October 19, 2018

Wildwords, a history of “new nature” writing


Writers have been among the most astute observers of the natural world and the human place within it.

The first wildlife writers – or writers of “nature notes” as they were more likely to be called in earlier centuries – found their inspiration embraced by forest, mountain and stream. Nature writers today, however, are more likely to be found in suburb and city. Like many of the animals, birds and butterflies they capture in word, they have migrated to an environment increasingly shaped by man.

This approach to nature writing, often reflected in a style that carries the hard edge of the city with it, is not to say nature writers have abrogated their responsibility to record the beauty of landscape and the creatures within it. They have not sold out, but embraced a new reality. The nature writers of the city also carry the message of conservation in their work, the message that if the man-made environment is to dominate, we must save something of nature within it, and find beauty and fascination there.

I strayed from the path of traditional, or pastoral, nature writing years ago when I discovered not only urban landscapes rich in wildlife, but anthropomorphism, irony, and bottles of red wine and bourbon with birds on their labels. As a young reporter, I had been impressed by the New Journalism of the 1960s which took reporting into the realm of the novel and short-story, and a few decades on I discovered what were termed New Nature Writers breaking with tradition and exploring similar territory.

Although I still treasured the book that was my introduction to words about nature, Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne published in 1788, I now found inspiration in one of the new journalists, Hunter S Thompson.

Thompson did not write of nature as such but his words “I write with rage and ink” had an irresistible resonance and power that fuelled my own writing.

When I moved to New York City in the early 1980s my interest in the new journalism – mainly an American creation – really took hold. This time, though, I had become a fanatical birdwatcher and I found at the time the writings about American wildlife strangely dated, out of step with what had happened in journalism.

I had set out to study the birds of Central Park and was surprised to discover that there was not a book covering such a magical place, with a surprising array of birds. So I decided to write one myself. I couldn’t make it an expert field guide, simply because I was not an expert, so I decided on another approach: I’d make it a diary, although as I have said this was a style somewhat out of fashion. But like the new journalists, I would try something different. I was a journalist after all and I approached the subject as such: in a calendar year I would record everything that happened in Central Park, not just the seasonal arrival and departure of birds on America’s Great Eastern Flyway.

This was not just about birds, but about the people who watched them, the people who used the park, about how the park featured in the news with murders and muggings, and the politics of city hall when it came to how the park was being managed.

I didn’t know it at the time but I was developing my own style of nature writing, a style being embraced by others in the 1980s.

Nature writing had been a long established genre, but this different approach created a context in which people were more than a backdrop, in which nature in the city was a subject, and in which the writer immersed himself to such a degree that he or she became part of the story. Truman Capote did it with In Cold Blood, and I did it in The Falconer of Central Park.

Unlike new journalism, recognition of a new nature genre has been a long time coming. However, a few years back I was delighted to discover that Granta, the magazine of new writing in Britain, had devoted a whole edition to the subject.

The editor’s letter said many of the stories in the issue were studies in the local or the parochial: they are about the discovery of the exotic in the familiar, the extraordinary in the ordinary.

It’s not just nature writers who have discovered wildlife in the cities, of course. Legendary wildlife documentary-maker David Attenborough was once asked what was his favourite bird out of all the thousands of species he had seen on his travels worldwide.

He did not have to cup his hand to his chin in classic pose to think about it. He had an instant answer, all the while looking wistfully out of the window of his suburban London home, to the garden beyond.

The bird wasn’t the wandering albatross that circumnavigates the globe on wings with a span 3.5 metres, the longest of any bird. It wasn’t the world’s heaviest flying bird, the great bustard, or the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba.

The bird Attenborough chose as his favourite was the humble redpoll, a nondescript finch that he often saw feeding on the seeds of silver birch trees in his garden in Kew. Attenborough said he loved to see the redpolls in his garden because it made him feel connected to nature,  made him realise he was part of “the bigger picture”, as he put it.

It’s a simple philosophy but one that I share when I look out of my own window and see the new holland honeyeaters going about their daily business. Like Attenborough and his redpolls, I have a special affinity with the new holland honeyeaters. I watch them throughout the seasons and sympathise with them when they are fluffing up their feathers in the cold of  mid-winter or panting with beaks wide open in the heat of January.

I feel their anguish when the brown goshawk comes to call. Summoned by their alarm calls, I dash into the garden and break all the conventions of birdwatching to chase the goshawk off.

I gave up being a twitcher – those who chase rare birds merely for a life-list or annual record of birds spotted – long ago when I discovered the simple pleasure of owning a garden and creating an environment for birds of many species.

That’s not to say I eschew wild, exciting and romantic places and their wildlife in favour of the suburban, urban idyll. I have ambitions to see Kakadu, the outback at Alice Springs and the tropical rainforest of Cooktown. Also, I spent many years in Africa and have plans to revisit some of my old haunts in the not-too-distant future.

However, the problem with the Serengeti in Tanzania, the Okavango Swamps in Botswana and even Kakadu, you are always a tourist and an outsider. You do not establish a bond with the creatures you see there, you do not share their environment on a daily basis. With birds, you don’t see the courting rituals, followed by nest building, and then delight in seeing a new batch of fledglings being fed by their parents.

They could be members of your own family, and indeed in a sense they are – because the families of birds and animals and humans that share a specific environment, like a garden in Hobart’s Waterworks Valley, cut across the zoological division of class and order.

They represent a clan, a mob, in which, say, the forest raven is just as integral a part as a bennett’s wallaby, a barred bandicoot and a journalist who has the power to record the trials and tribulations of this remarkable community.

The lives of all entwine. We all share the relentless march of the clock which determines parts of the day when we are busier and more frantic than others, we travel on both long and short journeys to gain the things that sustain us, we share the rhythm of the seasons.

In early summer we find a sunny spot in the garden to replenish our strength after winter, and in winter itself we huddle in a sheltered place out of the icy winds.

There is a convention in zoology that frowns on anthropomorphism. In the same way I intervene when the goshawk calls, and feed garden birds when I’m told I shouldn’t, I see my garden birds as people and I give them people names. There’s Reg the forest raven, Billy the butcherbird and a green rosella I call Grace. Beyond my own family, the residents of my garden may comprise birds and animals, and frogs and skinks, but they display the same individual traits that make human life so complex, diverse and exciting.

So I see birds and mammals, from my observations in the garden, as individuals not merely members of a species. Giving them an individual name reinforces this process and the only names I know happen to be human ones.

I often wonder, in their calls, if birds have individual names for each other. We all know about the gentle cooing of doves in love but do garden birds also have insults for each other. Is the problem neighbour, the one in an adjoining territory who has designs on your own, a jackass. That’s a name humans in Tasmania have given to the butcherbird, but I could hear the word being spat out by a butcherbird that for a brief spell made my garden his home and repelled a butcherbird neighbour. It was an acrimonious boundary dispute that would have done justice to a sitting of the Hobart City Council’s planning committee.

And then there’s music, the songs of birds that so often mirror those of humans in their phrasing and tone.

Song, were told in the bird books, is merely a device to proclaim territory, to advertise for a mate, and to give warning of danger.

I’m convinced that a blackbird singing lustily is deriving as much pleasure from the sheer act of singing, as I am when I dance around the living room with my air guitar listening to Eric Clapton. It’s not just about territory and broadcasting for a mate.

As is the case with science, in environmental writing there remains a trend outside the United States and Britain to discourage anything that’s anthropomorphic. No Beatrice Potter here.

I’m not supposed to refer to Reg the raven in the column I write on bird-watching for the Mercury. So I won’t mention Reg or his mate Reggie are frequently my dinner guests on the balcony.  And I won’t mention my conversations with Reg when I ask him to confirm my suspicions that he compares my behaviour with that of the tear-away juvenile ravens closer to town. What’s raven speak, those familiar caws of different length and pitch, for ageing rocker who never grew up?

I love my garden and sometimes, especially in spring, I think there is no place I would rather be. As with anthropomorphism, the suburban environment itself is frowned on in some quarters. Many birdwatchers are cynical about garden birdwatching, describing our urban and semi-urban spaces as a false and harmful environment for wildlife. But I see the potential there for giving the people of the towns and cities a unique connection with animals and birds. A garden might be a man-made environment but all species can share it all the same, as I have said.

That is why these little patches of greenery that we see dotted about the suburbs, in and out of formal designated gardens and parks, are so important.

I live along the Sandy Bay Rivulet, this precious ribbon of greenery that snakes from the slopes of Mt Wellington.  On a map it’s not much to look at really. It’s not the Serengeti that is crossed by millions of wildebeest on migration each year and it’s not Antarctica where hundreds of thousands of penguins huddle together. But I believe, as a microcosm of what has been, is and could be, it is just as important.

I’ve seen about 60 bird species in or above my garden. Bennett’s wallabies chew my lawn by night, and a barred bandicoot or two dig holes in it.  My garden is important.

The first naturalists looked to gardens for their inspiration. Many of the early nature lovers were English clergymen and they studied wildlife in the village churchyard, a habitat so important for the study of British birds to this day that a book has been written about it.

My own hero is the Reverend Gilbert White, who spent virtually his whole life studying the wildlife of the village of Selbourne in Hampshire, not so far from where I spent my childhood in neighbouring Surrey.

The opinion at the time, the mid to late 1700s, said swallows hibernated in mud during the winter but Gilbert White had his doubts. He instructed his gardener to dig up the banks of a muddy stream near his home to look for them. He, of course, drew a blank. With no evidence of hibernation, White went out into the fields at the end of summer to study swallows travelling south. Where did they go? he asked himself.

Studying another Selbourne species, White questioned the notion a warbler that made a liquid descending call was the same as the one that went “chiffchaff’”. White cut a footpath through a beech wood at the end of his garden so he could study the warbler more closely. He separated what was to become known as the chiffchaff from the willow warbler, which is virtually identical in appearance. The breakthrough came by way of simple observation on his home turf, an observation that comes from sharing your environment, and life, with the creatures of the neighbourhood.

The naturalists of the backyard are too numerous to mention. But their published observations, like Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, are the backbone of environmental writing and environmental science.

What would the evolving environment movement in the United States have been without David Henry Thoreau and his Walden Pond. From an earlier time, I might even mention William Shakespeare who no doubt learned in his Stratford Upon Avon garden that “Thrice sings the thrush“ (the song thrush has three notes that it repeats after a brief pause).

The roots of natural history go back to Aristotle and other ancient philosophers who set out to give the natural world a biological classification.

The ancient Greeks’ classification evolved in medieval times into the scala naturae, the scale of nature or Great Chain of Being, the central concept tying together the various domains of natural history, which arranged minerals, vegetables, more primitive or “lower’’ forms of animals, and more advanced or “higher’’ forms of life on a linear scale of increasing “perfection”. This culminated in our species, and ultimately God. Then came Carolus Linnaeus who in the 18th century produced the scientific classification of nature we know today.

I like the term chain of being, though, and I have another, more modern definition:  it’s a chain that links everything that moves in my garden. Including me.

I’m proud to be among a growing band of writers in the 21st century who are just as likely to be found in the ubiquitous Central Park in New York as sitting on the banks of Walden Pond. We are not replacing, though, wild words from wilder places, and the New Nature writer is just as likely to venture into the pristine and untrammelled. We’re all part of the mix, making wildlife literature stronger and more pertinent than ever.

I’ve concentrated on essays but we must not forget the authors of lengthier works.

Perhaps reflecting a growing interest in birdwatching, more and more novels are being written with birdwatchers and bird lovers as their protagonists.

A recent one is Snapper by American Brian Kimberling.  It tells of a student who, by chance, gets a holiday job helping a bird researcher monitor nesting birds in the forests of Indiana one summer.

The student gets caught in a tornado, and this is how the narrative runs in the first person:

That tornado left a six-mile swathe of houses in splinters and twenty-nine dead after touching down four miles away from where I cowered in the mud.  As if God had driven his Camaro through there with a bottle of bourdon in one hand and a rented blonde on the other, AC/DC loud on the stereo. I don’t know how you can look at an occurrence like that without concluding that God is white trash, but you don’t say that kind of thing in Indiana.

Whether it be new nature writing, or the traditional pastoral approach, in prose or in verse, on land or at sea, words of the wild increasingly hold a growing place in the vast pantheon of literature.








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