Nature writing is booming – however should a stroll within the woods at all times be significant?

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When so many of us struggle to find time and money to head outdoors, nature writing offers us vicarious enchantment – regardless of reality

Nature, as both a place and an idea, has become fraught with issues of privilege. Not everyone can access it, nor can they always afford to romanticise it. As biodiversity plummets, our attention becomes bittersweet, leaving nature lovers trapped in an increasingly tragic love story. Yet for any difficulty we may have in facing up to our collective destruction, writing about nature is booming. As readers, we relish these secondhand wanderings, recounted in gorgeous prose. We witness the author’s wonder, and aspire to similar experiences: the natural world as cure, as balm, as wise mentor; wilderness as a fount of authenticity in which we might find our wilder, realer selves.

My own relationship with nature writing is complicated. I am disappointed by my hesitancy when it comes to these books. After all, that most heady brew, where sublime language renders nature’s glories anew is one I personally aspire to concoct as a writer. And I’m often enchanted by writing that achieves it, such as Dorothy Hartley’s 1939 book Made in England, a favourite of mine. Hartley’s descriptions of landscapes and details as she strides out to document dwindling crafts range from the matter-of-fact to the downright fanciful. But all speak of a sharp eye and a guileless joy that make me wish I could tramp alongside her, spotting the small marvels she points out along the way. We might stop and notice the “tiny green tentative fingers” of growing things, or “the crackling cat-ice in the cart ruts” ourselves, but she is not going to linger over them on our behalf – she has work to do. Whether she is enchanted by her surroundings or not, we must infer; she will not tell. Whether you are enchanted is up to you.

Yet so much contemporary nature writing (Hartley sallied out almost a century ago) invites us – sometimes explicitly – to wonder not just at the natural world, but at the author’s experience. Nature writing offers us vicarious enchantment, for how many of us really have the time, the money and the tenacity to make regular, lengthy forays into the wild?

In Crow Country, Mark Cocker’s beautiful and epiphanic account of his growing obsession with rooks, this familiar bird that any of us might encounter in our urban lives becomes magical, “unsheathed entirely from any sense of ordinariness”. As he watches the flock (“an entoptic vision”), it “stirs something edgy” into his sense of wonder. For Cocker, “the underlying goal of any outing is to have an encounter of some meaning”.

He is right, of course. We all long for meaning, and the natural world is a good place to seek it out. But experiencing meaning in nature, being enchanted by her myriad forms, now feels aspirational. I suspect my resistance in the face of nature writing stems from stubbornness: against the implication that if only I connected properly with nature, I would be elevated somehow. On some days, a walk through the woods or along the shore can be disappointing, or even unpleasant, and that is all right. Enchantment is not everywhere all the time; it is an inner state that relies on mood and receptivity quite as much as the appearance of a fox or a grey seal or a charismatic oak.

Nature can also be found anywhere, if we are inclined to look at a certain slant. Books such as Edgelands, by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, or Clay by Melissa Harrison, remind us of this. While Clay is a novel, it is bursting with nature writing, showing us a scrubby city park in which “every tree and fencepost and path and thicket was charged with an almost mystical significance” for the boy protagonist. He yearns to belong to the world of squirrels and birds that abuts his housing estate. Edgelands celebrates the scraps of unruly wasteland that sidle up against the city – both Farley and Roberts having haunted such places during childhoods when they “wondered where the countryside actually was, or if it really existed”.

There is no doubting that a spot of communing with nature is good for us. Full immersion, then, might be even better. (Though there is nothing like a struggle to get warm and dry, or find your way to safety, to do away with the hunt for meaning.) Has the proliferation of nature writing led to a proliferation of countryside explorers? Are we following the example of intrepid writers and becoming re-enchanted with the world as a result? I rather hope so, though the cynic in me suspects that where nature is not Instagrammable, some will not bother to tread. Having feasted on the intense dramas and exquisite scenery of an Attenborough documentary, a poke around in a rockpool may lose its lure.

Though access to many wild places remains a privilege, access to enchantment and meaning need not be. The more we idolise extreme or unusual experiences of the natural world, the less inclined we will be to bother looking for meaning in our ordinary lives, on our own street, in our local patch of park. But a place that appears thoroughly disenchanting to one person may bewitch another, if they tilt their heads. Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words is an exemplar, explicitly offering us words as magic keys to open up the natural world. It is no accident that this a spell book, since spells alter reality using words. As Ursula Le Guin had it: “Magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.” Our world may not have much room for magic, but we all speak, write and read the language of enchantment – if we choose to see it that way.

Zoe Gilbert’s novel Folk is shortlisted for this year’s Swansea University International Dylan Thomas prize, to be announced on Thursday.

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