Thursday, September 11, 2008

The New Nature Writing

Granta Magazine's issue 102 is dedicated to nature writing and makes a case for a shift - towards narratives, towards the presence of humans, the presence of the writer in the story.

There's certainly some wonderful writing in there. Kathleen Jamie's 'it's not all primroses and dolphins' nature-essay looks at the human body and its sick cells under a microscope and finds vast landscapes. Paul Farley and Niall Griffiths return to the estate on the edge of Liverpool where they both grew up, go on a sort of ghost-walk through memory, chart change and edge into what are the white pages in the A-Z - the almost rural, almost urban - where they went nesting. Having just spent a lot of time with Barry Hines' 1968 novel, 'Kestrel For Knave', for a BBC abridgment, this gave me a particular tug - that urban/rural borderland was the one solace in the lad, Billy Casper's life, and was powerfully evoked in this piece. There's Robert Macfarlane tracing a human ghost species in Norfolk; a wonderful short story by a woman called Lydia Peele I've never heard of; and Philip Marsden uncovers the life of a little known Victorian artist and archaeologist, J. T. Blight who stomped around recording things in the haunting landscape and chamber tombs of West Penwith until sent to an asylum at the age of 35.

It's a very rich collection. But two things make me uneasy. Firstly, where are the women? Two out of eighteen. Where are Valerie Gillies and Jay Griffiths? The broad and inclusive notion of nature writing that contributors have offered surely would embrace many more women writers, especially if fiction is to be included. There seems something oddly old-fashioned and anachronistic in this idea of the nature-writer as man.

But this brings me to my other uneasiness. In what sense is this 'nature writing' anyway? Isn't it just 'writing' that might appear in anthologies of work collected in the name of half a dozen different themes? At the Edinburgh Book Festival event in support of the publication, the contributors present were keen to point out that they saw their writing more as reflecting a new perception of the place of nature in our lives, and ourselves as nature. I would hesitate to call what I do by this name, although nature, and a keen observation of it, is often part of it. Perhaps I'm just not happy with narrow attempts at definition, feel it as a kind of boxing-in.

But a recommended read, nonetheless.

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