There has recently been a dialogue (maybe better described as a spat) in the pages of New Statesman between Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane concerning the purpose and scope of nature writing.[i],[ii] I admire both writers (for very different reasons) and the exchange potentially raises profound questions about the relation of the human to the more than human and the role of the nature writing in conservation and ecology. But these issues are obscured by the way the discussion has become a polarized and personalized argument.
Mark Cocker set the ball rolling in an engaging article in June under the provocative title Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? The subtitle posed a question even more provocative, ‘… how much do its authors truly care about our wild places?’ I have no idea whether this was originated by Cocker or by a New Statesman editor.
Cocker’s concern is with ‘the inexorable diminution of wildlife on these islands since the Second World War’, the trend that Michael McCarthy calls ‘the great thinning’ in his recent book The Moth Snowstorm. The ‘Blessed, unregarded abundance’ of the more than human world that those of us in our later years have taken for granted has been destroyed. Cocker notes with approval how McCarthy describes the natural world with both joy and anxiety; an approach mirrored in Paul Evans’ recent book Field Notes from the Edge, a work of ‘dark wonder’ poised, between love of Nature and fear of what is happening to it.
Cocker is concerned the British public has the propensity to hear this story and love the books – and there have been many of them in recent years – while almost entirely ignoring the wider implications of the story for the natural world. He sets out to ask ‘What role are these works playing and what do they say about the British relationship with non-human life?’
He first focuses on Helen Macdonald’s hugely successful book H is for Hawk – winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year – widely described as a ‘classic of nature writing’. The book is an account of her ‘battle with depression after the death of her father’. It tells how, as part of her response to grief, she obtains and trains a goshawk. Cocker calls the bird a ‘pet’, which is provocative – intentionally so, as he emphasizes that the book is not about a wild bird but one brought into the human domain for human purposes. He points out that the wild goshawk is utterly different: elusive and utterly unpredictable: ‘the birds’ self-willed indifference to our intentions is surely almost a defining characteristic of nature’. Nature is there for itself: we are not central to it nor do we control it. Does the acclaim this book received, he asks, point up something about the English relationship to nature – we get more worked up about our pet animals and our gardens that we do about the remaining wild world?
This leads Cocker to comment on the role Robert Macfarlane plays as the author credited with widening and popularising the genre, and who has also borne the brunt of much criticism. Macfarlane, Cocker says, bestrides the entire sphere, ‘the name on almost every dust jacket, through an improbable flow of puffs, forewords, introductions and publishers’ endorsements’; he has to a great extent replaced Richard Mabey as the public face of the genre. But Cocker sees Mabey’s work as quite different from Macfarlane’s in that it is ‘metaphorically and actually rooted in a soil of real, living things’, moving on a line between culture and nature. In contrast, he sees Macfarlane’s work – and much other contemporary nature writing – as moving between ‘landscape and literature’. It is focussed on ‘re-enchantment’ that often means ‘clothing a landscape in fine writing, both the writer’s own and that of other historical figures’. The problem Cocker has with this is that ‘landscapes readily persist when all that makes a place enchanting – the filigree of its natural diversity – has long since vanished… How can we produce pastoral narratives when the realities underlying them are so sharply defined and their implications – social, political and cultural – so profound?’ And of course, the word ‘pastoral’ is again provocative, so easily taken to refer to the Victorian appreciation of the ‘picturesque’. It is a word guaranteed to make a contemporary nature writer shudder.
Surely, Cocker asks, if we care about these islands’ non-human life we must take account of the central story concerning nature in Britain: that ‘we are bulldozing our fellow Britons… over the cliff into oblivion.’ And he ends with a challenge: ‘The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash.’
Macfarlane’s response, ‘Why we need nature writing’, starts with an appreciation of systems theorist and polymath Gregory Bateson, who in the 1970s and earlier helped shape the field of environmentalism, in particular pointing our how we are not separate from the natural world. Macfarlane rightly points out that Bateson sought a remedy to our sense of separateness in an ‘ecology of mind ‘by means of literature, art, music, play, wonder and attention to nature – what he called “ecological aesthetics”’. He quotes Ali Smith with approval ‘The place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both,’ and argues for cooperation and multiplicity in the development of ecological aesthetics.
Macfarlane suggests that what switches people on to nature is almost always an encounter with a wild creature or an encounter with a book. Literature can change us for good, and we are living through ‘a golden age of literature that explores relations between selfhood, landscape and ethics’, ranging from the ‘kick-up-the-arse furious’ to the ‘elegiac’. There is, Macfarlane tells us, no one true way of writing about nature.
Here he turns, as if furiously, on Cocker, whose ‘attack’ on the current field he finds ‘curiously crabbed’; a ‘regrettable piece of policing’. While it raised important issues, its ‘manners were especially unfortunate’; and finally ‘his suggestion that any literary engagement with nature must be noisily game-changing was wrong’. Macfarlane’s view is that Cocker is guilty of ‘an instrumentalising view’ that subdues literature to a single end and presupposes a simplistic model of cause and consequence.
To counter what he sees as this ‘instrumentalizing view’ Macfarlane quotes the American activist and writer Rebecca Solnit. “A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction”, she points out, but we can never know what arises from our actions, and in looking for immediate and direct outcomes we may not see ‘pervasive changes in the depths’. Macfarlane’s is a plea for diversity in the development of an ecological aesthetic: ‘To see ourselves as within the ecology for which we plan, we require fury, burn, scorch and scour in our contemporary nature culture – but also wonder, joy, beauty, grace, play and concentration’.
If I did not care about the place of nature writing in our culture and its potential for influence, I might simply be amused by this spat. I could laugh at the way Cocker is a bit of a street fighter, rough hewn and provocative; while Macfarlane is elegant and urbane, even de haut en bas. But when the difference of opinion and style escalates into personal attack and grandstanding, the important points both sides are emphasizing get lost. It’s a bit like the way progressive politics divides itself into factions rather than addressing the reactionary political enemy; the Judean People’s Front loathes the People’s Front of Judea.
Much of the argument circles around the question of what ‘nature writing’ or ‘the new nature writing’ means. Neither Cocker nor Macfarlane like the term, which Macfarlane describes it as a ‘cant phrase, branded and bandied out of any useful existence’. Maybe, but it doesn’t matter much whether those who write about the natural world like the term: we are stuck with it. It is the way publishers categorize their books, defines the shelves where booksellers stack them – a quick search on Amazon reveals 27,909 results – and how reviewers approach them.
The important question, rather, is how the term ‘nature writing’ it is taken by the reviewers and the reading public. I think the popular and critical reaction to H is for Hawk is a significant example (and, contra Macfarlane, the book is categorized as Nature Writing /Biography on the dust jacket). It is a book I found troubling – I had to read through it twice through to find out why it disturbed me so much. It is compellingly written, especially when she discovers she has become too identified with her hawk and has lost something of what makes her human: ‘Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close’, she writes tellingly. But the book is not about the natural, the ‘more-than-human’ world, to use David Abrams’ phrase. It is about human distress and how aspects of the wider world can be used in our own human healing. It touches people, I suggest, because it is primarily a memoir of recovery from grief – certainly this is how it was discussed by the judges of the Samuel Johnson Prize and in many of the reviews. It deals not with the wild world but with a tamed animal; and conveys the subtle message that a primary purpose of natural world is to heal the angst of human existence. Any sense that we may be part of the more than human world, which both Cocker and Macfarlane would wish, is buried in the story of human suffering. This critique also applies to Katherine Norbury’s Fish Ladder, which is in large part a story of response to a diagnosis of cancer; to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is how a woman sets off into the wild to redeem a truly fucked up life; it probably even applies to Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure.
A second important question Cocker raises is whether some of the new nature writing is no longer rooted in the soil of living things, but is distanced, moving between ‘landscape and literature’. Cocker is not, in my reading of his piece, saying that fine writing is out of place. Rather, he is asking if this kind of writing over-dominates the field so that, in the eyes of the reading public, it has come to define nature writing. In the face of the appalling and astonishing loss of species and habitats, not to mention the disturbance of the great ecological cycles of ocean and atmosphere, Cocker is asking an essential question: has nature writing become a form of cultural compensation for this loss?
Most appreciations of Macfarlane’s work refer to the elegance of his writing and its literary references: in The Old Ways we walk in some wild places but often alongside the poet Edward Thomas rather than any wild creature. The tacit message is of the world as a source of literary inspiration rather than in a state of crisis. The link between ‘landscape and the human heart’, to use his lovely description of his trilogy of books, and the devastation of the Earth and her creatures, is never made explicit.
Then there is the personal attack and counter attack. I have already described Cocker’s writing as provocative. This is amplified by the manner of its presentation in New Statesman: the choice of headlines, picture and caption. This provocation goes too far in singling out Macfarlane personally and quoting at length some of the more abrasive critiques of his work. This turns attention away from Cocker’s lament about the state of the natural world and consideration about what the broad field of nature writing might offer. Yet Macfarlane takes Cocker to task for being ‘instrumental’, for suggesting that ‘any literary engagement with nature must be noisily game-changing was wrong’. I think this is a biased reading of Cocker’s thesis: Cocker is not objecting to fine writing, to poetry, to beauty; nor is he arguing that all nature writing must bang a political drum.
I find Macfarlane seriously out of line in his response. He misreads Cocker, ignores his central questions and chides him for things he does not write. To take just one example, Macfarlane quotes Tim Dee’s striking phrase, ‘We need bird poems as much as [we need] the RSPB’: Cocker never said we didn’t. And Macfarlane fails to address Cocker’s crucial, and to my mind entirely valid, question as to whether nature writing has become compensatory.
Macfarlane is without doubt in the critical and public eye the premier contemporary writer in this field. His books, articles, reviews are everywhere; he sits on literary judging panels and has an establishment role as a Fellow of Emmanuel College (full disclosure, this is my own College). As such a key gatekeeper, I think it ill-behoves him to accuse another writer of ‘policing’. The way he counterattacks Cocker suggests to me that something has got under his skin, even that he finds it deeply irritated for someone other that him to have the temerity to raise critical questions about contemporary nature writing.
However, apart from his direct response to Cocker, Macfarlane raises really important points about the place of aesthetics in our response to the ecological crisis. He builds on Gregory Bateson’s crucial insight that we cannot appreciate the ecology of which we are a part if we approach it solely through the intellect, and that an aesthetic response is essential. In these times when the natural world is so often seen primarily as resource for humans; and when some environmentalists think in terms of the value to be placed on ‘ecosystem services’, this is a point that cannot be made too strongly. I have drawn on Bateson’s thesis in my own writing, in academic papers;[iii] in my book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea;[iv] and more recently in my article Moments of Grace, published in EarthLines Magazine.[v] As Bateson told us ‘I do not know the remedy [for our sense of separation] but there is this: that consciousness can be a little enlarged through the arts, poetry, music and the like. And through natural history. All those sides of life which our industrial civilisation tries to mock or put aside. Never vote for a man (sic) who is neither a poet nor an artist nor a birdwatcher’.[vi]
I see contemporary nature writing as being in the service of the more than human world in a time of crisis. We humans, certainly we Western humans, are centred on our own selves and our own species to a quite astonishing extent. It is so easy for us to separate ourselves from our integral belonging with the Earth, and to see the world around us as for our benefit. We may know intellectually that we are animals, but we rarely experience ourselves as part of a community of life on Earth. We have difficulty in seeing other beings as having identity for themselves. As Chris Packham put it recently, ‘The biggest handicap that conservation faces is that we humans still consider ourselves to be separate from the rest of life, and the rest of life is merely there to support us’.[vii] If nature writing does not counter this human propensity to self-importance, whatever it aesthetic qualities it is of no use to the planet and its creatures.
Gregory Bateson also told us that the most important thing is to learn to think in new ways. Both Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane would, I think, agree with this. Please can we have a constructive dialogue around these interesting and important issues rather than an unseemly public argument?
[i] Cocker, Mark. “Death of the Naturalist: Why Is the “New Nature Writing” So Tame?” New Statesman June 17, 2015. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/06/death-naturalist-why-new-nature-writing-so-tame ;
[ii] Macfarlane, Robert. “Why We Need Nature Writing.” New Statesman September 2, 2015. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/nature/2015/09/green-shoots-and-silver-buckshot
[iii] Reason, Peter. “Education for Ecology: Science, Aesthetics, Spirit and Ceremony.” Management Learning 38, no. 1 (2007): 27-44;
[iv] Reason, Peter. Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea. Bristol: Vala Publishing Cooperative, 2014.
[v] Reason, Peter. “Moments of Grace.” Earthlines 9 (2015): 13-18.
[vi] Bateson, Gregory. “Consciousness Versus Nature.” Peace News 1622 (July 28), (1967): 10.
[vii] Chris Packham in interview with Zoe Williams, the Guardian September 13, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/global/2015/sep/11/chris-packham-interview-countryside-alliance-bbc-foxhunting