‘Nature writing’

With so much talk about ‘the new nature writing’, I wanted to refresh my acquaintance with nature writing from the 20th century and earlier. I opened five books from my shelves at random pages, and with each of them found something satisfying first time – so satisfying that I’d like to share the excerpts with you. Some are not so new – Richard Mabey is often regarded as the father of the new nature writers (Oliver Rackham was born in the previous generation, and was an academic botanist as well as a writer, so seems to me to predate the new wave.) In the case of Gilbert White, I chose a page at random from the ebook online.

Many of them have a matter-of-fact quality. The terseness of Dorothy’s journal entries militates against flowery writing, and helps to ground the observations in ordinary life. Some of them give a historical context. Lay-technical writing in Mabey and Rackham has a certain robustness. In general, I guess they focus less on the author than more recent ‘nature writing’. Click a name below to see each excerpt.

Gilbert White

In the centre of this grove there stood an oak, which, though shapely and tall on the whole, bulged out into a large excrescence about the middle of the stem. On this a pair of ravens had fixed their residence for such a series of years, that the oak was distinguished by the title of The Raven-tree. Many were the attempts of the neighbouring youths to get at this eyry: the difficulty whetted their inclinations, and each was ambitious of surmounting the arduous task. But, when they arrived at the swelling, it jutted out so in their way, and was so far beyond their grasp, that the most daring lads were awed, and acknowledged the undertaking to be too hazardous. So the ravens built on, nest upon nest, in perfect security, till the fatal day arrived in which the wood was to be levelled. It was in the month of February, when those birds usually sit. The saw was applied to the butt, the wedges were inserted into the opening, the woods echoed to the heavy blows of the beetle or mallet, the tree nodded to its fall; but still the dam sat on. At last, when it gave way, the bird was flung from her nest; and, though her parental affection deserved a better fate, was whipped down by the twigs, which brought her dead to the ground.

Gilbert White The natural history & antiquities of Selborne in the county of Southampton p7 1789, 1900 (public domain)

Dorothy Wordsworth
December 18th, 1801. Friday . Mary and Wm. walked round the two lakes. I stayed at home to make bread, cakes and pies. I went afterwards to meet them […] It was a chearful glorious day and all trees beautiful, hips bright red, mosses green. I wrote to Coleridge for money.

Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth p92 ed. Helen Darbishire 1958, 1963.

Gerard Hopkins

1872. Feb. 23. A lunar halo. I looked at it from the upstairs library window. It was a grave grained sky, the strands rising a little from left to right. The halo was not quite round, for in the first place it was a little pulled and drawn below, by the rifraction of the lower air perhaps, but what is more it fell in on the nether left hand side to rhyme the moon itself, which was not quite at full. […] But this sober grey darkness and plae light was happily broken through by the orange of the pealing of Mitton bells

Another night from the gallery window I saw a brindled heacn, the moon just marked by a blue spot pushing its way through the darker cloud, underneath and on the skirts of the rack bold long flakes whitened and swaled like feathers, below the garden with the heads of the trees and shrubs furry grey: I read a broad careless inscape flowing throughout.

At the beginning of March they were felling some of the ashes in our grove

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and prose, p125 Selected and edited by W.H.Gardner, 1953, 1963. Copyright

John Stewart Collis

Tractor v Horse

I cannot regard myself as a tremendous animal lover. I find them too baffling. I have sometimes looked searchingly into the eyes of a cow or horse wondering whatever it saw through its own dim windows, what it thought if it did think – hoping it didn’t. I am a socialist at heart (also an aristocrat), and I am inclined to extend my socialism to animals. […] It seems to me that they should also qualify for the ideal of Rights. For this reason when I see a row of cows strung along the tubes of a machine-milker I feel there is something deplorable about it, as if the cow herself were our invention.

For the same reason I welcome the tractor. Today horses get a thin time of it on the land. […] There is no emphasis on the care of horses, and the young men have no feeling for them. The emphasis is on the tractor. It is a real machine-horse, and is much more powerful, and can go anywhere and do anything that a horse can do. Horses can now be released from their slavery.

John Stewart Collis, The Worm Forgives the Plough, 1946, 1973, 2001, 2009. (p64f in Vintage edn) The first half of the book is his account of leaving his bookish life behind to work on farms during WW2, an experience he enjoyed.

I first read this book during a year I spent working on a dairy farm after leaving school. I was glad of the physical work but the hundred-acre farm seemed dull to me: grass the only crop, cattle the only livestock (sixty or seventy Frieisan milkers), artificial inseminaton, bull-calves sold at the age of one week, all winter feed bought in except the hay (the cattle cake contained some milk powder, a by-product of European dairy subsidies at the time, which produced a surplus that they dumped in various markets). I was bookish and Romantic, and loved Collis’s account of a largely pre-mechanical era, as well as Edwin Muir’s nostalgic poetry and prose about his childhood on the land in the Orkneys.

Laurie Lee

I remember, too, the light on the slopes, the long shadows in tufts and hollows, with cattle, brilliant as painted china, treading their echoing shapes. Bees blew like cake crumbs through the golden air, white butterflies like sugared wafers, and when it wasn’t raining a diamond dust took over which veiled and magnified all things.

Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie 1959, p.42. (I cheated with this one – I looked for Laurie Lee quotes on the web.)

Oliver Rackham
Walk 1: Hayley Wood, Cambridgeshire
Gumboots needed.

Hayley is one of the best known ancient woods. There is no sign that it has ever been other than woodland, although parts of it are underlain by faint earthworks. […] From Anglo-Saxon times onwards Hayley was one of the principal woods of the Abbey of Ely. It was confiscated by Queen Elizabeth in 1579 and passed through may private hands before the Wildlife Trust acquired it in 1962.

This is an ash-maple-hazel wood with oaks as timber trees. It was coppiced from before the thirteenth century until the early twentieth. The wood is full of huge ancient coppice stools. Coppicing has been revived since 1964. The oaks date mostly from between 1780 and 1840, and are older than most woodland oaks, thogh younger than the coppice stolls. Being wild trees, each oak is subtly different in branching angle, time of leaf-fall, or colour of the young foliage, in contrast to the relative uniformity of planted oaks.

Coppiced areas in their second or third year of regrowth have magnificent displays of spring flowers. The most famous of these is oxlip, Primula elatior. Also abundant are wood anenome, bluebell, violets, early purple orchid and the succession of summer flowers of coppiced areas, such as lesser spearwort and ragged robin. The flowers and the warm glades between stools attract butterflies and hoverflies. Birds such as nightinglaes nexst in underwood of later years’ growth.

The wood lies on a flat soggy hilltop and is particularly wet, expecially in spring. Lack of drainage is a valuable ecological feature which favours oxlip and other choice plants (or rather, disfavours their competitors).

The present state of Hayley is not typical of its history. The oaks are more numerous, bigger and more difficult to replace than ever before. About sixty years ago, the wood was ainvaded by fallow deer, most ravenous of woodland beasts. It is also untidy and full of logs and dead trees: this is by intention, since deadwood is an excellent habitat for creatures from lieverworts to woodpeckers. (Hayley is particularly rich in mosses and fungi.) In woodland as elsewhere, conservationists should respect decay and detest tidiness.

Oliver Rackham, The Illustrated History of the Countryside , p.94f (1986, 1994)

Richard Mabey

Sweet chestnut Castanea sativa. The sweet or Spanish chestnut was almost certainly one of the few species that was introduced to Britain by the Romans. Its nuts, roasted over winter brazier or ground more frugally into flour, are satisfying and savoury, and the trees may been brought over to provide a home-grown supply of chestnut-flour for the legionaries. But it is now an ‘honorary native’ and in south-east England behaves like a native tree. It is well-established in many ancient woods and propagates itself by seed – though not in the invasive manner of the more recently arrived sycamore.

Ancient chestnuts are spectacular trees. They develop exceptionally broad trunks for their height, which with age become deeply fissured and covered wth burrs and bosses. Quite often the fissures run in a left- or right- hand spiral round the tree. (Phil Gates has suggested, not too seriously, that this may be the origin of the name ‘Spanish chestnut’ for a tree which has no particular affinity with Spain: ‘I favour an implausible thory that it is because th twiest in the bark is like the swirl of a flamenco dancer’s skirt.’)

Richard Mabey Flora Britannica 1996 (Concise Edition, p.95f)

(Most of this material is copyright: even material written centuries ago may have been published for the first time in the last 70 years – otherwise, the usual guide is the year the author died: copyright generally continues for 70 years after that. Reproduced here under the fair use policy.)

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