by Tara Gulwell
Among the young students who frequent this magazine it’s a safe bet to assume that most of us aren’t running to the nature writing section when we walk into our nearest bookshop. So let me introduce you to the women aiming to change that. Forget the image of a rambling old man in the woods with a Thoreauian beard, and come meet Cheryl Strayed, Kathleen Jamie and Helen Macdonald.
No matter how clichéd you feel the journeys of self-discovery through nature to be, they have for far too long been reserved for and dominated by men. I for one am very tired of hearing about Chris McCandless’ ‘revolutionary’ decision to leave his privileged life for that of wilderness. I’m sure if you haven’t already heard of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild you’re aware of the recent Reese Witherspoon blockbuster adaptation. The part-memoir part-nature writing Wild is a tale of overcoming the death of Strayed’s mother, drug addiction and possible sex addiction through a gruelling eleven-hundred mile hike across the Pacific Coast Trail. What makes the book so remarkable is the effort to divert against the dichotomous separatism between nature and humanity promoted by Western philosophy, and present nature as humanity’s healer. The salvation in Wild is a refreshing breath of fair against the prominence of a male inspired philosophy of dominance and the idea that the ultimate goal of environmental activities is to conquer nature.
Like Wild, Helen Macdonald’s up and coming success H is for Hawk is also concerned with the idea of the natural world as a space in which trauma and grief can be resolved, specifically the grief of losing a parent, as seen in Wild. After the death of her father Macdonald, having studied falconry, adopted a goshawk and begins training it. Through the experience she documented the mirroring parallel between her own grief and her interaction with the natural world in her captivating writing style, rejuvenating hope and a dash of humour. Along with winning the Costa Book of the Year and the Samuel Johnson Prize the book has been credited as being one of the commercial successes helping to re-establish nature writing in British publishing. If you are ever in any doubt about the value of the natural world in our modern lives, read H is for Hawk.
Sightlines deviates away from an anthropocentric viewpoint and comes to an understanding of nature through its intrinsic sense of worth.
The long-awaited second instalment of Kathleen Jamie’s essays on nature was finally published in 2012 under Sightlines. Blending personal anecdotes, factual information and brilliant prose Jamie gives us essays that blend a poetic and simplistic style to create one of the most important mediations on our relationship to the natural world published in recent years. Unlike the aforementioned books, Sightlines deviates away from an anthropocentric viewpoint and comes to an understanding of nature through its intrinsic sense of worth. Although the nature of the text relies upon the aesthetic and emotion capabilities that environments produce in us, it presents our connection to the natural world without elitism or inaccessibility. It may not speak to us on such a traumatic level as does Wild or H is for Hawk, but it is without question one of the most important modern books to read to understand the current connections being explored in nature writing.
Women are slowly becoming the writers championing the idea of nature as the site of solace
Women are slowly becoming the writers championing the idea of nature as the site of solace, interrupting the male-dominated narrative of conquering and dissecting. Within these books the natural world becomes an interactive plain in which mental and emotional turmoil can be worked through. Most readers of this article will be living in Norwich, a city containing a campus and woods pulsing with a full and rich natural life. Though I recognise to say to you ‘Go out and explore!’ involves a classist and ableist presumption, not to mention naivety, but if you are able to go out and roam the natural world it rewards your emotional and mental well-being infinitely. These books are a testament to that, and it’s these women authors paving the way to coming to an understanding of our need for nature right now.
“When we step outside and look up, we’re not little cogs in the capitalist machine. It’s the simplest act of resistance and renewal” – Kathleen Jamie.