Finding the Wild Nearby in New British Nature Writing

2015 looks to become the year of wild things – at least as far as research is concerned. I’ll be writing a book chapter on wolves and wilderness for a collection, and have submitted an abstract for the 2015 ASLE conference on contemporary ideas of wildness as a continuum shaped by region, culture and gender.

Over the coming months I’ll be exploring various permutations of the wild on this blog. I’ll be writing about how wilderness and the wild as concepts keep returning in our culture, and explore why they are important and changing.

This first post is about new British nature writing and the wild. The next posts will also discuss the appeal of the wild – including what George Monbiot has called ‘the never-spotted leopard’, or wild cat sightings –, wolves and animal narratives.

Leo Mellor has suggested that a re-enchantment with the local is characteristic of new British nature writing. Interestingly, he connects this with the local with a similar interest in the wild: “typified most acutely in Robert Macfarlane’s thinking around – or through – the matter of wilderness and magnitude” (116). Indeed, in The Wild Places, Macfarlane begins his journey into the British and Irish wild with the intention of finding “somewhere boreal, wintry, vast, isolated, elemental, demanding of the traveller in its asperities” (7). Yet he returns home to a completely different realization. Wildness, he concludes, “was here, too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived [Cambridge]. It was set about by roads and buildings, much of it was menaced, and some of it was dying. But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light” (321).

If we take The Wild Places as typical of the genre, new nature writing conceives of the wild as being nearby. In one of my earlier posts on new nature writing I discussed Kathleen Jamie’s concern with the local. Jamie is indeed a key example of a new nature writer who finds the wild nearby – even when she does get away from the local to seek the wild.

One of my favourite essays in Jamie’s collection Sightlines is “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda”. This essay radically does away with the illusion of the perfect journey, the kind that we see on National Geographic or Discovery Channel and that we sometimes read about in nature writing as well: the author goes out into the remote wilds, faces hardships and trouble, but returns home safely. Jamie decides that the closest wildness to where she lives is the island of St Kilda. Her attempts to go there fail completely the first time, the second time she has to leave after only a few minutes, and not until her third excursion does she actually manage to stay there for a few days.

The same search for adventure and escape that motivates explorers, dare-devils and some nature writers motivates Jamie as well when she wonders “which was the closest place one could go that was remote? Where an adventure could unfold – just enough to keep one’s wits sharp, enough to let one taste an untamed grandeur, yet be back in a few days because, you know, of the children?” (131) Remoteness, untamed grandeur, the effect the wild has on the human mind – all of these are stock features of wilderness narratives. They are also increasingly hard to attain, not just when, like Jamie, you’re trying to set foot on an island where itself seems to be almost unattainable.

Yet, like many contemporary nature writers, Jamie is also acutely aware of the impossibility of wilderness, of what William Cronon has called the wilderness paradox. The concept of wilderness, Cronon aptly describes, depends on us humans not being there. As soon as we’re there, it’s no longer wild. At the same time, many of us go to great lengths to find the wild – only to spoil it by our presence.

Although islands such as St Kilda are often – also by Jamie herself – described as wild, they also have long human histories, causing Jamie to distrust ideas about wildness and remoteness: “Remote from what? London? But what was London?” As I discussed in an article in Alluvium, much new nature writing seems centred on East Anglia, close to the political, economic and cultural centre of London, which naturally influences what these authors conceive of as remote – and, by extension, also that which they perceive as wild.

St Kilda, Jamie discovers, is every bit as much wild as it is a cultural landscape. Wilderness, then, is not necessarily incompatible with culture, with human settlement or presence. As Helen Macdonald writes in H is for Hawk, “the wild can be at its fiercest in a run of suburban back-lots, and a hawk might find a lookout perch on a children’s play-frame more useful than one on the remotest pine… you can reconcile the wild. You can bring it home with you” (252).

Although all three engage differently with the wild, I think of Macfarlane’s, Jamie’s and Macdonald’s writings about wildness as marks on the same continuum of wildness. It ranges from the wild afar, to the local wild and bringing the wild literally into the home as Macdonald does with her hawk.

The ultimate example of the wild nearby indeed may be Jamie’s essay “Pathologies”, in which she describes the beauty and wildness of (diseased) body tissue – a radical reversal of the wilderness paradox: the wild is not where we are not, but rather, we are inherently wild.

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