Post-Secular Nature and the New Nature Writing

By Alexander J. B. Hampton

For a good part of the twentieth century British nature writing found itself caught amongst the brambles. Though many authors continued to make outstanding contributions, the respect afforded to the genre was far from the heady days of Romantic and Victorian literature. In 1932 it came in for one of its fiercest attacks, with the highly successful and entertaining comedic novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, which offered a pastiche of countryside novels by the likes of Hardy, Lawrence and Brontë. Two years later, in his novel Scoop, Evelyn Waugh offered a savage parody of the nature columnist with his character William Boot. The legacy of these popular books was to help construct a caricature of nature writers, nostalgic for a Britain that never was, which fit certain facets of the modern social imaginary. Conceptualized as hackneyed and frowsty, the public voice of the individual interacting with nature quietly disappeared, to be replaced by the disembodied, objective and impassive voice of the expert; nature writing became the realm of professional biologists or conservationists.[i]

With the turn of the twenty-first century, however, a group of writers began to challenge this view.  Rehabilitating British nature writing and the voice of the individual interacting with it, they have begun to produce a new kind of writing about nature.  In 2008 Granta: The Magazine of New Writing published an issue titled “The New Nature Writing,” marking the establishment of a movement that has since grown exponentially.[ii] Since then, numerous contributions by writers such as Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald have appeared on UK bestseller lists. In 2014 the Wainwright Prize was established in association with the National Trust to recognize this emergent genre. This new nature writing represents a postsecular re-conceptualization of our relationship to nature. It challenges a key element of the secular social imaginary, namely a subject-centered, immanence-bound, disenchanted representation of nature that sets the self over and above nature.

The newness of new nature writing can be understood by distinguishing it from Romantic and natural history nature writing. On one hand, it is more hesitant to consider nature in a metaphysical context than is the tradition that develops out of Romanticism. On the other hand, the author takes on a more central role in the new nature writing than writing in the natural history tradition. Nonetheless, the new nature writing carries forward aspects of both of these traditions: from the Romantic, it expresses an unease with the construction of the rationalized relationship of the individual and nature, and from natural history writing, it registers the importance of accurate description.

The new nature writers wish to describe a relationship to nature that is not a monological imposition that pretends that the eye of the beholder offers an objective rendering of the observed natural world. Instead, they seek to develop, through a re-assertion of the voice of the individual in nature, a subjective dialogue with the natural world. This sentiment is expressed by Richard Mabey in Nature Cure:

It's become customary, on this side of the Atlantic, stiffly to exclude all such personal narratives from writings about the natural world, as if the experience of nature were something separate from real life, a diversion, a hobby; or perhaps only to be evaluated through the dispassionate and separating prism of science. It has never felt like that to me […] it’s seemed absurd that, with our new understanding of the kindredness of life, so-called 'nature writing' should divorce itself from other kinds of literature, and from the rest of human existence.[iii]

Robert Macfarlane expresses how this renewed dialogue can be achieved: “language is used not only to navigate but also to charm the land. Words act as compass; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land — to sing it back into being, and to sing one's being back into it.”[iv] Alternately, this is the space that Tim Robinson describes in Connemara: Listening to the Wind as “the boundary region between established truth and unstable imaginings that is my preferred territory.”[v] In these, and many other instances, the liminal language of imagination and enchantment is always close to the surface as the new nature writer seeks to re-conceptualize nature.

The new nature writers resist any disenchanted narrative that would claim to be capable of fully understanding and controlling nature. Instead, they encounter nature anew.  This re-encounter takes many forms, but two manifestations in particular stand out. The first is the irreducibility of nature, whereby the natural world possesses qualities that resist description and articulation. The second, the transverse form of this resistance, is descriptive proliferation, a kind of lush prose or thick description, oftentimes evoked by these moments of resistance. Both express the same uncircumscribable quality of their natural objects, manifesting the restlessness of the new nature writing at the boundaries of the secular social imaginary.

In the case of nature’s irreducibility, the limitations of a disenchanted secular social imaginary are challenged by the movement’s demonstration of the inadequacy of present categories to adequately represent nature and our experience of it. It is here, in the moment when nature resists language, presenting itself as irreducible to disenchantment, that a space clears for a re-engagement with nature. The encounter with the irreducible records the moment when the writer, and by extension the reader, engage in a process of deferred evaluation, which in turn opens up a dialogue with the object of resistance. In this dialogue, subject-centered, disenchanted concepts are no longer imposed upon the object; rather the object comes to speak itself. To encounter nature as irreducible is to come across something which makes a strong claim, which resists any reduction to existing human categories and narratives, and which causes words to respond to, rather than impose, meaning. One such moment is articulated in Tim Robinson’s Connemara: Listening to the Wind

Once when I was lying on the terrace of our house overlooking the bay, listening to music from the room behind me and watching a summer night subvert the scale of all things, I felt I could raise my hands and spread my fingers over the mountain range, solidly dark against the still wine-flushed sky, as if over the keyboard of a piano, and produce one tremendous, definitive Connemara chord. But Connemara tends to undefine itself from minute to minute, and this Beethoven moment quickly passed. The range of peak became sheet iron, two-dimensional, a serrated rim to the floor of the world, dangerous to the imagined touch.[vi]

In this passage, the landscape first presents itself as a musical cipher, capable of the author’s tactile decoding, only to metamorphose, and present a resistance so stark that it is even dangerous to the touch, indicating a latent, wild, and untamed character.

This resistance is equally displayed in Helen Macdonald’s visceral H is for Hawk. The book describes a year the author spent training a goshawk following the death of her father, and centers upon a creature of remarkable resistance and irreducibility. However, in the following example, which occurs during her first encounter with the hawk, as the breeder opens the box in which it has been transported, we also encounter a moment of descriptive proliferation:

Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.[vii]

In examples such as these, we encounter what Robert Macfarlane has aptly described as “writing so fierce in its focus that it can change the vision of its readers.”[viii] Here the hawk is represented as an experience that we cannot subsume into a system or narrative. Even syntax struggles to keep up with the demands of the author’s encounter. The density and detail of the description corresponds to a distinction made by Macfarlane between precision and rigor: “the former being exhilaratingly exact, and the latter being grimly exacting.”[ix] In encountering the Connemara landscape or the Goshawk we are not called back to a previous enchanted narrative, nor presented with anything that corresponds to a disenchanted one. Instead, as readers, we encounter something irreducible, which cannot be exhausted by a disenchanted, subject-centered immanent narrative.

If we understand the secular social imaginary as holding a largely naturalist view of nature, then the new nature writing sets out an alternative vision of nature and our relationship to it. In its pages we observe the destabilization of the secular, subject-centered, immanence-bound, and disenchanted understanding of nature, and the re-emergence of dialogical, transcendent, and enchanted possibilities. As a burgeoning feature of the contemporary British literary scene, the desire of the new nature writers to go beyond the limits of naturalism evinces the shifting ground of the present-day social imaginary. In doing so this writing responds to a strong public disquiet with key features of the secular social imaginary, and as such we may consider it as offering a post-secular understanding of nature and our relationship with it.

[i] Richard Mabey, “Introduction,” in Second Nature, ed. Richard Mabey (London: Cape, 1984), ix-xix.

[ii]  Jason Cowley, “Editors’ Letter: The New Nature Writing,” Granta, 102 (2008), 7-12 (Cowley, 7-12),  (Armitstead). Claire Armitstead, “Happiness to Mindfulness, via Wellbeing: How Publishing Trends Grow,” The Guardian, March 14, 2016, accessed January 12, 2017.

[iii] Richard Mabey, Nature Cure (London: Vintage, 2015), 22-3.

[iv] Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 22.

[v] Tim Robinson, Connemara: Listening to the Wind (Dublin: Penguin Ireland, 2006), 374.

[vi] Robinson, Connemara, 362.

[vii] Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. London: Vintage, 2014, 53. 

[viii] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 1.

[ix] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 101.