Exploring a new wave of nature writing…

Posted on 13th February 2013 by Ruth Davie

Jenny Brown, co-director (with Catherine Lockerbie) of Littoral – the ENF’s literary strand – shares her excitement and pleasure in exploring a new wave of nature writing…

Goshawks, kittiwakes, magpies, otters, butterflies and badgers hover, swoop, flutter and snuffle through this second year of Littoral.

Nature and wildlife, once the preserve of those celebrated North American writers (starting with Thoreau and continuing with Barry Lopez et al) inspires writers from these isles to respond as never before to landscape and ecology. Roger Deakin’s Wildwood is often held up as one of the first of this new wave, with the likes of Robert Macfarlane and Mark Cocker close behind. Littoral seizes an irresistible chance to showcase this fresh literary response to the natural world in a place of outstanding beauty. With its rolling landscapes and seascapes, it’s no accident that some of the best of these writers live right in the heart of the Neuk.

Last year was the first – and it was a wonderful vote of confidence in a fledgling festival that the leading writer on nature, Richard Mabey, came and participated in discussion with Richard Holloway at Crail Church then conducted a memorable walk along the coastal path telling tales of giant hogweed. Also in that programme, Kathleen Jamie and Sara Maitland debated the place of women writers in this world of new nature writing. Could a female sensibility find room beside what they saw as the tweed-jacketed brigade of male writers?

In just a year that argument is behind us, and our programme includes male and female writers who bring a special quality of perception to their writing. Annie Dillard, the revered American writer, commented “We are here to witness” – advice closely heeded by our writers, many of whom have gone to extraordinary lengths (often at considerable personal discomfort) to find and observe creatures now rarely seen. For instance, take Miriam Darlington, who brings a poet’s eye to a search, recounted in her beguiling book Otter Country. Her passion for otters started in childhood, kindled by reading Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water and Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. But otters are elusive creatures and few in number – although hunting has stopped, many are still killed on the roads. She learns to watch, she learns stillness and patience, she borrows waders and wraps her feet in tinfoil to stave off the cold water and is rewarded by close sightings. Behind the tale lies a tension common in writing like this, between a sense of urgency to document before it’s too late, and the patience needed to track these creatures down.

Many writers in our programme, writers like Miriam Darlington and Patrick Barkham, can instill in us a better appreciation of the natural world and make us keener witnesses. Esther Woolfson, who enchanted readers with her account of a life with crows in Corvus, recently wrote a lovely essay in The Guardian about the achievement and reward of February, of having got through darkest period, and the joy to be found in watching the behaviour of birds as we progress towards spring. The progress towards spring – now there’s an uplifting thought!