Nature good, humans bad?

Nature writing is still split between those who want to describe or preserve the earth
November 23, 2008

It's not at every conference that you get to go birding with your heroes. This summer, I found myself in Norfolk with a group of fellow "nature writers," peering over corn fields at dusk, looking for cranes with Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker. They wrote many of the textbooks, including the famous Birds Britannica, that I have at home about flora and fauna. When they pronounced a bird to be a marsh harrier, there could be no doubt. Later that week, Mark used the eyes at the back of his head to spot one of the most elusive of marshland birds, the bittern. Camouflaged against swaying reeds, it took those of us less-attuned an age to see it. Some very distinguished poets never located it at all.

We were in Norwich for a writers' symposium to discuss the opposition between nature and culture. It's a tension among the most ancient in literature. From Homer and Virgil to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, the relationship between the "natural" order and the artificial order humans bring into it has been a source of endless inspiration. It's also, however, an increasingly fraught business. In the very first session of the conference, two camps emerged. American travel writer Gretel Ehrlich gave an account of living with the Inuit, with an implicit plea for action against the global warming destroying their landscape. Her seeming idealisation of the noble savage drew protests. The crux of the issue quickly became clear: how can writers become advocates for the natural world without being drawn into propagandising, and undermining their credibility? And how can any author now write neutrally about "nature" in a world where humans are so altering the natural order of things—from habitat destruction to global warming?

This split was given a prominent platform in the summer issue of the literary magazine Granta, subtitled "the new nature writing." It was aimed at what its editor called the "long journey of reconnection" between humans and their environment. It was also meant to be a move beyond the image of men with beards and notebooks standing in fields. Yet what was striking about this "new" nature writing was how, well, old it was. Yes, a number of pieces applied the methods of natural history writing to cityscapes and urban settings. But, stylistically, it still felt overwhelmingly conservative. Given that the logical thrust of a love of nature is a desire to promote its preservation, are nature writers worried that a less familiar style might precipitate a change of sensibility—one less concerned with preservation? Conservatism, as in leaving the wilderness alone, certainly isn't the only way of protecting nature. Language itself matters, not only because it's an extension of the natural world, but because it has the capacity to change social perception and, potentially, behaviour. The new nature writing seemed rather old hat.

As I saw at the symposium, the big assumption behind most such writing is nature-good, humans-bad. It's a distinction that doesn't survive close scrutiny. Going to sea in a small boat a few years ago taught me that, unless I'm very careful, the sea will kill me. This double standard about nature is especially visible in our attitude to our own bodies. If you want to praise the natural world, it's illogical to pick and choose parts you like (meadowsweet) and others you don't (mosquitoes). Cancer is just as natural as the nightingale. My husband has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and my view of doctors was transformed when I took him once, very unwell, into our hospital's haematology unit. A rather surly registrar didn't indulge in the sweet talk that is currently considered necessary but, when my husband took off his shirt, lit up at the sight of his rash. "Ah! Herpetic lesions!" he said warmly, greeting an old friend, much as Mark Cocker might say with delight, "Ah! A crane!"

To me, the most interesting piece in the Granta collection was the poet Kathleen Jamie's essay "Pathologies: A Startling Tour of Our Bodies." She looked inwards, through the microscope and the autopsy, to what's happening to the body when it goes wrong. As she comments acerbically, nature isn't "all primroses and dolphins." She realises, as many forget, that it's only very recently that we haven't been routinely at the mercy of infections. We've also forgotten that, in its origins, medicine was part of the study of nature.

Regarding illness as a legitimate manifestation of nature also gives us a way of bypassing the distinction between "me here" and "nature there." Pollution "out there" may well lead us to experiencing the world as disease in the future. Illness, therefore, may give us a way to cope with coming environmental difficulties. Much of the heat in the prospect of human extermination from climate change comes, I'm sure, from our denial of our own deaths. A self-inflicted demise might give us the illusion of more control over events, but whether the environment collapses or not, mortality rates are still 100 per cent. If we can accept this, we might put all our energy into living well within sight of our own deaths. We could become naturalists of ourselves.

It strikes me that some of the best things I've ever done are walks, recorded nowhere but on my body. Artist and cartographer Tim Robinson describes such an outing in his book, Connemara: Listening to the Wind. He has been crossing Erisberg bog and is granted an insight into the world without himself as an observer: "Sometimes I come back from such a walk with my head so empty it seems not a single thought or observation has passed through it all day, and I feel I have truly seen things as they are when I'm not there to see them." That's nature writing of a high moral order, both by the authority of subject and of style.