How the "new nature writing" can help us to grieve nature, and save nature, at the same time
A new paper from the essential environmental research centre CUSP. It’s on how the “new nature writing” - names like Robert Macfarlane, Helen McDonald, Kathleen Jamie - might help us through both our grief at coming climate destruction, and our need to act purposefully nevertheless.
Here’s the introduction, lightly edited for civilians (download free PDF):
Visit a bookshop, even in the most urban of locations, and there will be a table groaning with books about the countryside.
Moving to the countryside, moving back to the countryside, the loss of countryside and the rewilding of the countryside, farming, falconry, dry stone walling. And above all, walking.
Often this literature is bundled together under the heading of ‘new nature writing’. This is a term that many, including the writers contained within it, find unsatisfactory (not least because of the condescension to which nature writing has sometimes been subject).
It nevertheless serves as a useful shorthand for a range of literature which speaks to ‘anxieties about human disconnection from natural processes’, in the words of Joe Moran. Anxieties which have grown as the global environmental crisis has deepened.
In this paper we try to understand new nature writing as a literary form of environmental activism. This is not to say that new nature writers consistently see themselves as activists: some do and some do not. Indeed, the political role that nature-writing should play is a subject of debate among new nature writers.
But the consistent theme of these writers – anxiety and grief about what is being lost, even when it is being celebrated – is at the core of environmental politics. It highlights the question of how to mobilise a collective political response, in the face of overwhelming bewilderment and denial.
As Shaw and Bonnett argue, “the idea of a disjuncture between individualising psycho-social mechanisms and global environmental challenges” is now well-established. By this they mean: We are aware of what is happening - but we cannot or will not do anything about it.
In this situation, the role of the arts is often seen as creative re-imagining. They enable us to fully comprehend the scale of potential loss. But just as important, they give us back a sense of the future, an ability to imagine another, less destructive way of being.
The idea of ‘arts activism’, or indeed of the arts having a political role, is an ancient one. Though the term is generally used nowadays either to talk about the blend of artistic and social activism – artists working with others around a particular cause – it may also be inherent in the artwork itself.
Examples of the latter might include Jeremy Deller’s work: The Battle of Orgreave was a re-enactment of the confrontation between miners and the police in the UK during the 1984 miners’ strike. In ‘We’re here because we’re here’ actors dressed as First World War soldiers appeared in a variety of location across the UK to mark the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
In these cases, the political context is indistinguishable from the artwork. not least because in both cases the ‘artwork’ was temporary – existing mostly in video and photos taken by the public on their phones.
Within the broad range of socially or politically conscious art, ‘environmental arts’ usually refers either to art which draws on the human relationship to the natural world (such the land art of Andy Goldsworthy), or to art which more explicitly concerns itself with particular environmental concerns, such as marine pollution, soil erosion or extinctions.
In this latter case we might point to Eve Mosher’s work, in particular High Water Line [see the A/UK blog on Lines, a kindred project, here] which marks the parts of cities projected to be submerged due to climate change.
It is within this spectrum that we are placing new nature writing. Though largely a non-fiction genre, it prominently displays aesthetic or artistic motivations. Indeed, it is a high quality and literary form of writing that is often celebrated in such works.
How then does new nature writing speak to broad environmental concerns? What are its limitations and exclusions - and how do they reflect those of the arts in general, in an increasingly unequal society? And how can something so often focussed on individual responses be mobilised in collective politics?
How do we stop the damage, what kind of more-than-human world can be conserved, recovered or shaped? This kind of question highlights the challenge of how to mobilise a cooperative political response to the degradation of ecosystems, landscapes and the webs that bind us to creatures of all kinds.
The challenge goes to the heart of the New Nature Writing genre as it has developed over recent years, and raises questions about content and about the range of writers engaged.
The risk for the genre’s content is that it evades the political challenge of nature conservation and renewal by focusing on by now over-familiar themes—personal epiphanies, lone exploration of a landscape or species, celebration and mourning about the remote places of the British Isles.
We don’t disparage these themes, and indeed they are present in the greatest of the genre’s works (and in ‘old’ nature writing). But we do ask if more of the same is going to help in the immense collective task of protection, restoration and renewal needed for the natural world in coming decades.
As for the range of authors involved, a wish for more diversity is not the same thing as a rejection of the white male writers who have dominated the scene.
It is a recognition that the land, creatures and places we love and seek to protect and revive need the efforts and commitments of every section of society—people from ethnic minorities, people in suburbs and city centres, young people and the old, people in areas of outstanding natural neglect as well as in areas of natural beauty.
And a final blog from CUSP claiming to show that “solution based stories, or stories that smuggle in green ideas/characters in the context of an otherwise mainstream story, are more likely to inspire greener behaviours than catastrophic tales of climate change.” The academic actually commissioned these kinds of stories, which are available in this anthology, Resurrection Stories.