Writing the land

I’ve been reading a lot of landscape writing, and a number of authors writing about writing the landscape (Robert McFarlane, Landmarks, Rebecca Beattie, Nature Mystics, Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth). I’m interested in how we talk about landscape, the cultural impacts of how we position ourselves in relation to the ‘natural’ world, and I admit, the scope for doing more of this kind of writing myself.

I’m noticing a trend. The authors who stand out as nature writers tend to record something that is passing. These are often records of loss, whether that’s John Clare’s pre-enclosure world and the loss of freedom that followed, Thomas Hardy’s loss of rural tradition with the coming of industrialisation and urbanisation, lost traditions – drovers and pilgrims, lost ways of life, lost species or lost habitats, there’s a mournful, nostalgic quality to a lot of nature writing.

I think some of this is simply because people like a good wallow in nostalgia with a side order of self pity. It think it’s a curious counterpoint to the progress narrative that even as we collectively embrace the tale of the great forward march of progress, we are at the same time persuaded of a more innocent, better time before it all got ruined and degraded. When the magic better time was varies, but a couple of generations ago is a fair bet. Much as I don’t like UKIP, it’s clear some of their support comes from a fantasy of what England was like back in the unspecified good old days.

To be a successful nature writer in the long term is to correctly identify what’s on the way out and record it for posterity. Your peers will share in the mournful recognition, and the future will look back at the better things you lived to see the last of. That is of course a terrible simplification, but relevant nonetheless.

What that I love in this world is passing? Shall I mourn the fields disappearing under unaffordable homes, the bees, the rainforests, the lost species? Shall I mourn each new road and each place despoiled? It would be a bloody miserable project, to commit to recording every wound. Doing so would also tie me into the narrative of loss and decay. I don’t want to do that – this is not a story I want to feed into.

So, I’m going to go the other way. I’m going to start thinking about the facets of life that look untenable to me. I’m going to think about walking the margins of life in the 21st century, and all the things that could change if we ditch the progress/trashing narrative, and do something better. I’m going to consciously choose the era I want to see end, and I’m going to write, slowly and occasionally, about that. Not for some book I foresee publishing in a year or two, but for something decades down the line. Something that may only be relevant after I’m dead.

I’m increasingly interested in living the change. I will not be another poet of loss and backward glancing. I want to do something different.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “Writing the land

  • angharadlois

    This reminds me of the concept of ‘thinning’ in SF&F – the world gradually growing less magical and losing vitality. One book I heartily recommend, if you have not yet come across it, is The Clandestine Farm by Antony Wigens. I came across a battered old copy in a free book exchange and fell in love with its poetry and its gently revolutionary outlook. It is a book about learning to form a new kind of relationship with the land, working with the way things are rather than naming and mourning what is being lost.
    From a more mythical perspective, I have been thinking a lot recently about the wasteland motif in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi… still pondering its mysteries, but there seems to be something in that story that speaks of the integral interrelatedness of us and everything else in the landscape. It is not possible to remove us from the frame; we have always been part of the ecosystem. The point is to find creative ways of living which honour the balance and limitations set by its web of relationships.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I live out in the desert of Southern New Mexico and with a long drought, a few extra cold spells, I have see nearly all of the local cacti die out, and plants so stressed that even the hardiest have been on the verge of extinction. As feed the local animals seventeen pounds of seed a day they have not done badly. Even my own well died a couple of years ago, and I have water delivered 1000 gallons at a time. I started blessing the land, as weather magic is more than a bit unpredictable, so instead blessing the land, what lives on it, in it, and what flies over it. I can’t say if this means anything, or not, but we started a change i late August of last year.

    Late in August after a complete lack of rain we started to have a decent rain storm every week and this continued into February and the started up in id Jun two weeks ahead of our normal rainy season. Understand that desert plants often have far more root underground than plant above ground, both deep roots, and roots near the surface that may extend for tens of feet. If you stripped off the soil you would find a webbing of roots very ear the surface and then further down All of this is for only one purpose to make use of any water that gets anywhere near any plant. Also the root stores food to keep the plant going after the water stops.

    The plant exists only to flower, and seed, as often as possible and this is the basis for all animal life in the desert. When the plants do well, the animal population rapidly increases sometimes several litters of babies, and when the plants do poorly, the animals starve, and the population dwindles. It can take a couple of years for the animal population to recover from a drought, or a flood in the case of burrowing animals.

    So this winter I saw more of our cool weather plants sprout and bloom. Since our summer is about ten degrees cooler than normal, about half of those cool weather plants have not only survived, but are still flowering. ore of the warm weather plants have newly sprouted seeds in formerly barre areas of my property and they too continue to flower seed and flower again over and over and over. The animals, wild and domestic have benefited as well.

    Is the drought over? Hard to say this early, and it is going to take a number of years of above normal rain, before it will have any affect on the ground water, much less my well, as most of the ground water was put there when our vialley was a lake, about one million years ago.

    • Nimue Brown

      Hope it is over, it sounds brutal. rain can be such a blessing.

      • Christopher Blackwell

        The area is having a least a very nice respite from the drought, be it over, or not. We had the fourth rain storm in four days. Two of them were after dark and two of them happened as I was closing down.

        Normally it takes a bit before we get the full power of the storm, so I can finish closing down and get inside before the main soaking hits, if it does at all. However, yesterday it started coming down heavy and I was pretty much soaked about half way through closing the place down and changing or turning the signs around. Getting soaked by a rain storm is something of a rarity out here. Three quarters of a hour later y flood diversion ditch was still running with water draining down the two little mountain ranges here.

        Desert plants are used to shortages of water and fast to make use of any water that comes their way. I mentioned the extensive root systems that are far larger than the above ground plant itself. Seeds can wait patiently wait for years, for decades, even more than a century for rare water to get to them.

        Even temporary plants, that die out, know their duty is to flower, seed as fast, and as often as possible, to insure the survival of their plants species.

        What happens to the plants affects the birth rates of the animals. During wetter periods the number of babies increases, and sometimes several batches a season. During drought, birth rates drop to the minimum, both in size of the brood, and only one batch.

        So with the excess of rain new plants have sprouted and started to fill in formerly barren areas, temporary plants have lasted long than usual, continuing the flowering and seed routine while they can. Animal births are way up on just about everything, birds, rodents, snakes, predators and insects as well. So the desert is greener than normal, and still filled with flowering plants.

        Now should the drought return, the the great dying returns. Nature’s balance is both filled with joy of creation, and the pain of loss and death, over and over again.

        As I tell my tourists from the city, Nature is a kindly little old lady with far fewer rules to follow than in the city. You should have adequate water as needed, adequate food as needed, adequate clothing as needed, adequate shelter as needed, and you should try not to hurt yourself. Of course if you break any of her rules, Nature may kill you. She is quite democratic about it, as your social rank, and economic level means nothing to her.


  • irini112014

    Very interesting thought. I like it a lot!

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