Nature writing is succoured by accurate description, while at the same time draws attention to large-scale environmental crises and local losses. It is driven by a sense of purpose that gives it an important role within modern conservation, informing us in ways that are both factual and emotionally affecting.
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How literature shapes, and is shaped by, our awareness of nature — and how this awareness, or the lack of it, intersects with our behaviour — is central to the research and writing of Cambridge academic Dr Robert Macfarlane, who has made a substantial contribution to placing nature writing centre stage of recent environmental discussions in this country. His work explores the traditions of British, Irish and North American literatures that deal with nature and its relationship with humankind — from the late 18th century through to the present day. Increasing specialism within the conventional British education system has often set science and literature at opposite ends of a spectrum.
Talking about his respect for conservationists, he quotes the poet W. Nature writing has, in the past, been cartooned variously as reactionary ruralist or as sentimentalist. Our everyday discourse is rich with metaphors and similes taken from earth, sea and sky — from the subtext of individual sounds in words to the grandest panoramas of desert and wilderness that have become symbols of states of mind. We live increasingly in cities, yet some of our greatest literature draws on nature not just as backdrop but also as active agent, shaping character, behaviour and morality.
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Yet what we love, and what feeds us both literally and metaphorically, we also destroy. In terms of environmental history, I think of John Muir, who took himself off to become a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada and whose essays became crucial in determining the national-parks policy of Theodore Roosevelt. Macfarlane has been working hard to bring lost or neglected works from the nature writing tradition back to light, and to introduce them to new generations of readers.
He has written essays to accompany reissues of books by W. Baker and John Stewart Collis, among others.
Next year an opera with music by the jazz double-bassist Arnie Somogyi and with a libretto by Macfarlane will be performed on Orford Ness, a vast offshore shingle spit on the Suffolk coast that is both ecologically and historically unique. The opera has been part-commissioned by the National Trust, which owns the Ness and is keen to explore artistic responses to this extraordinary landscape. What Macfarlane and Somogyi find most fascinating and suggestive about the terrain is how the lean and tapering shape of Orford Ness is constantly shifted and reformed by time and tide — a scaled-up, slowed-down, stone-and-water version of the wild wheeling arc of starlings in the sky.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
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Edinburgh | DAVID CARROLL | The Co-op
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