Narrating crisis: the stories we tell about floods

I have recently become fascinated by flood narratives. Part of that, perhaps, has to do with growing up on a (former) island on which the memory of the 1953 North Sea flood is still very much alive. It also has to do with contemporary circumstances, especially how floods are presented as a consequence of environmental crisis.

What fascinates me most is how flood narratives connect us to the past, present and future and how they are ubiquitous in many cultures.  I’m fascinated by the different cultural responses to that. As I wrote in an earlier post, the Netherlands has recently framed their centuries-old battle with the sea in terms of ‘living with water’. Contemporary literary flood narratives, though, are relatively rare in the Netherlands. In the UK, however, the number of novels in which floods are tied in with environmental crisis is increasing. Examples are Sam Taylor’s The Island at the End of the World, Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, Maggie Gee’s The Flood, Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship.

In June 2016 I gave a paper on 21st-century British flood narratives at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Narrative in Amsterdam. In it, I focus especially on the way in which flood narratives engage with storytelling. In many flood novels, narrators and characters explicitly try to make sense of flooding by framing it in terms of traditional stories. At the same time, the floods often coincide with larger societal collapse. In this collapse, books, records and stories have often gone lost. As such, I argue, flood novels use narratives as synecdoches for civilization, and the loss of narratives becomes the loss of civilization, humanity – even a symbol for the end of the world.

The text of the paper is available here. This file also includes a list of sources I used. The images I refer to can be found in the presentation slides.



The future isn’t hot and dry, it’s wet (at least in British climate change novels)

Perhaps it’s the term ‘global warming’ that’s made many of us believe that the end will come in a ball of fire. Or maybe it’s the old Biblical image of apocalypse that determines how we see the future. Films like Interstellar show a dry world, uninhabitable because of a lack of rain and soil erosion.

The warm winter weather might for many of us in Western Europe be one of the first ways in which climate change hits home. Of course the warming narrative itself is also very risky: one really bad winter storm is all climate crisis deniers need to ‘disprove’ that something is really going on. One of the best-known examples of a climate change denier in literature in undoubtedly Michael Beard, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Solar. When his penis freezes to his zipper following Beard’s attempt to urinate outdoors in the Arctic, he uses this as proof that radical warming is not happening above the Arctic Circle and is instead just “a figment of the activist imagination”.

But especially in low-lying countries and island nations in western Europe, there’s another narrative that deserves attention: that of flooding.

Space for the river project

Interestingly, since among countries outside of Asia the Netherlands is often named as a nation especially at risk when sea levels rise, the risk of flooding doesn’t get a lot of attention here. Instead, the emphasis is on ways of ‘living with’ the water. This attitude is a spin on traditional Dutch perspectives of conquering the water – like in the creation of large areas of new land following extensive draining. The phrase ‘living with’ also holds a sense of control, the idea that if we give a little, we might be safe. In the town where I live, a big project is underway to ‘give space to the river‘ that includes widening the river, leaving the houses that used to be on the river bank on an island.

Britain on the other hand, has had its share of extreme flooding over the past decade – most recently in southern Scotland and northern England. Exploring climate change narratives for my book Climate Change and the 21st-Century British Novel, I discovered that the flood narrative as a climate change narrative is becoming ever more popular in British literature as well.

Like drought and fire narratives, flood narratives also have ancient roots: the story of the Biblical Flood and Noah’s ark is very close to the story of an all-destroying flood in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A similar story appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in numerous other mythical narratives. In his discussion of Anthropocene novels, Adam Trexler writes that the flood is one of the most popular climate change narratives. Yet there’s something different about contemporary narratives compared to mythical flood narratives. In the Bible, as in Ovid and other myths, the cause of the flood is usually fairly clear: humans have misbehaved in some way or another, and therefore the gods decide they must be wiped out. In some sense, this seems to fit contemporary circumstances as well: although flooding is of all ages, the kinds that many areas are facing today are ever more linked to human-induced climate change.

the carhullan armyYet in contemporary narratives such as Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army and Maggie Gee’s The Flood, two other flood novels, the causes are never revealed. Instead, in Hall’s novel we get a narrative that we are told is not wholly complete – certain records have been lost – and in The Flood the anonymous narrator talks of a before and after without giving any wider context for the floods that eventually overwhelm Britain, and possibly large parts of the world. This narrative unreliability, or incompleteness, is typical of many climate change novels, including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which apocalypse in some form or other recurs time and again without much more being said than that collapse is caused by ‘human greed’.

In The Carhullan Army, Hall describes a future England controlled by an authoritarian power. Along with politics, the climate has also literally changed. The young female narrator recalls how “Each year after the Civil Reorganisation summer’s humidity had lasted longer, pushing the colder seasons into a smaller section of the calendar”. Large portions of the countryside are flooded, the rivers are “brown and swollen”. By not making explicit what caused climate change – the narrator even implicitly connects it to the regime change – The Carhullan Army does two things. One the one hand, it suggests that the causes of climate change should by now be so obvious to all of us that it is not necessary to spell them out. On the other, not making the cause explicit points towards the unpredictability of climate change and the fact that it has taken the international scientific and political communities decades to commit to the idea that human-induced climate change is really happening.

GeeM-Flood.jpgThe Flood is as cynical as The Carhullan Army is grim. In Gee’s novel, the city in which the narrative unfolds is nearly always flooded, although this did not used to be the case. The novel focuses primarily on those well-off, people who do not believe that they too will one day feel the consequences.

It rains for a year in the city in The Flood. Environmentalists are never mentioned in the novel, nor do any of the characters ever mention climate change. Instead, the rain and flooding are hijacked by a religious cult believing that these are the last days of mankind. Although the narrative as a whole is highly cynical towards this cult – as it is towards everything – no alternative is given. What I found peculiar is that in the end the novel bends away from the floods being caused by climate change. The final flood, the big wave that either drowns everything and everyone or, depending on your interpretation, leaves some parts unharmed, is caused by a tsunami, supposedly triggered by a comet.

The point I want to make is not that novels should be moralizing, or should provide clear-cut answers as to what to do with our world in crisis. I’m much more interested in why narratives remain implicit and how this comments on our contemporary societies. From that perspective, novels such as The Carhullan Army and The Flood are timely not only by taking flooding as their topics, but also through the apathetic attitudes of their characters, especially in The Flood.



The books I read in 2015

I read a lot. I can relate to what Zadie Smith says in her piece on being addicted to reading:

Can I really not manage a brief subway ride without textual support? Is that normal? Are there other people who, when watching a documentary set in a prison, secretly think, as I have, Wish I had all that time to read?

Like in previous years, I kept track of the books I read in my calendar. This doesn’t only satisfy my need for collecting data but also helps whenever I’m looking for a book to include on a syllabus, or when people ask me whether I’ve read ‘anything good lately’. This year my boyfriend used my list of books to visualize what I read by means of a number of infographics.
 books pages DEF.jpg
Compared to previous years, 2015 was a pretty standard year book-wise. I read 83 books in total (not including academic books/secondary literature), with a total of 29,078 pages. Apparently, I read about 80 pages a day. Since I usually read around an hour to 1 1/2 hours a day, that sounds about right.


Since I keep track of when I finish a book, I can also tell when I read a lot. Looks like December was an especially good month. Surprisingly, I don’t read that much on vacation. I had brought along Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire on vacation in June. It took me relatively long to finish – which has less to do with the book, which I loved, and more with all the fun I had on road trips and sightseeing.


Sometimes, my book-average is low in a certain month because I spent my time reading a very long book. That’s the case in April, as the infographic below (interactive version) shows. I reread Middlemarch which I enjoyed, but it took a lot of time. Whenever I’m especially busy with teaching or research, I don’t get a lot of time to read, and when I do, it’s usually related to research or teaching.


The infographic below also shows which books I read for pleasure, for teaching or for research. Pleasure and research tend to overlap: as a contemporary literature scholar, basically everything contemporary I read is also a way of keeping up to date with my field. I decided to mark as ‘research’ only those books that were explicitly tied in with a paper, chapter or research project.


Click the image for an interactive infographics of my year in books.
That I read more contemporary books than books published before 2000 shows as well. From the infographic below (interactive version), it becomes clear that the vast majority of what I’ve read in 2015 was also published in 2015.


I was also curious about the gender balance of the books I read. Following a book-club read (Ann Morgan’s Reading the World) I wanted to see the countries of origin of the books. My hunch was that I had started to read more nonfiction in 2015, so the books are also split into ‘genre’ – being in this case either fiction or nonfiction.



Click the image for an interactive infographic.The size of the bubbles reflects the number of pages per book.

I read mostly British authors, followed by American authors. I didn’t read anything in translation in 2015, which means that I read primarily English books written in English, and a few German and Dutch books in the original. It surprised me that the gender balance is pretty equal: I’ve read slightly more books by female authors, but the difference is slim. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless. Books read for pleasure far outrank those rank for teaching research (although there’s some overlap, as I discussed above). Fitting with my interest in an research on post-2000 literature, the majority of books I read in 2015 were also published in 2015.

The full list of books I read in 2015 is here. I’m also keeping track on this site what I’m reading in 2016.


“Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain” – Christmas songs in the Anthropocene

Listening to yet another Christmas song last week, I wondered about the mismatch between the weather we sing about – snow – and that which we experience: unusually warm temperatures and rain, at least this year. I assumed that the songs had fit in better at one time with Christmas weather.IMG_2019

“Jingle Bells” was written in the autumn of 1857, though not in relation to Christmas, but to Thanksgiving. Although I couldn’t find any weather data on Thanksgiving 1857, James Lord Pierpont, who wrote “Jingle Bells”, would perhaps have expected a cold winter based on temperatures earlier in the year. On January 18 and 19, “the Cold Storm” hit large parts of the United States, covering central Virginia to southeastern Massachusetts in one to two feet of snow. Just a few days later, even colder weather and more snow arrived in the northeastern US, with temperatures as low as -40 degrees F/C in northern New York and New England. For Pierpont and his contemporaries, then, “dashing through the snow” would have been a normal and expected occurrence in winter.

P1030344I expected similar stories surrounding “Let it snow!” and “White Christmas”. Yet both songs, from the 1940s, were written and composed in California. What’s more, the immediate context of both songs is the warm California weather.

“Let it snow!” was written in July 1945, during a California heatwave. The story goes that the writer, Sammy Cahn, and composer, Jule Styne, were longing for cooler weather so much that they imagined a snow storm. This fantasy might have its source in the cold weather at the beginning of 1945: according to the US Weather Bureau, “The year 1945 was notable for the severe cold weather, record snowfall, and continuous snow cover in the eastern portion of the country until February”. The average temperature for 1945 as a whole was 53 degrees F (11.6 C). Interestingly, it was also the wettest year on record.

1941, the year in which “White Christmas” was written, was another normal year in terms of temperature. Nonetheless, the Weather Bureau notes that “the temperatures of 1941 followed the general trend since the beginning of the century, with a tendency to above-normal warmth very marked in all seasons of the year” – which sounds familiar today. The relatively warmest month was December – diminishing the chance of a white Christmas for many areas.

P1070184I had expected to find that at least to a large extent, popular songs about Christmas weather correspond to the actual weather at the time and place they were written. What I discovered instead is a trend of increasingly warm and wet weather in the US – and other parts of the world.

The difference between Christmas weather and Christmas songs also made me think about how environmental humanities scholars are calling for new narratives of nature that somehow capture life in the Anthropocene. In this case, we might need new Christmas narratives to represent warmer, wetter and more unpredictable Christmas weather.

I realize that there are plenty of countries in which Christmas songs have always seemed exotic. Suitable to the weather and time of year, an Australian version of “Jingle Bells” mentions “Christmas in Australia on a scorching summer’s day” and “Christmas Day the Aussie way, by the barbecue”.

In the meantime, many of us in the Northern hemisphere might have to get used to including the original first lines of “White Christmas” again:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North—


Announcing Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel

I’m fascinated by how we talk about nature and how we imagine it. Contemporary stories about nature are the topic of my new book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel.

The way we think about nature goes beyond new nature writing or documentaries of the kind that became popular after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In the building where I work there’s aIMG_2923 “green pub” about which there’s very little “green” other than the ambitions of the designers to create a “green” building. The cafeteria – “the green house” – aims to serve only organic food, providing different kinds of smileys for each product showing whether foods are healthy and sustainable or not.

There’s many other ways in which narratives of nature shape our culture – from ideas about which landscapes we find pleasing, to clothing trends and architecture.

21st-century fiction offers an especially exciting space for such narratives. The novels written today reflect how we think about and how we try to come to terms with events and developments, including environmental crisis. In the coming months I’ll be working on my new book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel which will appear with Bloomsbury Academic in their Environmental Cultures series.

IMG_3689My focus is on how widespread awareness of environmental crisis plays out in the stories we tell about nature, the ways we frame and imagine it. Four narratives of nature are central to my book: pastoral nature, urban nature, climate change nature and polar nature. They form two sets of companion chapters: pastoral and  urban are typically seen as opposites, but they also flow into each other. The other two chapters are also companion chapters: the climate change chapter is concerned with many narratives that imagine a warming world, whereas the polar narratives of the fourth chapter are about very cold environments. The poles are also a powerful image of climate change.

Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel is the first book  to explore natural environments and narratives in 21st century fiction. It is also the first ecocritical book that looks at this combination of narratives and takes a broad approach to the literary forms that climate change narratives take, outside of science fiction. It discusses the meaning of traditional narratives such as pastoral for a contemporary setting and traces the development of new narratives. While my approach is predominantly ecocritical, I’ll also be using econarratology, urban studies, rural studies, food studies and other sociological and geographical fields.

I’ve deliberately chosen to discuss books that are not first and foremost about IMG_4481nature – although in some form or other it resurfaces in all of them. Particularly books that are not nature writing or cli-fi are interesting to me because they show how contemporary ideas about nature, informed by climate crisis, resurface everywhere, not only in explicit discourses about nature. It also allows me to see the four narratives I’ll be exploring in the broadest sense: the chapter on urban nature that I’m working on right now for example has a section on food and how alternative food practices create a connection with nature that people often believe does not exist in the city.

My aim in Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel is to show how pervasive environmental crisis has become in the early 21st-century, so pervasive that it pops up in many different places, and outside of stories devoted explicitly to nature. Understanding this pervasiveness, I believe, also brings us a step closer to understanding environmental crisis and imagining responses to it.

More about the book and a full list of the novels I’ll be discussing here.

Seeing the Human in Nature in New British Nature Writing

In my previous post, I wrote about form as an important part Silt Roadof new nature writing. I discussed how authors use experimental form to redefine nature – what I think is a defining feature of the genre. At the end of the post, I started to look at Olivia Laing’s To the River and Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road as examples of works that have their form echo their subject matter – rivers – and that use form to disabuse us of the belief that nature, in the traditional seTo the Rivernse, doesn’t exist.

Rangeley-Wilson’s description of discovering the river in a small wood, miles away from any other human being, illustrates this particularly well:

It seeped from within a spinney of beech, oak and willow, sprouting tall and thin from a cleft in the valley floor. The fields beyond rose in soft curves and either side of the channel rounded terraces slumped into the watery hollow … And there in the silent space of that small wood I heard the first voice of the river, the uncorrupted river as it had always been. Water wept from every quarter of the hollows, from under the roots of trees, over shelves of flint and chalk. Or it welled up within the channel as dancing lenses of water swelling over bright holes in the bed of the stream, so that the damp scoop of land became, within only a few yards, a stream. And where the stream spilled over tangles of twigs or shelves of stone, it spoke. (126)

Rangeley-Wilson’s account of his solitary exploration of the wood and the river is a typical example of nature writing, with its minute attention to natural detail. There’s no such thing as a natural landscape in new nature writing, only contemporary natural landscapes, saturated by culture and nature, humankind and non-human elements. In awe at his discovery, Rangeley-Wilson takes out his iPhone – the 21st-century equivalent of Marx’ machine in the garden – to record the sound of the river. When he listens to it later he hears “the soft noise of the river – the only noise I was aware of at the time – and the long-drawn-out wail of a police siren. It doesn’t come closer or recede, but is there, welded as it were into the softer sound of the stream” (126).

IMG_3854Both To the River and Silt Road are more about the people that happen to have somehow become associated with the river, than the rivers themselves. Is this still nature writing, then? In both texts, nature is not so much the main topic, but more of a guiding spirit, presiding over the human events unfolding along the banks of the rivers. Compared to more traditional nature writing, then, new nature writing offers almost a photographic negative of the older genre, foregrounding the human involvement in nature rather than emphasizing nature over the human.

New nature writing presents a bind. On the one hand it foregrounds and emphasizes the human in nature. On the other, it holds on to the importance of seeing and describing nature.

The contemporary natural landscapes of new nature writing also carry a sense of possibility, perhaps even hope, for the future. Despite calls to reshift our focus from Nature with a capital N to what Scott Hess calls “everyday nature”, much ecocriticism, environmentalism, and the popular imagination is still concerned with the “over yonder”, as Timothy Morton has put it.

There are many objections to be made against new nature writing – the position of privilege that the authors are in, for instance – but one of its biggest achievements is that it shows the value of contemporary natural landscapes. And that, perhaps, might lead to the reconnection between humans and nature we so desperately need.

Version 2Or, to use Laing’s words: “Perhaps we will be able to accommodate ourselves to this world after all, instead of chipping away at it until the foundations collapse and the whole thing comes tumbling down” (179). That is the possibility of new nature writing, and it is up to ecocriticism to develop the tools to highlight and foreground this.

Finding a Shape to Write About Nature

New nature writing is surprisingly hotly debated. In the New Statesman recently, Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane debated the genre, and especially Cocker’s claim that it was too “tame”. This kind of debate is interesting to me, because it says a lot about how people whom we call new nature writers define the genre.

I’ll write another post about this debate at a later time. In this post, I want to about form as a defining feature of new nature writing and, in my next post, use Olivia Laing’s To the River and Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road as examples of works that explicitly use form in their aim to redefine nature.

Not much is new about new nature writing, Terry Gifford and Anna Stenning wrote a few years ago. Much of it much, they suggested, follows “a familiar pattern of the sensitive and informed individual’s encounter with nature”. They responded especially to Jason Cowley’s introduction to the Granta issue on new nature writing. The issue included Kathleen Jamie, Jonathan Raban, Richard Mabey, Mark Cocker and Roger Deakin. What unites these authors according to Cowley is that they approach their subject in “heterodox and experimental ways”. Their writing is “also an experiment in forms: the field report, the essay, the memoir, the travelogue”.

IMG_4305Deborah Lilley picked up on the formal experimentation of new nature writing. In Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, she writes, form and content work together: “[t]he structure of the collection clearly conveys the point that Jamie makes in each of the essays themselves: that the intersection of the human and the non-human can be tapped in numerous and surprising ways, if you are minded to look” (20). Robert Macfarlane described the form of his book The Old Ways in much the same way: “I wanted … to make language and form perform some of the recapitulations and overlaps I had experienced while walking these paths”.

In thinking about gender and new nature writing, I realized that a lot of female nature writers use the essay form – like Jamie does – or the diary form – like Esther Woolfson and Jean Sprackland. The more traditional long form, of an author going on a seemingly continuous journey, is often used by male authors.

But form does more in new nature writing. Olivia Laing’s To the River (2011) and Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road (2013) are good examples of writings that use form to show a very different view of nature. In both books, rivers are the main topic and their connecting features.

Silt RoadSilt Road combines several narratives, ranging from Rangeley-Wilson’s personal story of the death of his mother and his search for greater happiness, to the history of the mills on the river Wye and High Wycombe, and Victorian naturalists. Both narratives meander, like a river through a landscape, and compared to Kathleen Jamie’s essay collections, or Jean Sprackland’s beachcombing, and even Macfarlane’s journeys, To the River and Silt Road demonstrate a looseness and baggyness that reflects the movement of the river as well as the ambiguity of rivers in our contemporary landscape.

To the RiverSimilarly, the structure of To the River emphasizes the many interconnections and interrelations between humans and nature that Laing discovers in her journey. The second chapter, in which she sets out to the Ouse, begins with Laing travelling to Slaugham, and the river’s source. Her descriptions of her first day tracking the Ouse are interspersed with a reference to her failed relationship, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, classical mythology, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the filmmaker Derek Jarman, overheard conversations at the pub and the development of early geology.

This combination of narratives achieves two things: narratological form reflects the work’s subject, the river. It also disabuses us of the belief that nature, at least in the traditional sense, exists, which I’ll explore in my next post.

Paper: Knowing Genre, Knowing Nature. Econarratology, Genre and Climate Fiction

In September 2015 I presented a paper on ecocriticism and narratology at the ASLE-UKI Conference (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment – UK and Ireland) in Cambridge.

Genre is key to the stories we tell about nature – it shapesOdds Against Tomorrow the form these stories takes and how we interpret them. The paper provides a framework for an approach that combines ecocriticism and narratology (econarratology). I apply this approach to climate fiction – or cli-fi- as a contemporary genre that is especially good at capturing contemporary climate crisis. Using the narratological flight behaviourconcept of worldmaking I suggest that the distance between our world and the textual world of climate fictions, and how this world is created, is vital to the success of the genre. The works I discuss are Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012) and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013).

The full text of the paper is available here. I didn’t hand out a list of sources at the conference to conserve paper. It can be found here.

Wild imagination: the appeal of real and imaginary wilderness

This past weekend, Dutch news agencies reported the return of the wolf to the Netherlands, over a hundred years after the last time a wolf was seen in the country. The return of the species was much anticipated and debated by organizations such as Wolven in Nederland (“Wolves in the Netherlands”). The existence of organizations such as Wolven in Nederland, and their joy at the return of the wolf points at an underlying fascination with the wild that I’ll be exploring in this post.

While wilderness narratives proliferate, we are more aware than ever of the disappearance of the wild – making the popularity of shows like Man vs. Wild and National Geographic’s wilderness programmes, and our fascination with wild animals such as the wolf look peculiar or highly nostalgic.

Where does this fascination with the wild come from? And is it even compatible with a time of environmental crisis, with the Anthropocene?

In Wild Ones (2013), Jon Mooallem goes some way towards answering these questions. Intrigued by the many wild animals in children’s book, as toys and in films, he begins to explore, as he puts it, “the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep seem semblance of actual wildlife in the world” (2). Quoting a paper by the government biologist J. Michael Scott, Mooallem writes that the vast majority of endangered species can only survive if we actively try to save them.

Intriguingly, this phenomenon has a name: “conservation reliance”. As Mooallem concludes, “from here on out, we will increasingly be forced to cultivate the species we want, in places we protect and police just for them, perpetually rejiggering some asymmetrical balance to keep each one from sliding into extinction. We are gardening the wilderness” (4). Similarly, wolf organizations in the Netherlands have spend the past years thinking about which circumstances are favourable to the animal’s return – no small feat in a country which has very few of the kinds extensive areas of land wolf packs need to sustain themselves.

Underlying Wild Ones is an assumption – if not voiced by Mooallem then at least by the people he encounters – that the wild is inherently important, and that we need to preserve it. The (growing?) importance of the wild seems to go hand in hand with environmental degradation. Consequently, the people trying to save the polar bear, the whooping crane and the Lange’s metalmark butterfly are trying counter environmental crisis by rescuing specific animal species. This is of course also highly problematic: focusing on flagship species such as polar bears ay lead to one-sided conservation, and the projects Mooallem describes all beg the question whether they are really about the animals – and not primarily about what people want from wilderness. As one of people involved with the preservation of whooping cranes in the US says, “It’s not a bird project … It’s a people project. The birds are an excuse for doing something good” (278).

Is the wild, then, important because it says something about us? Because it does something for us, because it makes us feel a certain way?

In Feral, George Monbiot suggests that the wild is important because it is important to us as humans – not so much because of its inherent value separate from us. When arguing for the reintroduction of the wolf to Britain, he writes “I want to see wolves reintroduced because they feel to me like the shadow that fleets between systole and diastole, because they are the necessary monsters of the mind, inhabitants of the more passionate world against which we have locked our doors” (Feral 117-18).

Interestingly, although Mooallem and Monbiot emphasize the relationship between humans and (wild) animals, definitions of wilderness tend to emphasize the separateness of the wild from humans. Mooallem repeats that it is the animal’s independence from us that makes polar bears, whooping cranes and Lange’s metalmark so fascinating – and so much worth saving.

At the same time, he is very much aware of the fact that this kind of wilderness is impossible to sustain in the twenty-first century. What we are left with is humans struggling to preserve the wild: out of a sense of responsibility for what we are destroying, but also out of deeply seated desire to see it, to be there, to not miss out on the wild. By doing so, we fall into the trap of the wilderness paradox: the wild, as William Cronon has argued, is both where we are not, but where we want to be nonetheless.

P1060544Monbiot argues that our desire to experience the wild has led to the sightings of wild cats – which turn out not to be wild cats at all. A well-documented example is that of the Sydenham Panther which attacked a man in 2005. Monbiot suggests that the sightings – of what he calls ‘the never-spotted leopard’ – tap into deeper sentiments. They activate an ancient evolutionary template in our minds which is stimulated especially by the disappearance from these creates from our environments (Feral 60).

Big cat sightings also show up in contemporary literature: in Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, “something wolf-like and huge” is killing the protagonist’s sheep – although she is unable to identify precisely what it is. In Melissa Harrison’s Clay, TC, a young boy, is sure that he has discovered the tracks of a wolf in the park. He tells his friend Jozef that there is something “lonely and wild” roaming the estate, and that this is not unusual at all: “[t]here are panthers out there, all sorts. People see them all the time. A man got bit by a big cat in Luton, taking his bins out, I saw it” (103).

Our imaginations may indeed need the wild more than we want to admit. Like many of the people in Wild Ones, we may be fighting more for the idea of the polar bear or whooping crane, for the idea of wilderness, than for the actual animal. Yes – like Monbiot suggests, the preservation and return of certain of wild animals is important for the ecosystems in which they used to live. But it are the stories of the wild – the TV shows and films, the poems and novels, even the stories of conservation attempts – that most appeal to us, and that most seem to touch us.

Some form of wilderness paradox, perhaps different than the one identified by Cronon, seems inherent to our engagements with the wild. It is a paradox between our imaginations of the wild – and our mental, psychological or narrative need – and the actual fate of the wild in the world around us. This paradox is captured well in Ted Hughes poem “February” – one of the many poems he wrote about wolves. Its opening lines describe the imaginary wolf, which has come to stand in for the absence of the real wolf:

The wolf with its belly stitched full of big pebbles;
Nibelung wolves barbed like black pineforest
Against a red sky, over blue snow; or that long grin
Above the tucked coverlet – none suffice.

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.