Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: March

Tim Dee | 1st March 2018

Our new Book of the Month is Ground Work: Writings on Places and People, edited by Tim Dee, published by Jonathan Cape, and out today.  Tim introduces it:

I’ve been guilty of nature writing for more than a decade.  Although I have been and remain a repeat offender, I’ve now tried to atone for some of my crimes by editing a book of new commissioned writing called Ground Work that is published this week.  I’ll come to the crimes in a moment.  This new book has 31 pieces of writing about places by 31 people.  As well as prose it includes some poetry, some drawing and some art-text work.  I asked about forty people for a contribution and received ayes from most and just a few noes (I have forgiven some of the refuseniks).  I have written an introduction to the book that pretty much tallies with what I wrote in my soliciting letter to those forty people.

The thing is, although I am right now busy writing another book – a swoony one about lovely birds – I’ve begun to think that nature writing is moribund.  In the last ten years every charismatic creature in Britain has had its book and every landscape has been written up almost unto death.  Robert Macfarlane – he won’t mind me half-joking about this – having already literarily occupied whatever might be construed as wild places, and paths, and mountains, has been forced underground, and his next book takes place there.  It will be a long time before someone can write about rooks again (thank you Mark Cocker, though Esther Woolfson did brave work on a little-known branch line), otters (Miriam Darlington, who broke cover just as Gavin Maxwell was dipping from view), goshawks (Conor Mark Jameson and Helen Macdonald, who did the same with T. H. White), newts (Richard Kerridge), butterflies (Patrick Barkham, though there was Matthew Oates, that wonderful man with the floppy hats), whales (Philip Hoare, three times himself, at my last count), hares (John Lewis-Stempel), seabirds and islands (Adam Nicolson, twice), trees (Fiona Stafford, Sara Maitland, Germaine Greer, inosculated), edgelands (a northern-rules tag-wrestle between Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts and Rob Cowen), moors (William Atkins, about to go global with deserts), swimming outdoors (too many to float), keeping bees (a swarm likewise), running up hill and down dale, canoeing the western shore, walking the Pennines, mudlarking the Thames – the list could go on and on until the whole country and all of its non-human animal, vegetable, and mineral life were booked.

Me as well?  Guilty, for sure, of the same.  And, I like all these others too.  But, considered as a long shelf in a figurative (and perhaps the actual) British Library, aren’t many of us nature writers really life-writing, talking about ourselves, with added feathers or fur or honey or mud, because that is what the literary mood of our time is encouraging or endorsing?  Travel writing seemed to die at the moment that nature writing took off, likewise that short flurry of nutmeg or cod books.  Oddly, because the rest of the cast can’t answer back or can only do so on the author’s terms, the new nature writing has suited a narcissistic decade and a time when we all began performing ourselves like never before.  The autobiographical pedal pushing almost all of this writing (me and the birds, me and the bees, me and the birds and the bees, etc) means that very often neither its well-made prose nor the intense subjective experiences described lead us to a deeper factual understanding of what we are swooning over (as natural history or science might), or towards making a viable intervention on behalf of depleted biodiversity and a done-in natural environment (as green activism or conservation might).

Perhaps, though, we cannot ask nature writing to be all things for nature; perhaps the addition of the subjective voice and its personal experience has added a necessary emotional and imaginative value to facts and to politics.  Even so, although we have our Paul Kingsnorth and our George Monbiot and our Chris Packham I feel we lack our Rachel Carson and our Annie Dillard and our Rebecca Solnit – those who have found a way to write between and around and through.  Kathleen Jamie might be our best hope, but she cannot be expected to triple up.  And, maybe, in any case, I am asking too much of what are – even if inward looking – still mostly refreshingly quiet books in a shouty time.  A strange but recurring modesty characterises almost all these writers.  Picture me trying to hear, with only one viable ear, James Macdonald Lockhart and Will Atkins talking in a London pub.  It isn’t only coneheads that are lost to me now.  And, oddly, for all its me-me-me subjectivity, the new nature writing is mostly awkward about the I – it worries about land grabs, anthropomorphism, and fine words colonising unlettered life.  The me often wishes to abscond from its own story.  A centipede or an ash tree or a limestone gryke can flense the self and that is often where these books end.  Shredded people, only part restored by the goshawk or whatever they have let into their heart, and so on.

This brings me to the reason that I like the organisation Common Ground, in whose name Ground Work was made (they will receive some money from the book as well).  Common Ground likes people.  And wants people to be happy in the places where they live – the mixed environment of built things and wildlife, which is the world, just about, that most of us are still able to inhabit.  Place making, I’ve written in the introduction to Ground Work, is an activity that might define our species.  Once, we were more mobile animals (that is a part-subject of my book after next) and we are now waste makers as well as place makers (that’s my next one, Landfill).  But place is a particularly human concept: our signature mixing of utility and culture has made our world.

Seeing all of this, two remarkable women, Sue Clifford and Angela King, started Common Ground in 1983, driven above all by a strong sense of what our place making was about, how good it can be for us when it goes well, but how we were – as we remain – in danger of losing our places and our power to locally determine how they should be.  Joined by Roger Deakin, Barbara Bender, Robin Grove-White, Richard Mabey and others over time, the charity devised a mixture of interventions and innovations that people and communities across Britain might take up to rediscover or new make their places.  It was Common Ground who gave us the concept of local distinctiveness and apple days; it was Common Ground who sponsored the making of parish maps, wrote a manifesto for fields, and who got (among many artist collaborators) Andy Goldsworthy to rebuild some stone-wall styles.  They did parish-scale work that has been applied across cities, they made small things that have been writ large through the country.

And so it is that in Ground Work the diverse places lived in and written about are often not special places, not remote, not protected, not rare, but ordinary, small scale, local, domestic – a view from a London window, a puddle, a wayside shrine, an allotment, a childhood beach holiday.  All of them have or had people in them; all of them get their meaning by the meeting of those people and the specifics of where they are.  I was especially keen to ask writers who we haven’t categorised as nature writers to write for Ground Work.  Not many of us have ever wanted the label and it seems a good time to try to widen some terms.  Butterflies are important and badgers and bitterns but we can only know their importance if we ourselves can be at home in the world.  Hence Ground Work.

Adrian Cooper and Gracie Burnett have taken over Common Ground in the recent past and new projects are underway.  Ground Work is one of them.  An exhibition celebrating the organisation’s work will be at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 5th May – 22nd September.


Ground Work is out now and available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £16.99.

Tim Dee is the editor of Ground Work.  Later this year Landfill will be published by Little Toller, and later still, all being well, a book about the Spring by Jonathan Cape.