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 Urbex – urban 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.
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.