GEORGE MONBIOT’s Feral (2013) spawned the Re-wilding movement, and Hannah Bourne-Taylor’s Fledgling, published this spring, resonated with the nation’s new-found love of swifts. In May, the author’s “swift arrival dance” became a sensation on social media. These two examples of modern British nature writing are vastly different from each other and, on the surface, might seem far removed from Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (first published in 1789).
The authors of a recent book, Modern British Nature Writing, 1789-2020, argue, however, that White’s shadow is very hard to escape. They explore how White pioneered the British tradition of non-fictional prose writing about nature, and trace his influence through the centuries since his famous book’s first appearance.
Both Monbiot and Bourne-Taylor have shades of White in the way in which they celebrate the integrity and value of the non-human world, draw on the latest insights of science, and write with an insistent, educative purpose. But the study’s authors reveal that many other prominent and influential nature writers have also echoed White in their explicit Christianity, or have embraced their own mystical or spiritual outlook.
The religious sensibility of White himself has often been played down, and the poetry that he wrote to give it voice is usually overlooked. In “On The Rainbow”, for example, he contrasted romantic and superstitious reactions to seeing a rainbow with the attitude of the “sage”, who reflects on the rainbow’s Creator, and its symbolic meaning, and begins to pray:
Thou mad’st the cloud,
Maker omnipotent, and thou the
And by that covenant graciously
Never to drown the world again.
CHARLOTTE SMITH (1749-1806) is a writer who is becoming, very justifiably, better known. She and White both wrote in depth about the patches where they lived. For her, it was around Brighton in Sussex; but, very unlike the life of the bachelor cleric, hers could never be characterised as one of tranquil rural retreat.
Forced into marriage at the age of 15 to an irresponsible and violent husband, Charlotte had 12 children, and she wrote partly to stave off penury. She produced poetry, fiction, and educational books, such as A Natural History of Birds, Intended chiefly for Young Persons (1807). But she broadly shared White’s theological outlook, seeing observation of “Nature” as providing a glimpse of God’s Laws, which, she believed, would always remain beyond the reach of human understanding.
THE startling progress made by the sciences from the beginning of the 19th century eroded such confidence. We find later writers — whether or not formally Christian — trying to prevent the unravelling of mystery. One such was Charles Kingsley (1819- 75), now best remembered as the author of The Water Babies, and for his Broad Church theology and commitment to social reform.
New scientific discoveries and the industrialisation that accompanied them were perceived by many — including Kingsley’s close friend John Ruskin — as leading to reductionism and materialism. Kingsley, however, welcomed the new discoveries (he was one of the first notable champions of Darwin), but suggested that the new sciences opened an avenue to see beyond what he termed “carnal” attitudes to nature.
He argued that nature and landscape could uplift the human soul, both aesthetically and spiritually. His book Glaucus: Wonders of the shore (1855) is a perfect example of this, and helped to inspire the Victorian craze for seashore life.
RICHARD JEFFERIES (1848-87) shared similar concerns about the reductionist nature of forms of knowledge, which, he feared, leaned too much towards documenting and controlling the non-human world; but he embraced a form of mystical paganism, as expressed here in The Story of My Heart: “The air, the sunlight, the night, all that surrounds me seems crowded with inexpressible powers, with the influence of Souls, or existences, so that I walk in the midst of immortal things.”
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) has been so influential in the genre that it could be described as the book that launched not one, but 1000, Robert Macfarlanes. It was not published until 1977, but its beautiful evocation of walking in the Cairngorms has connected with people who have fallen in love with wild places at a time when they are disappearing from around the world.
Shepherd was influenced by both theosophy and Buddhism. Her writing displays a deep ecology, in which rock, soil, air, animal, and human have an inescapable connection and a shared but diverse consciousness.
THE book Modern British Nature Writing also touches on the extraordinary project by Charles Foster, who in 2016 published Being a Beast, about his attempt to experience the life of other animals by adopting their lifestyles.
As he put it, tired of “humans striding colonially around, describing what they see from six feet above the ground, or about humans pretending that animals wear clothes”, he decided to get closer to the lives of wild creatures by spending time living in a hole in the ground and eating slugs like a badger, or raiding rubbish bins in the dead of night like a city fox. He described this as “a kind of literary shamanism”. His experiment in thwarted empathy was a means to expose the gap between animal and human perceptions and ways of living.
In his more recent book about swifts, The Screaming Sky, Foster plunged deeply into the gulf between human experience and these remarkable birds, and approvingly quotes R.S. Thomas for the humility of his viewpoint:
I am learning to bring
Only my wonder to the
Of the geometry of their dark
IN NATURE-WRITING circles these days, it is commonplace to hear an acknowledgement of a spiritual dimension to our struggles to respond to the environmental crisis and the mind-bending revelations about the complexity and richness of the natural world; but often the explicitly religious and metaphysical perspectives of writers in the genre have been played down — even when they have been so significant.
I have long found the currently unfashionable philosophy of Martin Buber an inspiration — although, now that we are more conscious of the deep connections between all human lives and all other forms of life, we might have to think of our relationship with our Creator as more “We-Thou” than “I-Thou”.
The Revd Ian Tattum is the Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, and Area Dean of Wandsworth, in the diocese of Southwark.
Modern British Nature Writing, 1789-2020: Land lines by Will Abberley, Christina Alt, David Higgins, Graham Huggan, and Pippa Marland is published by Cambridge University Press at £75 (Church Times Bookshop £67.50).