Nature Babble

“What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, “discovering”, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.” Kathleen Jamie

Nature writing, and the so-called New Nature writing in particular, have taken something of a battering in recent weeks, which must mean it is doing pretty well as a genre.

The ‘Lone Enraptured Male’ in question in Kathleen Jamie’s rather trenchant parody is Cambridge academic and writer Robert Macfarlane, who has made it is business to mix nature and ‘civilised lyrical words’, and in fact does it very well (his 2012 The Old Ways is particularly fine).

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Piece of Turf, 1503

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Piece of Turf, 1503

In his latest book, Macfarlane gathers together innumerable dialect words which are used or have been used to describe the English landscape in great particularity – words such as didder (of a bog: to quiver as a walker approaches); dams (drained marshes), lode (fen drain) billow (snow drift) and smither (light rain) – all of these examples, as it happens, taken from East Anglian dialects.

I do not share the scepticism with regard to the New Nature writing (although I am outright suspicious of the tendency for memoir to invade every conceivable genre of non-fiction writing, a trend that is especially conspicuous in the New Nature writing), but the accumulation of highly particular lexicons, characteristic of so much of what we understand these days as ‘literature’, does start to take on a quasi-mystical, let’s say enraptured, quality.

I am reading Infinite Jest at the moment, by David Foster Wallace, and no layman could possibly follow the pharmacological displays in his discussion of various drugs. And I suppose that is not the point. I once met the Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne, who told me that one of his poems (they are famously obscure) was just a passage from a medical journal chopped into shorter lines. He said he like the sound of them, and the fact of arranging them for sound. The babble of uncomprehended but sonorous speech or writing is comforting at some level, like hearing an unknown language spoken.

We get carried along by sounds unlike the sounds we make ourselves. If we give it our full, somewhat mesmerised attention we will, inevitably, start to spot patterns in it. Perhaps that mild estrangement, masquerading as precision, lies at the heart of nature writing anyway. The simplicity of ‘outdoors’ becomes the proliferation of ‘the natural world’ under the purview of the botanist, the naturalist, the conservationist; the tameness of grass and trees becomes in turn something wild, unknowable, as we grope for a bit of meaning.

But I am starting to sound like an enraptured white male from Cambridge, so I’ll put a sock in it.