“All practices of exploration are embodied” – Postscript on Gender and Nature Writing

Last month’s post Typically Feminine? Or, Gender in New Nature Writing generated some great responses from others interested in and working on (new) nature writing. Some rightly challenged the limits of the rough dichotomy I sketched between male and female writing, others recognized it, or even admitted to avoiding some works by male nature writers all together.

It also led to a number of recommendations, and titles of works that challenge or undermine the point I made in that post, such as Jay Griffiths Wild – anything but ‘local’ and ‘domestic’. The recommendations include Sarah Moss’ Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland – which I read, and loved –Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, the adventurer-explorer Isabella Bird, and the Scottish author Jessie Kesson.

In my previous post, I suggested that if there is such a thing as female or feminine (new) nature writing it is expressed in greater attention to the local, and even the domestic, in the writing of female authors. Nan Shepherd, as Macfarlane writes, was a “parochial” author, and Moss’ Names for the Sea intersperses descriptions of the unfamiliar Icelandic landscape with scenes of domestic trial and error. Yet, I still find this dichotomy unsatisfying.

The question for me remains whether there is a difference between nature writings by male authors and those by female authors – it’s so easy to generalize. At the same time, when I read the works of male nature writers – such as Adam Nicolson, Macfarlane, and even Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – and then read Jamie, or Jean Sprackland, I notice a difference. A difference in perception, a difference in engaging with the landscape, a difference in writing about it.

While thinking about this, I came across an article on Urbexurban exploration – which discusses masculinity and the self-representations of urbexers. Carrie Mott and Susan Roberts, the authors, note the “prevalence of a highly masculinized explorer-subject” in these writings, which, they argue, echoes earlier narratives of exploration, and “older ideas about what sorts of bodies belong to explorer-subjects” (234-35). Although most new nature writing is probably less explicitly masculine than Urbex – and, thankfully, nowhere near as misogynist as some of the examples Mott and Roberts note – a remark from the article stuck with me: “all practices of exploration are necessarily embodied” (235).

This, of course, makes perfect sense: our perceptions and experiences of our environment, whether natural or not, depend on and are filtered by our bodies, from sight to hearing and other senses, to being able-bodied or not. Jamie’s essay “Markings” (Findings) provides a good example of this. Walking in the Central Highlands, her peaceful enjoyment of the glen at her feet is suddenly disturbed:

something in the glen moved and my heart lurched. I took it first for a man, a lone hillwalker or a shepherd. A man’s presence wouldn’t have surprised me much. A lone woman’s would. My first mothlike instinct – don’t know why – was to hide myself … The thing was, sudden movements or no, I was nervous because confounded. As I say, I was unaccustomed to being out in the hills on my own and felt a bit vulnerable (119)

The figure turns out to be a cow, but Jamie’s experience, and sudden fear, will be familiar to many women. Yes, being all alone miles away from “civilization” may be possibly dangerous for everyone, both men and women, but more so for women who are, whether we like it or not, are more vulnerable.

View of the Palouse from Kamiak Bute (Washington State)
View of the Palouse from Kamiak Bute (Washington State)

Mott and Roberts also suggest that masculinity in Urbex narratives goes beyond merely the kinds of environments these explorers “discover” – environments that are, like an empty landscape, generally more dangerous for women. They also note the use of “highly gendered tropes” in these texts – such as “penetrating” a space that was until then “virgin”. It made me wonder, is there something on the level of the text, the metaphors chosen by an author for instance, or the tone, that marks a text as masculine or feminine?

I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s attempts of defining female writing in A Room of One’s Own. Lacking a tradition as long and distinguished as men, she argues that women literally have no language, “no common sentence” ready for their use. Again, as is the case with Jamie’s moment of fear and vulnerability, a connection is suggested between physical gender and writing. Writing by women, Woolf argues, “has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work” (101).

Woolf’s meditations on this topic are as helpful as they are problematic. There are plenty of long books by women, and Woolf also refers to the works of George Eliot, Austen and the Brontës. And yet – I think back of Mott and Roberts: “all practices of exploration are necessarily embodied” (235), which seems to leave room for gender, and more individual and specific differences in landscape experience.

So, my exploration of this topic continues – although my next post will likely be on another issue in new nature writing, namely urban and other humanized landscapes. In the meantime, I’m off to re-read Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, in an attempt to discover what makes this text more masculine to me than Jamie’s work.

8 thoughts on ““All practices of exploration are embodied” – Postscript on Gender and Nature Writing

  1. I’m glad you liked Names for the Sea! I remember reading that exact passage you quote from Jamie and really identifying with it. I’d actually just read The Wild Places before reading Findings and I remember that passage as a breath of fresh air! It would certainly be interesting to do a comparison of the language in The Wild Places and Findings. Griffiths talks a lot about language and particularly the language of male explorers in Wild. At first I wasn’t very convinced – but then I thought back to an example my teacher used in an English class, she asked us to compare the connotations of ‘Old Master’ and ‘Old Mistress’ – completely different connotations! So yes, I can definitely see how the language a male or female nature writer uses could, even subconsciously, affect the way they write about the same experience or landscape.

  2. If there is an immediate difference between MacFarlane’s works (Mountains of The Mind, Wild Places and The Old Ways) and Jamie’s it’s his use of a ‘guide’ from literature or someone with arcane knowledge to validate the explorations and put them into a more scholarly context. Naomi’s idea of a thematic analysis of the language of MacFarlane and Jamie could be intriguing if Wuthering Heights got added too as a post-conventional form of ‘nature’ writing.

    As an ‘explorer’ who is male there is an undercurrent in the sort of journeys that I used to make about pushing limits or extending boundaries. This led me to generating ideas for adventures that were ‘infeasible’. My current journeys would now fit better into Jamie’s framework of being squeezed into time stolen from other responsibilities.

    1. Thanks for your comment! You’re right about the immediate difference between Macfarlane and Jamie: I think Macfaralance, by using, as you write, a ‘guide’ in his writings, explicitly places himself in a tradition (albeit largely a male tradition, with Nan Shepherd as a notable exception). Woolf suggests that this lack of tradition is something that distinguishes female writing, although there are of course also several female nature writers, though Jamie very rarely mentions any other nature writers. Food for thought, perhaps.

      I find your suggestion of Wuthering Heights intriguing! I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about that, and why you would add that.



      1. Astrid,

        The idea of Emily Bronte being a ‘nature’ writer arose from an exchange Naomi and I were having about who might fit into the ‘naturalistic turn’ of literature in the UK. Wuthering Heights is a novel with a clear Inside and Outside. I’m guessing, given that there is a huge body of work analysing and deconstructing the Brontes, that the issue of the Outside as either being the venue for human interactions or as a character in the narrative itself is well covered. But did Emily ‘gender’ that landscape/story?

        My interest is in whether Emily Bronte, who is still considered to be a Post Conventional thinker in Kohlberg’s framework, provides a prime example of someone who could think and respond to the world ‘integratively’. I work in the caring professions and I’m exploring possible links between eco-critical approaches and the idea of ‘holistic/ anti-oppressive’ practice. I’m also exploring a form of ‘generative’ method that encourages caring professionals to think outside the boundaries of their highly stratified and silo-ed ‘disciplines’. The idea of the Plethi (the Welsh word for plait, braid) is to weave together those elements of thought and practice that are ‘integrative’.


      2. Dear David,

        Thanks for this interesting response! It’s indeed a good question whether or not the landscape in Wuthering Heights is gendered – I haven’t read the novel recent enough to say something about it, but my initial guess would that it is associated not so much with gender but with a pre-civilized wildness that both Cathy and Heathcliff possess for a long time, and that civilization, particularly Thrushcross Grange, opposes. Incidentally, Virginia Woolf, in her vague comments on male and female writing, mentions Emily Bronte, together with Jane Austen, as one of the few female authors who had developed a truly feminine sentence.

        Your ideas about responding to the world integratively, and particularly in connection to your work in the caring profession, sounds fascinating! I’ll make sure to keep an eye on your blog, to see where your explorations lead you!

        Thanks again for commenting,


  3. Thanks for your comment Naomi! Indeed, I do think that there are, in certain cases, differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ language when it comes to describing experiences of nature. I find it hard, though, to not be too generalizing in this respect, or to confirm gender stereotypes that I’m not comfortable with. In the 1970s feminists such as Helene Cixous argued for the existence of female language – ecriture feminine – but there is so much suspect about that, and quite alienating to me even, as a woman, that I don’t find that very helpful. Also, whereas in femininst geography and feminism general women are said to have more ’embodied’ experiences in terms of a bodily connection, it’s Macfarlane who does all the swimming and sleeping outdoors, not Jamie – so that doesn’t quite hold in that respect.

    Anyway – the exploration continues! Cheers, Astrid

  4. I know I’m late to the party – but you may also want to check out Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore. Also Perfection of the Morning and Wild Stone Heart by Sharon Butala. Really enjoying reading your essays here. Living in a part of Canada that is still relatively wild,I find the Macfarlane book a bit amusing in it’s take on the wild. It’s the one thing we Canadians can be a bit snobby about, I guess. Margaret Atwood might say that all Canadian writing is at its core writing about nature.

    1. Thank you for your comments! I’m not familiar with the texts you mention, I’ll certainly look into them. I can imagine that in your context the whole British wilderness debate seems kind of silly 🙂 Just goes to show how much laments on the loss of the wild, or wilderness discourses in general are place-specific.

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