain can in fact be traced further back, through John Ruskin’s Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1884 in response to the growing smog caused by industrialization, to John Evelyn’s 1661 pamphlet on air pollution, Fumifugium.5 However, the sense that our growing awareness of anthropogenic environmental change demands a new kind of nature writing has emerged rather more recently. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Kathleen Jamie argues that texts such as Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) set new precedents for writing about nature through their respective representations of the environmental effects of the application of DDT.6 By showing the signs of crisis that were woven through the landscapes that they depicted, these texts redefined our understanding of nature as “a web of interdependencies, which may be damaged through our acts.” Writing that fails to account for nature in these terms is untenable thereafter. Comparing Carson’s and Baker’s writings to Gavin Maxwell’s earlier account of his domesticated otter, Ring of Bright Water (1960), she writes, “whatever nature writing is now, its not ‘an otter asleep upon its back among the cushions on the sofa, forepaws in the air.’”7

What nature writing is now, though, is not as clear-cut as Cowley’s description has it. Rather than bringing the form closer to the “statistics” as opposed to the “seductions” of nature, to borrow Terry Gifford’s terminology, the impact of the conditions against which it is being written has brought the concept of “nature,” and the practices of “nature writing,” into question.8 A pervasive current of self-consciousness sets “the new nature writing” apart: one that must surely come with the understanding of human–nature relations that the knowledge of ecological crisis demands. Accordingly, what Jamie has described as a feeling of “constant culpability” has generated versions of nature writing that are “apprehensive in both senses of the word,” as Tim Dee has put it.9

Nature writing has been made more urgent, and less certain, by ecological crisis. The situation has spurred new engagement with the form and new consideration of its purview and influence.10 In a series of essays in The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane (at once a well-regarded practitioner and a media booster of the new nature writing) proposes that “the real subject of landscape writing is not landscape, but a restructuring of the human attitude towards nature—and there can be few subjects more urgent or necessary of our attention than this.”11 Conversely, in Morton’s memorable critique, nature writing is dismissed as “too enmeshed in the ideology that churns out stereotypical ideas of nature to be of any use.”12 Contentions such as his give an ecological dimension to the concern that “nature writing” is hived off from the wider world—often expressed through writers’ discomfort with being “pigeonholed” by the term—by suggesting that it might also be removed from the realities of the relationships that it appears to represent.13 This line of thinking has made “nature writing” something of a contested term for both writers and critics: evocative of a narrow focus at best and short-sighted escapism at worst, whether by way of a “scientific eye” or “rhapsodizing” tendencies. For Macfarlane, too, the name is “unsatisfactory for this diverse, passionate, pluriform, essential, reviving tradition.”14 For some, negotiating this break requires new terminology, with possibilities ranging from “place” writing and “environmental” literature to “psychoecology,” intended to mark the interlinked cultural and ecological engagement that is common to recent examples of the form.15 For others, it is necessary to distinguish revised methods of approach: Jamie, for instance, describes her own writing as “towards,” rather than “about,” the natural world.16

It is clear that the versions of the form that have emerged in the twenty-first century are freighted with the legacies of the tradition. While the break just described presents an opportunity to discover new ways that the form might represent and perhaps intervene in human–nature relations, it also brings the conventions of previous examples into fresh perspective. As Dee has remarked, “until recently … the British branch of Nature Writing was nice writing and it walked—stout shoes and a knapsack—a thin green lane between the hedges of science on one side and a wild wood of poetry on the other.”17 It has been supplanted by a heightened sensitivity to what that “nice writing” might represent and what it might leave out. In H Is for Hawk (2014), Helen Macdonald describes her awareness of the allure and limitations of what she calls “English nature-culture”: that is, a preference for “solitudinous windswept landscapes” that are considered “finer, better, than the landscapes below”—in this case, the East Anglian Brecklands—and a sense of “deep time” that overlooks the social, historical, and political details of a particular place.18 It is a perceived failure to respond to these issues that is behind Jamie’s critical response to Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (2007), which takes issue with his conception of “wildness” and the reduction of the complex and “contested” stories of the landscapes of Britain and Ireland that it necessitates. The selectivity of perspective that she sees here recalls Williams’s notable critique of the representation of the countryside depicted in Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia, “written in a park which had been made by enclosing a whole village and evicting the tenants.” In doing so, Jamie highlights the biases of “class, gender and ethnic[ity]” that ought to be accounted for in the ways that we see, interpret, and represent the country’s entangled cultural and ecological terrain.19

Accordingly, in addition to the concern for the impact of human action on the environment and the commitment to ecological accuracy that Cowley points out, recent British nature writing is marked by an attentiveness to the relationships that make up the landscape, the places and forms in which they can be found, and the various ways that they can be seen. Recent versions encompass and extend beyond both scientific and romanticized accounts of the natural world, blending elements of autobiography, travelogue, natural history, and popular science to explore, record, and critique the interweaving of human–natural forces in the landscapes of Britain.

The sense of loss is palpable and pervasive, not least in the proliferation of writings that seek to counter ecological estrangement: from Macfarlane’s attempt to recover the “wild places” of Britain to the essays collected in Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (2010). A concurrent strand of works aim to conserve the languages of place, including Macfarlane’s “Counter-Desecration Phrasebook” in Landmarks (2015) and Dominic Tyler’s The Landreader Project, which simultaneously highlight and preserve the relationships that they represent. At the same time, though, the sense of loss is reframed by examples that move beyond a binary understanding of “natural landscapes” to explore the intersections of people and place and, in doing so, begin to re-envision the concepts of “nature” and “wildness.” Texts such as Macdonald’s, and Jamie’s essay collections Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012), bring the form into the realms of the urban and the everyday, depicting landscapes that comprise multiple stories and voices, in contrast to the Romantic solitary. Works including Mark Cocker’s Crow Country (2007), Jean Sprackland’s Strands (2012), and Chris Yates’s Nightwalk (2012) similarly offer new ways of looking at the familiar and the local. The scope of the tradition is extended further by the vernacular and often overlooked landscapes—the industrial estates, railway sidings, and container ports—that feature in the psychogeographical travels of Iain Sinclair (2003) and Will Self (2007), for example, and the “edgelands” and “unofficial countryside” celebrated by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. Elsewhere, works such as Olivia Laing’s and Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s accounts of the rivers Ouse and Wye, and Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012), trace histories of human–nature relations embedded in the landscape. Although the desire for the wild and the remote can still be found, in Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room (2002), for instance, there is both a broader and more self-critical engagement with the subject and the processes of nature writing underway in the form.

There is an affinity between these versions of nature writing and the landscapes that they address in Britain. The country’s historical and spatial densities mean that ready counterpoints to the desires for escape into pristine “natural” or “wild” places are never far away: the perennial interpenetration of the human and nonhuman in Britain, and the deep compost of its history, is plain to those minded to look. The visibility of these connections is accentuated by the attention toward ecological crisis that drives many of the texts above and its inextricable links to a place’s social and political concerns. Furthermore, the recognition of such crises extends beyond the demand for a changed sense of nature that Jamie described earlier and toward altered senses of both space and time. The philosopher David Wood has called this “the end of externality,” or the awareness that it is not possible to step beyond the limits of human influence: that “there is no outside … no ‘out’ or ‘away.’”20 Timothy Clark explains this realization as “the slow erosion of the distinction between the distant waste dump and the housing estate, between the air and a sewer, between the open road and a car park.”21 The new British nature writing is new because the scale of environmental harm is new, and because British authors have written in distinctly new ways in response.

It is worth recalling that many of these aspects of new nature writing continue and develop familiar features of the British tradition. For example, the attention to the vernacular and the everyday calls back to White’s A Natural History of Selborne (1789). Similarly, the sensitivity to the social and political dimensions of the landscape appears in Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1830), and the examination of urban, suburban, and marginal nature follows Richard Jefferies exploration of London’s fringes in Nature Near London (1883). Yet, in their contemporary incarnations, the treatment of these aspects is marked by their sensitivity to the multiple meanings of “nature” and what it means to write about nature in times of crisis. These works illustrate the possibilities of “replacing familiar stereotypes with more complicated pictures” that Richard Kerridge locates within “new literary forms … capable of revealing what conventional forms obscure.”22

Taking Another Look at Nature

Roger Deakin’s influential Waterlog (2000) offers an example of the kind of formal adaptation Kerridge identifies. The text celebrates the transformatory potential of wild swimming as a means to address the issue of a contemporary disconnection between humans and nature. In doing so, it presents a version of nature writing that is “nature-endorsing,” that is, “which direct[s] us to the ‘nature’ that we are destroying, wasting and polluting,” in Kate Soper’s definition.23 Its premise calls up an idealized interpretation of nature that depends on a distinction between human and natural spaces and privileges the participatory experience of nature as an alternative or antidote to those human spaces. However, Deakin’s “swimmer’s journey through Britain” also produces more complex accounts of its landscapes and provokes critical consideration of the ways that we might perceive and relate to nature.

Deakin begins by defining water as a kind of leveling agent or equalizing medium that overcomes our everyday abstraction from the natural world:

You see and experience things when you are swimming in a way that is completely different from any other. You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land, and your sense of the present is overwhelming. In wild water you are on equal terms with the animal world around you: in every sense, on the same level.24

The shift in perspective here recovers a more “natural” way of seeing and experiencing his surroundings. Once immersed “in nature,” a lost or obscured set of environmental connections can begin to be restored—a familiar proposition of nature writing. As Morton puts it, this kind of “ecological writing wants to undo habitual distinctions between nature and ourselves” that are tied to “human beings’ destruction of the environment,” working on the principle that “if we could not merely figure out but actually experience the fact that we were embedded in our world, then we would be less likely to destroy it.”25 Similarly, in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (2008), Ursula Heise questions ecocriticism’s “fundamental investment in a kind of ‘situated knowledge’” that is set against “the alienation from nature that modern societies generate” and gained through “sensory perception and physical immersion, the bodily experience of nature.”26

While the idea of experiencing nature as a socially and ecologically informed means of reconnection remains, as Deakins’ text shows, a seductive prospect, the notion of a return to nature and the resumption of a lost set of human–nature relations is problematic. The selectivity inherent in getting back to a particular version of nature effectively partitions the understanding of “natural” places according to certain criteria and fragments the principles of ecological thinking. Furthermore, it runs closer to retreating into nature to “rhapsodise and commune” rather than responding critically to a sense of ecological alienation. From this angle, Macfarlane’s hoped-for “re-structuring of human attitudes towards nature” seems likely to be hampered by the “stereotypes” of nature that Morton warns against.

However, Deakins’s text demonstrates awareness that the allure of a restorative experience of nature depends on a selective understanding and representation of nature and of the past. Accordingly, the claims made about the advantages of being “in” nature are compromised by the fact that, in some places, the nature that is sought after exists in different, difficult, or troubling forms. Traces of human action belie the text’s premise of an oppositional construction of nature versus culture. Although Deakin imagines a return to the idealistic condition of the landscape recorded in the 1830s in Cobbett’s Rural Rides, “a future without fish farms or watercress beds, where the river could flow as sweetly as ever it did in Cobbett’s day, and there could be bathing again in Gunner’s Hole,” the remainder left by the past is more complex.27 He also encounters the continuing pollution of Cornish rivers due to the legacy of mining effluent, where “the river’s metallic gleam went deeper than metaphor. Where the Red River is concerned, ‘The Cornish Heritage’ means cadmium, copper, zinc, lead, as well as arsenic; all the toxic heavy metal by-products of the deserted tin-mines upstream.”28 In this way, Deakin’s journey reveals the impact of the human interpretation and appropriation of nature, rather than offering escape from it.

In Waterlog, the motif of reconnection is used to some extent to highlight and question the conventions upon which it is based. The text points to the existence of multiple and contrasting understandings of nature and their implications. It demonstrates a clear sense of interconnectivity between the human and nonhuman, showing that we are always already “in” nature and that the concept of estrangement and reconciliation is challenged by evidence of this. As Peter A. Fritzell suggests, rather than “relations to nature,” of significance is “what man or humankind … does, or has done, in nature.”29 Deakin is provoked to question his understanding and expectations of nature through the revelations of his experiences. At the same time, he is also provoked to question the human treatment of nature more broadly by the evidence of its effects on the landscape that he encounters and its contrast to his expectations.

A similar concern with what humans have done “in” nature, or at least in certain places, is a driving force behind Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. Like Waterlog, the text is premised on a sense of alienation and a desire for reconnection by way of direct experience of nature. Beginning in the city of Cambridge, Macfarlane describes a “longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac” and a “sharp need to leave … to reach somewhere remote, where the starlight fell clearly, where the wind could blow upon me from its thirty-six directions, and where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent.”30 His desire cannot be assuaged by a visit to a nearby beechwood where “the roar of the nearby roads was audible, as were the crash and honk of the trains…. The surrounding fields were treated with fertilizer and herbicide to maximize productivity. And the hedgerows were favorite locations for fly-tippers.”31 While the description here details a threefold threat of pollution caused by human action surrounding the wood, the text does not linger on the environmental costs of cars and trains, industrial agriculture, and illegal waste disposal, but rather laments their impact on the beechwood’s “wildness.”

Like Waterlog, The Wild Places privileges the notion of a version of nature that exists in restorative contrast to human influence: as William Cronon describes it in his celebrated critique of the idea of wilderness, “an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness … a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet.”32 By distinguishing such places from the effects of humans on nature and championing the experience that can be gained there by such criteria, a dangerous effect of the “wild” that Macfarlane is after here is the bracketing off of the social and ecological problems that have led to its veneration.

Soper argues that “ecological writing … very frequently works implicitly with an idea of nature as a land of pristine otherness to human culture, whose value is depreciated proportionally to its human admixture.”33 Heise also observes that the possibility of “wilderness and natural spaces untouched by humans” often acts as “a galvanising force.”34 The idea of a pristine, wild nature that exists outside of human influence both reinforces the idea that a spatial distinction might be maintained between them and demonizes human influence on the natural world as inherently destructive. In doing so, it effectively creates a hierarchy of place according to a measure of “naturalness” and therefore usefulness as sites of restoration and reconnection. In the context of environmental crisis, the danger of such misdirection is clear: the idea of the “wild” obscures the relationships that the landscape in fact comprises and limits our capacity to understand or respond to the effects of those relationships. For Jamie, as I mentioned earlier, there are important social and political dimensions to this way of looking, too: pointing out “how unwild the wild places are” is directed toward the entangled histories of people and place that can be found even in Britain’s remote landscapes, such as the legacies of the Highland Clearances.35

As Jos Smith has pointed out, though, Macfarlane’s text is a bildungsroman of sorts, documenting a transition in thinking through experience that gradually redefines the concept of wildness.36 As the narrative develops, it becomes clear that the idealized version of “wild” nature is not as easily experienced as imagined. Specifically, his escape into a “wild” natural world is impeded by the disparity between the versions of nature encountered and the experiences that they provoke and that which has been anticipated. Describing his experience at the summit of Ben Hope, “one of the least accommodating places to which I had ever come,” Macfarlane writes: “this place was not hostile to my presence, far from it. Just entirely, gradelessly indifferent.”37 Recognizing the existence of a kind of “wildness” that exists outside his own terms, Macfarlane is moved to reconsider the distinctions made previously between the human and the nonhuman and between versions of nature in terms of their wildness: “I had started to refocus. I was becoming increasingly interested in this understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpected around and within it: in cities, backyards, roadside, hedges, field boundaries or spinnies.”38 Ultimately, The Wild Places is as much a critique as a celebration of wilderness.

Working through the ideal nature represented by “the wild” produces for Macfarlane a reconfigured understanding of nature and of the landscape itself. The distinction of a “natural” or “wild” space becomes permeable. He acknowledges this extension of perspective in Landmarks (2015): “I barely registered the bastard landscape on my doorstep,” he reflects, “disruptive of the picturesque, dismissive of the sublime, this was a landscape that required a literacy I didn’t then possess.”39 Embracing the intermingling of these definitions and effects of place, he is able to reclaim the sense of “wonder,” previously limited to the wild, for a much broader sense of nature. Macfarlane describes this adaptation as an “essential survival skill,” one that we might apply to both the subject and the practice of nature writing in contemporary times.40

Reimagining Nature Writing

As these examples illustrate, the changed sense of the form that Jamie and Dee describe earlier challenges the “stereotypes” of nature and nature writing. As Garrard observes: “ecomimesis [Morton’s pejorative term for nature writing] already is not what it used (or Morton uses it) to be; while wilderness epiphany no doubt lurks in some corners, nature writing is capable of demonstrating sophistication (a certain urbanity in both senses?) and self-consciousness.”41 H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald illustrates Garrard’s claim but also highlights the renaissance of British nature writing in popular appeal and critical acclaim: the book won the Samuel Johnson Prize, a prestigious nonfiction award, and the Costa Book of the Year. Macdonald seems to share Macfarlane’s reconfigured understanding of wildness, writing of the Brecklands in East Anglia—which most Britons speed through on their way to the picturesque Norfolk Broads—that “of all the places I know in England, it feels to me the wildest. It’s not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness.”42 Macdonald dispenses with the notion that what is wild is that which is somehow separate from human influence and instead sees it as a feature that is constructed mutually. Her way of seeing the landscape avoids selective and idealized representations. It is “rich with a sense of an alternative countryside history; not just the grand, leisured dreams of landed estates, but a history of industry, forestry, disaster, commerce, and work.”43

Using this reimagined conception of wildness, Macdonald taps into the varied and complicated history of the Brecklands and highlights the layers of enmeshed cultural and ecological activity that it comprises. Tracing the history of the goshawk in Britain from prevalence throughout the country before land enclosure, through near-extirpation through hunting and habitat loss, and then eventual return through the efforts of falconers, Macdonald frames the bird’s story as a collaborative effort that interweaves human action with the processes of nature. Their presence, she argues, “gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hands and hearts. The wild can be human work.”44

In Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wildernesses, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts likewise strive to find new ways of looking at the unloved landscapes of Britain, and resist the limitations of the conventions of nature writing. Heading for “an overlooked England with no obvious artistic or literary analogue,” they explain their desire to uncover the “unobserved parts of our shared landscape” that exist “between our carefully managed wildernesses” and “the duality of rural and urban writing.”45 To do so, they are drawn to the “interfacial landscapes” of Britain, borrowing their title from geographer Marion Shoard and following the “presiding spirit” of Richard Mabey’s exploration of the appearances of nature in urban, industrial, and marginal places in The Unofficial Countryside (1977).46

These landscapes run from sewage farms and landfill sites to the scrubby landscapes around box-store retail parks and breakers’ yards. Described as “untranslated landscape,” without established patterns of attention or mediation, the edgelands are set in contrast to the “controlled” landscapes of the “official” outdoors: not just through their appearance but also via the “proper back-story” possessed by “the feral,” independent of selective or idealizing narratives.47 However, in their celebratory and sometimes comic exposition of the areas excluded from traditional landscape writing, the authors seem to favor rhetorical effect over reflection on these stories, giving little consideration to the cultural and ecological implications of the edgelands’ landscapes. The familiar selectivity toward areas understood to be representative of “nature” and therefore worthy of representation is arguably replicated, albeit reversed, in their suggestion to simply celebrate the fringes of the urban and the rural: “rather than escaping to the forests of the Highlands, park your car at Matalan [a discount store] and have a walk around the edgelands woods.”48 As Macfarlane comments in a review for The Guardian, in their efforts to negotiate the “routine prejudices” that inform conceptions and representations of natural landscapes, Farley and Symmons Roberts appear to “also install replacement biases and nostalgias of their own.”49 Similarly, Shoard suggests that the edgelands now need something beyond a merely subjective celebration of their identity.”50 While the myriad birds that flock around sewage farms are a reminder not to confuse aesthetic with ecological value, it is vital to recall, too, that some edgelands are unloved for good reason—because they are toxified or degraded.

Despite these criticisms, it is clear that the Edgelands essays offer a self-conscious model of nature writing that draws attention to the ways in which different landscapes are perceived and provokes reflection on the processes of perception and the responsibilities of representation. Farley and Roberts explain that, although “a long and complex interaction between constant natural processes and more recent human activity has largely formed all the landscapes we can see today,” these processes have often produced “mysterious labyrinths … that we seem unable or unwilling to look into.”51 Instances of this kind of selective vision can be found in the text. Describing the experience of taking in the view at Swordy Well, a place lamented in verse by John Clare in the 1830s that later became a municipal waste disposal site, they explain that “the imagination begins its work,” adapting the details of the landscape to suit a particular set of preferences: “Photoshopping out the modern pylons and telegraph poles, altering the growth of trees in a kind of reverse time lapse, looking for older landmarks.”52 Their reflection here is uncomfortable, reminding us that it is a challenge to see landscapes as they really are and to consider our roles in their construction and interpretation. As Kerridge usefully observes, though “ostentatiously perverse in the pleasure they take in writing about landfill sites, car dumps and sewage farms as an antidote to the wilderness tradition,” in the process, “Farley and Symmons Roberts are searching for evidence of concealed ecological relationships, and for the messy interpenetration of wild nature and human life.”53 From this point of view, he argues, their version of “new nature writing” might “begin to answer” the task of representing the complexities of contemporary human–nature relations.54

New Natures

This “messy interpenetration of wild nature and human life” to which new nature writing is responding is perhaps best illustrated by Jamie’s writings in Findings and Sightlines. Like Edgelands, her work uncovers versions of nature in unexpected places, moving beyond the sublime and picturesque landscapes of nature writing. Like Macdonald, Jamie looks toward a deeper understanding of the idea of “wildness,” overcoming the limitations of particular designations of place. Ranging from remote islands to dense cities, Jamie’s writing offers accounts of nature that query the ways that it has been defined and interpreted. In Findings, for instance, the chapter “Ospreys, Peregrines, Cranes” is often noted for ways that her attention to nature is woven into the fabric of her everyday life: “between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter into my life.”55 What is striking, here, is the sense of simultaneity that this observation conveys: far from being detached or alienated from nature in suburban surroundings, Jamie shows that the experience is on hand to those attuned to its presence.

Furthermore, the interleaving of the wild and the domestic that takes places in Jamie’s writing extends beyond her depiction of nature close to home. In another chapter, “Findings,” she describes the discovery of the familiar shapes of plastic bottles and aerosol cans washed up on a beach on Ceann Iar, one of the uninhabited Monach Islands. The moment collapses the distance between the local and the remote, defamiliarizing expectations of the island’s landscape and effectively capturing the sense of the totality of human influence described by Cowley, Wood, and Clark earlier.56 In the process, her writing reflects the unsettlingly mundane character of environmental crisis that Clark has described as the “ironies” of climate change, in which everyday actions are inextricably connected to changes taking place on a global scale.57

On a further scale, in her essay “Pathologies,” published in Granta 102 and later in Sightlines, Jamie addresses the “foreshortened definition of ‘nature’” that anchors narratives of estrangement and reconciliation directly, in the context of the body and disease.58 Visiting a pathologist’s laboratory, she sees the workings of our own nature dissected under a microscope. Reflecting on the “unseen landscapes within,” she reminds us that there are versions of “nature we’d rather do without”: in this case, the bacteria responsible for causing stomach ulcers.59 In Jamie’s writing, a simple and restorative account of nature is hard to find; instead, she performs a closer, more critical look at its meanings that demands reflection on the ways that it is perceived and understood. This version of nature writing is both tentative and uncompromising: the sense of responsibility that comes with representing nature is always in view.

The critical and creative environments of new British nature writing are still in flux. The locations and the relationships that they represent are subject to change, as the understanding and the implications of environmental change emerge and develop. The senses of place, nature, and humanity familiar to the cultural and ecological landscapes of Britain have become less certain, and the means by which they might be depicted and interpreted have become more precarious in response. In various forms, the new nature writing in Britain represents a working through of the meanings of nature and the practices of writing about nature in this context. As Jamie asks in Findings: “and what’s natural?”60

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Jamie, Kathleen. “Pathologies” in Granta: The Magazine of New Writing 102: The New Nature Writing, ed. Jason Cowley (London: Granta, 2008), 35–53.Find this resource:

Jamie, Kathleen. “A Lone Enraptured Male: Review: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane,” The London Review of Books, 30.5 (6 March 2008), 25–27.Find this resource:

Jamie, Kathleen. Findings (London: Sort Of, 2005).Find this resource:

Jefferies, Richard. Nature Near London (London: HarperCollins, [1883] 2012), Kindle edition.Find this resource:

Keith, W. J. The Rural Tradition: William Cobbett, Gilbert White and Other Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1975).Find this resource:

Kerridge, Richard, “Ecocriticism,” The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 21.1 (2013), 1–30.Find this resource:

Laing, Olivia. To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011).Find this resource:

Mabey, Richard. “In Defence of Nature Writing,” The Guardian, Thursday 18 July 2013.Find this resource:

Mabey, Richard. The Unofficial Countryside (Wimborne Minster: Little Toller Books, [1977] 2010).Find this resource:

Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk (London: Random House, 2014), Kindle edition.Find this resource:

Macfarlane, Robert. Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015), Kindle edition.Find this resource:

Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012).Find this resource:

Macfarlane, Robert. The Wild Places (London: Granta, 2007).Find this resource:

Macfarlane, Robert. “Only Connect,” The Guardian, Saturday 25 March 2005.Find this resource:

Macfarlane, Robert. “Call of the Wild,” The Guardian, 6 December 2003.Find this resource:

Maxwell, Gavin. Ring of Bright Water (Wimborne Minster: Little Toller Books, [1960] 2009).Find this resource:

McGuire, Matt. “Kathleen Jamie,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Poetry, eds. Matt McGuire and Colin Nicholson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).Find this resource:

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2007).Find this resource:

Murphy, Patrick D. Farther Afield in Nature-Oriented Literature (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2000).Find this resource:

Nicolson, Adam. Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2002).Find this resource:

Poole, Steven. “Is Our Love of Nature Writing Bourgeois Escapism?,” The Guardian, Saturday 6 July 2013.Find this resource:

Rangeley-Wilson, Charles. Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River (London: Chatto & Windus, 2013).Find this resource:

Ruskin, John. Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (Orpington: George Allen, 1884).Find this resource:

Self, Will, and Ralph Steadman. Psychogeography (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).Find this resource:

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (London: Penguin, 2003).Find this resource:

Smith, Jos. “An Archipelagic Literature: Re-framing ‘The New Nature Writing,” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 17.1 (2013), 5–15.Find this resource:

Soper, Kate. What Is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).Find this resource:

Sprackland, Jean. Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (London: Vintage, 2012).Find this resource:

Stenning, Anna, and Terry Gifford, eds. “Twentieth-Century Nature Writing in Britain and Ireland,” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 17.1 (2013), 77–83.Find this resource:

Tyler, Dominic. The Landreader Project,

White, Gilbert. The Natural History of Selborne, ed. Richard Mabey (London: Century, [1789] 1988).Find this resource:

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973).Find this resource:

Wood, David. The Step Back: Ethics and Politics After Deconstruction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).Find this resource:

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(1) Jason Cowley, ed. Granta: The Magazine of New Writing 102: The New Nature Writing (London: Granta, 2008), p. 9.

(2) See also Anna Stenning’s and Terry Gifford’s pithy response to Cowley’s definition in their Editorial in Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 17.1 on “Twentieth-Century Nature Writing in Britain and Ireland”: “What exactly was new about the nature writing in Granta’s 2008 collection titled The New British Nature Writing? One answer would be ‘not much’” (p. 1).

(3) Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973); Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2007).

(4) W. J. Keith, The Rural Tradition: William Cobbett, Gilbert White and Other Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1975), p. 15; Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Penguin, [1962] 1995).

(5) John Ruskin, Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (Orpington: George Allen, 1884); John Evelyn, Fumifugium (The Rota: University of Exeter, 1976).

(6) Kathleen Jamie, “Diary,” London Review of Books 33.14 (2011), p. 39.

(7) Ibid. For a more indepth analysis of Cowley’s and Jamie’s writings here, see Deborah Lilley, “Kathleen Jamie” rethinking the externality and idealisation of nature,” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 17.1 (2013), 16–26 (p. 17–18).

(8) Terry Gifford, “Engagement with the Natural World,” The Guardian, Monday 30 July 2007, n.p.

(9) Jamie, 2011, p. 39; Tim Dee, Archipelago: Issue 5 (London: Clutag, 2011), p. 19.

(10) See, for instance, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 17.1 and Robert Macfarlane’s series on nature writing, “Only Connect,” in The Guardian. For context, particularly regarding the North American tradition, see Randall Roorda, Dramas of Solitude: Narratives of Retreat in American Nature Writing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 2; see also Thomas J. Lyon, ed., This Incomparable Land: A Book of American Nature Writing (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1989); Patrick D. Murphy, Farther Afield in Nature-Oriented Literature (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2000); David Barnhill, “Surveying the Landscape: A New Approach to Nature Writing,” ISLE Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 17.2 (2010), 273–290.

(13) See, for instance, Richard Mabey et al., Second Nature (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), p. xi; Robert Macfarlane, “Call of the Wild,” The Guardian, 6 December 2003; Kathleen Jamie in Kirsty Scott, “In the Nature of Things: Interview with Kathleen Jamie,” The Guardian, 18 June 2005; Sharon Blackie, “Beyond Nature Writing: Why the Term Has Outlived Its Usefulness,” The Earthlines Review: The Culture of Nature, n.p; Steven Poole, “Is Our Love of Nature Writing Bourgeois Escapism?,” The Guardian, Saturday 6 July 2013; Richard Mabey, “In Defense of Nature Writing,” The Guardian, Thursday 18 July 2013.

(15) See Jos Smith, “An Archipelagic Literature: Re-framing ‘The New Nature Writing,’” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 17.1 (2013), at p. 6; Patrick D. Murphy, Farther Afield in Nature-Oriented Literature, p. 49; Stephen E. Hunt, “The Emergence of Psychoecology: The New Nature Writing of Roger Deakin, Mark Cocker, Robert Macfarlane, and Richard Mabey,” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 10, 2009, pp. 70–77, at p. 70.

(16) Jamie, “Author Statement,” British Council Literature. Accessed 7 October, 2016.

(18) Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk (London: Random House, 2014), Kindle Edition, p. 258.

(19) Jamie, “A Lone Enraptured Male,” London Review of Books, 30.5, 6 March 2008, pp. 25–27; Williams, p. 22. As Jos Smith notes in “An Archipelagic Literature,” “Jamie may be a little quick to judge” here (p. 7); as I have commented in “Kathleen Jamie: Rethinking the Externality and Idealisation of Nature,” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 17.1, 2013, pp. 16–26, Jamie and Macfarlane’s sensitivities to the histories of a place are not so different.

(20) David Wood, The Step Back: Ethics and Politics After Deconstruction (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005), pp. 172–173.

(21) Timothy Clark, “Towards a Deconstructive Environmental Criticism,” The Oxford Literary Review 30.1, 2008, 44–48, at p. 46.

(22) Kerridge, “Ecocriticism,” The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 21.1 (2013), 1–30, at p. 17.

(23) Kate Soper, What Is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 4.

(24) Roger Deakin, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 4, emphasis in the original.

(25) Morton, Ecology Without Nature, p. 64, emphasis in the original.

(26) Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 30.

(28) Idem., p. 134.

(29) Peter A. Fritzell, Nature Writing and America: Essays upon a Cultural Type (Ames: Iowa State University, 1990), p. xii, emphasis in the original.

(30) Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places (London: Granta, 2007), pp. 7–8.

(31) Idem., p. 7.

(32) William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in William Cronon ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), pp. 69–90, at p. 69.

(38) Idem., p. 226.

(39) Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015), p. 237.

(40) Idem., p. 238.

(41) Greg Garrard, “Ecocriticism,” The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 18.1 (2010), 1–35, at p. 14. See also Hannes Bergthaller, “Review: Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics,; and Kate Soper, Martin Ryle and Lyn Thomas, eds., “The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently,” Green Letters 12.1 (2010), 77–82, at p. 80.

(43) Ibid.

(44) Idem., p. 6.

(45) Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wildernesses (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), pp. 6, 10.

(46) For more on the legacies of Mabey’s text and the treatment of place in Edgelands, see Deborah Lilley, “The Place of Pastoral in Contemporary British Writing,” Philosophy Activism Nature, 12 (2016), p. 61–68 (p. 63–64).

(47) Idem., pp. 5, 158.

(48) Idem., pp. 166.

(49) Macfarlane, “Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts: A Review,” The Guardian, 19 February 2011, n.p.

(50) Marion Shoard, “Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wildernesses: A Review,” The Guardian, 6 March 2011, n.p.

(52) Idem., p. 68.

(54) Ibid.

(55) Jamie, Findings (London: Sort Of), p. 39. See, for instance, Matt McGuire, “Kathleen Jamie,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Poetry, eds. Matt McGuire and Colin Nicholson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

(56) Jamie, Findings, pp. 66–67.

(57) Clark, “Some Climate Change Ironies: Deconstruction, Environmental Politics and the Closure of Ecocriticism,” The Oxford Literary Review, 32.1 (2010), p. 144.

(58) Jamie, “Pathologies,” in Cowley, ed. Granta: The Magazine of New Writing 102: The New Nature Writing (London: Granta, 2008), pp. 35–53, at p. 36.

(59) Idem., p. 48. For a more indeph analysis of Jamie’s writings in Findings and Sightlines, see Deborah Lilley, “Kathleen Jamie” rethinking the externality and idealisation of nature,” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 17.1 (2013), 16–26 (p. 21–25).

(60) Jamie, Findings, p. 126.