Caught by the River

Nature Tales: Encounters With Britain’s Wildlife

Ben Myers | 11th December 2010

Compiled by Michael Allen and Sonya Patel Ellis (Elliot And Thompson)
review by Ben Myers

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why nature writing has enjoyed such a resurgence over the last half decade or so. The rise of all things digital would certainly go some way to explaining a growing need to immerse one’s self in something more tangible and sensory after days and nights spent staring at a series of flat screens. And there are few things more tangible and sensory than rain lashing in your face or Himalayan Balsam pods popping around you as your stumble through the undergrowth.

Because this is the way we live today: in boxed-off flats or on suburban streets that exist in those strange edge zones and hinterlands that are neither city nor country, yet try – and usually fail – to incorporate both. Convenient retail parks are replacing the urban shopping experience and sanitised green spaces seem to cruelly remind that, as the French rioters of May 1968 so adroitly pointed out, “beneath the paving stones, the beach”. Is there anything more demoralising than stumbling across a rare civic-run patch of green only to find a sign saying ‘Do Not Walk On The Grass’ pitched in the middle? For those that do live in the city, then it is in the midst of the chaos of car alarms, seething resentments and the vague threat of violence. Only the weeds and the foxes remind us what exists beyond our sight lines.

So this recent re-engagement with nature is surely a reaction to what Western post-Industrial human life has become. For thousands of years humans have been creatures of the woods, fields, planes and valleys and this recent shift towards the urban and suburban has not accounted for the emotions that are still governed by the elements and seasons. All that has changed are our habitats and now like caged birds we are agitated

This desire to touch, feel, smell the living world around us has naturally created a demand for literature that reflects these once-buried impulses as they rise to the surface once again. It’s a resurgence that may have begun with the works of Andy Goldsworthy or maybe Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and has taken in key works by Caught by The River regulars like writer Robert MacFarlane, sound recordist Chris Watson or the psychogeographical music of British Sea Power along the way, and which culminates in this weighty collection of rural-inspired writings.

The line-up of contributors to Nature Tales: Encounters With Britain’s Wildlife is impressive. Sir David Attenborough offers a prescient foreword while everyone from Darwin to Coleridge and on to Edward Thomas, John Clare and Dorothy Wordsworth unwittingly contribute. Representing the new school are the aforementioned Deakin and MacFarlane and acolytes that include Colin Elford and Mark Cocker. And somewhere in the middle we find a wide array of varying naturalists and essayists from the relatively mainstream (Bill Oddie) to the cult/acclaimed (Nan Shepherd) to the modern poetic (Kathleen Jamie). It’s a diverse and hefty collection that takes in the best of the British Isles, sweeping along coasts, wandering through copses, ascending mountains and squinting across estuaries.

One minor criticism is that the cover of Nature Tales, though wonderful, and wholly in keeping with the current trend for pastoral scenes that evoke visions of that Arcadia envisioned by wealthy British landowners of the 16th and 17th centuries, bears more than a passing resemblance to David Holmes’ design of the Roger Deakin books.

And that is the other point worthy of note here: most of the significant nature books of the past few years are more than just pieces of writing – they are objects of art that suggest those who are re-engaging with nature today are generally urbane and often middle class. This is less a criticism and more of a wider observation, but it does suggest that the exploration of nature is now something of a leisure pursuit for those who can afford it, the countryside a theme park of sorts.

On the upside, with this resurgence will surely a come a greater understanding of the benefits of the natural world and the necessity for preserving and nurturing it and books such as this surely contribute. Most heartening of all is the notion that wildlife can still be observed anywhere if you open your eyes wide enough – from that city fox gnawing on an errant piece of KFC popcorn chicken to the flick of a trout’s tail as you unknowingly cast a shadow across its stretch of riverbank. Natures Tales is a good place from which to draw inspiration and a worthy addition to anyone’s book collection.

=Nature Tales: Encounters With Britain’s Wildlife is on sale at Foyles.