Heated debate in Wild England

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Saturday’s Guardian featured an article by Stephen Poole titled ‘Is Our Love of Nature Writing Bourgeois Escapism?’ Given my recent post After London: dreaming Wild England, I found this fascinating.

I think it’s a bit tired to dismiss anything as bourgeois, not just because it’s usually a case of people in glass houses, but also because it’s an unworkable generalisation. And the author takes an unnecessarily violent swipe at George Monbiot, going so far as to suggest, rather wildly, that a concern for the effects of alien species in the countryside might be part of the same mindset that creates fascists. But it’s a well-researched and intelligent article once you get past the Julie Burchill syndrome, and asks questions which can only sharpen exactly how and why we worship, and try to protect, the natural world.

Monbiot has responded to the article, understandably hurt and angry. He returns the unfair swipe (which branded Monbiot as part of all that I imagine Monbiot finds abhorrent) by painting Poole as a zombie on the juggernaut of corporate domination. But in doing so, he makes a better point:

“Unlike most art, the wonders of nature often stand in the way of attempts to extract resources or to build airports or shopping centres. Corporate attacks on people who love and seek to defend the natural world have seeped into every pore. Culturally hegemonic, the developers’ view finds expression in the most unlikely places.

So those of us whose love of the natural world is a source of constant joy and constant despair, who wish to immerse ourselves in nature as others immerse themselves in art, who try to defend the marvels that enthrall us, find ourselves labelled – from the Mail to the Guardian – as romantics, escapists and fascists. That, I suppose, is the price of confronting the power of money.”

It’s not new thinking, but it cuts through a lot of chatter to the heart of the matter.

The whole spat is a reminder that there’s so much unnecessary confrontation used to discuss these things freely, even among those with similar values. Stephen Poole has some important questions to ask, and it’s best summed up by the most recommended comment on his article, from Mark 56:

“Though I love many of the works described above, I’ve often wondered about the bourgeois, uh, nature of nature writing in the past. Not so much the outcomes, but the roots – they’re mostly written by people of a similar, often quite well-to-do background, and present a rather narrow spectrum of relationships with the natural world. Or if not narrow, then repetitive. It would be brilliant to read about more diverse interactions with the landscape, rather than embarking upon a middle-class quest all the time. It’s why I quite liked Neil Ansell’s writing, since he comes at this business from a different angle – more of that, please. And there aren’t anywhere near enough female nature writers, come to think of it.”

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7 thoughts on “Heated debate in Wild England

  1. It is an intriguing debate and I feel that in his article Poole’s does raise some issues that are worth discussing, especially the point you highlight with the quote from the comments section on the similar background and gender of many nature/landscape writers.

    However, like you I think that branding Monbiot’s concerns over non-native species as akin to, at best, UKIP style Little-Englandism, at worst fascist is an unfair leap to make and, as with the use of ‘bourgeois escapism’ seems a cheap shot that’s aimed more at provoking outrage in the Guardian comments section than anything else. In Australia, to use a non UK example, Cane Toads and Camel populations are massive problems, and being concerned about such things simply doesn’t automatically bear any direct connection to personal political views.

    There does seem to be a wider difficulty for some in separating out other people’s genuine love of ‘nature’ or landscape, or more specifically their native land, from xenophobia or knee-jerk patriotism. It is possible to be interested in and even deeply cherish these things and without also being some kind of extreme right-wing blood-and-soil nationalist.

    • Thanks for the comment and stopping by… I think until quite recently many people, speaking in the UK at least, felt a need to explain their love of the land in order to distance themselves from the knee-jerk patriotism and xenophobia, and it’s no small task to lose those associations.

      As for the ‘bourgeois escapism’, my partner made a comment that I think sums up why aspects of new nature writing might make some uncomfortable: ‘It’s the suggestion of creating something exclusive out of something free and universal which annoys’. And any cultural trend is picked up by marketing teams, particularly in the search for a lucrative demographic. It gets reinterpreted and misinterpreted and that’s where old ghosts of privilege might arise.

  2. spaceplacetime

    I read Steven Poole’s Guardian article in the context of some work a colleague and myself are doing on “integrative practice”. This looks at how thinking systems such as ‘psychogeography’ can be invaluable to the helping professions. Steven Poole’s piece was journalistic in scope and delivery (he’s a journalist!) but the two pages of comments that followed it provided a rich insight into how significant the ‘naturalistic’ turn in literature has become. Escapism implies a ‘running from’ something rather than a motion towards as phenomenologists like Tim Ingold might put it. It was clear that respondents on the most part where ‘moving towards’ than ‘running from’.

    It is telling that Rebecca Solnit’s new book has received some reviews that mimic Steven Poole’s approach. Her comments on the value of isolation to herself are often misrepresented as being elitist rather than a valuable exploration of place and time. To want to be alone in a socially-networked world is now clearly a crime of incorrectness.

    It seems that a backlash against the success of the naturalistic turn is setting in. A recent reviewer of Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Old Ways’ thought there was no point reading his ‘Mountains of the Mind’ on the basis that it had been described as being part of a loose trilogy and was thus dispensable.

    Good job the Wordsworths, the Brontes, Coleridge or Mary Shelley aren’t plying their craft today…

    • Thanks for the comment… I think there’s much to be optimistic about too. There is a genuine rediscovery and discussion of how people can enjoy and be part the natural world, rather than it just being an elusive notion. Work by the National Trust, for example, has re-focused energies on enjoyment of the natural world as part of everyone’s everyday life.

      It’s very tempting – and I have done it myself – to feel we’re all dragged along in the current of social media etc, but the fact that people are reinstating our place in an offline, natural world, with such ‘passion’, for want of a better word, suggests that we’ll all find a balance and individuality once things settle. One of the negative things about the 21st century is that space, peace and time alone is becoming a luxury, and increasingly hard for everyone to find without searching for it, or being charged a premium for it.

  3. It’s a minefield out there! Sometimes I don’t know where to place my feet anymore! I suppose, in a way though, it’s an encouraging sign that such things have moved much more centre stage now – it all felt so off in the wings, and disregarded by all but a few when I were a lass. There I go, getting all nostalgic – and probably escapist!

    My ramblings on your wonderful ‘After London: Dreaming Wild England’ post have kind of touched already on what I was going to say here – about the complexities of a concept in relation to the trends that seek to express it – and the trends sometimes seeming like ring fences around what really is more of an egalitarian thing; a thing central to us all – a deeply felt essential (i.e. we are nature, nature is our world – we can no more go out into it, than we can leave it…). Philip Pullman often uses a phrase ‘the democracy of reading’ – perhaps we could co-opt the phrase, ‘the democracy of nature.’ It’s the great leveller – and the grassroots of us all, and we all have our different interpretations. But, down at those grassroots, nature is what it is – a butterfly is a butterfly. How we respond to that butterfly can lead us closer to what it is – or further away. But to be able to notice it at all – and hopefully to care about it, is the basis of something crucial; and is the beautiful focus that nature writing brings and represents. The fashionable trend aspect – and the perception that this is all ‘new’ – seems to stand as a phenomenon in its own right, and to branch away from those grassroots, shattering it into pieces to be fought over… It saddens me to see these splits, when so much needs mending… Like fiddling whilst Rome burns… Ecological problems are rife, and the types of people who want to help are as varied as the species we would lose if something weren’t done to intervene when an invasive monoculture threatens.

    As you say, there are lots of aspects to mull over. We do need more women nature writers – but, thankfully, there are quite a number emerging, and others have been established for some time. Back in the 80s and early 90s, I couldn’t get enough of Chris Ferris’s accounts of her nocturnal wanderings amidst badgers and foxes. Then there’s Kathleen Jamie, of course – and Miriam Darlington, Jay Griffiths, Esther Woolfson, Olivia Laing, Sara Maitland etc…

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