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.