Over the centuries words have a played a special part in shaping and defining our relationship with the natural world from the carefully crafted wildlife notebooks of Gilbert White to the intense beauty of Helen Macdonald. They have given us the tools to find ways of describing the magic of those moments of wonder when we watch a bird of prey hovering as it hunts for prey or taking a walk through a colour-rich haymeadow in the summer.
Importantly these books have also been vital in capturing our changing relationship with nature. As we have moved en mass from the countryside to the towns and cities in the last two hundred years our deep connection with the natural world waned. Whereas generations ago we could have easily identified wildflowers or trees now we’d struggle to reach double figures for different species.
In the last decade there has been a remarkable explosion in books about nature. This seems to have co-incided with and maybe even been fuelled by the financial crash of 2007 and that basic human need for the comfort blanket of familiarity and the power of nature to provide certainty that all is well in a turbulent world. It’s also been important in us dealing with that sense of loss – both in terms of our connection with nature but also the disappearance of species and the threat to our green spaces.
Wander in to any bookshop and it’s likely that you’ll come across a table full of books about nature. Surging sales of modern nature writing and those wonderfully evocative re-discovered classics are playing an important role in helping us to reignite that love of the natural world and make it part of our everyday lives.
As someone whose love of nature was rekindled through my work and having children the written word played a vital role in helping me to navigate my way through the huge challenges facing the natural world and coming to terms with what it means to me and my family. They gave me the confidence to re-engage with nature and not be afraid by my limited knowledge of birds or butterflies; it was the general appreciation that mattered as much as being able to identify them all. At home I have stacks of well-thumbed books about wildlife and eagerly anticipate the latest release.
Reading rediscovered classics by Richard Jefferies, wonderful new fiction by Melissa Harrison and the evergreen Lorax by Dr Seuss with my kids, has fired my imagination and created a deeper connection with the wild places where I live. The beauty of new nature writing is that it has found its way into those wild places in the towns and cities as well as the majesty of our ancient woodlands or the pure joy of watching butterflies.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council is launching a bid to find the UK’s favourite book about nature, working with a team of researchers at the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex, as they start a new two-year research project that will focus on the literary, social and cultural impact of writings about the natural world. The choice of potential nominees is limitless: it could be a novel, piece of non-fiction or a field guide. Crisp, clear and rich writing has that special ability to draw the reader in to the subject matter and bring to life a simple wildlife encounter or help us navigate the huge environmental change that has been happening in our lifetime.