The Goshawk by TH White (1951)
TH White’s tragic and beautiful memoir of his attempts to train a young goshawk in 1936 is a story that works in counterpoint to my own in H Is for Hawk, and it still tugs at my heart. It wasn’t just a literary inspiration. Deep down it fuelled my own compulsion to train a goshawk after my father’s sudden death. When I read it as a child I understood that it was about a man running to a hawk to escape from something. Back then I didn’t know anything about White’s violent, loveless childhood, nor his struggles with his sexuality. I didn’t know why he was running. But I knew he was hurting. And when my father died and I was hurting too, some part of me remembered that a goshawk was something to run away to.
You don’t have to unconditionally love a book for it to inspire you. The Goshawk is a painful read, and I still find White’s relationship with his hawk very difficult to bear. But it helped me to think more clearly about how we unconsciously use nature as a mirror of ourselves, and how suffering is so often brought about not through evil, but through carelessness and ignorance. Despite his capacity for great joy and love for many things, including the natural world, White was never given the tools to know how to properly love or care for things, including himself.
His confiding authorial voice is in large part what also makes The Goshawk a magnificent read, and it was this that motivated me to move away from the objective, authoritative tone of much writing about nature to try to write a book that was more reflexive, made up of voices that were not always full of certainty, that were sometimes contradictory, not always obviously my own. Because, ultimately, White’s honesty about his relationship to the English landscape and his hawk, however distressing and often self-deceiving, was the book’s greatest inspiration to me. Laying bare the grounds of our emotional attachments to the natural world – or our lack of them – is of crucial importance in our age of ecological disaster. The Goshawk is a touchstone in this regard: a work that spurs one to think deeply about why and how we assign value to things that are not us.
Helen Macdonald is the author of H Is for Hawk (Vintage Classics).
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
There isn’t much of what you might call nature left in Cormac McCarthy’s best-known novel. There isn’t much of anything, really: just asphalt, ash, shattered buildings and the inevitable, indestructible shopping trolley. Organic life has all but vanished. Even the colour green has gone extinct. Language is burnt back to a rubble of grunts and fillers: uh-uh, OK, yeah. This is “nature writing” at its asymptote, with only the act of utterance keeping it from pure black zero.
McCarthy might seem a cussed choice, then, as the most inspirational writer of place that I know. But there it is. His bleakness is bracing. And his earlier novels are ornate where The Road is minimalist. I’ve read them all several times (except Suttree, which beats me still). For years I kept a notebook titled “CM” into which I copied phrases and paragraphs from his novels: “All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert.” I watched what he did with commas, or their absence: “As they went down the valley in the new fell dark basking nighthawks rose from the dust in the road before them with wild wings and eyes red as jewels in the headlights.” I admired his treatment of poverty and labour, and how he scourged sentimentalism but refused to banish beauty: “This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it.”
McCarthy’s novels are filled with watchers and hunters, from the Indian scouts of Blood Meridian through the wolf-trackers of the Border Trilogy, to the father in The Road, “glassing” the terrain ahead of him with binoculars, knowing that under such circumstances foresight is fate. His characters read landscapes intently, because their life or the life of another often depends on that scrutiny. They excel in hard, sharp sentences of seeing.
But his characters also channel thoughts and visions that far exceed their terms of perception. McCarthy carries out audacious acts of cantilever, extending his sentences with clause after clause until they are cranked out over nothingness: “Toward early morning he woke, sat up quickly and looked about him. It was still dark and the fire had long since died, still dark and quiet with that silence that seems to be of itself listening, an astral quiet where planets collide soundlessly, beyond the auricular dimension altogether.” Such passages are written with a pen of iron dipped in Old Testament ink, and they trace out a cosmic baroque. They are not to everyone’s taste, but they are to mine.
McCarthy’s great subjects are the brute indifference of matter and the brute indifference of people: “I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why god ain’t put out the sun and gone away.” He shows us that writing about “nature” – whatever on earth we mean by that word – can help us see the shadows as well as the light.
Robert Macfarlane’s most recent book Landmarks is out in paperback from Penguin next week.
The Journal, 1837-1861 by Henry David Thoreau
This is the largest single-volume edition of the diary that Thoreau kept for nearly a quarter of a century until the year before his death in 1862, aged just 44. Even so, it covers only 10% of the original 7,000-page and 2m-word document.
I have a relationship to it unlike any other book, my copy being littered with annotations and a private index for key passages. I think of it more like a living organism, a quality Thoreau himself noted of his own favourite texts. A “truly good book”, he wrote, “is something as wildly natural and primitive … as a fungus or a lichen”. With the exception of field guides that I use outdoors, The Journal is the only book that I have laminated to protect it from constant wear, and I see it as a kind of field guide for life.
Its inspiration is to both the naturalist and the author, occupations that are integrally linked through Thoreau’s astonishing powers of observation. He could stand so still that animals would mistake him for a part of the landscape, climbing upon him to feed or perch. Eyewitnesses in his native Concord described how they would find him, Socrates-like, completely absorbed in some act of contemplation. At the end of day he would be in exactly the same place as when first spotted, and still watching.
Thoreau recognised the deep links between this quality of seeing and his art. In an 1852 entry he describes how he had two notebooks, one for poetry and another for commonplace facts, but he acknowledged the difficulty in keeping them separate, because “the most interesting and beautiful facts are so much the more poetry”.
He was equally alive to the manner in which physical engagement with the natural world (work, walking, exertion etc) had a direct impact on one’s prose. “I find incessant labour with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one’s style,” he wrote. Instead of palaver, what you get in Thoreau is always robust, precise and fundamentally true. In our age when the substance of nature writing has often been supplanted by style, The Journal seems all the more important.
Although it is pre-eminently about Thoreau’s observations of wild nature, for me this New England diary is also a powerfully political work. And it means much – more even, perhaps? – to someone from the Old World, where land is almost never land, but property. The Old English see place and the living animals and plants upon it through a dense layer of other processes that are about ownership, control, class, money. They impose a deadening gauze over our senses and our sense of place like a cataract over the eye. Thoreau writes not about ownership, but about belonging. To read him is to be liberated from all that stuff and to recover the republican and democratic greatness of our connection to the whole of life.
Mark Cocker is the author of Crow Country (Vintage Classics).
Adventure Lit Their Star by Kenneth Allsop (1949)
Not many novels have a bird – or in the case of Adventure Lit Their Star, a pair of birds – as their hero. Little ringed plovers are small, slender waders with a black face-mask and conspicuous yellow eye-ring. At first sight they may not seem very special. But for me they are, as they were for the nature writer Kenneth Allsop.
Little ringed plovers colonised Britain either side of the second world war. But they didn’t nest on some remote mountain or offshore island, or under the protection of a nature reserve. Instead, they chose what Allsop memorably dubbed “the messy limbo that is neither town nor country” – the west London suburbs where I grew up.
Allsop, who later found fame as a campaigning Fleet Street journalist and face of TV current affairs, wrote Adventure Lit Their Star when he was a cub reporter in the late 1940s. Not surprisingly, given his own wartime experiences, the story revolves around a young RAF pilot recovering from TB. He joins forces with two young lads to foil the attentions of a dastardly egg-collector, who is intent on stealing the eggs of these very rare birds.
The book was published in 1949, but after good reviews and a literary prize for its author it was soon forgotten. I stumbled across it as a teenager in the early 1970s, and was instantly captivated. The opening chapter is a tour de force of nature writing, rarely matched before or since. Allsop traces the night-time flight made by hordes of migrating birds as they cross the Channel, on the last leg of their epic journey back to Britain from Africa. In a brilliant and original twist, he imagines them as squadrons of aeroplanes returning home from a nocturnal sortie.
Soon after reading the book, I found my own little ringed plovers, in the vast concrete amphitheatre of a reservoir being built a stone’s throw from where the novel is set, on the outskirts of London. As I watched these birds flying around the digging machines – they nest on bare gravel, so that their eggs and chicks are camouflaged against predators – I could really appreciate the way Allsop described their behaviour. This was a man who spent time watching wild creatures, and understood what made them tick.
Later, I read his collected Daily Mail columns, In the Country. The book was so full of wisdom and insight that I forced myself to read it as slowly as possible, so as not to reach the end. Another reason I was reluctant to finish was that I knew that, soon after the book was published, the author took his own life. He was just 53 – younger than I am now.
Yet I cannot be too sad when I think of Allsop; for his wonderful writings have inspired not just me, but a host of other nature writers and environmentalists. He makes us want to continue fighting for the wildlife and places he cared for so much, and about which he wrote with such effortless charm.
Stephen Moss’s latest book, Wild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain’s Wildlife, is out now (Square Peg).
The Redstart by John Buxton (1950)
The common redstart is the most beautiful bird I know. Not every birdwatcher would agree, but surely none think badly of this bright-painted little chat. They are always good to see. Males (in spring, this very day across Britain) have ash-grey backs, brick-red fronts, soot-black throats and, above their friendly round faces (their eyes are like living blackcurrants), a pearl-coloured fringe that floodlights the whole bird. Females are drabber, having work to do beyond looking dreamy, but they share the redstart’s best and defining feature with their mates. They cannot see it themselves but both carry behind them a warm red tail. Every second, as if counting time, they tremble or quiver or flirt these feathers and they pulse with various toasted orangey-reds.
John Clare, best of all bird poets, knew redstarts as firetails. Their tail also lends the bird its common name. In Middle English stert means tail. Linnaeus and later taxonomists were bewitched by the same and alighted on Phoenicurus phoenicurus for the bird’s scientific name, meaning red-tail red-tail, as if its mobile brilliance summoned both observation and appreciation. Add to this, the salve of the bird’s silverily song that sounds (to me) like a glance of sunshine on a rainy path, and their migratory lifestyle that takes them from among the dusty feet of dung-coloured camels in the Sahel of central Africa (where I saw them last winter) to the salad-fresh oak woods of the hanging combes of western Britain (where, on Exmoor, I saw them last week); and I hope I might find some followers for my best bird.
For the most beautiful bird, the most beautiful bird book I know. Its author is dead, it is long out of print, its science is superseded by more recent ornithological studies, but John Buxton’s The Redstart from 1950, a slim and sketchy New Naturalist monograph, has ignited most of my bird bonfires since I read it in Bristol Central Library as a neophyte birder fresh in from a fleeting encounter with a migrant firetail. Buxton’s book taught me a lot about how the birds live and what they do. It also showed me a way to think about birds and a way to write about them. Captured by the Germans early in the second world war, Buxton was an amateur bird man, a poet and a literature don. He started watching a pair of redstarts that flew through the wire to breed in the grounds of the Bavarian camp in which he was held prisoner. He ended up recruiting other captives as co-observers, securing paper and pencils from his captors, and watching the two birds for 850 hours over three months in the spring of 1943. His book is written with a clear-eyed understanding born of these efforts but it is also something altogether other. The birds’ modest but assertive commitment to their own purpose, and their free flights through the wire, oblivious to the “skeletal multitude” of men, operated on Buxton such that he wrote, undercover as an ornithologist, a book about the limits of knowing and the value of this, and the impossibility of total capture, and the great boon of loving a bird beyond the pages we might write about it or the names we might call it.
A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter (1981)
This book by the Devon author, artist and columnist Brian Carter probably had a greater influence on my development as a writer than any other. It was published in 1981 and I read it – or rather, it was read to me – in 1982, when I was seven. I must have reread it a dozen times or more since then. Eventually the pages fell out of my paperback so I tracked down a first-edition hardback, which, rather pleasingly, arrived signed.
My mum had a beautiful reading voice, and every night before bed she led us through Tolkien, Alison Uttley, Laurie Lee, Lark Rise to Candleford, the Miss Read books and many others; but it was the Devon writers, Henry Williamson and Carter, who had the greatest effect on me. We spent our summer holidays on Dartmoor, so these were places I knew intimately, and loved; to hear them given such luminosity and significance left me longing to do the same one day.
There’s no getting away from the fact that A Black Fox Running is about talking foxes. New readers should know, too, that these foxes approve of fox-hunting: it is, to them, “the good death” (snares, spades, gas and gins being other options). It is also quite mystical: one fox has visions, there is a benevolent vulpine deity, and some passages are steeped in the kind of fuzzy, pantheistic spirituality that would usually make me wince.
And yet it rises effortlessly above these potential hazards; the quality of the writing and the depth and clarity of Carter’s imagination turning it into something almost inexpressibly beautiful. His vision of Dartmoor as a complex living ecosystem is extraordinary; he seems to be able to hold everything in his mind at once, from a fox kennelled under bracken in the lee of a dry-stone wall, to an old poacher rumpling the ears of his half-mad dog, to a feather lost by a buzzard drifting down to dimple the surface of a stream – all of it, human and non-human, happening at once and with equal significance. His prose slips subtly from lyrical description to earthy humour, its rhythms sunk deep into my DNA as something to aim for, if never achieve.
Carter died last year, having contributed to every edition of West Country newspaper the Herald Express since the early 1980s. Long before I ever put pen to paper, even in secret, I wrote to him care of his publisher; I hope it reached him, although he didn’t reply. Amid the letter’s embarrassing effusiveness is this: “There is a muscular, unsentimental quality to the language – a combination of sparseness and rich description, and a sense, at all times, of the bigger landscape and the movement of the seasons behind the vivid, small details – which has become, for me, the epitome of nature writing, perhaps of descriptive writing itself, and something I would give anything to be able to capture myself one day.”
Melissa Harrison is the author of Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (Faber).
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard (1982)
Question: can there be a nature writing, in prose, that honours the natural world, but which is also great writing? It seems not. It would seem that, for great literature, “nature” is not enough. There has to be some transformation, a novelistic approach.
However, the minute we start with the novelistic approach, then the natural world is lost. “Nature” again becomes a mere backdrop to human actions, however well observed, and whatever we are writing ceases to be “nature writing”. This is a problem nature writers, as writers, must grapple with. Nature writing matters, but by definition can’t be great literature. Tough.
But we can go to the poets. I love those poets who can do the acute natural observation then carry it onto the page in transformed, imaginative works which seem to synthesise the two (nature and imagination ) without relegating the “nature” to a backdrop. Even before we had the notion of “ecopoetics” we had DH Lawrence, James Wright, Norman MacCaig, Alice Oswald, among many others. But for prose?
I can’t remember how I discovered the short pieces of Barry Lopez and, especially, Annie Dillard. Dillard’s collection Teaching a Stone to Talk was a revelation. “Living as Weasels” is a flight of only 1,500 words. The horrifying “The Deer at Providentia” not much more. “Eclipse” is genius, again a few thousand words. That’s how “nature” is encountered by most of us, who can’t spend a year crawling in bushes, who have to get home of a night to make the kids’ fish fingers. Short encounter, short form. The UK seemed to have abandoned it, but the essay was alive and well in the US.
Seriously liberating was Dillard’s note: “This is not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work; instead this is my real work, such as it is.”
So there was the solution, and it was to do with form not content. Get in, say what you have to say, get out. Admit you are a sensory, thinking being. Do some serious noticing. There is no such thing as “objectivity”.
Thank you Annie Dillard.
Kathleen Jamie is the author of Sightlines (Sort of Books).
Joseph Beuys: Coyote by Caroline Tisdall (1976)
In May of 1974, German artist Joseph Beuys made one of his most important artworks, I Like America and America Likes Me. Wrapped head to foot in dark felt he was conveyed by ambulance on a stretcher from Kennedy airport in New York to the René Block Gallery. Thus “insulated from America”, for seven days Beuys inhabited the gallery space with a wild coyote, partitioned from visitors by a chain-link fence. Caroline Tisdall’s photographs in her book Coyote record: “long, calm, concentrated, almost silent days of dialogue between two representatives of two species together in the same space for the first time … it came to mark an area of freedom for the protagonists, ambiguously caging the spectators.”
Beuys was greatly influenced by educationist Rudolf Steiner, who in the 1920s foresaw the catastrophic collapse of bee populations within the context of intensive mechanised farming. “You’ll begin to understand the life of bees,” wrote Steiner in Bees: Nine Lectures on Bees (1923), “once you’re clear about the fact that the bee lives as if it were in an atmosphere pervaded thoroughly by love … Perhaps you noticed something about the entire nature of beekeeping, something, I would say, of the nature of an enigma.” Steiner’s environmental politics were at the root of Beuys’s democratic ideas for inclusive participation in creativity. Beuys founded his Political Party for Animals, stood for the German Green party and planted 7,000 oak trees across the city of Kassel. Art, for Beuys, was “the sole, revolutionary force capable of transforming the earth, humanity, the social order”.
Beuys’s crossing of boundaries between two species, for me, shares affinities with beekeeping: the gallery, the hive’s wooden box; the interventions at the hive; Beuys’s prompting of the coyote into new patterns of behaviour. Insulated from the world at large, concentrated into the flight range of a colony of bees, my notes for my book Bee Journal accumulated as a counterspirit to everything I read of gaiacide: nature as the site of crisis. By containing his encounter with America to time spent with a coyote, Beuys insulated himself in an acutely observed dialogue.
The coyote performance and Steiner’s lectures inform my own questions around art practice and the environment. “You should not believe for even a moment that whatever exists somewhere in nature is without certain powers,” Steiner reflected. The line of my walk between the house and the hive over two years grew resonant; its physical wearing of a path, the visible evidence of purposefulness.
Sean Borodale is the author of Bee Journal (Vintage Classics).
Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell (1954)
When I was about eight years old my dad gave me a copy of Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell, and I was instantly hooked. It describes an expedition to Africa to capture rare animals for zoos. I couldn’t believe that anyone could make a living by doing something that was so exciting. I soon devoured it, and then all of his other books, but I was particularly captivated by his descriptions of his idyllic-sounding childhood on the island of Corfu in the 1930s in My Family and Other Animals. He describes his excursions in search of turtles, mantises, snakes and all manner of other exotic-sounding creatures, precursors to his zoo-collecting days. He even had a pet donkey that went with him everywhere, festooned in bundles of jam jars tied together with string to transport home his finds. The beasts he captured all ended up inhabiting his bedroom, loosely contained in a series of home-made cages and tanks, or escaping to wreak havoc on the nerves of his long-suffering mother.
I tried to model my own life on his childhood adventures. I grew up in rural Shropshire where the wildlife was comparatively mundane. Despite my best efforts I could not persuade my parents to buy me a donkey so I had to settle for a bicycle, but otherwise I did my best to emulate Durrell. My bedroom was filled with fish tanks and home-made cages containing newts, caterpillars, sticklebacks and a toad named Norman. For a while I even had a pet magpie that followed me around.
When Durrell grew up he made his expeditions all over the world in search of elusive animals, and eventually set up his own zoo on Jersey to contain them. Obviously catching rare animals for zoos is no longer acceptable or desirable, so I had to modify my original plan of continuing in Durrell’s footsteps. Instead, I have been lucky enough to make a living as a scientist, studying the ecology and behaviour of rare creatures in the wild, sometimes travelling around the world to find them. My speciality is bees rather than the larger beasts that Durrell captured; small but vitally important creatures that help to put food on our plates and do their best to ensure that the world is full of flowers. I focus on bumblebees, thecolourful, furry and endearingly clumsy relatives of the domestic honeybee. Bees don’t really lend themselves to living in a zoo, so instead I bought a farm in France and converted it into a nature reserve, awash with flowers and alive with the buzzing of bees and the scampering, rustling and chirping of a myriad of other creatures.
Sitting outside on a summer’s evening, I often wonder how different my life might have been if my dad hadn’t given me that first book.
David Goulson is the author of A Sting in the Tale (Vintage Classics).
• The Birds and the Bees series of reissued modern nature books, published by Vintage Classics, are available for £7.99 (RRP £9.99) each or all five for £30. Call 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.
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