Grace Quantock explores the changing face of Nature Writing in the 21st century through the contributions of marginalised writers
In lockdown my rainbow coloured bookshelves became mildly Zoom-famous.
According to a recent study, only 2% of people in the UK organise their books by colour, so I can see it might be more unusual than I’d supposed. Of course, I organise my books by colour because I’m a neurodivergent disabled woman living my life from one room. I was bed bound for a year and housebound for six years; the walls started to close in and overwhelm me, but colour blocking my decor made the room feel bigger.
I fell in love with nature writing while I couldn’t access nature. In my early twenties, while stuck inside, I was gazing at the books lining my walls – passports to worlds beyond the frame of my bed and the pain of my body – and I realised that in every book my guide to the land beyond was written by a middle class white man. Which meant that each world vicariously experienced was shaped and limited by their eyes. The travels I explored through reading their words meant the descriptions of mountains, beaches and riversides were conjured so many times they felt like my own memories. To misquote Loretta Lynn: ‘I’ve read about things, and that’s almost the same as doing them.’
If I had to live in a literary world while too sick to access the land outside my bedroom, I didn’t want to live in a world shaped by people who derided or ignored lives and bodies like mine and those of my loved ones.
But my experience of the world, even of my own body, has been filtered through dead white men. And, let’s face it, their experiences are not the way I would experience the world if I was free and at large in it, because the great nineteenth century explorers and their literary descendants move through the world decidedly differently to me.
I realised the books I read didn’t reflect the world I lived in. Nor that of my multilingual, mixed race, disabled, neurodivergent, Muslim, immigrant family. As a disabled white woman, I hadn’t noticed whiteness, non-disabled, neurotypical, middle class, first-language-English skewing in nature writing and in Western literature as a whole. It was the norm, the default. If I had to live in a literary world while too sick to access the land outside my bedroom, I didn’t want to live in a world shaped by people who derided or ignored lives and bodies like mine and those of my loved ones. I made a reading list and began tracking down texts; the underfunded libraries couldn’t help: they looked at me in consternation when I requested authors of colour.
The impact of never seeing your stories told is incalculable. Perhaps one of the core impacts is how it limits possibilities. I didn’t see the kind of land I could access celebrated in literature. Nobody was writing about living and finding nature on a council estate in the Welsh Valleys, unless it was poverty pornography. Representation in nature and place writing is not only about what land is deemed worthy of exploration, but also about who gets to explore. These questions are inextricably linked.
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Recognising the issue and the paucity of inclusion in our nature writing, several initiatives have been founded to address under-representation in UK nature, place and travel writing. The Wainwright Prize brought forward the ground-breaking work of young author Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist, published in 2020 by Little Toller Books. Not only is it the winner of the 2020 Wainwright Prize, which made Dara the youngest ever winner of a major literary prize; it also won An Post Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year 2020, and was shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year 2020. Diary of a Young Naturalist chronicles the turning of the author’s world from springtime to winter, in the landscape around him and internally. Its evocative prose explores the natural world from the perspective of an autistic teenager and environmental activist.
The Wainwright Prize also celebrated Wanderland by Jini Reddy, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury Wildlife, and also shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. As an outsider to the countryside, Jini Reddy brings her journalistic insight and reflections to an unorthodox exploration of the ‘wanderlands’ of Britain, searching for the magical in the landscape. She explores otherness as a woman of colour and connecting with the land in a spiritual, as well as a physical sense. Also Wainwright shortlisted was Thin Places by Kerri ni Dochartaigh, published 2021 by Canongate Books. A blend of memoir, history and nature writing, Thin Places explores the reparative and restorative potential of nature. The author details the horrors of her childhood and the violence experienced during the Troubles and her experiences of hardening borders and increasing polarisation. The book asks us to reclaim our landscape through our attention and understanding and to remember the depth of the lands we claim, fight for, live on and love.
‘A lot of what we read is written on human terms about nature, rather than on nature’s terms.’
Wales is also being represented in these more inclusive lists. The Nan Shepherd Prize, founded in 2019, was named for the pioneering work of the author whose nature writing masterpiece The Living Mountain took three decades to find a publisher. It champions under-represented voices in nature writing. The inaugural 2019 prize-winner Nina Mingya Powles, Small Bodies of Water was published by Canongate Books in 2021. A lyrical, poetic essay collection, it blends memoir with powerful writing on the natural world, taking us from London to New Zealand, Shanghai to Malaysia. The winner of the 2021 Nan Shepherd Prize is Marchelle Farrell for her submission Uprooting. This compelling book tells of Farrell’s journey, as a Black Caribbean immigrant to the UK, of seeking belonging in an English country garden. Two Welsh writers were included in the Nan Shepherd Prize longest and one in the shortlist, Electra Rhodes and myself.
Electra Rhodes is a nature writer based in Cardiff, who began writing during lockdown when her caring responsibilities shifted and left space to explore. She was influenced by the gift of the book Birds as Individuals by the author Len Howard, whom she met as a child. El began to explore nature writing, ‘as a process of rewilding a person rather than domesticating or taming the wild. A lot of what we read is written on human terms about nature, rather than on nature’s terms.’ When I asked El about nature writing and representation, her head dropped to her hands: ‘It’s so bad, I hadn’t realised how much of a closed community it is.’
El described looking at her well-stocked book shelves and seeing ‘Bloke’s nature writing books.’ At first, she thought perhaps they were the only ones writing. ‘There was a disconnect there, but I became more alert and realised quite quickly, there’s an issue of under-representation. There’s loads of stories, narratives and perspectives that are absent in the current canon.’
It’s a problem that stretches beyond our bookshelves. ‘It’s very easy to fall into lamenting the absence of women, of Black and minority ethnic people, of queer, of disabled narratives. Of anyone who isn’t white, male, cis, straight and educated at a certain level (often only at certain universities),’ says El. ‘But it [also] speaks to publishing and to distribution, to what’s in front of you in the bookshop.’
‘The hegemony of nature writing and publishing is very effective in perpetuating exclusion,’ El went on. ‘The consequences are broader than what appears on our shelves, in bookshops, in our libraries. It affects how people perceive themselves in relation to nature. If you’re divorced from the canon, you’re divorced from the experience as well. Perhaps I begin to think it’s not for me – not just the writing or publishing but the experience, the land, the nature on our doorstep or in the wilds – none of that is mine. Representation encourages us to think This land is ours, we have a stake in it. It matters to all of us.’
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In Wales, Parthian Books has a forthcoming anthology (May 2022) called An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century, edited by Steven Lovatt. The book includes writers from across Wales and turns a Welsh gaze on the world, reversing the tradition of Wales serving as an often romanticised and misunderstood destination of English Romantic writers. We also have On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell Into Place by Mike Parker, published in 2019. A memoir of landscape and love, this book embroiders personal stories with history and insight into the past which underpins much of LGBTIAQ+ culture and relationships today. It’s a multi-layered memoir of love, acceptance, finding home and the redemptive power of nature.
Who gets to be heard about land? Whose voices are we listening to?
These books, prizes and anthologies point to a wider issue of inclusion in our land and literature; who gets to be heard about land? Whose voices are we listening to? Emerging nature writers are making shifts in what has been a predominantly homogenous landscape. Dal Kular, a writer, educator and mentor specialising in creative and life-based writing arts became curious about her relationship with nature during her MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. When exploring creativity, identity, wildness and racial trauma, she realised she was creating a form of nature writing.
‘But it wasn’t about representing nature writing as a Brown woman,’ Dal explains. ‘I come from a land-based people, my parents are both from rural farming communities. I’ve been transplanted here, in Sheffield, in the city. Getting back to nature has been about connecting with that ancestral, indigenous land practice and writing about it.’
‘There is a sense of frustration and exclusion in who gets published in nature writing, that reinforces who has the privilege to write about nature and thus be in and experience nature. In this writing, we get one narrative only. And it’s a narrative that doesn’t disrupt dominant discourse around rurality, privilege, poverty, class, race. We need to have conversations about who doesn’t not get heard and why? There have always been Black people in the British countryside. I’m also concerned about the people being displaced by second homers and Airbnbs that decimate rural communities, [leaving people] unable to afford to live in their local area. With the loss of these communities we will lose their dialects, their stories, histories and folklore. I want to hear their voices before it is too late.’
There is much still to be experienced, understood and told in our landscapes, particularly as they shift and memories need to be preserved and changes processed in the climate crisis. We will also get to see the impacts of what happens when we see our stories told. How our relationship with places, communities and futures shift when the story is being told from more than a single perspective.
‘Representation in nature writing can foster responsibility for earth, deepen connections and create wonder for the world,’ says Dal. ‘Nature writing can be a way of being in the complexity of people’s experiences. It’s going beyond the concept of nature as something to be consumed, like going to the cinema.’
I know my world expands when I see marginalised people claiming space and finding new possibilities. Many people have felt alienated from accessing the outside world during lockdown. We need all our voices and stories to plot our way forward.
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