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In order to realize what we are losing when we degrade the environment, we need to observe the natural world clearly and see how we fit into it. For some time, we have been short of writers to do this. But all that has changed. Kellie Gutman reports.

Robert Macfarlane, winner of the Guardian First Book Award for Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, wrote about the decline of nature writing in Britain.

He chalked up the dearth of the genre to Stella Gibbons’ 1932 book Cold Comfort Farm, which parodied the British novelists who wrote about country life: Thomas Hardy, the Brontë sisters, D. H. Lawrence. According to Macfarlane, this book had led to 70 years of no-one taking nature-writing seriously, especially the critics.

Earlier, the naturalist Richard Mabey criticised nature documentaries and nature writing. He thought both were trying too hard to portray nature rather than trying to explain our relationship with it. Nature had become an ‘object’ or a ‘plaything’, the very word was being replaced by ‘biodiversity’ and lists of endangered species.

Much of the lack of interest toward written works on this subject has been turned around by a raft of recent books by a group that has been termed ‘the wild bunch’. Macfarlane, Mabey, Mark Cocker and Jay Griffiths have all published books, and each one looks closely at a different aspect of nature, from the flora and fauna of Britain to the wildernesses of the world.

But the grandaddy of this genre, or perhaps one should say the 'grandmum' is Nan Shepherd. Born in 1893 in Aberdeen, and dying 88 years later, she wrote an 80-page booklet cum meditation called The Living Mountain. It was published in 1977, thirty years after she'd written it, and has never been out of print. Macfarlane's review of the book is a work of art in itself.

The book, published by Canongate in one volume along with her three novels, is titled Grampian Quartet. It revels in looking, touching, feeling the nature around you. It is almost poetic. In one passage quoted in the Macfarlane review, she expounds on the sensation of touch:

'The hands have an infinity of pleasure in them. The feel of things, textures, surfaces, rough things like cones and bark, smooth things like stalks and feathers and pebbles rounded by water, the teasing of gossamers . . . the scratchiness of lichen, the warmth of the sun, the sting of hail, the blunt blow of tumbling water, the flow of wind - nothing that I can touch or that touches me but has its own identity for the hand as much as for the eye.'

Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places takes a long look at the wildernesses still left in Britain — the valleys and moors, woods and mountains.

Jay Griffiths spent seven years traveling to wildernesses around the globe and interacting with the indigenous people who live there to write Wild: An Elemental Journey. Griffiths argues that by destroying the last of our wildernesses we are in fact impoverishing ourselves.

Mark Cocker’s Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature is a close-hand look at a somewhat reviled bird. Through his poetic prose he imparts his fascination with crows, their behaviours and the natural history of the land they inhabit.

Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings: The Narrative of Trees is a paean to the king of the forest, the Beech tree. The tree, its habitat and mythology are all explained in detail, as well as what we humans can learn from these long-lived wooden giants.

None of these writers are new to nature writing. But the impact of four well-received books within a year has brought a new level of interest.

published in 2008

'I had climbed the tree many times before, and its marks were all familiar to me. Around the base of its trunk, its bark has sagged and wrinkled, so that it resembles the skin on an elephant's leg. At about ten feet, a branch crooks sharply back on itself; above that, the letter "H", scored with knife into the trunk years before, has ballooned with the growth of the tree; higher still is the healed stump of a missing bough.'

From The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane


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