© Mona Eendra
On June 8th, 2021, my faculty hosted an online discussion round on “The Everyday in British New Nature Writing” with three acclaimed guests of the field: poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie, author and naturalist Mark Cocker, and ecocritical scholar Terry Gifford. The talk was both part of the undergraduate course on ecopoetry I had been teaching and open to the public, attracting an audience of about 50 people from all over the world. In the following blog post, the insights and outcomes of the discussion will be recapitulated.
As the host, I opened the talk by asking: What, after all, is Nature Writing? While acknowledging the very difficulty of this question, we agreed that such writing usually “dwells on the relationship between humans and the more-than-human parts of the world” (Cocker) and in so doing “foregrounds the natural world, rather than just sketching it as a background to human dramas” (Jamie). Regarding its form, Cocker offered the apt definition of Nature Writing as “semi-non-fictional prose” – which legitimises the use of fiction in a field otherwise seen as non-fiction, as a tool that can help compress an experience into literature.
Despite the potential fluidity of the field, there is currently a worrying trend: Jamie diagnosed an “ubiquity”, even a “cacophony” of first-person narratives. Cocker added that this might be due to the assumed popularity of the Nature Writing label in the publishing world, which leads to it being applied to works which are more about the identity of their authors, using the natural world as a mere “vehicle for the self”, instead of giving voice to the more-than-human. Accordingly, we wondered how we can get away from this overabundance of first-person narratives. How can Nature Writing “bring something out for us which is special about our lives and which is not us” (Cocker)?
One way could lie, as Gifford suggests, in cultivating a “discipline of attention” and “finding space to make a focus” amongst all the other preoccupations of the everyday. In quoting James Wood, Jamie phrases this as “serious noticing”. There should be a moment of such serious attention, she emphasises, before we do anything at all, be it writing, painting, or doing science. Put as a simple question: “Why don’t we just take an hour to look?” (Jamie)
Aside from making more space between daily preoccupations, this prompt could also mean that you undertake a nature walk during which you do not move at all – Cocker’s ideal version of such a walk. To get past ourselves and break down the seemingly ordinary character of the everyday, Cocker also suggests we find ways of seeing differently: using lenses, binoculars, telescopes, microscopes. It is all about shifting our perspective, about “re-orienting our entire imaginative and moral universe” in order to realise that “we are surrounded by the miracle of life everyday” (Cocker).
While changing our attention in this spirit is a task for everyone, further challenges arise for the writer, as we have seen above. Poetry might offer a way out of the trappings of first-person narratives, with its playful qualities and its ability to ask questions, as Gifford highlights. Cocker adds that “poetry has a way of narrating the inner life of things”. He sees this exemplified in the work of Jamie herself: “The language she uses is like penetrating from the everyday to the miraculous itself.”
In contrast to this, the linguistic structures used in scientific language have a tendency to “completely deaden any interest in the subject itself”, as Cocker criticises. He has also highlighted this problem in his book Our Place:
“[Through a] confusing multiplicity of landscape designations [and an exclusive use of scientific nomenclature] environmentalists have constructed a barrier to the general public’s understanding of nature and of environmental activity. It should be pulled down to make life simpler. Naturalists and environmentalists need to recover the art of speaking plainly. […] The creation of common names for all parts of nature is probably the biggest low-cost change that environmentalists could implement.” (301-303)
Removing such linguistic barriers might also help free people of a certain unease they feel in encountering the natural world “because they know they don’t know” (Jamie). There are different ways of knowing, as Gifford remarks, and science is just one of them. Everyday experiences and poetry can open up further ways. In them, naming the other parts of life then becomes an act of both connection and respect.
Respect towards the more-than-human also entails understanding “the frailty and limitations of being us” (Cocker). This realisation need not frighten us; rather, it can help us to be humble and honour what is beyond us. In such awareness, we can heed to an advice Jamie quotes from George Orwell: “The writer should be as a pane of glass.” She adheres to this in her own practice, polishing sentences by “clarifying, clarifying, clarifying” – until they “ideally crystallise into something you can see right through.” Transparent language that takes its roots in the common and everyday will “let the reader participate in the natural world beyond” (Jamie).
This insight serves as a summary of what we were able to learn from the discussion round: Paying serious attention before writing and then employing a clear and humble language will not only make the reader feel part of the scene described but also help them find greater value in their own everyday nature.
Cocker, Mark. Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? London: Jonathan Cape, 2018.
A recording of the full discussion can be found here: https://seafile.rlp.net/f/97adce4ca9dd4fb98781/