A Cultural History of the New Nature Writing

ABSTRACT This article discusses the ‘new nature writing’ and the work of some of its key practitioners: Mark Cocker, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie, Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane. The new nature writing focuses on finding meaning not in the rare and exotic but in our common, unremarkable encounters with the natural world, and in combining both scientific, scholarly observation of nature with carefully crafted, discursive writing. In this sense it speaks to a contemporary eco-political moment while critically engaging with the rich history of nature writing and thinking about the environment in Britain from the Romantic era onwards, and particularly since the late 1960s. 

The term ‘new nature writing’ entered public consciousness in Britain in the late 2000s in a series of widely discussed books and a special edition of Granta magazine under that title.[1] This article seeks to frame and contextualise this type of writing by focusing on the work of some of its key practitioners: Mark Cocker, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie, Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane. The genre label, as several of those thus labelled have protested, is somewhat unsatisfactory. Their writings tend to be thematically wide-ranging and stylistically digressive, combining personal reflection with natural history, cultural history, psychogeography, travel and topographical writing, folklore and prose poetry, which makes them correspondingly difficult to categorise. Many of these writers are uneasy about identifying themselves as a movement (although some are or were friends, collaborators and near neighbours) and, given the ambition and range of their work, they generally prefer to be known as writers rather than nature writers[2]  – a category that historically has been subject to some ghettoisation and condescension in Britain, most notoriously in Evelyn Waugh’s pastiches of the nature columnist William Boot in Scoop (‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole’[3]). But while there are differences of tone and approach in these writers’ work, they have shared concerns that all speak to anxieties about human disconnection from natural processes which have grown since the first stirrings of the environmental movement in the early 1970s, and which also reflect broader trends in British cultural history. I retain the problematic term ‘new nature writing’, because I will argue that, as well as responding to the contemporary eco-political moment, this body of work represents a critical engagement with the rich history of British nature writing and environmental thought.

A common thread that unites the new nature writing is its exploration of the potential for human meaning-making not in the rare or exotic but in our everyday connections with the non-human natural world. Macfarlane has suggested that part of its project is to rescue the word ‘parochial’ from the associations with provincialism and insularity that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, and to revive its original sense of referring to a parish or small area.[4] This interest in small-scale and quotidian encounters with nature, often in unpromising surroundings, can be traced back to the Second World War and its transformation of ordinary urban landscapes. On 1 May 1945, a week before VE Day, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Edward Salisbury, gave a talk in the bomb-damaged Savoy Chapel Royal about the wild flowers of London’s bombsites. Salisbury described how new plants – such as gallant-soldier, Oxford ragwort and rosebay willowherb, nicknamed ‘bombweed’ by Londoners – had flourished in wartime, having drifted in from Europe or America as seeds on food aid or soldiers’ clothes, or sprung to life after being buried under bricks and concrete smashed in air raids.[5]

Salisbury’s talk was summarised in R. S. R. Fitter’s London’s Natural History, the third title in Collins’s new ‘New Naturalist’ series. Fitter’s theme was the adaptability of wildlife to urban surroundings. The docks and their surrounding canals created artificial fish-ponds and sheltered habitats for aquatic birds; nightingales, ‘well known for their indifference to gunfire’, carried on singing in the suburbs during bombing raids; and London’s back gardens were ‘now as definite an avifaunal community as that associated with heathland or sea-cliffs’.[6] London’s Natural History did not inaugurate the genre of urban ecology – Richard Mabey, for example, often cites the late Victorian writer Richard Jefferies, who explored the wildlife of London and the north Surrey suburbs in books such as Nature Near London (1883) and essays such as ‘Sunlight in a London Square’ and ‘The Pigeons at the British Museum’ (1884) – but it was a surprise bestseller and influenced many would-be naturalists in the immediate postwar era. The young writer Kenneth Allsop drew on it when he published Adventure Lit their Star (1949), a fictionalised piece of nature writing based on his own experiences as a wounded RAF pilot watching the previously rare little ringed plover in the gravel pits and sewage farms near Staines, Middlesex.

By the end of the 1960s, Allsop was a well-known TV presenter and journalist and Mabey was inspired by his explorations in the Sunday Times of wildlife thriving in the last remaining bombsites and scrubland in the centre of London. Allsop’s theme, like Fitter’s, was the human-made landscape as a makeshift natural habitat. ‘How willing nature is to forgive the insults of man,’ he wrote, noting the absence of snobbishness with which kestrels nested on the Savoy hotel and the Poplar gasometers. ‘How magnanimously she responds and pumps back life, like blood into dead tissue, once the environment is cleansed.’[7] In his regular column for the Daily Mail about his life in an old millhouse near Powerstock, Dorset, Allsop’s style – describing a badger’s bottom as ‘waggling like an old boy in baggy trousers’ or a starling as ‘a winged hippy with self-grown furbelows’[8] – was unashamedly anthropocentric and, Mabey felt, uninfected by the quaintness or purple prose that afflicted much country writing at the time.[9] Allsop’s was a distinctively savvy and metropolitan voice in nature writing, speaking especially perhaps for members of the urban middle classes like himself who were buying up the small farmhouses left available by the mechanisation of farming in places like the Cotswolds, Cornwall and the Yorkshire Dales, now made more accessible by the newly completed M1 and M4. By 1973, there were nearly 400,000 second homes in Britain, many of them supported by mortgage tax relief and government renovation grants.[10]

One of Mabey’s earliest books, The Unofficial Countryside (1973), dedicated to Allsop, mapped the flora and fauna of deindustrialised areas like abandoned docks, railway cuttings and industrial estates. Apart from Allsop’s influence, the book’s origins were serendipitous: Mabey was working for Penguin Books in West Drayton in peri-urban Middlesex, an area of factory wasteland and derelict feeder canals near Heathrow airport, and during lunchbreaks he would walk along the Grand Union Canal, watching the migrant terns and wintering grey wagtails alighting on abandoned tyres or bits of floating polystyrene.[11] But Mabey’s book was also attuned to important shifts in the national economy and ecology. Postwar intensive farming had chased nature into these neglected areas. The 1947 Agriculture Act had offered farmers guaranteed markets, but demanded economies of scale from them in return. They received grants to raze long grasses and hedgerows, so that machinery could work the land quicker. At the end of the war, England and Wales had nearly 800,000 miles of hedgerow, but over the next forty years almost a quarter of it was lost. By the late 1960s, hedgerows were disappearing at the unprecedented rate of about 10,000 miles a year.[12] Vast areas of farmland, particularly in the Midlands and East Anglia, became American-style prairies broken up only by roads. As Mabey argued, the ‘unofficial countryside’ was valuable in this new era precisely because it was unloved and left alone. His next work, The Roadside Wildlife Book (1974), written just as the first campaigns against urban motorway building were gathering momentum in west London, Leeds, Glasgow and other cities, was devoted to the counter-intuitive proposition that the roadside was an eco-haven, rich in wildlife.[13]

Mabey’s early work thus sought to alter the emphasis of the conservation movement in Britain which, since the formation of the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 1926, had focused on the threat of urban encroachment on the countryside. He distanced himself from an earlier generation of rural writers emerging in the interwar years, such as Henry Williamson and H.J. Massingham, in whom the nostalgia for stable feudal hierarchies and traditional forms of husbandry had led to anti-democratic sentiments and, in Williamson’s case, a flirtation with fascism. The mood of Mabey’s writing was also distinct from the more recent, elegiac television films of John Betjeman about railway branch lines or the English suburbs, or the work of W.G. Hoskins, who shared much of Mabey’s interest in the historical layerings of local landscapes but who, in his classic The Making of the English Landscape (1955) urged his readers to ‘turn away and contemplate the past before all is lost to the vandals’.[14] Mabey wanted to sidestep that ‘strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom’ that affected English attitudes to nature when they were dominated by anxieties about the destruction of the picturesque.[15]

His ideas fed directly into the organisation Common Ground, founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King in 1982, with Roger Deakin and Mabey both involved, the latter acting as a trustee. King had been Friends of the Earth’s wildlife campaigner since its British branch opened in 1971, initiating campaigns for otters, big cats and other endangered species, Clifford was on its board and Deakin was its media strategist between 1978 and 1982, the first major campaign he worked on being to save the whale. Believing there was too much emphasis on the rare and imperilled in these campaigns, Common Ground developed the idea of ‘local distinctiveness’ and aimed to ‘make the mundane magical’.[16]

Common Ground was explicitly non-purist, pointing to the value of ‘the best of the new’ and of the urban as well as the rural, finding pleasure in the industrial sublime of cooling towers and Satellite Earth Stations. Common Ground distanced itself from any association of the conservation movement with ethnic homogeneity: just as we should ‘oppose monoculture in our fields’, it argued, we should ‘exile xenophobia, which fossilises places and peoples’.[17] It encouraged people to make collaborative ‘parish maps’ of their locality, ‘community renditions of attachment’ which would chart the things they valued in the natural and cultural landscape and help them ‘find, express and demonstrate their sense of identity and intimacy with their places’.[18]  

It is striking that a number of practitioners of the new nature writing (Cocker, Deakin, Mabey and Macfarlane) are based in and often write about a highly distinctive region: the fens. This geographical concentration is mostly coincidental but it is also apposite, for this area of Britain – intensively farmed, particularly since the rapid industrialisation of agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s, but containing important nature reserves, a liquid landscape almost claimed by the sea but full of human-made drains and dykes – is an illuminating case study in the commingling of natural and cultural processes. Mabey has written of the fens as a deceptively monotonous landscape with meanings all the more enriching for their having to be extracted with difficulty – unlike, say, the Lake District or the north Cornish coast which are ‘barely visible under their crust of associations’.[19] In 2002, after a period of severe depression, Mabey moved from the Chilterns to the Upper Waveney valley on the border between Suffolk and Norfolk. His book Nature Cure is about learning to live in this new, treeless landscape and enjoy its light, wetness and expansiveness, creating meaning out of an environment that initially seems to provide little purchase.

Mark Cocker’s Crow Country is largely set in the Yare valley where he and his family move from Norwich, a move that sends him into a depression exacerbated by the fact that ‘flat landscapes, like open water, resist the processes of memory’. His gloom lifts when he learns to read this inscrutable landscape and realises that, because there are few dramatic contours and little cover, he can contrive new ways of looking at wildlife, exchanging the fine detail of close-ups for the greater length of observations.[20] The ‘crow country’ of the book is a mostly unpeopled, triangular block of land known as Haddiscoe Island, cut off from the rest of the fens by the converging Yare and Waveney rivers and a human-made water channel. Out of this seemingly uninspiring topography, Cocker contrives a study of a creature overlooked and even reviled for its commonness, for here rooks gather together in groups as large as 40,000. Cocker uses the rook to challenge the twitcher’s preoccupation with ticking off sightings of rare birds. Rooks, when looked at closely and ‘unsheathed entirely from any sense of ordinariness’ turn out to be ‘enveloped in a glorious sky-cloak of mystery’.[21] The sites of rookeries are passed down through centuries and rooks, like their equally sociable cousins homo sapiens, live their entire lives ‘enfolded in the flock, a collective pattern of their own image – a self-perpetuating inner universe of rook sounds and rook gestures’.[22] In a classic manoeuvre in the new nature writing, these ordinary birds in an unremarkable setting inspire an extended reflection on the place of humans in the non-human natural world.

In the new nature writing, this concern with local connections to the natural world is frequently offset against the alternative attractions of wildness and desolation. Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places begins with him climbing a tree in a beechwood near his Cambridge home, which cannot answer his ‘need for wildness’ because of the roar of the nearby road and the surrounding fields drenched with chemicals. Eventually, though, after a long journey north ‘into the bleak and stripped-back territories’, a ‘myopia of a good sort’ sets in as he begins to understand wildness as something that can coexist with human society, in Mabeyesque places like hedgerows and motorway verges. He learns to admire ‘the sheer force of ongoing organic existence … the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac’. He discovers wild places closer to home, in the shingle spits and saltmarshes of the Essex and Suffolk coastlines, and the book ends, as it began, in the beechwood, and the discovery of wildness ‘a short mile south of the town in which I lived’.[23]

In Waterlog, Roger Deakin’s account of a journey wild swimming around Britain, there is the same circular movement, an attraction to the exotic and untamed gradually displaced by a reconciliation with the domestic and familiar. Deakin begins in the moat surrounding his own Elizabethan farmhouse and ends in his (now frozen) moat and a swim off the Suffolk coast. His subsequent book Wildwood also opens inside this wood-framed house, and he travels even further afield – to the gum trees of central Australia and the wild apple trees of Kyrgyzstan – before returning home and contemplating the ash wiltja in his own backyard. Wildwood’s title is actually a misnomer, because the woods he writes about are all touched by contact with people. The book is suffused with the sensuous texture of particular woods and the human uses to which they have been put by industrialised modernity, from a pencil’s ‘intimate, elemental conjunction of graphite and wood, like a grey-marrowed bone’ to the walnut burr veneering in Jaguar cars.[24]

While Deakin’s work is particularly rich in arcana about cricket-bat willow or wooden Spitfire propellers, it is characteristic of the new nature writing to focus on details and intricacies over abstraction, the close-up over the panorama, touch and proximity over the remote gaze. For Kathleen Jamie, flashes of insight and meaning come through touching things, whether it is using ammonia to clean a whale’s rib strapped to the ceiling of the whale hall of the Bergen Natural History Museum or feeling the ‘sculptural form’ of a gannet’s skull on a Hebridean beach.[25] Macfarlane collects tactile souvenirs of his wild journeys – quartz pebbles, beach stones, pieces of wildwood pine – and caresses them in his Cambridge study. In his book The Old Ways, the recurring emblem of this tangible encounter between humans and the world is the footprint, and it ends with a description of the 5000-year-old footprints revealed in beach sediments at Formby Point on the Lancashire coast. ‘Touch is a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange with the world,’ he reflects. ‘To make an impression is also to receive one, and the soles of our feet, shaped by the surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines.’[26] He explains this fascination with touch as a reaction to a post-millennial culture that is increasingly disembodied, atmosphere-controlled and electronically mediated – what he calls the ‘retreat from the real … a prising away of life from place, an abstraction of experience into different kinds of touchlessness’.[27]

This interest in tangible encounters with nature, with making tactile and sustainable use of objects and phenomena to hand, has its roots in a politics that emerged in the various countercultural movements of the late 1960s. As a student in the early 1960s, Mabey saw little connection between his leftist, CND politics and his boyhood interest in nature, because the left and the ecology movement had yet to discover common cause.[28] His first nature book, Food for Free (1972), a study of edible wild plants, fungi and lichens, came out of an interest in the natural world rekindled independently during holidays on the north Norfolk coast, and the discovery of the local practice of eating marsh plants like sea-kale and wild sea-spinach. But in an era when the rise of laboratory food technology and pre-packaged supermarket food were beginning to make ‘soil and labour seem part of another existence’, the book also fed into an emergent sense that the severing of food production from ordinary life was a symptom of broader social problems.[29]

The ecologist Frank Fraser Darling’s BBC Reith lectures on the theme of ‘Wilderness and Plenty’ in 1969 marked a key moment in the birth of the green movement and are said to have inspired the television sci-fi drama series Doomwatch (1970-2), with its images of out-of-control scientific research into human-made viruses and genetic manipulation.[30] Two bestselling books, the Ecologist magazine’s A Blueprint for Survival (1972) and Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973), suggested that decentralised, human-scale communities could serve as a model for industrial societies with wasteful and unsustainable ways of life. In a period of recession and rising energy prices, particularly after the 1973-4 oil crisis emphatically ended the long period of postwar prosperity, these ideas about the dangers of pursuing unlimited growth entered the mainstream. Fraser Harrison, a writer associated with Common Ground, records a more general growth in popular interest in the natural world in this period, manifest in increasing visits to the countryside, rising membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ‘the insipid romanticism of television commercials exploiting the notion of “country goodness”’ and ‘the compulsion to turn our homes into farmhouses by filling every room with stripped pine furniture’.[31]

The new nature writing emerged out of this historical moment without sharing either the occasionally apocalyptic tone of these first missives from the ecology movement or the ‘insipid romanticism’ that Harrison feels afflicted the popular rediscovery of rural and folk cultures. Roger Deakin, having given up a career in advertising, imbibed the can-do spirit of the back-to-the-land culture that flourished in the Barsham Folk Faires and Albion Fairs in Suffolk in the 1970s, based on medieval and pagan rituals – ‘ephemeral, dreamlike, gypsyish shanty capitals in fields full of folk’.[32] These events, as both George McKay and Rob Young have argued, were alternately revivalist and subversive, informed by a radical, forward-thinking nostalgia that characterised the wider folk counterculture of the time.[33] Deakin worked on The Waveney Clarion, the longest-running and largest circulating of the many radical community newspapers that thrived in this period, and like many of his ex-urban friends he imbibed DIY radical texts such as John Seymour’s self-sufficiency bible, The Fat of the Land (1961) and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968-72).[34]

The influence of the anarchist Colin Ward, a near-neighbour and friend of Deakin’s in the Upper Waveney valley, can also be seen in both his work and Mabey’s. Ward’s early journalism had covered the squatters’ movement which emerged during the acute housing shortage of the late 1940s and it helped nurture his belief that ordinary people could shape their own environments.[35] The diverse subjects of his books – allotments, self-build housing, water distribution – were all inspired by his belief that improvised, grassroots projects offered the best way of living in complex modern societies. Using a metaphor adapted from the Italian socialist politician Ignazio Silone, Ward argued that ‘an anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow’.[36] Anarchism was not so much an end goal as something that could be discerned and nourished in everyday human instincts and small-scale initiatives.

At the beginning of his book Waterlog, while Deakin is swimming in the River Itchen, he is accosted by the river keeper and porter from Winchester College who inform him that the river is private property, and he has an enjoyable row with them in which he quotes William Cobbett and stands up for the rights of the wild swimmer.[37] The argument, conducted in his swimming trunks, is not without a sense of the absurd, for Deakin is the funniest and most self-deprecating of all these writers, liable to deliver his more polemical points in whimsical grace notes, as in his categorisation of ‘those delicious apples that refuse to grow to a uniform size and shape, Tesco’s Despair’.[38] But his unshakeable belief in the commonality of wild swimming in Waterlog, and his opposition to waters being closed off by trout fisheries and other private enterprise, clearly draw on Ward’s argument that it is unnatural to turn water, the basis of life, into an unequally distributed and delocalised commodity.[39] Ward’s idea that houses should be built organically and incrementally, out of natural needs as they emerge, is also mirrored in Wildwood, which recounts Deakin’s own life in his Mellis farmhouse, which he bought derelict and worked on over many years, also populating its environs with improvised dwellings like shepherd’s huts and derelict railway wagons.[40]

The politics of the younger generation of new nature writers are less obviously rooted in the anarchistic, cooperative projects of the 1960s counterculture and they tend to emerge obliquely in writing which always seems wary of resorting to preachiness or incantation. In an essay in Jamie’s Sightlines, for example, she detects ‘a lingering 1960s feel’ around the digger community she encounters as a 17-year-old in 1979, volunteering on a neolithic site near Auchterarder, but a point about the contrast with the election a few weeks earlier of Margaret Thatcher is not laboured.[41] Outside of the East Anglian fraternity of new nature writers by dint of both geography and gender, Jamie’s investigations of the everyday natural world in her home town of Newburgh, Fife are also compromised by her domestic entanglements, being played out against the foreground of childcare, a mother recovering from a stroke and her husband’s serious illness. ‘Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life,’ she writes after she spots a pair of nesting peregrines from her attic study window, but then turns away at the wrong moment to answer a child’s call and misses them flying off. ‘I listen. During a lull in the traffic: oyster-catchers; in the school-playground, sparrows … The birds live at the edge of my life.’[42]

When, with her children older, Jamie ventures further, she still truncates a visit to St Kilda for fear of being separated from them for weeks by the weather, and after a visit to the island of Rona she listens with a certain schadenfreude to gale force warnings on the shipping forecast in her centrally-heated home among her family.[43] This sense of herself as a mother with sometimes conflicting commitments and obligations, and her identification with post-devolutionary developments in Scotland, the politics of which she claims are ‘indistinguishable from my life’,[44] clearly feeds into her review of The Wild Places, which describes Macfarlane as ‘A Lone Enraptured Male … Here to boldly go, “discovering”, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words … as if the land has been taken from us and offered back, in a different language and tone and attitude.’[45]

There are certainly significant differences in tone between the two writers. Macfarlane has a less guarded, more expansive style than Jamie, who distrusts adverbs and qualifiers and makes infrequent use of the first person pronoun. Compare her sparing description of humanity, ‘that rough tribe of the mortal’, with his ‘prints of millennia of human walking … the shimmering foil of our species’.[46] As well as being pointedly unrapturous, Jamie’s writing is sometimes literally clinical: in Findings, she goes to Surgeons’ Hall, the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, where she coolly examines conjoined foetuses and infected body parts. In Sightlines, after the death of her mother from cancer, she visits a pathology lab where she studies ‘nature we’d rather do without’ such as a cancerous colon and a diseased corpse. The strange, meaningless beauty she discovers and the fresh, alert metaphors she employs to describe it – a preserved octopic kidney looks ‘like bracket fungus’ and is so lovely ‘one could wear it as a brooch’, and lymph nodes look ‘like a row of baby teeth, only more yellow’[47] – reads like a conscious corrective to nature writing’s pull towards pastoral.

But Jamie and Macfarlane have more in common than she acknowledges. Macfarlane’s mapping of the responsibilities of the contemporary nature writer – ‘a disinclination to epiphanise for its own sake’ and ‘a readiness to pluralise, diffuse or abolish altogether the watching lyric eye/I’ – is informed by an omnipresent awareness of nature writing’s potential flirtation with anthropocentric rhapsodic poses.[48] Both have sought to draw on a neglected tradition of small-focus, sparingly written British nature writing in their work, even reviving and discussing some of the same texts, such as Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a series of meditations on the Cairngorm Mountains completed in 1944 but left unpublished until 1977, and JA Baker‘s The Peregrine (1967), based on observations conducted within bicycling distance of his home in Chelmsford, Essex.

Macfarlane is also as drawn as Jamie to the work of natural scientists, albeit of an eccentric kind, like the geographer Vaughan Cornish (1862-1948), who investigated sand waves in the Libyan desert and whose ‘monomania … hovered partly between spirituality and hard science’; or the geomorphologist Ralph Bagnold (1896-1990), whose sand researches were rooted in ‘the massive accumulation of minute particulars … science as devotion’.[49] Macfarlane often knowingly undercuts his lyrical tendencies with a Deakin-like bathos (‘what I thought was the first star turned out to be the night light for a plane coming into Luton’) and he is interested in how certain landscapes, like flatlands, ‘seem to return the eye’s enquiries unanswered, or swallow all attempts at interpretation’.[50] One freezing night on the summit of Ben Hope, he is overwhelmed by its remoteness and feels ‘no companionship with the land, no epiphany of relation’, experiencing ‘a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest’.[51]

This sense of the obdurate otherness of nature, its mute, unredemptive indifference, is a common trope in the new nature writing, one which interrupts any gesture towards romantic epiphany. Cocker ponders periodically on the pointlessness of watching rooks, especially on a near-fruitless, rain-soaked trip to the crow county of Dumfriesshire, and the dangers of devotion to the natural world becoming a monomania which is merely a way of ‘offsetting some deeper pain in life’.[52] Ultimately, though, these writers are united by their faith in the human capacity to find meaning in nature, even at the risk of producing potentially self-absorbed feelings of ‘rapture’. In Mabey’s Nature Cure, he suggests that what really cured his depression was learning to write again, itself a natural way for humans to interact with the non-human world, since culture is ‘the interface between us and the non-human world, our species’ semi-permeable membrane’.[53] Jamie has said similarly that she ‘used to think that language was what got in the way, that it was a screen, a dark glass. That you could not get at the world because you were stuck with language, but now I think that’s wrong. Now I think language is what connects us to the world.’[54]

In a series of essays written for BBC Radio 3 in 2009, Mabey explored the tension between two impulses in his own work and in the new nature writing more generally: the scientist’s desire to examine the natural world forensically, and the romantic’s desire to find human meaning in it. He wondered if the scientific observation of wildlife could be reconciled with ‘my Romantic insistence on making feelings part of the equation’ and his ambitions to extend the reach of nature writing into memoir, cultural history and folklore. While Mabey conceded that nature writing could be ruined by ‘bushels of thoughtless visual metaphors’, he insisted that our feelings ‘can precede or follow the moment of exact observation without necessarily contaminating its truthfulness’.[55]

In claiming that myth is a necessary means for humans to comprehend the world but that it should not be so overpowering as to displace it, Mabey offers his own take on the ‘two cultures’ debate initiated by C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis in the late 1950s and continued more recently by sociobiologists such as Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson. Although Dawkins concludes his book Unweaving the Rainbow with the hope that ‘a Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing,’[56] ultimately these sociobiological ambitions to bring nature and culture together are calls for a grand, unifying science that will eventually explain everything from the workings of the universe to the imaginative processes of artists. For Mabey this is ‘a perplexing dream … In the nature of things life will always keep one step ahead of the measurers and managers. A ceaseless, gratuitous, inventive bodging is what keeps the world going.’[57]

In this context it is striking how much of the new nature writing mirrors the concerns of academic ecocriticism, which has similarly explored how scientific and cultural understandings of nature have created hierarchical distinctions between the human and non-human through metaphors of empirical mastery or romantic rapture, but which also acknowledges that such myths are, in Jonathan Bate’s words, ‘necessary imaginings, exemplary stories which help our species to make sense of its place in the world’. Breaking with a poststructuralist literary theory which was ‘locked into the hermeneutic circle’ and ‘could not look out from the text to the planet’, Bate favours a form of writing he calls ‘ecopoetics’, which might enable us ‘to live … with thoughtfulness and attentiveness, an attunement to both words and the world, and so to acknowledge that, although we make sense of things by way of words, we do not live apart from the world’.[58] There are also affinities between the new nature writing and the shift in Romanticism studies towards the study of place and locality, from the repositioning of John Clare as central to the canon to the work of Fiona Stafford on the ‘local attachments’ of poetry, and her framing of the Romantic period as ‘a defining moment in literary history, when local detail ceased to be regarded as transient, irrelevant, or restrictive, and began to seem essential to art with any aspiration to permanence’.[59]

But while ecocriticism has emerged out of the same sense of environmental crisis and grown in parallel with the new nature writing – one of its founding texts, Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, was published in the same year as The Unofficial Countryside – neither has referenced the other much, although Jamie does acknowledge that Bate’s notion of ecopoetics was in her mind during the completion of her 2004 poetry collection The Tree House.[60] The work of the new nature writers is certainly rich in reading and research, and Cocker and Mabey have produced encyclopaedias of folklore about birds and fauna which are works of impeccable scholarship,[61] but one sometimes detects an impatience with the specialised modes of professional academic discourse. Macfarlane, himself an academic, has declared a lack of interest in environmental literary criticism except for the hope that it ‘desists from conducting its affairs in large part through international conferences, to which delegates from around the world fly in order to deliver their papers on how culture might fine-tune place consciousness, environmental ethics and eco-responsibility’.[62] Implicit in the heterogeneous and discursive registers of the new nature writing, perhaps, is a sense that the complexities of the ecological crisis need to be met by open-ended and polymorphic forms of writing which combine ecopolitical engagement with a personal voice.

A defining feature of the new nature writing is that it foregrounds this intellectually fluid and untidy experience of personal witness – what Mabey calls ‘the firsthand encounters with nature that are the aboriginal, objective raw material for science and art alike’.[63] For Mabey this offers the best hope of bridging the rift between the humanities and the sciences – partly because it has close affinities with the most unpredictable and emotionally involving area of the sciences, field biology, and partly because of its sense that language itself, ‘that special human gift’, is capable of achieving near-scientific revelations through its capacity to make leaps of imagination and perspective.[64] The precise lyricism of the new nature writing emerges out of this commitment to both scientific, scholarly observation of nature and carefully crafted, discursive writing.

In Nature Cure, Mabey does acknowledge his debt to a pioneering ecocritical text: Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival (1974), which explores the metaphorical resonances between the natural world and a literary genre that exists in all human cultures: comedy. For Meeker, while tragedy relies on abstract ideologies, sentimental moralities and the doomed desire to transcend our mortal bodies, comedy urges us to accept our animal beings, survive and reproduce, in ‘a knowing and spirited immersion in the processes of nature, illuminated by the adaptive and imaginative human mind’. The natural world similarly demonstrates what Meeker calls ‘the comic way’, adjusting pragmatically and cooperatively to circumstances rather than simply trying to destroy competitors. Evolution is ‘an unscrupulous, opportunistic comedy, the object of which appears to be the proliferation and preservation of as many life forms as possible without regard for anyone’s moral ideas’.[65]

Mabey inherits from Meeker the idea that life has no point other than its own prolongation and that its ‘purpose’ is therefore play. He finds numerous examples of this impulse to play in nature, from swifts chasing each other through the air to the exuberance of birdsong.[66] This unfashionable and slightly surprising sense of optimism, as the environmental crisis becomes more acute, resonates through much of the new nature writing. ‘The contemporary threats to the wild were multiple, and severe. But they were also temporary,’ concludes Macfarlane at the end of The Wild Places. ‘The wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us.’[67]

Trees recur as a frequent subject in the work of these writers because they embody this sense of the natural world as collaborative, mutually tolerant and, above all, resilient, able to grow without human intervention. Mabey’s Beechcombings ends with a meditation on the Great Storm of October 1987 which, when it felled 15 million trees across southern England, seemed like a denting of the natural order and an affront to the idea of trees as ‘monuments to security, emblems of continuity and peace in an unstable world’. But Mabey argues that the storm was useful in opening up woods that had become too dense and uniform and in showing that ‘natural disturbances were an entirely normal and well-tolerated part of a woodland’s experience’.[68]

While Deakin fears that woods ‘have been suppressed by motorways and the modern world’, and have ‘come to look like the subconscious of the landscape’,[69] he similarly disapproves of the tendency to infantilise individual trees by seeking to protect them, seeing them instead as communal organisms with resilient lives. Wildwood’s riffs on the malleability of wood read like a rejoinder to the sacralisation of trees in a certain strand of ecopolitics. The tree-dwelling protestors at anti-roads sites like the M11 link road and the Newbury bypass in the early 1990s, for instance, felt that trees should never be felled and refused even to violate them by banging nails into them. Deakin’s more robust attitude is that a felled tree has simply been given new forms of life: ‘To see the flowing wave patterns of the grain revealed as you hollow out a bowl … What better way for the elm to live on?’[70]

Since we breathe the exhalations of trees without either us or the trees being aware of it, they are symptomatic of the ideal of neighbourly cohabitation that is at the heart of the new nature writing – a template for the kind of common ground between the human and non-human world which does not demand any crude form of collectivism or surrendering of individuality. Similarly, Macfarlane’s ‘old ways’ – holloways, improvised footpaths, footprints in the sand – are devised by human feet and needs as they arise in a reciprocal arrangement with nature, unlike the permanent appropriations of tarmac. Deakin’s wild swimming, or his working with wood, are ways of immersing himself in and becoming closer to the world without possessing or coercing it. Cocker’s sightings of rooks are based on the understanding that human and bird are ultimately impenetrable to each other. Jamie’s glimpses of whales off the coasts of Shetland and Rona are profound encounters that do not seek to deny their implacable strangeness and unreachability.

The new nature writing is currently a thriving form, as evidenced by the founding of new literary journals such as Archipelago and Earthlines and in the recent work of writers such as Olivia Laing, Madeleine Bunting, Tim Dee, Esther Woolfson, Jean Sprackland, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. One reason for this prominence is that the new nature writing has many contemporary cultural and political resonances: in campaigns for local sourcing, seasonality and ‘slow food’ in the face of the growing power of the supermarkets; in the more general  incantation of the adjective ‘local’ as a spell to offset the seemingly relentless march of free market globalisation; in nature programmes like Springwatch and Countryfile that focus on our everyday encounters with the natural world; and in the largely urban, middle-class fashion for wild swimming, camping, festivals and other forms of outdoors culture.

Since it seems to feed into these current concerns and trends, it is perhaps inevitable that the new nature writing should be accused of an opportunistic voguishness. Steven Poole has called the new nature writing ‘the literary equivalent of the rise of the north London “farmers’ market”‘ in the sense that both feed on ‘nostalgie de la boue and ‘an oddly sublimated politics’ which urges us, in response to the vagaries of the global market, to ‘retreat to our gardens and tend our organic carrots’.[71] In fact, as Mabey showed in a robust response to Poole’s article, there is a strong strain of self-critique in much recent nature writing which has tried to steer a course between the stridency that is the enemy of good writing and a political quietism which draws solace merely from the act of evoking nature itself.[72] In response to the question of what literature can do in the face of climate change and the unsustainable voraciousness of global capital, all these writers have concluded that using the human tools of language and meaning-making to relate to the natural world increases our attentiveness to it and potential for caring for it. The fundamental tension in the new nature writing lies in this sense that we need to find ways of being in the non-human world that are about cohabitation rather than ownership, but that our encounters with nature are necessarily language-filtered and human-centred.


[1] See Jason Cowley, ‘Editors’ Letter: The New Nature Writing’, Granta, 102 (2008), 7-12.

[2] For discomfort with the term, see Richard Mabey, ‘Introduction: Entitled to a View?’, in Richard Mabey, Susan Clifford and Angela King (eds), Second Nature (London, 1984), p. xi; Robert Macfarlane, ‘Call of the Wild’, Guardian, 6 December 2003; and Anna Stenning, ‘An Interview with Robert Macfarlane’, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 17:1 (2013), 77. For other attempts to define this genre of writing, see Stephen E. Hunt, ‘The Emergence of Psychoecology: The New Nature Writings of Roger Deakin, Mark Cocker, Robert Macfarlane and Richard Mabey’, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 10:1 (2009): 70-77; and Jos Smith, ‘An Archipelagic Literature: Re-framing “The New Nature Writing”’, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 17:1 (2013): 5-15.

[3] Evelyn Waugh, Scoop: A Novel About Journalists (London, [1938] 2003), p. 16.

[4] Robert Macfarlane, ‘Where the Wild Things Were’, Guardian, 30 July 2005.

[5] Richard Mabey, ‘News of Birds and Blossoming’, Guardian, 14 March 2009.

[6] R. S. R. Fitter, London’s Natural History (London, 1945), pp. 3, 229, 2.

[7] Kenneth Allsop, ‘The Wild Life of London’, Sunday Times, 23 March 1969.

[8] Kenneth Allsop, In the Country (London, 1974), pp. 64, 43.

[9] ‘Richard Mabey speaks at the first Kenneth Allsop Memorial Talk’, http://vimeo.com/53737548 [accessed 14 January 2013].

[10] Michael Dower, ‘Second Homes Crisis’, Observer, 13 May 1973.

[11] Richard Mabey, Home Country (London, 1990), p. 80.

[12] David Evans, A History of Nature Conservation in Britain (London, 1992), pp. 165-6.

[13] Richard Mabey, The Roadside Wildlife Book (Newton Abbot, 1974).

[14] W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Harmondsworth, [1955] 1985), p. 299.

[15] Richard Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside (London, 1973), p. 11.

[16] Sue Clifford and Angela King, England in Particular (London, 2006), dustjacket.

[17] Quoted in Patrick Wright, ‘Stopping the Rot: Lexicon of Life for the Common Man’, Guardian, 5 July 1992.

[18] Clifford and King, England in Particular, pp. 317-18.

[19] Mabey, Home Country, p. 52.

[20] Mark Cocker, Crow Country (London, 2007), pp. 73, 18.

[21] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[22] Ibid., p. 37.

[23] Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places (London, 2007), pp. 7, 115, 227, 316, 321.

[24] Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (London, 2007), pp. 29, 150.

[25] Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (London, 2012), p. 117; Kathleen Jamie, Findings (London, 2005), p. 49.

[26] Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (London, 2012), p. 161.

[27] Macfarlane, The Wild Places, p. 203.

[28] Mabey, ‘Introduction: Entitled to a View?’, p. xvi.

[29] Richard Mabey, Food for Free (London, [1972] 2012), p. 12.

[30] Keith Wheeler, ‘The Genesis of Environmental Education’, in George C. Martin and Keith Wheeler (eds), Insights into Environmental Education (Edinburgh, 1975), p. 13.

[31] Fraser Harrison, The Living Landscape (London, 1986), p. 5.

[32] Deakin, Wildwood, p. 5.

[33] See George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties (London, 1996), p. 35; Rob Young, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (London, 2010), pp. 499, 606-7.

[34] Deakin, Wildwood, p. 5.

[35] Stuart White, ‘Making Anarchism Respectable? The Social Philosophy of Colin Ward’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 12:1 (February 2007), 17.

[36] Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action (London, [1973] 1996), p. 18.

[37] Roger Deakin, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (London, 1999), pp. 30-2.

[38] Deakin, Wildwood, p. 351.

[39] Colin Ward, Reflected in Water: A Crisis of Social Responsibility (London, 1999). See Deakin’s discussion of this book in Waterlog, p. 180.

[40] See Deakin’s discussion of Ward’s idea in his Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (London, 2008), p. 18.

[41] Jamie, Sightlines, p. 58.

[42] Jamie, Findings, p. 39.

[43] Jamie, Sightlines, pp. 163, 209.

[44] Quoted in Louisa Gairn, ‘Clearing Space: Kathleen Jamie and Ecology’, in Berthold Schoene (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature (Edinburgh, 2007), p. 239.

[45] Kathleen Jamie, ‘A Lone Enraptured Male’, London Review of Books, 3 June 2008, 25.

[46] Jamie, Sightlines, p. 40; Macfarlane, The Wild Places, p. 364.

[47] Jamie, Sightlines, p. 36; Jamie, Findings, p. 140; Jamie, Sightlines, p. 28.

[48] Stenning, ‘An Interview with Robert Macfarlane’, 81.

[49] Macfarlane, Wild Places, pp. 250, 260.

[50] Macfarlane, Old Ways, p. 52; Macfarlane, Wild Places, p. 78.

[51] Macfarlane, Wild Places, p. 157.

[52] Cocker, Crow Country, p. 181.

[53] Richard Mabey, Nature Cure (London, [2005] 2008), p. 23.

[54] Quoted in Gairn, ‘Clearing Space’, p. 241.

[55] Richard Mabey, The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn (London, 2011), pp. 4-5.

[56] Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (London, 1999), p. 313; see also Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (London, 1999).

[57] Mabey, Nature Cure, p. 222.

[58] Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London, 2000), pp. 25, 248, 23.

[59] Fiona Stafford, Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry (Oxford, 2010), p. 30.

[60] Gairn, ‘Clearing Space’, p. 241.

[61] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London, 1996); Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London, 2005); Mark Cocker, Birds and People (London, 2013).

[62] Stenning, ‘An Interview with Robert Macfarlane’, 82.

[63] Mabey, ‘News of Birds and Blossoming’.

[64] Mabey, The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, p. 109.

[65] Joseph W. Meeker, The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (New York, 1974), pp. 192, 35.

[66] Mabey, Nature Cure, p. 200; see also Richard Mabey, A Brush with Nature: 25 Years of Personal Reflections on the Natural World (London, 2010), p. 20.

[67] Macfarlane, Wild Places, p. 316.

[68] Mabey, Beechcombings, pp. x, 246, 250.

[69] Deakin, Wildwood, p. xii.

[70] Ibid., p. 353.

[71] Steven Poole, ‘Comfort of the Wild’, Guardian, 6 July 2013.

[72] Richard Mabey, ‘They Can’t See the Wood for the Trees’, Guardian, 20 July 2013.

Published version copyright Manchester University Press.

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