Urban Nature

“Seeing nature in the city is only a matter of perception”- Anne Spirn. The Granite Garden.

At least since the turn of the century, attention to nature in cities is increasing – from Transition Towns to green design, from Edgelands to Field Notes from a Hidden City.

An unofficial green area - a roadside bench
An unofficial green area – a roadside bench

There’s also wealth of research on the benefits of urban nature and even, which surprised and delighted me, research that suggests committed urbanites may actually prefer urban nature to more traditional nature.

An extensive study from the late 1980s, conducted by Jacquelin Burgess et al, found that so-called “unofficial green areas”, such as the greenery separating sidewalks from roads, and other strips of green – is valued more than “official” green spaces such as parks or the countryside (460). The subjects in this study valued urban nature particularly for its being urban nature, not just as a remnant or echo of some kind of ideal, or unspoilt, nature that has been lost. Rather, these public open spaces were important to them because “they have the potential to enhance those positive qualities of urban life: variety of opportunities and physical settings; sociability and cultural diversity” (471).

A lot of current nature writing is about, as Anne Spirn suggests, simply seeing nature in the city. In Edgelands Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts describe precisely those in-between spaces – often urbanized – that form a kind of no-man’s land between the countryside and the city. While some of their chapters – on sewage plants for instance – relate specifically to spaces outside of cities, others – such as the chapter on wastelands – are recognizable urban spaces. Only if we see them, and develop a language to describe them, can these spaces truly be valued, Farley and Symmons Roberts argue. A similar point is made in a great guestpost by Naomi Racz on the Center for Humans and Nature Blog. In “On the Benefit of Monomania” she refers to Robert Macfarlane’s advice to “become a monomaniac”, and study one thing, one species, one stretch of river, to hone the skills of the nature writer. Such monomania, Racz argues, is particularly needed in the city:

In a way, the city demands this of us. Despite the terms used to describe cities—sprawl comes to mind—they often draw us in on a much smaller scale. The weed growing through a crack in the pavement has become something of a cliché, but it does suggest an important point about nature in the city and our attachment to the cities we live in.

Indeed, in cities, nature is often not that which immediately draws attention, unless we explicitly look out for it. There’s so much going, so much sound, so many people, so many impressions, that we may easily get caught up in the social swirl, without looking up at the sky and the trees, or paying attention to the changing seasons.

Urban nature - Berlin
Urban nature – Berlin

Yet promoting this kind of dedicated searching for nature in the cities may – and has – also led to charges that urban nature is too fragmented to enable “real” nature experience, whatever that may be. One of ecocriticism’s founding fathers, Lawrence Buell, for instance, clearly struggles with urban nature in his work. Although he does discuss it obliquely – in The Future of Environmental Criticism, for instance – he repeatedly comes to the conclusion that urban nature is somehow “lesser” than the non-urban kind. A particularly explicit example of the bias some ecocritics hold towards urban nature is an article by Lee Rozelle, in which he claims that “the terms urban and ecology, when placed together, seem a most dangerous oxymoron; to make such easy semantic fusions, however intriguing the academic result, leaves the door open for the referent – voiceless nature – to become critically restricted” (109). According to some ecocritics – and no doubt, other environmentalists as well – discussing urban nature may lead to silencing already ‘voiceless’ nature. Of course, anyone who wakes early around this time of year will hear that even in the city, nature is anything but ‘voiceless’, as birds announce the coming of a new day, and spring, with gusto.

The true challenge, then, is not so much to just see urban nature, but to see urban nature as a unique kind of nature. All too often, nature in cities is interpreted as signifying “absence” – to use the term John Tallmadge employs in The Cincinnati Arch. And it is indeed all too easy to interpret urban nature in terms of traditional nature: the beautiful urban garden reminiscent of a slice of the countryside, the secluded corner of a park that reminds us of the peace and quiet of wilder, and quieter, places away from the city. But in order to truly see nature in the city, we need a language and imagery to describe nature that is uniquely urban.

Urban nature - Leuven
Urban nature – Leuven

One of the best examples of such urban nature is the urban wasteland – celebrated by Farley and Symmons Roberts as being “incredibly biodiverse and locally rich in species that find an ecological niche, and opportunity” (145). Melissa Harrison’s novel Clay includes a number of beautiful passages on such a wasteland. It is a typically urban space, that merges the nonhuman natural and man-made. To the young boy who discovers it, it doesn’t matter that there are “unnatural” elements in it: the roof tiles, buckets and coils of wire sticking out of the ivy weren’t litter. Instead, “he could tell it had all been here for ages, and was part of the place, somehow” (147).

Seeing urban nature, then, is just the first step – recognizing its imaginative power to connect us to more than ourselves, particularly in a time of climate change and increased urbanization, is the next.

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I explore this topic in more detail in two articles: “Wastelands, Shrubs and Parks: Ecocriticism and the Challenge of the Urban” (Frame 26.2 [November 2013]), and in “Re-Approaching Urban Nature: Ecocritical Readings of Contemporary Humanized Landscapes”, forthcoming in Alluvium.

“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.

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.

Why Flight Behaviour Works as a Climate Crisis Novel – and why Solar doesn’t

flight behaviourEven though I’ve had a Kindle for years, I allow myself to buy the occasional ‘real’ book. Last Saturday I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012). Of course, I’d heard about the novel before, but frankly I was hesitant about reading another ‘climate/environmental novel’.

Given my field of research – ecocriticism – that hesitation may be strange. I have to admit that it was mainly caused by that other climate novel – Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010). Although I’ve written about it in my dissertation – and my forthcoming contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism –  I’ve always felt ambivalent about it. My interest in Solar is solely ecocritical: in my research I looked at the ways in which the novel challenges ecocritical assumptions, and in that sense it’s quite interesting. As a reader – and a literary scholar -, however, it disappointed me.

I really enjoyed Flight Behaviour, and am glad I picked it up. Because of  its subject matter, I couldn’t help comparing it to Solar, and came to the conclusion that it’s a much better ‘climate crisis novel’ than Solar, for several reasons.

Flight Behaviour works as a climate crisis novel because it does a much better job at making climate crisis – and climate change – tangible. If you haven’t read it, the novel is about Dellarobia, a young mother and farmer’s wife who, on her way to meeting her lover, comes across a sea of orange in the woods behind her home. Mesmerized, she never makes the tryst, and returns home instead. The sea of orange (she’s not wearing her glasses when she first sees it) turns out to be a roost of Monarch butterflies, very rare and threatened, and not at all common to the region where she lives.

In the rest of the novel, the magic of these butterflies appearing in the Appalachians comes to stand for the environmental changes monarchstaking place all over the world, and the freak weather patterns affecting the region. At the same time, the woods as a potential source of income for Dellarobia’s in-laws, her sudden celebrity following a television interview, a crush on the scientist who comes to investigate the butterflies, and the intricacies – and small-mindedness – of rural religion place the butterflies, and the woods in which they live, at the centre of a complicated web of agents and interests.

Solar lacks a recognizable image: in fact, it abounds in images that don’t work – global warming is dispelled by Beard’s sojourn in the Arctic, a powerful story of a man in the forest felling trees becomes a cheap sales pitch. Climate change never becomes real in this novel – instead, it’s just one element of a larger satire in which nothing is ever taken seriously. A synecdoche like the Monarch butterflies – or like the silent spring in Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring (1962) – is absent, whereas such an image is vital to an issue as complex as environmental change.

Flight Behaviour works as a climate change novel because it shows the complexity of the climate change debate through intelligent conversation, without resorting to sarcasm or cynicism. It takes its readers seriously. Dellarobia challenges climate science through her talks with Ovid Byron – the scientist studying the monarchs. Their discussions aren’t merely about believing or disbelieving – Dellarobia is not a disbeliever, but rather someone who until then had never considered believing. Instead, they show the full complexity of the environmental change debate. Environmental crisis is not merely about science or measurements, but a thoroughly cultural debate, determined by background as much as education:

“‘I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around,’ she said. ‘Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and     John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants'” (444).

Belief in environmental crisis, Dellarobia suggests, is only for those who can afford to worry about it – those that aren’t either busy worrying about making ends meet on a day-to-day basis or are anyhow deemed to stupid, too redneck, to understand it. This presents a much more nuanced, and thorough, view of environmental crisis, and the debate surrounding it, than Solar, which in all its satire stays flat and shallow.

Flight Behaviour works as a climate crisis novel because it’s a better novel. Literary critics, particularly those outside of the UK, came down hard on McEwan, accusing him of creating a claustrophobic experience by focalizing the entire novel through Beard, who is not only thoroughly unlikeable but also an unsuccessful allegory for humankind, and a hardly productive contribution to environmental debates both within and outside of the book.

Also, it seemed that the narrative was constantly trying to decide whether it wanted to be a nonfictional text on environmental science or a novel. At the end, it ended up as neither, and got stuck in commonplaces.

Flight Behaviour, on the other hand, works as a novel first and foremost. Its characterization is well-rounded and developed, and although the pace is sometimes perhaps a bit too slow, the narrative arc holds up all through its 597 pages. It is a complex novel, with dialogues that are lively but never too drawn out, and Kingsolver impressively weaves together different narratives and characters.

Finally, Flight Behaviour works because it’s not about climate change. Climate change is one of its narratives, alongside other fully developed narratives. Leaving aside the narrative of the butterflies and the larger narrative of environmental change, there is still plenty left: an intelligent character who reflects on herself and her life, a community set in its ways, stories of poverty and class. In fact, calling it a ‘climate crisis novel’, as I do here, sells it short.

A novel – any novel – should first be a novel: a (literary) text, using literary and narratological devices in a way that differentiates it from other texts. A novel is not a pamphlet for environmental activism – but can nonetheless reflect our debates, opinions and confusions about environmental change and crisis.

Macho nature? Or, Gender in New Nature Writing Part I

Sure, the few tentative attempts at defining a new British nature writing suggest that this is a (sub) genre dominated by men, with the notable exception of Kathleen Jamie. Nonetheless, I’d never really thought of these new British nature writing texts in terms of gender – perhaps the result of years of reading of ecocritical texts in which such gendered approaches to nature are often, and so successfully, deconstructed.

So I hadn’t given gender – and gendered experiences of landscape – in new British nature writing much thought until I came across Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room (2001). In this declaration of love to the Shiant islands in Northern Scotland, Nicolson, quite matter-of-factly, calls the sea “the male domain” (65), and that made me wonder: really? To what extent do we still perceive nature in gendered terms? And, more interestingly, do male and female experiences of nature in new British nature writing differ?

Particularly in early ecocriticism and 1990s environmentalism, the relationship between nature and culture was placed in a larger context of other dichotomies, particularly male/female. Val Plumwood, for instance, is very persuasive in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) in showing how inequality is caught up in the binary oppositions that determine how we think about men and women, nature and culture, reason and emotion. Especially interesting in this whole debate, I think, are the ways in which these associations are also fluid: the positive part of the opposition – the male – can be seen as both culture, and nature: culture, when ‘wild’, ‘natural’ women have to be civilized, nature when it comes to drawing a contrast to the domestic sphere of the home, the place of women and children.

Although this debate has not been resolved – if it ever can be – I was surprised by the very typical, and strongly gendered, way in which Nicolson portrays (his relationship with) the Shiants in Sea Room. At the same time, Sea Room has been heralded as one of the first examples of the new British nature writing, which makes me wonder: what is the place of gender, and gendered perceptions of nature, in new British nature writing?

The Shiants, Nicolson writes, are “quite unfeminine”. Describing the rough journey by boat, crossing the treacherous Minch, struggling to find a landing place among the rocks, only to find shelter in a rat-infested house, in which “guttering candles and smoking lanterns have coated the ceilings with a film of grey soot”, Nicolson writes that “Women don’t like it much… My own mother went only once and never again. Sarah, my wife, has braved it twice but not which much enthusiasm and will not, I think, return” (65). Instead, the islands now seem to be a boy’s playground, and the dangers that Nicolson and others meet – including the death of a teenage boy in the 1980s – are described with a certain pride that reminded me, at times, a bit too much of pub talk.

Yet Nicolson’s gendered picture of the Shiants goes beyond the stories of adventures and risk. Towards the end of the book, Nicolson describes the last family to live on the islands. In 1862, Catherine and Donald Campbell, a young couple from nearby Molinginish, moved to the Shiants. For at least the first decades or so, they lived a relatively good life: their house was improved by their landlord in the early 1870s, and two of the rare visitors to the islands mention a maid servant. The visitors – the naturalist John Harvie-Brown and his friend, Matthew Heddle – particularly note the daughters of the family: “The family consists of two daughters both uncommonly handsome girls. My fancy was on the younger & I think sweeter-tempered and merrier of the two – Bella – Profr. Heddles fancy was the tall graceful dark haired black-eyed Spanish looking belle who would have graced any ball room. She certainly is one of the very loveliest women I ever beheld” (qtd on 324).

Two young beautiful women on a near-deserted island: soon the attraction of the islands was not so much in the puffins or other animals to be hunted, but Mor and Catriona, the Campbell’s daughters. With fishermen visiting the islands every year, it wasn’t long before both girls became pregnant – an episode which Nicolson interestingly introduces by describing the dangers the Shiant fishermen were exposed to. In 1886, four young fishermen from Scalpay – “glamorous, charming, brave, strong, witty, sexy men”, as Nicolson describes them – came to the Shiants to fish but never returned. Nothing was found of them but a cap and the tiller of the boat.

Traditionally, Sirens lure fishermen to shore, either to capture them for life, or cause them to wreck their ships on rocks. The Scalpay fishermen, and others, may have similarly fallen for the lure of the Mor and Catriona, who, as Nicolson notes, represented the kind of “excited sexual naughtiness [that] was common among Hebridean girls” (329). He seems to get a little excited himself, in fact, when he imagines “these beautiful and sexy girls out in the middle of the Minch, surrounded and besieged by the man’s world of boats and danger at sea” (331) – new nature writing meets Freudian psychology.

Nevertheless, as these things go, at the end of the day Mor and Catriona were the ones punished for all this sexual excitement. They remained single, living on the islands with their parents and mute brother until their mother died in 1901. When she did, the family left the islands, taking Catherine’s body with them in a coffin, and never returned. Nicolson speculates that it was the mother, Catherine Campbell, who kept her children and grandchildren on the island for forty years. She was the one who refused to leave, the one who imposed this solitude on her family, and with it, a life of alienation, illegitimacy and loneliness.

Within Nicolson’s story of distinctly masculine islands, this final, and very unfortunate episode in the history of permanent human habitation on the Shiants, suggests that it’s for the best that the island is now a male place, away from the confusions and siren-calls of women. And the Shiants are to Nicolson, as they were to his father, and at present are perhaps also for his son, the ideal place for boys to become men. New nature writing, then, much like some of the ‘old’, as a ritual, a rite of passage, and the remote corners of the British isles as the not-so-new frontier.

(In part 2 I explore the works of Kathleen Jamie examples of new British nature writing by women and discuss how gendered their experiences and readings of landscape are)

Where to now? Research post PhD

By the Spring of 2012 I felt suitably fed up with my dissertation – Ecocriticism and the Contemporary British Novel -, and was very ready to explore the world outside of ecocriticism. Since I was lucky enough to a). do my PhD in the Netherlands where it’s a paid job, and you get a contract for 4 1/2 (0.8 fte), and b). finish 9 months before the end of my contract, I had plenty of time to think of what I wanted to do after my PhD. I still loved academia, the only question now was, where to next?

The finding-a-job-part is perhaps a topic for another post (and great posts on that are out there already), so I want to focus on deciding what kind of research to do post-PhD. While writing my chapter on “place”, in which I discuss John Burnside’s The Locust Room (2001), I became interested in the role and representation of photography in literature. In October 2011 I was invited to give a paper at the John Burnside Colloquium at the University of Darmstadt (Germany). In my paper I explored the role of photography in Burnside’s work, particularly the influence of the photographer Raymond Moore on The Locust Room.

Following the Darmstadt Colloquium I turned my paper into an article, and then realized that there was much more in this field of literature and photography than I could fit into one article. I also discovered that there were some major gaps in the field: much has been done in literature and photography studies on Victorian literature (Nancy Armstrong, notably), and there’s also been quite a lot of work on the use of photographs in novels to challenge processes of memory. Yet I was interested in the role of photographs – specifically those that are not printed – in contemporary literature. Furthermore, I was curious whether a theory/methodology could be developed for the analysis of what I call “unseen photographs” in literature.

And like that, the idea for a new research project was born. The ‘trick’, if any, with any new venture, including a  research project, is to follow your intuition. Any researcher, I think, will recognize that feeling, that hunch, a slight tickle, that suggests that there’s something new and interesting. For me, that something had to do firstly with the works of John Burnside: The Locust Room is one of the most interesting novels I discuss in my dissertation. On the other hand, I didn’t want to pin myself too much by focusing on one author. One of the most interesting aspects of Burnside’s fiction for me is his treatment of photography (and seeing in general), which led to the paper, the article, and a new line of research.

Essential, I think, for starting a new research project is getting it out in the open. I started talking to my (then) PhD-supervisor about it, and with some other trusted colleagues. They gave me valuable feedback and confidence, and confirmed that I was on to something.

Another essential aspect of starting a new research project is getting to know the field, and the library can only get you so far. So, I decided to organize an international symposium on literature and the visual arts. I asked a colleague to help me out, and we organized an interesting conference, with some really good papers, in late October 2012. That symposium was really valuable in helping me see what’s out there in the field of literature and photography studies, and, also through the special issue of Image & Narrative that we’re editing, expressed my own interest to a wider audience.

Another way of getting to know a new field – and making yourself known to the field – is through a research visit, which I did in April/May 2012. Contacting them was a bit scary, I admit, but they were incredibly nice. A week beforehand I sent them a page of my ideas, still fairly rough but nonetheless organized. They helped me think through what I wanted further, and also – invaluable in the early stages of a research project – narrow it down.

So, that is the post-PhD topic decided on? Well – yes, but also not quite… During my PhD I realized that I don’t want to work on one thing only: consequently, I taught courses, organized two international conferences, wrote articles, organized events within my department. I always knew, then, that I would want to have a sideline next to my core research, if possible: I notice that it keeps me fresh.

And that is exactly what happened: in late summer I started thinking about ecocriticism again. I had done very little work in the field in the preceding months – save a contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism and a thorough reread of my dissertation before submitting it to the committee. But reading some recent articles, and Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley’s Edgelands made me itch to do something ecocritical again.*

And since then, the new research project has taken off. Literature and photography studies is still an interest for me, but a break showed me that I’m just not done with ecocriticism. It excites me more than any other research field – and it feels more pressing as a topic, and more relevant to contemporary society. I love how immediate it is: how much of our culture is permeated with our views on nature and am excited about all the new work that’s going on in ecocriticism – for instance, on material ecocriticism, despite my hesitations on that. The biggest surprise for me has been my enthusiasm for new British nature writing, and discovering the works of Symmons Robert & Farley, Kathleen Jamie, Jean Sprackland, Robert Macfarlane and others. More on that – applying for grants and post-doc places – in some future post…

* Side note: one of the benefits of choosing a topic that is close, but not too close, to your PhD topic is that you’ve already established yourself as an expert in the field, though this differs in some countries. In Germany, for instance, scholars are expected to write their second book on a very different topic from the first.