At a particularly challenging time in my personal life a couple of years ago, a friend of mine gave me some good advice.
“Remember to look up,” he said.
What he meant, was that by looking up at the vast reach of the sky above, in all its different daily permutations, I’d be reminded that the world kept on turning; that no crisis, however difficult, was permanent and that my problems were only ever the tiniest rusty cog in a much bigger, more beautiful machine.
You know what? It worked. I’ve been thinking about my friend’s wise counsel because of the recent upsurge in nature writing. It feels as if there is a whole genre of literature now devoted to that same idea of looking up (or, in fact, looking down and knowing the names of all the wildflowers).
The first book I read which brought home to me the lyrical power of immersing oneself in the natural world was Olivia Laing’s dazzling To The River, which charts the course of the River Ouse, where Virginia Woolf drowned herself in 1941. Laing, who was dealing with the break-up of a long-term relationship, wrote about the magnetic qualities of the river as she walked its length, noting dragonflies "the size of kitchen matches" and water that “slipped like solder through the fields”.
Then Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which told how she had come to terms with grief over her father’s death by training a goshawk, became a worldwide bestseller. In The Outrun, published last year, Amy Liptrot wrote with brutal clarity about returning to her home island of Orkney in order to deal with the legacy of addiction.
Next month sees the publication of an extraordinary memoir – The Wild Other – by the journalist Clover Stroud, whose idyllic country childhood was shattered at the age of 16 when a riding accident left her mother severely brain-damaged. Stroud writes with moving, eloquent honesty about the devastation she felt and how she turned to the natural world to help her make sense of the incomprehensible.
We need to remember that, whatever else happens, seasons change, tides roll in and time goes on. The earth has endured – and survived – far worse
Horses, in particular, were Stroud’s salvation. Riding across the countryside at speed meant, “that for a moment I could escape it and gallop right into the purest sense of the present, where the truths about Mum’s condition couldn’t catch up.”
It’s interesting to note what all these books have in common – namely, that they were written by women. Of course, Nature is historically personified as female. The concept of Mother Nature, with her nurturing, creative qualities, dates back as far as Ancient Greece and the word “nature” comes from the Latin “natura” meaning character or birth. How fitting, then, that each of these writers should have undergone a re-birth of character through their experiences with nature.
But I wonder if there’s something more pressing that lies behind the resurgence of this kind of writing? I suspect it’s connected to the uneasy geopolitical times we are living through.
In a climate of global uncertainty – when the future of the European Union is in doubt and an orange-hued reality TV personality with an ill-advised Tweeting habit has been voted in as leader of the free world – we turn to the age-old rhythms of the natural world to reassure us. Faced with crisis, we need to be reminded of the unchanging routines that exist beyond us. We need to remember that, whatever else happens, seasons change, tides roll in and time goes on. The earth has endured – and survived – far worse.
It’s why I also liked Jon McGregor’s forthcoming novel, Reservoir 13, which tells the story of an English village coming to terms with the disappearance of a teenage girl. McGregor writes powerfully of the gradations of grief and pain endured by the village’s inhabitants. But he also describes the shifting moments in the surrounding countryside – badgers emerging from setts; herons taking flight; lambs being born. There is a delicate symmetry between the two worlds which adds to the book’s impact.
We can all be guilty of becoming too obsessive over what seems like the endless stream of depressing news. But it’s not all bad. As these books remind us, nature still exists. We can find refuge in what lies beyond us. And if we look up once in a while, it becomes clear that the sky hasn’t yet fallen in.