Spring reading: ‘New Nature Writing’ and the Great British countryside

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We’re now well into spring but rather than enjoying the Great British countryside, you likely find yourself cooped up indoors.

With much of the country in lockdown, you might find yourself turning to the comfort of a good book. If so, why not stay engaged with the great outdoors by choosing some so-called ‘New Nature Writing.’

It’s a genre that has seen a real resurgence of late. From Paula Hawkins to Robert MacFarlane, British authors are putting themselves at the centre of a narrative that celebrates our ‘everyday connections with the natural world’.

Here’s your guide to five of the best.

1. Waterlog, by Roger Deakin

It’s only right to start our list with the book often credited as kick-starting the genre over 20 years ago.

Roger Deakin’s 1999 bestseller Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain, traces his escapades all around the British Isles.

‘From the sea, from rock pools, from rivers and streams, tarns, lakes, lochs, ponds, lidos, swimming pools and spas, from fens, dykes, moats, aqueducts, waterfalls, flooded quarries, even canals’ he ruminates on what it means to be an island race, and the effect that this has on our relationship to water.

The book begins (and ends) in the moat that surrounds his Suffolk home, getting a ‘frog’s eye view of the rain on its surface’ before open-air swimming the width and breadth of Britain.

Deakin died in 2006 and, although one of three books by the author, this was the only one to be published in his lifetime.

2. The Old Ways, by Robert MacFarlane

Robert MacFarlane became a friend of Roger Deakin in later life and refers to their friendship often in his books.

In The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, MacFarlane sets out to discover the drove-roads, holloways, and tracks that mark the passage of our ancient ancestors, asking what it means to make tracks and uncovering the history of these ancient byways.

He begins in England, leaving his home and following the fresh tracks of wildlife in the snow. From there, he follows ancient sea roads in the Hebrides, journeys briefly to the West Bank in the occupied Palestinian territory, before returning to England and walking in 5,000-year-old footprints.

A top ten bestseller on release, the author describes the book as the third in a loose trilogy – after Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places – about ‘landscape and the human heart’.

As with all of MacFarlane’s books, it’s also about language. He’s trailing not just the people that made the tracks and ‘old ways’ that he follows, but the nature writers that preceded him too.

3. H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald

Winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in 2014, H is for Hawk tells of MacDonald’s attempts to follow a childhood dream and train a goshawk, following the death of her father.

Whilst the author struggles with grief, and the challenge of training £800 goshawk Mabel, she also parallels her tale with that of T H White, author of the 1951 The Goshawk, a similar tale of falconry and the battle of wills between hawk and trainer.

Interweaving the narratives of the author’s battle with depression, the training of Mabel, and the life and experiences of T H White, makes for a thrilling and intricate story.

Intensely honest, the nature in the book is the goshawk, itself a metaphor for grief, but the result is uplifting and inspiring. 

4. Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, by Madeleine Bunting

Situated on the northwest coast of Scotland and comprising hundreds of islands, the Hebrides form the setting for Madeleine Bunting’s book that charts their history, cultures, and traditions.

From ancient shipping routes to modern concepts of Britishness, Bunting spent six years writing the book, travelling to the islands – and back again – from her home in east London.

Overcoming a feeling of being an outsider, whilst avoiding the inclination to over-romanticise, she plots her journey. On a north-west heading, she visits seven of the Hebridean islands as she moves forward in time, from the seventeenth century to the present day.

She takes literary detours along the way, via ‘WH Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis and George Orwell [who] all headed north’ and in whose footsteps Bunting is well aware that she is travelling.

The book is part memoir, part travelogue, part history of the islands and a worthy addition to the ‘New Nature Writing’ cannon.

5. The Butterfly Isles, by Patrick Barkham

Originally published in 2010, The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of our Emperors and Admirals follows Barkham over one action-packed summer as he sets out to spot every one of the UK’s 59 native species of butterflies.

The author’s love of the creatures was formed when he spotted a Brown Argus – ‘not exactly rare but hard to find in East Anglia’ – when he was eight years old. Thirty years later, his interest showing no sign of waning, he set himself the challenge and this fascinating book is the result.

Despite his lifelong love, the book is written for laymen rather than lepidopterists, and for lovers of the British landscape.

From London parks to Scottish bogs, the 59 varieties needed to complete the set don’t make the author’s life easy.

But his love of the creatures is clear, as is his love for the British landscape, in all its forms.

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