Tree climbing and nature writing
September 3, 2007, 11:37 am
Filed under: Nature writing, Trees

An interesting piece about climbing trees in Saturday’s Guardian review by Robert Macfarlane, whose Wild Places I am greatly looking forward to. It prompts further thoughts about how Eating the Sun fits in to (or complements, perhaps) the new crop of British nature writing which Macfarlane both illuminates as leading light and serves as cheerleader, and which made up a big chunk of The Independent’s Top Ten Nature Books list

He writes:

The past few months have seen a flourishing of first-person narratives in search of some version of “nature”. To borrow an ecological metaphor, it has been a “mast year” for nature writing. To the books already mentioned could be added Mark Cocker’s hymn to localism, Crow Country, and Jules Pretty’s elegantly forceful The Earth Only Endures. All these volumes differ markedly in tone, but all share a passionate engagement with “the land”, in Aldo Leopold’s rich sense of that word.

This British nature writing resurgence – and it is emphatically a resurgence, not the emergence of a new form – is only one aspect of the wider back-to-nature movement under way in Britain. No great claims should be made for the effects of this literature. It is not planet-saving, nor does it substitute for the hard work of field science and conservation. But it does annotate, and perhaps stimulate, our increasing desire for what Pretty calls “reconnection with nature”.

I see some of myself and my purpose in that: Eating the Sun is definitely “in search of some version of ‘nature'”, and it is more of a first-person narrative than I necessarily expected it to be. But it does not share “a passionate engagement with ‘the land'”. Indeed rather the reverse. One of its original aims, which I think is probably fulfilled to some extent, but perhaps not as explicitly as it might have been, was to celebrate air as the basis of life — which it is for plants and thus, indirectly, for us. One aspect of this is to encourage an appreciation that the air is universal where the land is particular — the carbon taken in by trees in Brazil has come in part from your lungs and mine, the carbon taken in by the rose on my terrace has come from all the lungs of the world, not to mention coals that have sat buried for a million centuries.

One of my reasons for writing about photosyntheses was specifically this — that it was a way to talk about the living earth that did not have to be a way of talking about specific places (though there are specific places in the book, some of which I love deeply). I find ideologies of land and rootedness worrying intellectually and hard to partake in emotionally; I suspect them of being innately regressive and conservative. One of the great opportunities of the current carbon/climate crisis is to create what might be called an ideology of air — of valuing and caring for something common to all and intrinsically global, and of creating a passionate engagement with the open sky and the endless sun.

And a corollary of that stance further distances me from the tradition that Macfarlane is celebrating and reinvigorating. I have no back-to-nature yearnings. I see the golden age of humanity’s relationship with the natural world lying ahead of us, in large part because I greatly prize the role of understanding in that relationship, and I value scientific understanding very highly. Much though I admire the tradition that Macfarlane sees reemerging, I feel my writing to be drawn out of the future more than out of the past.

Yet at the same time I share a delight in the detail of what is, and at my best an attentiveness to it, which seems to be of a piece with that which he celebrates. And I look forward to his book even more.

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[…] I think I’ll have more to say, in time, about the different attitudes to nature in Mabey, Macfarlane and Deakin, and others such, and in my own work. There’s a contrast there which interest me. (Update: some of this has now been said.) […]

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