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.