Writers have long explored the healing powers of nature. Fiona Macdonald looks at how 21st-Century authors are weaving memoir with landscape in dealing with difficult times.

In his book The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy mentions research carried out in a hospital in the 1980s. Architecture professor Roger Ulrich studied the medical records of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. “The ward where they came after their operations looked out on one side to an open space full of trees, and on the other side onto a brick wall,” McCarthy tells BBC Culture. “Over a number of years, there was no doubt that the people who had the view of the trees recovered more quickly, needed fewer drugs and had fewer post-operative complications than the people with the view of the brick wall.”

McCarthy’s own story is one of healing. In 1954, when he was seven, his mother had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a mental asylum. McCarthy responded with what he describes as “a coping strategy”: indifference. “At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother,” he writes. Instead, he kept watch on a neighbour’s garden – filled with butterflies. “Every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags… Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been.”

The Moth Snowstorm describes how he was pulled into the natural world, discovering more than distraction in the shrubs, saltmarshes and mudflats of the Wirral in the North West of England. McCarthy found joy. “There can be moments when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand,” he writes. “It can come to us anywhere, in the presence of a whole landscape or of a single organism… it is not the property of the illuminati, of an enlightened or privileged few. It is open to everyone of us.”

The contours of trauma

McCarthy’s book is one of several new titles combining nature writing with memoir: it features on the shortlist for this year’s Wainwright Prize alongside The Fish Ladder – describing Katharine Norbury’s journey following a river’s path as she deals with a personal tragedy – and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, about her return to Orkney as she battles with alcoholism. Launched in 2014, the prize rewards writing that engenders ‘a love of landscape and respect for nature’. The 2015 shortlist included H is For Hawk, detailing Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk after being knocked sideways by the death of her father. In an interview with The Observer, she revealed how she succumbed to depression. “I started writing because I was broken and trying to stitch the world together by keeping a journal… I guess there was a moment when I realised I was writing about grief and eventually that I could write dispatches from the frontline of that place everyone knows eventually – a kind of natural history of grief.”

It seems as though the latest books, part of a trend dubbed ‘new nature writing’ as far back as 2008, are each in their own ways a natural history: of grief, of trauma, of the ways in which we lose ourselves. Wainwright judge Bill Lyons told The Guardian that “We’re seeing an explosion of natural history writing as meditation, as a sort of healing process, using the landscape as a way of reflecting, often on childhood trauma, and using it as a way to heal.” The genre, he argues, “is speaking to the time we live in – so many people live stressed-out lives. We’re living in a public world of private troubles which we find difficult to share … we can take comfort in wildlife and landscape.”

I’ve washed up on this island again, nine months sober, worn down and scrubbed clean, like a pebble – Amy Liptrot

It’s not always bucolic landscapes, either: one that could be seen as forbidding was so embedded in Liptrot’s childhood memories that she longed for it when living in London. She describes hearing the crashing of waves in traffic noise and birdsong in a distant car alarm; she sees lighthouses and cliff faces where there are skyscrapers. Although as a teenager Liptrot longed to leave Orkney, returning brings a sense she is reconnecting with something she thought was lost. “I’ve washed up on this island again, nine months sober, worn down and scrubbed clean, like a pebble,” she writes in The Outrun. “I’m back home, at the end of a rough year, in the winds that shaped me and where the sea salt left me raw.”

For Liptrot, the Orkney landscape, however bleak, can provide comfort where a city cannot. “I’m back under these decaying clouds and deep skies, living among the elements that made me. I want to see if these forces will weigh me down, like coping stones, and stop the jolting.” Yet her return to her natural habitat was not an epic journey to ‘find herself’: “It was practical things that took me back to Orkney – mainly being out of work,” Liptrot tells BBC Culture. “And then it was this gradual process of Orkney holding onto me.”

She believes that process was helped by working in the landscape. “I think there’s something about returning to one spot on repeated occasions,” she says. “Whether it be a section of drystone wall or a particular spot where I swim in the sea – returning to those places in different weather conditions and over the seasons, you’re able to develop more of an understanding of a place: the species of birds that are there; the changes that the tides and the seasons make on a place.”

Wild at heart

Of course, this form of literature is nothing new. The 18th-Century ideas of the Sublime and the Picturesque, as well as the Romantics, celebrated the natural world – often tamed by humans. “Much of Wordsworth’s Lake District, mountainous and awe-inspiring though it might be, was a farmed landscape,” writes McCarthy. “It had people in it.”

A group of American writers championed wilderness in the 19th Century. According to McCarthy, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau “saw the unspoiled natural world as a way to spiritual truth”. Thoreau, he argues, “saw wild places not only as essential to human well-being, but also as a source of primitive strength”. In an 1864 book, the politician and ecologist George Perkins Marsh claims that “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.” This, McCarthy believes, is the true value of wilderness: “it was where the harmonies of nature, the balance and beauty of the natural world, remained”.

The contrast between the lives of those reading and the wilderness described has perhaps never been starker

On one level, nature writing in recent years is simply a continuation of this. Yet the contrast between the lives of those reading and the wilderness described has perhaps never been starker. “Social media and computer entertainment are wholly occupying the minds of young people today, and perhaps the minds of future generations,” McCarthy tells BBC Culture. “There’s something about the natural world which an essential part of us finds necessary for peace in our soul – but to discover what nature has to offer, you need an intimate connection to it, and that is harder to get. People are looking into screens and not out at the world, which is very sad.”

For many writers, the act of observing nature has healing properties. Liptrot found it from returning time again to the same spot, and feeling more aware each time of “the height of the tide, the direction of the wind, the time of sunrise and sunset, and the phase of the moon”. In turn, Macdonald believes that “The world is full of beautiful and amazing things and just to know about them is an act of grace.” For others, evolutionary biology explains why we feel joy in nature. “We forget our origins,” writes McCarthy in The Moth Snowstorm. “In our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation… but we were farmers for 500 generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps 50,000 or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved.”

Shelley’s skylark

Some might see the new nature writing as a form of self-help with added sheep; others could simply want to lose themselves in a landscape as far from their computer screen as possible. Yet hanging over many of these books is an inescapable sense of loss. “There is one element that is completely different now, and anybody who writes about nature is going to have to come to terms with it,” says McCarthy. “And that is that in the 21st Century, the natural world is being destroyed.” The writer Robert Macfarlane – also on this year’s Wainwright shortlist – told BBC Culture that “we are a generation that’s grown up conscious of climate change, and that internalised anxiety at the world’s ongoing peril is a really powerful imaginative force that we don’t quite register in its full form but is deeply in us.”

For some, this urgency means that the memoir approach doesn’t go far enough. In a 2015 article for The New Statesman, nature writer and environmental activist Mark Cocker attacked some of the new books for being “tame”: “The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash.”

We need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves – proclaim these worths through our own experiences – Michael McCarthy

Yet it could be that combining personal narrative with landscape allows us to reach a deeper understanding of what is happening to it – and to make us care about it. Macdonald argues that “laying bare the grounds of our emotional attachments to the natural world – or our lack of them – is of crucial importance in our age of ecological disaster.” For McCarthy, this is an alternative approach to one in which ecosystems are given financial values: “We cannot say that birdsong is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me,” he writes. “Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley… and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves – proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down… we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”

The nature-focused memoirs of the 21st Century, then, go beyond each writer’s personal journey. Literary magazine Granta’s 2008 issue of ‘new nature writing’ included a work of fiction by Lydia Peelle. She told then editor Jason Cowley why a human-centered approach is essential. “The new nature writing, rather than being pastoral or descriptive or simply a natural history essay, has got to be couched in stories – whether fiction or non-fiction – where we as humans are present. Not only as observers, but as intrinsic elements. I feel this is important, because we’ve got to reconnect ourselves to our environment and fellow species in every way we can, every chance we have. In my thinking, it is the tradition of the false notion of separation that has caused us so many problems and led to so much environmental degradation. I believe that it is our great challenge in the 21st Century to remake the connection. I think our lives depend on it.”

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