Talk at Wildwords event at Bruny Island Bird Festival, 2018
Among the most astute observers of the natural world and the human place within it have been writers. It can be said that as long as people have been writing, they have been writing about nature.
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.
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 still find beauty and fascination there.
The wildlife writer of the 21st century is just as likely to be found in the ubiquitous Central Park as sitting on the banks of Walden Pond.
The natural world reflected by the writers in the early industrial age was a haven or escape from the urban landscape. The new nature writing exposes our mistakes, our greed and abuse. It points out than the human species lives in nature but strives to be apart from it. The new nature movement uses the notion of the web of life as its foundation – the metaphorical spider-web that connects all living things -_and warns that the loss of too many of these strands will lead to the web’s collapse and destruction.
As our view of nature changes, so does the way people write about it. The new nature writing is an experiment in form, the field note, the memoir, the travelogue. Some of it leans more to campaigning journalism, something urgent and vital because nature as we know it is changing within our own lifetimes.
Overpopulation and climate change bought on by human industrial and agricultural practices are shaping the natural world into something frighteningly unfamiliar.
The environment that was once a happy home for prose and verse has another dimension in the modern age _ politics has been added to the landscape. Disputes and wars that divide mankind also create artificial boundaries for man’s feathered and furry companions on the journey of life.
A few years back I read a remarkable birdwatcher’s diary from Iraq, “Birding Babylon’‘, in which a soldier servicing with the American forces listed birds he had spotted at US army camps close to the war zone. The comings and goings of exotic, beautiful birds like the blue-checked bee-eater provided a stark counterpoint to the brutally and folly of war.
Reading a special edition of the literary publication Granta last year that was devoted to new nature writing, the focus, at least in one piece, switched to Israel.
Twice a year half a billion birds migrate through Israel and adjoining states and author Edward Platt went in search of the bigger ones, white storks and pelicans flying in flocks with numbers in the thousands. His piece, The Migration, contrasted environments in Israel with those of the occupied West Bank. He met a birdwatcher in Israel who had designed a radar system to track the vast flocks of migrating birds, a boon for the military because it reduced the risk of bird strikes at crucial times of the year. As Platt pointed out, the Israeli air force had lost more planes from collisions with birds than had been lost to enemy action.
Over the border in the occupied West Bank, Platt painted a bleaker picture. He saw another side of the Israeli security operation in the building of a separation barrier between the territories.
The concerns of Palestinian environmentalists were in assessing how the barrier would change the environment of the region in restricting the movement of birds and mammals. Along with describing a fruitless search for an elusive species, the little green bee-eater, Platt had noted: “Nothing, it seems, escapes the militarised nature of life in Israel – even the birds which traverse its skies fall within the invisible net of its security apparatus.’‘
I came young to descriptions and tales of wildlife that fell outside the usual childhood fare of writers like Beatrix Potter. My earliest memories are not of Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin but of an article on a bird of rocky terrain called a black redstart which had colonised London bomb sites after World War II. On trips to London from my Surrey home to visit my father in his office, I went in search of it. In a bomb-scarred London, it was my first lesson in regeneration, the resilience of life, of both Londoners and their birds.
Half a century later, living in Tasmania, instead of visiting the wilderness areas to watch birds I search for peregrine falcons hunting starlings on the Tasman Bridge in Hobart.
Members of the human species hold their connections with nature, of course, from the time they were hunter-gatherers. Tribesman who go in search of wild honey in East Africa still rely on a bird appropriately called a honeyguide to lead them to bees’ nests, and there is a tradition handed done over the eons, probably from the time that man first learn to speak, that says the hunter must always leave something for the bird otherwise next time it will lead them to a black mamba.
When humans began to plant crops a little North African sparrow-weaver that became known as the house sparrow soon learned that they was a year-round supply of seeds and grain in human settlements. The sparrow followed the spread of agriculture out of the Nile valleys, around the eastern Mediterranean basin into southern and then Northern Europe.
In all early cultures depictions of birds can be found. When simple pictures became words with the advent of written languages, the tradition of nature writing was born.
Like the resonant and beautiful call of the blackbird at dawn, wildlife has been an incessant message throughout recorded history.
Birds and animals were both held up as a symbol of power, as with eagles and lions, and fidelity, as with swans that bond for life. Birds heralded the coming of the seasons, and told farmers when to reap and sow. In Europe the cuckoo is intrinsically linked to spring, the first verse in the rhythm of the seasons. Writing in the first century AD, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder observed that it was a bad omen for farmers if they heard the first call of the cuckoo when pruning their vines. It was too late in the season for the vines to make new growth.
William Sheakespeare might not have been a naturalist but he too took note of birds and they are often mentioned in his plays. He described the singing male song thrush as having a “note so true’‘.
Modern nature writing traces its roots to the works of natural history that were popular in the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th, including works by Gilbert White, William Bartram, John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, and other explorers, collectors, and naturalists. Henry David Thoreau is often considered the father of modern American nature writing. Other canonical figures in the American genre include Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Burroughs, John Muir and Aldo Leopold. In the 1950s Rachel Carson alerted us to the dangers of chemical poisoning in her Silent Spring and a decade later Arctic Dreams author, Barry Lopez, taught us to look at the Arctic as not merely place exploit.
My favourite writers are those from the innocent age of the 18th and 19th centuries who walked a less violated landscape, people like the Reverend Gilbert White who revelled in the wildlife he found on his rounds as a country clergyman in Hampshire in the late 1700s and believed it was a gift from God that would be there forever. The notion that nature and man were one and inter-dependent prevailed, even if only mankind and not the “brute creation’’ was endowed with a spirit.
It’s a common message in all writing celebrating the natural environment: the human heart beats as one with nature’s, and all living things share the same mysterious journey of existence with its trials and tribulations, hopes and fears, joy and disappointments along the way.
Only the context has changed: not for the Reverend White the terrifying thought that the familiar could soon vanish if it was not nurtured and protected, and we with it.