The Great Nature Writing Debate

Other – better – writers than myself have recently dug over what place nature writing has in the modern world, and some have even gone so far as to state some of the most respected nature writers of today are fiddling while Rome burns. At the risk of getting way out of my depth I will venture my own opinion on nature writing today (And I’ve even, unintentionally, managed to get a Wedding Present song-title within the text!).


Observing nature has been a human activity for as long as Homo sapiens has existed. When we lived as hunter-gatherers observing nature would have been the most essential skill anyone possessed. They would have been experts in what fruits, berries, grasses and roots were safe to eat, as well as where and at what time of the year they were to be found; they would have known the life-cycles, the habits and the habitats of countless species of bird, mammal, reptile, insect and fish; they would have known the nuances of the weather, which rivers were liable to flood, and when and where it was safe to make camp; they would have known spring tides occur at the new and the full moon, and that as well as the incoming flood tide being higher than usual, the outgoing ebb tide would be correspondingly lower than usual, perhaps revealing beds of shellfish not normally accessible. Knowing all this, and more, was crucial for the survival of themselves and the groups they lived in, and for us as a species. When Homo sapiens actually began documenting what they observed is debatable, but we do know that 40,000 years ago, in what is now Germany, a human being identical to ourselves carved in mammoth ivory what is known as the Lowenmensch – the lion-human. Due to a dispute about whether the figure is half-man, half-lion or half-woman, half-lion the original name of Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stade was sensibly amended. It is widely thought to be the oldest anthropomorphic likeness produced by a human being. 35,000 years ago, another human being painted a picture of a type of pig on the wall of a cave on the island of Sulawesi. Next to it there are hand silhouettes from the same period in time as the lion-human from Germany. Hand silhouettes such as these have been found as ancient cave art in places as diverse as France, Borneo, Argentina and Australia. Archaeologists and anthropologists are still unsure of their meaning. It must have been, at least partly, a yearning to document, to leave a mark, to eternalise themselves in that particular place at that particular time.

Independently, at a similar time, different groups of ancient, but modern, human beings were documenting the natural world and even, to an extent, fictionalising it. It was the single most important factor affecting their lives and they were consciously recognising, and recording it. Today the natural world remains the single most important factor in our lives. Though we may have domesticated aspects of it, we still rely on it for everything, whether that be food, water, fuel, heat, transport, electricity, or the internet. Without the existence of the natural world and its resources the human race could not, and would not, exist as it does now.

Unfortunately, many humans of today have lost sight of the natural world. Some have never had sight of it, and never will, whether that be through choice or lack of opportunity, and others are forced to abuse it out of necessity. As well as this, there are those who see it as a series of endless resources to be exploited in the pursuit of profit and the all-conquering dogma of capitalism – growth. Writing on nature – as well as writing on landscape and place, for all three are compounds of the same alloy – should, and does, go a long way to countering all of the above. Unlike the many charities and other organisations promoting conservation, recycling and other so-called ‘green’ agendas, nature writing celebrates nature for nature’s sake. But that is not to say it doesn’t promote its conservation. The realisation that something is beautiful and essential and alive, has a deep-reaching power that in these days of austerity, charity-fatigue and backlash, a mere request for outrage and funds can never match. To have your eyes opened wide by nature writing is inspirational and motivational, and once you’ve been moved by the written word, it is but a small to step to be moved by the reality. Nature writing engenders a wont to care, not just set up a direct debit to make you feel you are ‘doing your bit,’ though this is important too. Nature writing does not have to have a specificity aimed at conserving a habitat or a species to be considered a valid part of conservation; it is as important to conservation of landscape, place and nature as any charity campaign, or more targeted piece of conservation-minded writing.

Have human beings have ever been ‘at one’ with nature? Certainly not now, and not before the industrial revolution, and not before either the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago – when we moved from hunting and gathering to farming and domestication – or the cognitive revolution, which began seventy thousand years ago. The people who carved the half-lion figurine, or left their handprints on cave walls thirty or forty thousand years ago, may have lived cheek-by-jowl with nature, and relied upon it in a more direct way than we do today, but they certainly weren’t worried about conserving it. As a species, extinctions have tracked us through the ages with the dogged persistence of a bloodhound on the trail of a convict.

There are three main extinction events which carry the tell-tale evidence of our modus operandi, and identify us as the serial killers that we are. The first wave occurred with the onset of the cognitive revolution, when Homo sapiens left East Africa and spread through the rest of the world over the following sixty thousand years or so. The fossil record shows time and time again that our appearance coincides with the disappearance of countless other species, including large mammals such as the mammoth, and also every other Homo species. The second wave came with the agricultural revolution, when our population began to grow with the domestication of crops and animals. The third wave, if you hadn’t guessed it, is happening right now, and once again it is Homo sapiens driving it. But this time the consequences are potentially catastrophic to us as a species as well.

Nature writing is as diverse as the natural world itself. As that diversity shrinks, so does our awareness of it. We do not realise that without the existence of the natural world our games consoles will also cease to exist, as will our mobile phones, and our internet connections and every other aspect of modern life. Nature writing is essential if we are to re-connect ourselves with our landscapes, and the species within those landscapes. If we are to save the wonderful and beautiful and amazing species that we live amongst we must identify, and understand our roles within their lives and their habitats. But preaching to the converted is pointless, as is preaching to those who are not willing to listen. We must have more than charitable demands, more than angry calls to arms, more than the belief that literature can influence our political classes, as has been claimed in this debate. We must have all those things of course, but we must also have more: we must have inspiration, we must have insight, we must have contagious enthusiasm, impulsiveness, and we must have awakening and arousal. And we must affect people first: ordinary, run-of-the-mill people. Not politicians, not the wealthy, but the ordinary. Real change will only come from the bottom up, there is no will for change to come from the top down, only a thirst for more resources and more profits. And nature writing can help orchestrate real change. All nature writing can. There is room for all under the canopy of the great tree that is nature writing. Let’s hope that by the time we’ve finished bickering amongst ourselves as to who has the right approach, that tree is still standing

3 thoughts on “The Great Nature Writing Debate

  1. “Nature writing is essential if we are to re-connect ourselves with our landscapes, and the species within those landscapes… And nature writing can help orchestrate real change. All nature writing can.” I hope, and believe, this is true. It’s why I write about nature. In my own, small way, I am writing for nature.

    And this is how I try to do it: “we must have inspiration, we must have insight, we must have contagious enthusiasm, impulsiveness, and we must have awakening and arousal.”

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on nature writing. They echo my own, but I’m not so coherent about expressing them.


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