Last year I wrote a post about the role of gender in new nature writing and concluded that much new nature writing, like “old”, presents experiences of nature as distinctly male rites of passages, with “the remote concerns of the British isles as the not-so-new-frontier”.
As Jeremy Solnick notes in a comment on that post, nature writing is by no means primarily a male-dominated genre: see Dorothy Wordsworth, Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, Rebecca Solnit and the new nature writers Kathleen Jamie, Jean Sprackland, and Esther Woolfson, to name just a few.
Nonetheless, there’s much to suggest that new nature writing is clearly gendered, from the locales that women write about compared to men (the close and domestic, rather than the adventurous and far-flung) to practical concerns (such as child-rearing) that make it more difficult for some female nature writers to undertake extensive forays ‘into the wild’. Whereas authors such as Adam Nicolson and Robert Macfarlane take journeys into the ‘wilder’ places of the UK, Kathleen Jamie’s essays are framed by the constant challenge of carving out enough time, even if just an afternoon or an hour, to observe the nonhuman natural world.
As Jamie describes in an oft-quoted passage from “Peregrines, Ospreys, Cranes”, “Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter into my life” (39). Whereas references to everyday life, family and friends are rare in works by male new nature writers, Jamie’s essays, particularly in Findings (2005), are couched in domestic scenes. At the winter solstice “the talk was all of Christmas shopping and kids’ parties” (“Darkness and Light”) and time to observe birds competes with children demanding breakfast (“Peregrines, Ospreys, Cranes”). In fact, in juggling family life with her interest in peregrines, Jamie wonders about J.A. Baker, the author of The Peregrine: “Who was this man who could spend ten years following peregrines? Had he no job? Perhaps he was landed gentry. What allowed him to crawl the fields and ditches all day, all winter?” (Findings 43). Baker, like many male writers and unlike Jamie, seems free of the constraints she faces.
Although I’m hesitant about making this distinction, there appears to be a typically male or female way of engaging with nature in (new) nature writing. I’m hesitant about it because the idea that women are inherently gentle and nurturing, whereas men go out to conquer nature makes me bristle. Yet this is the case when comparing Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room (2001), and, to a certain extent Robert Macfarlane’s works, to works by Kathleen Jamie and Jean Sprackland, which are much more concerned with observing rather than conquering, with finding rather than ‘hunting’ for experiences. Nicolson’s ownership of the Shiants illustrates a relationship with nature that is based much more on intervention than Jamie’s cautious observances. Similarly, Macfarlane’s exploration of the nation’s last wild places suggests an engagement with nature that is premised much more on participation and adversity than Jamie and Sprackland’s records of findings on the sea shore.
In “Magpie Moth” (Sightlines) Jamie discovers a moth in a stream, seemingly unable to escape. Although she succeeds in getting it onto dry land, the moth does not fly away, merely cowers on a rock. Even if a degree of anthropomorphism is inevitable – Jamie wonders whether she’s hurt the moth – she takes a step back, and reflects on her own role in the natural world, which at this point is uncharacteristically invasive: “Ach, perhaps I should have left the moth alone; I’d probably done it more harm than good. After all, laid on the water, its patterned wings unfolded and perfect, it looked to be in a state of bliss, but what do we know?” (176). Jamie, indeed, is rarely a participant in nature, and feels clearly uncomfortable doing so, whereas for Macfarlane, Nicolson and others participating in nature is what it’s all about, and the only way to feel some kind of connection to it.
Indeed, the issue of gender resurfaces in Kathleen Jamie’s review – and spirited critique – of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. Though she has much to say in favour of this book, she attacks its class, gender and ethnic biases, as well as its search for ‘wildness’ in a country that has long ceased to be wild. As Jamie writes:
when a bright, healthy and highly educated young man jumps on the sleeper train and heads this way [Scotland], with the declared intention of seeking ‘wild places’, my first reaction is to groan. It brings out in me a horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension. 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. When he compounds this by declaring that ‘to reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history,’ I’m not just groaning but banging my head on the table.
Jamie’s critique, which I agree with, shows us that nature is never wholly innocent, and that in addition to talking about what we see, we should also pay attention to how we see it, shaped by our own class, gender and ethnic biases. Although commonplace in much cultural theory, ecocriticism is often too little aware of these dimensions. Interestingly, Jamie’s comments on Macfarlane could just as easily be read as comments on Nicolson’s Sea Room, in which nature is even more coloured by male-centeredness, and an Englishness that smacks of (neo)colonialism, as Nicolson also admits.
Indeed, Jamie’s issues with The Wild Places are connected precisely to the distinction between the local and the domestic on the one hand, and the adventurous and farther away that is so often gendered in new nature writing:
Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation. A lifelong negotiation at that: to give birth is to be in a wild place, so is to struggle with pneumonia.
In emphasizing the smaller wildnesses, Jamie also emphasizes the local, the domestic and, in the case of childbirth, the explicitly feminine. Her emphasis on the small, the everyday, the domestic and the local is admirable, and refreshing, in a genre that largely still depends on descriptions of the far-away, and passages that charm the armchair traveller. Her essays, and those of other, mainly female, new nature writers, fulfil the important task of making us more aware of everyday nature, which, at the end of the day, is really all we’ve got.
In my new project on urbanized and extensively humanized nature I similarly focus on what for many Westerners is all the nature they’ve got: gardens and parks, rather than craggy hills and forests, wastegrounds rather than unspoilt vistas. See my article “Wastegrounds, Shrubs and Parks: Ecocriticism and the Challenge of the Urban” (Frame 26.2 ) here.
Green Letters 17.1 is devoted entirely to ecocritical readings of new nature writing.