Typically feminine? Or, Gender in New Nature Writing Part 2

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 Jfindingsamie 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.

1884themagpie

Magpie Moth (wildlifeinsight.com)

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.

Small nature: leaf on the porch (Astrid Bracke)

Small nature: leaf on the porch (Astrid Bracke)

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 [2013]) here.

Green Letters 17.1 is devoted entirely to ecocritical readings of new nature writing.

17 thoughts on “Typically feminine? Or, Gender in New Nature Writing Part 2

  1. Naomi Racz says:

    Another interesting blog post! This is a topic that I’ve found myself thinking about a lot since completing my MA. In fact, Findings and The Wild Places were some of the first books we read on the course and they came up time and again in class discussions. Some of the women in the class couldn’t relate to Macfarlanes writing because they couldn’t see the appeal of, for example, sleeping at the top of a mountain in winter. I remember one of the guys in the class – who was into mountaineering, climbing, wild camping etc – who did like Macfarlanes writing, but was starting to question whether there was something wrong with that approach to nature and nature writing (and perhaps a concern that he might be marked down for writing in a similar style!). I’ve always remembered that and I think what I’ve taken away from it is that actually maybe there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with Macfarlane’s work (I happen to think he is a brilliant writer – and in fact as Jamie points out he does end up concluding that he didn’t need to go off to the highlands or remote islands to find wilderness and he points to a smaller wilderness closer to home (I think he does even mention walking with his children at the end!)) – though I did find Nicholson’s book to be objectionable for many of the reasons you outlined in your previous post (another nature writer whose work I found to be objectionable is John Lister-Kaye – I wrote a rather irate review of his book on my blog:http://blacktoprain.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/at-the-waters-edge/). I think it’s okay for people to hike mountains and go rock climbing – I happen to enjoy those activities myself – and it’s okay for people to write about those experiences, but the problem I think is in not having a balance. I like the domesticity and closeness-to-home of Jamie’s writing – I like that she admits to being afraid – and I think we need more writing like that.

    Have you read Wild by Jay Griffiths? I read it recently and although I didn’t really like her style of writing, it is definitely an interesting read. You should also read Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss – she was my tutor on my MA course and her attempt to negotiate travel writing and domesticity (the book is about the year she spent living in Iceland, but she was also there with her young children) informed a lot of the debates we had in class about nature/travel writing and gender. In fact, Kathleen Jaime wrote a very favourable review of it: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/nov/02/sea-iceland-sarah-moss-review?INTCMP=SRCH

    • astridbracke says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! The Old Ways is already a lot more concerned with the local than The Wild Places I think. I too enjoy Macfarlane’s writing, and although hiking etc isn’t mainly ‘masculine’ (thankfully!), there seems to be a different emphasis in much new nature writing by men. As I was writing this post I did think about ‘Wild’ a lot — I have yet to read it, but what I’ve heard of Griffiths, her writing neatly undermines much of the gender argument that I’m making here 😉

      Thanks for recommending Sarah Moss Names for the Sea — I read Night Waking a few years ago & loved it but haven’t read Names for the Sea yet for some reason. Will do so soon! I’m fascinated by the emergence of new nature writing & how people are defining & not defining it, and basically how a genre comes into being.

    • astridbracke says:

      Thanks for your comments Billy! I wasn’t familiar with Isabella Bird until you mentioned her, but as an adventurer-travel writer she of course seems not to fit into the generalizing comments I make in the post – although I’d have to read her in order to make a more educated reply.

      Rather than suggesting that the rough dichotomy that I sketched in this post & part 1, I intend both posts to function as food for thought about new nature writing which has in the last few years has become so very popular. I feel that there’s very little attention paid to, among other things, the at times overtly masuclinity in nature experiences, as Jamie’s criticism of Macfarlane also suggests. At the same time, the emphasis on the local and domestic in practice often ends up being associated with, and used by, female authors.

      In addition to Bird there are certainly many authors that cannot be captured as neatly in this gender dichotomy: Jay Griffiths, for instance (mentioned by Naomi in her comment), who writes travel-adventure books, hardly fits the local-domestic category, whereas Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road pays much more attention to the personal than some of the books by other male authors that I mention in these posts. Rather than providing neat categories, then, these posts are meant to open up a part of the debate on new nature writing that has remained underexplored, namely gender.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Billy Mills says:

        Thanks for this response. I didn’t mean to use Bird as a weapon against your rough model, which I found interesting, but I am wary of a gendering that might be seen as reinforcing the stereotypes. I like Tim Robinson very much, and he’s a man who writes about the local and whose ‘adventures’ are walking across a bog and the like, but he’s still very male in some respects. Gertrude Bell was a wonderful writer, and adventurer and campaigner against women’s suffrage. It’s a complicated old world.

  2. linesoflandscape says:

    I enjoyed that very much. I have just finished Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, which doesn’t seem to fit those categories, at least, not at first glance. Of course, it’s hardly ‘new’ nature writing, being as it was written in the 1940s, but it is a very personal reflection. The ‘domestic’ doesn’t come through so much, but some of her accounts of women who live on or near the mountains describe them as rarely getting out and about in the hills, as they are too busy with home chores – perhaps this kind of thinking sometimes shadows contemporary nature writing.

    As for MacFarlane, while he does write well, there’s so much ‘the cold reaches in to my core, it’s so painful, oh woe is me’, especially in Wild Places. It’s sometimes a bit too Bear Grylls for my liking!

    Thanks,
    Kieron

    • astridbracke says:

      Thanks, Kieron, for your comments! What you write about Nan Shepherd sounds interesting, particularly in relation to the engagement some women have with the hills, being too busy to go out much. I wonder if there’s any other kind of ‘small’ or ‘domestic’ experiences of nature, like the kind Jamie mentions? Will have to read Living Mountain soon!

      All best,

      Astrid

  3. Carol Rowntree Jones says:

    Thank you – have just read both your posts on nature writing.

    Nan Shepherd, totally wonderful. I researched nature writing for my undergrad degree and had to give up reading Roger Deakin and the like. Once you are sensitised to this ‘maleness’, you realise how endemic it is. Nan Shepherd spoke with a perception that echoed with me, and this is certainly a wild landscape that she writes of, not a domestic, ‘small’ one: “…often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I … have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” And other numerous quotable passages.

    Tim Dee’s Four Fields is on my list; I am looking forward to this one!

    Thanks,

    Carol

    • astridbracke says:

      Thank you Carol, for your comment! It is interesting, isn’t it, how once you see something, it suddenly pops up everywhere? I’m curious to see how new nature writing develops: despite the name, it’s so little unified, and I often feel that even big names like Macfarlane and Jamie are doing such different things, and experiencing/describing the nonhuman world so differently.

      Nan Shepherd is now at the top of my reading list – looking forward to it!

      All best,

      Astrid

  4. Fiona Russell says:

    Jessie Kesson is another Scottish writer who was rooted in the place that she was brought up in. I find it interesting that both Kesson and Nan Shepherd’s Living Mountain (highly recommended as a calm and steady psalm to the Cairngorms) are so much of place, of acceptance, of just ‘being,’ without the irritating more traits of some of the male ‘nature writers. ‘ Both Kesson and Shepherd have so much to add to the collection of writing by women about a relationship with nature, and with place.
    Fiona

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