Friday 20 September 2019

Green shoots: the growth of Irish nature writing

The new 'golden age' of nature writing is rooted in environmental breakdown, the fear of loss and a desire to reconnect with the natural world, writes Hilary A White

Fallow: the Irish nature-writing canon is quite thin
Fallow: the Irish nature-writing canon is quite thin

Hilary A White

'There's a tree creeper call there," Declan himself chirps. "That high-pitched call. That's a contact call for the young. Or it's 'I see you'."

There it is. And again. A chaffinch joins in with its self-descriptive pink-pink call. My guide is the naturalist Declan Murphy. It is in these woods on this private estate, deep in the lush folds of Co Wicklow, that Murphy studied great spotted woodpeckers, a species that magically turned up a decade ago and began breeding here.

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Murphy poured the experiences and knowledge accumulated during hundreds of cramped hours in a hide into A Life in the Trees (2017). A novel subject and Murphy's relatable voice saw an initial run of 700 sell out. Now reprinted by Lilliput Press, the book has become one of the more noteworthy Irish natural history titles in recent years.

A new woodpecker nest was discovered four days ago by a friend, and while we try to pin it down, the father of two is talking about what some are calling a "surge in nature writing".

"You need to open your eyes," Murphy says, "and to do that, you first need to open your mind. Someone might say we're just going for a walk in a wood. But the trees are not all the same. There's thick ones, thin ones, tall ones, oaks, beeches, old, young. It's not one thing. Look at the colours and textures. You could lose yourself. You've got to bring the reader there."

A combination of factors has led to this nature-writing boom. Wide-scale urbanisation and a desire to reconnect somehow with the natural world. Souls troubled by anxiety or depression heading out into the wild to find healing and coming back with an account to share. And, perhaps most pressingly, a ratcheting worry about broader environmental breakdown and what we stand to lose.

Authors such as Helen Macdonald (whose 2014 memoir H is for Hawk was a publishing blockbuster), and non-fiction star Robert Macfarlane (Underland, Mountains of the Mind) are now household names; literary icons who bring the waters and the wild to your armchair by way of gilded, first-person creativity and language that is charged with tactile imagery.

For decades, the genre was mostly concerned with straight-up naturalism, field journals, or the "go for a walk and report back" format that traded in heady description, designed to place you in the breast pocket of the writer. But nature writing now seems to speak more to our personal role, to the healing properties of wild places, and the things that the natural world can reflect back at us to increase our understanding of ourselves.

From Richard Mabey's 2005 depression memoir Nature Cure to more recent fare, such as Amy Liptrot's The Outrun and Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness, modern exponents write about themselves within nature rather than just the birds and bees they see. And readers can't get enough of it.

These "new nature writers" may well be under the spotlight at the inaugural Shaking Bog Festival of Nature Writing, taking place in Glencree, Co Wicklow today and tomorrow.

The event is the brainchild of Dublin Dance Festival founder Catherine Nunes who, along with husband (and celebrated filmmaker) Alan Gilsenan, has used nature writing to acquaint herself with the wildlife and landscape of the sumptuous valley of Glencree, her home for 16 years.

The Irish nature-writing map is sparsely plotted. Writer and naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865-1953) is the prototype. JM Synge knew his way around a landscape. The cartographer and Connemara trilogy author Tim Robinson is still spoken of in hushed tones. Sean Lysaght, Philip Judge and Mark Boyle have shown great skill at locating nature's rare essences in their respective viewfinders.

But why is this nation of scribes so behind when it comes to such a rich and romantic literary tradition?

"It's interesting that in Ireland there hasn't been quite as much conscious nature writing," agrees Nunes. "Many of the writers we draw on are American or British. One theory is that Ireland was colonised and, therefore, we never actually owned the land, and when we did finally get ownership of it, it was something to produce food for us rather than to stand and wonder at."

Poet Jane Clarke puts Ireland's thin nature-writing canon down to similar historical factors. "Nature failed us during the Famine and left us deeply wounded as a nation," she says. "And until recently, we were a rural society and the relationship between farming and nature was a largely ambivalent one. We didn't think to really wax lyrical about it probably until Patrick Kavanagh.

"More recently, nature has become a place where people find sustenance, stillness and meaning. The rise in nature writing must be linked to more technological domination and religion having less of a place, and therefore the need for a sense of what it is to be alive."

John Lewis-Stempel, the celebrated UK author of The Wood and The Running Hare, feels that nature writing's role as a balm is nothing new and even goes right back to Henry David Thoreau's 1854 year zero of nature writing, Walden.

"I too am guilty of reinventing the wheel," he admits. "I wrote a book called The Wild Life about living off the land, and lo! I discovered that being out and about in fresh air, greenery, wind and sun, rain and snow, was good for the mind. But I do think it is time that we moved on and started asking - to paraphrase JFK - what can we do for nature rather than what can nature do for us."

Indeed. Given the times, is it enough to just provide vicarious enchantment and hope that inspires interest? Or must nature writing carry extra weight given the plight of the earth?

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's sobering 1962 whistleblow about agricultural chemical use, is a landmark in environmental writing that resounds in today's context of dwindling insect life. Mary Colwell's Curlew Moon (2018) is built upon the extinction threat of that iconic species, while Macfarlane's recent Underland is soundtracked by the music of the Anthropocene. The difference is that the latter two imbue their environmental messages with poeticism and speculative projection.

"Ironic isn't it?," says Lewis-Stempel. "The less nature we have, the more nature books we have. The new 'golden age' of nature writing has many roots, and one is the fear of loss. Quite a few nature writers, myself included, are people who can remember the 1970s, when the countryside had 50pc more birds than now.

"The other roots of the renaissance, I suspect, lie in the 2008 crash, and, are a reaction to 'the fall of Mammon'.

"The love of nature writing is also about the desire to discover the true eternalities, real values."

The Shaking Bog Festival runs all weekend in the Glencree Valley, Co Wicklow. www.shakingbog.ie

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