A parliament of owls. A gaggle of geese. A convocation of eagles. But what is the generic term for the army that has recently advanced over the literary landscape? Perhaps a drizzle of nature writers? Here they come, heads down in the rain, turning out their pockets for the samples of fungi and moss they have collected on the outskirts of our cities.
Bookshops now have whole tables dedicated to contemporary British nature writing. The first wave of this literary phenomenon was far more cheerful: the late lamented Roger Deakin sitting in his pollarded hornbeam and imagining himself at sea; Richard Mabey, the godfather of it all, with his wonderful Flora Britannica; Robert Macfarlane striding across wild places with lyrical intensity; Helen Macdonald eulogising her hawk.
But in their wake have come foot followers of a more miserablist cast. The problem is the fashionable notion of ‘edgelands’; that rather than just hymn the more conventionally beautiful parts of Britain, such as the Lake District or other national parks, the good nature writer should be able to find subjects of interest in the most unlikely of spots — the marginal territory at the edges of our motorways and cities.
This is certainly admirable. Yet while it may be worthy to try to write about the ecosystem of the dying buddleia on the railway tracks, it doesn’t always make for exciting reading. It’s not enough just to ‘turn up’ at some site deserving of more interest. It needs writing of spectacular skill to pull it off — as indeed Mabey achieved when he first introduced the concept of edgelands way back when.
The cover that Penguin has given Tim Dee’s new anthology of nature writing is almost a parody of this. A cow stares out mournfully from under a motorway bridge. It reminds me irresistibly of the album covers of the early 1970s when prog rock briefly held sway. For every Dark Side of the Moon there were far too many records that after one hearing remained unplayed. A great deal of the more austere nature writing of the past few years is bought because we feel it is good for us and can be left prominently on the oak dresser.
Dee is, however, far too good a writer to let this tendency go unchecked — he alludes wryly in his thoughtful introduction to how no scrap of Essex estuarine mud has gone unexamined in recent years — and his collection shows many of these writers at their best. He has also cast his net widely to include poets, as well as the artist Richard Long.
Mark Cocker, who can always write the birds out of the trees, takes off on an exhilarating journey to find the rare spring gentians of Upper Teesdale, ‘like strange, furled tongues of ocean blue bulbed out of the earth’. They can only grow on sugar limestone outcrops. When he comes across them, he is reminded of ‘the way in which a naturalist sets off with a sense of longing for some rare organism — a bird or a flower — which one dreams to see; and then the ever-so-casual manner in which that anticipation confronts reality. There is no drum roll. No climax.’ Wisely, he ignores the far rarer Teesdale sandwort, as ‘the 5 mm flower is entirely insignificant’.
The harsh truth is that nature writing can only really put on stage those performers who are able to hold an audience. Of course, goes up the cry, we should hear it for the protozoa as well as for the pandas. But at the end of the day, there’s a reason that pandas sell.
George Orwell was deeply suspicious of the natural history writing of his own time; of those for whom ‘the world centres round the English village, and round the trees and hedges of that village rather than the houses and the people’. He made the damning comment that, for such writers, their ‘ideal picture of rural England might contain too many rabbits and not enough tractors’. If Orwell were walking across England now, he would not have wanted to write about which birds were in which hedgerows. He would have wanted to talk to people.
It’s a sentiment that Paul Readman’s excellent Storied Ground shares. He takes as his premise the idea that landscape is ‘storied’ rather than natural; that it derives value from long cultural and historical associations, certainly in Britain where we have little virginal wilderness left.
The Thames, for instance, ‘from its source in rural Gloucestershire through London to the North Sea, was understood to describe the progress of the nation from obscurity to greatness’. Even its tidal nature east of Teddington could be celebrated for bringing ships with such ease into the port; one guidebook to London observed in the 1770s that ‘every tide brings in a fresh number of ships from all parts; so that it may be said, the riches of the world are continually flowing into the river of Thames’.
The countryside in Britain has become more and more Potemkin, with all the bad stuff — the mines, the quarries, the wind-farms — nicely screened away, while we are marshalled along a few polite, narrow corridors of protected greenery. Readman concludes his book with the point that we still like to define ourselves as an essentially rural nation, despite all indications to the contrary. Or, as George Orwell put it even more bluntly:
There is no question that a love of what is loosely called ‘nature’ — a kingfisher flashing down the stream, or a bullfinch’s mossy nest, the caddisflies in the ditch — is very widespread in England, cutting across age groups and even class distinctions, and attaining in some people an almost mystical intensity.
Whether it is a healthy symptom is another matter. It arises partly from the small size, equable climate and varied scenery of England, but it is also probably bound up with the decay of English agriculture. The fact is that those who really have to deal with nature have no cause to be in love with it.