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.
Books aimed at kids are a great way to get them into nature
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.
Millions of us will be tuning into Winterwatch this week as our TV screens are filled with natural winter treats. There is always a slight misconception that nature shuts down during the shorter days and as the temperature hovers around freezing. Yet there is still plenty to see and do; and its a great time to get planning as we move towards Spring. So in true list style here are five things to keep you occupied on the nature front.
- Visit a local nature reserve. You’re never that far from a natural wonder, where-ever you live. Organisations such as the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust have some great places to explore and the winter time is no exception. You’ll see them in a raw state as they start to come alive with the turning of the wild clocks to warmer days. Repeat the visit during the different season and you will develop a special connection.
- Read a nature book. In the last decade writing about nature has boomed. And there is a treasure chest of classics that have been re-issued by publishers such as Little Toller. So pop to a local bookshop, library or browse online and pick a book or some poetry to transport you into the magic of nature.
- Get volunteering. Green places, such as City Farms, need people to help out. Spending some time helping to make these wonderful places beacons for wildlife is really rewarding and you can get to know some great local charities. There is always plenty to do what-ever the time of year. Or you can taker part in survey’s such as the RSPB Big Garden Watch at the end of January. Many conservation organisations run similar citizen science projects throughout the year.
- Watch the birdies. We all know about the wonder that is the Dawn Chorus; a sound that captures the heart and lifts the soul. But the winter can be a fab time to tune into local songbirds, whether the Dawn or Dusk Chorus. And with few leaves on the trees you can actually see them too.
- Go for a wander. If you take the time to look you can find nature in many surprising places. Take the time to go for a wander, either from where you live or in to the local countryside. There are plenty of great walking books or plot a route on an OS Map or online. As you walk look, listen and absorb. You’ll spot things that you would have never thought would be there and you’ll get so much out of it.
So if you love Winterwatch (and the BBC Watches more generally) use it as a way to get up off of the sofa and out into the outdoors. You won’t regret it.
Posted in birdsong, City Farms, conservation, countryside, dawn chorus, dusk chorus, families, green space, National Trust, Nature, nature books, nature writing, RSPB, urban nature, wild time, Wildlife, Wildlife Walks
Tagged BBC Springwatch, BBC Winterwatch, National Trust, natural history, RSPB, wildlife, Wildlife Trust, winter
It was the second big prize for ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald as she walked off with the Costa book award. It feels like we’re in the midst of a really purple patch for the genre of nature writing.
Yes our need for words to capture our special relationship with the natural world has been around for a while since the days of Gilbert White and his seminal natural history of Selborne Common. And yes there are countless classics from the last 200 years but it definitely feels like nature writing is rocking with the number of staggeringly good books lining the nation’s bookshops.
Go into any bookshop and the shelves are full of wonderful books about the natural world that look to capture the spirit of place and the pure joy of wildlife.
The explosion in top draw nature writing seems to have co-incided with the big economic crash in 2008. In might be pure luck but it feels that when times are tough that we naturally return to that innate need for nature as a comfort blanket in our lives. Even though as a nation when might not have the connection with the natural world that we did generations ago, nature is an ever present part of our lives, where ever we live.
A changing of the seasons and the simple pleasure of tuning into birdsong, wandering through a wood or watching the clouds drift past makes us feel good. And these memories and connections need to be captured in a way that only really words can. It’s a perfect combination of a poetry and prose bringing a richness of description.
Many of the books about nature have a very strong personal, in fact emotional element. At certain times of our life we go back to nature as a reference point; a constant that feels re-assuring. Many of the books that I’ve read have a strong personal narrative to them; a hook for these works of art to exist that is authenic and really powerful.
And that is why the decision by the Oxford Junior Dictionary to drop nature words for hi-tech words matters. We need the tools to capture of love of nature and the fascination that it creates; we need future generations to have the exposure that we did growing up. Words are such a fundamental part of the colourful and deep heritage that they have in the national psyche.
But there is hope with the backing of the big publishers, the huge range of great writers and the democratisation of writing via blogging and websites such as Caught by the River. Looking for the words to describe a deep and enduring connection with nature continues to matter and I have a real sense of hope about the future.