I mainly read nature writing these days, with the odd foray into fiction, though usually fiction with a strong sense of place (at the moment I’m reading The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy). As a result I’ve noticed a few themes that seem to recur, so here’s a list of the top 5. You can remind me of this post if any of these ever crop up in my writing.
1. I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in — John Muir.
Now I actually quite like this quote and I can see why it gets used so often, it’s a feeling I’m sure a lot of nature writers can deeply identify with. However, it does seem as though it gets thrown in there for good measure a lot of the time. I actually recently read Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra and I have to say I didn’t enjoy it. I feel like admitting this is some kind of sacrilege for a nature writer and I’d love for some one less heathenish to explain to me why his writing is so great (aside from the fact that it helped to save huge swathes of wilderness), but for now I think I’ll avoid Muir.
Here’s a writer I could never get sick of. I’ve read Walden twice and I’ve also been lucky enough to make a few pilgrimages to Walden Pond and the site of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. In fact, it was Thoreau that inspired me to do a philosophy degree. However, it seems sometimes as though nature writers have a check list of things to mention and a quote from Thoreau must be top of that list. Often mentioning Thoreau is relevant, and it would be silly to avoid him simply because it’s become something of a cliché, but I’d probably question whether it’s really necessary in my own writing.
The early monks crop up often because they were amongst the first active proponents of wilderness. They sought out desolate, lonely islands and abandoned themselves to deserts. It makes sense then that writers who visit such places are going to encounter monks as they strip back the landscape’s history. Fair enough. What bothers me is the idealisation of monks and their forays in to wilderness. They were in the business of abandoning society and I wonder whether that’s really a useful attitude to be celebrating or mimicking.
Now, you might think I’m being overly pedantic here and that maybe my problem is that I just need to go and read some light fiction. However, as Mabey says (and I know I’ve already included this quote in an earlier post, but I don’t mind posting it again!): The fact that polar bears once splashed about in the Thames or mammoths grazed on the site of the M1 is not very relevant to our experiences of nature now. I think this pretty well sums up how I feel.
5. The bird’s eye view
It seems as though it is necessary to gain height before we can truly understand a particular landscape. For instance, in The Music Room by William Fiennes he talks about going up in a cherry picker and looking out over the land surrounding his childhood country home. Or in The Plot Madeleine Bunting feels the need to go up in a glider in order to see her father’s plot of landscape in its wider context. I can fully understand this impulse. When I was doing my MA one of our assignments was to draw a map of Pendennis peninsula and my immediate instinct was to go to the top of the castle on the peninsula so that I could view it from above. Perhaps then mapping landscapes (as well as, obviously, being about control and power) is an instinctual thing, so I can probably forgive writers for this. I also don’t think it necessarily negatively impacts on a piece of writing, but perhaps it is time to think about new ways of looking at the land? After all, it is much easier to gloss over things when you are looking at the land from above.
Let me know if you can think of any other nature writing clichés!