Caught by the River


Nina Lyon | 19th June 2015

Earlier this week, in the pages of the New Statesmen, Mark Cocker posed the question; “Why is the new nature writing so tame?”
Nina Lyon responds:

Mark Cocker seems to be quite cross about nature writing, specifically the “new” sort that has become popular over the last decade. He likes nature writing’s early work better, before it went mainstream and all the kids who don’t know what real nature writing is got into it. We’ve heard this line before in dusty record shops. It must mean that nature writing really is a thing in popular culture now.

The other whiff of worn vinyl came with the notion of “real” – or rather the fact that it was now apparently absent in the work of the more successful nature writers, who have clearly sold out to the Man.

What is the “real soil” that Cocker is after, and that everyone else so woefully lacks? I have always been suspicious of the term “real” and, for that matter, of endeavours towards purity, which seem to exist solely in order to be frustrated in the end. I sense some false distinctions here.

We inhabit a small island that happens to be one of the most human-dense on the planet. I live in mid Wales which, by British standards, is supposed to be a wilderness, and struggle to think of a spot I might walk to where no sign of human habitation can be found. We don’t do land untouched by human hand.

Perhaps it is a metaphor for an authenticity of interest in nature itself, in which case one might wonder whether browsing the popular non-fiction shelves of Waterstones is barking up the wrong tree. Botany has always been something of a niche interest.

But I suspect that in order to be able to conceive of such a thing as “real soil” or a “real” interest in nature, one needs to hold that “real” nature is a thing too, a thing that is demarcated from the human world, which is not natural.

The notion that the human sphere is somehow set aside from the rest of nature is as human-oriented as it gets. We are animals with more effective technologies than other animals. Once upon a time, plants developed the technology of lignin, which enabled them to grow much bigger than had previously been possible. Had they developed literary capabilities, one might imagine that a certain type of plant would have written lengthy laments about the ensuing impact and likely extinction of previously abundant non-vascular flora, although perhaps not on paper.

The nature of the physical spaces that writers write about is that they are, at least here, forged from human interaction with the land and the life within it. All we have left are edgelands, in one form or another. The natural world is one in which individual species are perpetually jostling for supremacy: one day, when we’ve rendered the planet inhospitable to human life, new edgelands will be shaped out of a substrate of crumbling concrete and tar.

Whether we choose to celebrate the ascent of new forms or lament the demise of the old is ultimately an emotional choice. We can do one, or the other, or both. What is inescapable, along with the grim conditions we are forging for ourselves and many other lifeforms, is that writing in the time and place where we are now is going to be shaped by it, and the present is human-wrought.

Human activity has been utterly disastrous in many cases. Cocker is absolutely right to be outraged at the perverse politics of how we manage the land around us. There are campaigning books that need to be written and published and read about the scandals of the farming subsidy system as it stands. George Monbiot is doing a good job of leading the way here already.

But a minority of people have it in them to be activists, and a minority of readers have enough of a passion for any particular cause to want to read books about it. It looks like Cocker is implying that the successful writers should be taking some kind of activist line as penance for their success, and that we would all be better people for reading “better” books.

No doubt most readers of nature-oriented books do so from their homes and offices and crowded trains in cities. Maybe the whole thing has an escapist quality. Should people with moderate interests in things instead profess no interest at all? Would that be more comforting?

I should probably confess an interest too. I’ve just finished a book that contains some moderate exposure to the natural world; perhaps I too will be lumped in with the New Naturalists. (I am also white and middle-class, unsurprisingly, since the white and middle-class are over-represented throughout the literary world for reasons of structural inequality that, even at a stretch, you can’t make the fault of a particular imaginary sub-genre.)

When I was researching my book last summer, I went to Germany, which is vastly more forested than Britain. When exploring, or attempting to explore, the Black Forest and the mountains of the Harz, I noticed a proliferation of signs proclaiming Naturschutzgebiet – Nature Protection Zone.

The idea was to prevent people going off the beaten track in order to prevent bad things from happening to nature. I wasn’t sure what it was trying to achieve. The sorts of people who go walking in the woods tend to be pretty low-risk to woodland, and there was a lot of woodland and relatively few people in it. And these woodlands were largely old coniferous monocultures that had been formed by humans at some point in history through mining or forestry or both.

The outcome of this was that the forest turned into a museum in which the path encased the exhibit. You can look but don’t touch. Only the trained forester, with years of specialist education from fourteen to twenty-five, is adequately equipped to interface with protected nature. Perhaps only trained foresters should be allowed to write books with forests in them, lest they be contaminated by impure concerns.

The whole point of literature – if there is one, and there’s an argument to made for it being at its best when entirely pointless – is for it to become a space for us to talk about ourselves to ourselves. It is what we do. It is in the nature of literature written by humans to rest on human concerns. It is in the nature of human interest to want a story on the human scale, framed by human experience and emotions. In the end, there is nothing more inescapably anthropocentric than words written down on a page.

Nina Lyon on Caught by the River