‘We’ve had the outdoors ripped from us’: What the growing trend of nature memoirs tells us about the state of the world

A new breed of nature writers are clamouring for the world that their generation, and generations before them, had turned their backs on, writes Alexandra Pollard

Sunday 26 January 2020 09:00
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There’s a crucial bond we’ve been severed from,” says journalist and nature writer Lucy Jones. As humanity has industrialised, commodified, gentrified and all-but destroyed the natural world – as we have shut ourselves off from it in cars and offices and flats – we have simultaneously found ourselves craving it. “The civilising process which imperils wild nature,” says the environmental historian Roderick Nash, as quoted in Jones’s galvanising new book Losing Eden, “is precisely that which creates the need for it”. Or, as Joni Mitchell would put it, we’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot. And we want it back.

Maybe that’s why there’s such an abundance of nature memoirs at the moment. Alice Vincent’s Rootbound, which comes out later this month, is a deeply personal exploration of the healing power of plants. Luke Turner’s Out of the Woods notes the link – both literal and metaphorical – between the forest and his own sexuality. Elizabeth Jane Burnett’s The Grassling is a document on grief; the wildlife of Devon connects her to her dying father, while the Swahili words she often uses to talk about it connect her to her mother.

In The Outrun, meanwhile, Amy Liptrot restokes her relationship with nature as she battles with sobriety. Zakiya Mckenzie is one of the first writers in residence for the Forestry Commission. Jessica Lee’s The Willowherb Review focuses on new nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour. And in Losing Eden, Jones delves deep to try to understand her “psychological need for the natural world”, and wonders what our current “biological annihilation” will do to the mind and spirit of her infant daughter.

“It’s a genre people find it really easy to be sniffy about,” says Vincent of nature writing. Her book, which begins with the sudden and painful end of a long-term relationship, reacts to plants from a storytelling, historical and social point of view, rather than a particularly scientific one. She accepts that some people may view Rootbound as, “snowflake millennial is sad and discovers plants”, but believes that the stereotype hides a truth – that “we’re hungry for something”. We are clamouring for the outdoors, she says, “because we’ve pretty much had it ripped from us as a generation”.

Of course, people have been writing about nature, and its relationship with the human condition, for centuries – look at the Romantic poets – but it’s only recently that they are doing so in the context of a capitalism-fuelled climate crisis, and in a world that has shackled itself to technology.

“I think we’ve been sleepwalking into a place where we think we’re separate from the rest of nature,” says Jones, “and that we can live the way we do without truly thinking about what that means.” Where Vincent’s book has at its heart a smaller, more domestic kind of nature – namely her garden balcony, whose plants she describes with an infectious tenderness – Jones takes a more macro approach. In seeking to discover how the climate chaos, extinction and environmental degradation affects the human spirit, she visits a manmade deep-freeze in the Arctic containing nearly a million seed samples, and one of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests, in Poland, which is facing intensive logging.

“It’s in the last five years that the consequences of our separation from nature are really being shown to us – through species loss, biodiversity loss, the climate crisis,” she continues, “but also the health repercussions for humans. The more time goes on, the more we see how crucial that link can be, and how nature can help all manner of mental health problems.”

Just like Vincent, Turner, Liptrot, Burnett and others, Jones brings a personal element to her memoir. Alongside the interviews with scientists and the field research are frank accounts of her battle with depression and treatment for alcoholism. Spending time in nature became an important part of her recovery. It was a form of therapy for her – though she is quick to point out that this was alongside medicine, psychiatry, psychotherapy and support. “I say that because the idea of ‘ditch your pills, just go into the trees’ – I don’t think that’s good at all.”

At its worst, that is how nature writing can be. “The genre of ‘white people go outside’ is difficult to deny,” agrees Vincent. Turner is suspicious of large swathes of the genre. In his book, after breaking up with his girlfriend because he had an urgent desire “to feel the naked press of a man on top of me” (break-ups seem to crop up a lot in nature writing), Turner spends time in Epping Forest looking for clarity, hoping that being among the trees will unlock “a wilder, truer, more spiritual self”. But his relationship with nature is not a romanticised one. “Much of what I found in the genre bothered me,” he says. “It was very posh people writing exultantly about the great insight they’d gleaned from buying a farm/cottage and wandering around it all day. It all felt very exclusionary and privileged.”

Access to nature is often exclusionary in itself. As Jones’s book points out, a small proportion of the population own the vast majority of the countryside in the UK, and only 3 per cent is common land. Ever since the countryside was fenced off and sold off, thanks to the enclosure acts from the 18th century onwards, our relationship with nature has become more and more proprietary, and easy access to it has become more and more class-based. With that in mind, Turner is wary of a kind of nature writing that “others the natural world”. He believes we need to see humans as part of nature, not separate and superior to it.

But while othering is unhelpful, there is something to be said for writing that evokes a sense of awe in the natural world – even in its most quotidian forms. Vincent writes evocatively of how sticky weed was a childhood weapon, and of autumn as “nature’s beautiful death, the leaves set ablaze before carpeting the ground, letting in winter’s rages so that life can gather strength below the earth”. The Grassling is full of similarly sumptuous writing. “The great oak sags with low roses,” Burnett writes, “dog rose floats high over crab apples. Above the loosestrife, the field sways apricot with wheat, terracotta earth freshly fallen from the blade.” Jones recalls her favourite tree, and how “its green deepened for the summer before becoming tumescent with fruit, blowing up the pears until they dropped to the ground – through heaviness and insect wear and tear – gloopy and fleshy”.

Jones makes a point of combining uncomfortable truths – “My daughter and her generation were born into a time of extraordinary disconnection, rapid climate destruction and psychological retreat from the rest of the living world” – with a more lyrical sort of writing.

“With this dysfunctional place that we’re in at the moment,” she tells me, “I’m sure that the solution is love and awe. I tried to get across the infinite variety and absurd abundance of the natural world. Nature can be presented as quite staid and manicured, but actually it’s so… weird. I wanted to try and disrupt the oldschool way of looking at nature, and try to express the wonder and the weirdness and the enchantment of it. There’s so much out there to delight in and glory at and feel moved by.”

At its best, writing about the natural world – whether it’s an old-growth forest in eastern Europe, a Devon wheat field or a micro-shrub on a city balcony – can make it all seem worth fighting for.

Alice Vincent’s Rootbound is out on 30 January. Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden is out on 27 February. Luke Turner’s Out of the Woods is out in paperback now

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