A sense of planet and a sense of place
July 26, 2013, 12:53 pm
Filed under: By, with or from EtS, Nature writing

I was touched and flattered to find myself recruited to the ranks of nature writers by their dean, Richard Mabey, in his defence of their genre against an attack by Steven Poole.

Poole’s phrases “recent nature writing” and “nature writers” amount to an indiscriminate homogenisation; current nature writing is the broadest of secular churches. Oliver Morton’s engaging personal saunter through the world of photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, for example, might be more properly labelled imaginative science writing, just as Robert Macfarlane‘s literal wanderings in his masterpiece The Old Ways is really imaginative travel literature.

Quite how well I fit there, though, I don’t know. I was thinking of exploring the matter in a blog post, but then realised that to quite a large extent I have already done so on this very blog, responding to a 2007 piece by MacFarlane that talks about the essence of nature writing.

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.

That still holds pretty true, and I am struck, re-reading it, by how well the ideology-of-air stuff at the end sits remarkably with my current conception of what the geoengineering book needs to do.

A passage from Eating the Sun takes on a similar set of distinctions:

I am not as sensitive as I might be to the subtleties of place. I lack a capacity for the sure recognition and the ready retention of names and distinctive detail. Learning to parse the shapes of leaves or the textures of rocks does not come easily to me, and I have never lived long enough in a non-urban landscape for such things to have seeped in through the capillaries of unattended observation. Given all this, the belief that life’s nature needs to be captured at the levels of the molecule and the planet—at levels perceived by the intellect and not the senses—provides me with some succour. It is far more abstracted than traditional ways of feeling close to nature; it is argued more than absorbed. Yet though it doesn’t grow out of the experience of life in the world, I find that it still serves to enrich that experience and to render it more profound. It ties the sky to the seed and the rain to the rock in a way the details of rustic experience cannot. I can see that there is something sad about a oneness with the world that can be felt as easily—sometimes more easily—from the window seat of an hermetically sealed and environmentally damaging passenger jet than when sitting on a riverbank and picking out the trout swimming upstream. But for all that this belief is a creature of the mind, rather than a sentiment grounded in birdsong and summer scents, it has meaning to me that I cannot reduce to analysis and it has the power to move me. And I think it can enhance more traditional forms of empathy with nature. It enriches the way I see trees on a scarp, or grass in the wind, or moss on a cliff, or a star in the sky, even though I can rarely recognise the species, rocks or constellations I may be looking at. A sense of planet can amplify a sense of place.

So I am not entirely sure I really belong there — but I am more than happy to be included in Mabey’s broad church, and flattered to be singled out. As long as no one minds that I don’t know the scriptures or when to genuflect.

PS — there’s more along this line in the “Nature writing” category on this blog, including, as it happens, previous posts inspired by Steven Poole and Richard Mabey.

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