Guest blog – Nature Writing and Gender by Daphne Pleace

Daphne’s bio and work can be seen at www.daphnepleace.co.uk. In brief, she describes herself as an elder, writer, facilitator and lifelong learner, gone feral, wandering about in nature whenever she’s allowed out. Twitter: @DaphnePleace

Nature Writing and Gender: 12 ‘different’ books by women

Many of the (published) ‘nature’ books women have been writing these last few years are often deeply personal as well as inquisitive, descriptive and informative about the natural world. These books sit within the creative non-fiction genre: they are often memoirs, and many of them include, to a lesser or greater degree, socio-cultural, psychological or emotional insights, as well as being grounded in the natural world. Some even express what might be termed a spiritual or mythic sensibility. 

I’m responding to Mark’s request to list a dozen women nature writers published in 2020, but please be aware this is miles away from a complete list. For a start, it’s mainly women who are British and/or writing about British species, landscapes, or environmental issues. This is not nationalistic hubris, just my area of greater awareness and knowledge, such as it is. With so many books to read at any one time, I admit to bias in favour of those about my own beautiful part of the planet. I am, after all, a woman of this particular portion of earth and water. Also, in these non-travelling days, I choose the books which concern themselves with the issues closest to my heart, and with the places, flora, and fauna I’m most likely to experience for myself.

I’ve not included the four talented women mentioned by Stephen Moss in the creative non-fiction part of his 2020 review of nature books the sub-genre he and others call ‘new nature writing’. I offer twelve more suggestions: I have read part or all of most of them, and declare that, at the very least, your time will not be wasted reading them yourselves, and you will widen your perspective from Kathleen Jamie’s lone enraptured white middle-class Englishmen coming over the hill (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v30/n05/kathleen-jamie/a-lone-enraptured-male)

I adore Robert Macfarlane’s writing by the way. Long may he be enraptured, but let’s remember that within nature writing, other non-male, non-middle-class writers (even non-white, but that’s a whole other issue) are available. 

For starters, try Jamie herself: any of her poetry, or her 2019 essay collection Surfacing, or this year’s outstanding Antlers of Water; an anthology of new Scottish nature writing edited by Jamie and including the work of 23 writers, over half of them women.

Next – my first wider-than-Britain choice – is another fascinating anthology edited by Kathryn Aalto: Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World. A real dip-in-and-out wellspring of a book.

The book I am reading now (it was the first on my post-Samhain winter reading pile) is Katherine May’s Wintering: How I learned to flourish when life became frozen. So far so very beautiful, and typical I think of how women excel in writing about nature, whilst employing it as metaphor for the human condition, or as illumination, reflection, and often healing for their own particular life traumas. I use the word trauma here in its true psychological sense, not the ‘can’t get a Waitrose delivery slot’ sense. Think of books of recent years by Helen MacDonald, Miriam Darlington, Katharine Norbury, Amy Liptrot, Jean Sprackland, and others.

Now, two books by writers I have not encountered before and not yet read but they are on that winter pile: Tamsin Calidas’ memoir of moving to a remote part of the Hebrides – I am an Island; and Jessica J Lee’s Two Trees make a Forest: on Memory, Migration and Taiwan. The latter, part nature writing-part biography, with aspects of socio-political and socio-linguistic analysis, and written by a Canadian/Chinese/British scholar of environmental history is not my usual reading territory, but any book beginning “The first day in the rain forest softened me to fog” (which describes exactly my experience on my first day in the Ugandan rain forest) is one for me.

Two more books certainly in the “and now for something completely different” category are Holly Worton’s Alone on the South Downs Way, and Willow Crossley’s The Wild Journal: a Year of Nurturing Yourself through Nature. The former is part classic walking guide – complete with kit lists and budgeting tips for example – but as well as being trained in bushcraft and navigation skills, Worton is a Druid, and trained in personal growth and mindset changing processes, so there is more information on and reflection about the natural world than in the standard walking guide. Her earlier If Trees Could Talk is an idiosyncratic book about communicating with and learning from trees, though even such ‘woo-woo stuff’ as a friend of mine calls it, is becoming more mainstream as the gods of Hard Science enlighten us about the communication systems of fungi, trees, and other flora. And if you’re reading this, you’re reading someone who’s been engaging with trees since she was a toddler, so you might want to stop now.

Or better, take some first steps to becoming more engaged with the natural world on a deeper level yourself and read Crossley’s Wild Journal. It’s a simple – in the best sense of the word – gently creative workbook about how to connect with the shifting seasons in practical ways: bird and weather watching, gardening, floral artistry, candle making and – my own practice – keeping a nature journal, are all suggested and some ‘how to’ information included, as are journal spaces. As in the best of these kind of practical books, Crossley shares (but doesn’t overburden us with) her personal story of how working directly with nature helped her through post-natal depression. 

Another one on the winter reading pile (but well dipped-into already) is Kerri Andrews’ Wanderers: a History of Women Walking. Andrews is currently editing the first edition of Nan Shepherd’s letters, to be published next year, so that might appear on someone’s ‘best of 2021’ list. The Wanderers is a lovely wander itself through three hundred years and the importance for her ten chosen women – all writers themselves – of walking in nature for inspiration, healing, the sensual pleasure of moving the body (Anais Nin, who else!), or – as Kathleen Jamie says in her foreword – “power walking their way out of ghastly marriages”. Although from what I’ve read so far the book seems to have more emphasis on social, political and literary commentary than nature observation, it nevertheless contains all that and more. As a woman who walks in nature all the time – usually alone like Andrews’ women – I am finding this an absorbing, nourishing, and thought-provoking read.

Another book that can be widened to other genres as well as ‘nature’, is Sue Stuart-Smith’s The Well Gardened mind: Re-discovering Nature in the Modern World. Part of Stephen Fry’s review of this wide-ranging, thoroughly researched book states that “this is the wisest book I’ve read for many years… Much more than a gardening book, much more than a guide to mental health…” I would say that although there are many references to gardens – of all types, shapes and sizes, including her own (extensive) 30 years in the the growing thereof in Hertfordshire – it’s not a gardening book at all, in any practical sense. Stuart-Smith is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, and she analyses the relationship between gardening (and I would say therefore nature, at least in part) and mental health with an extensive range of examples of projects and programmes operating in the UK, Europe and beyond. As a psychotherapist, gardener and all-round nature freak myself, I appreciate this almost 350 pages of hard evidence – and personal anecdote – about the psychological benefits that getting our feet and hands in the earth offers us. And that hard evidence is delivered in an entertaining and very readable manner.

I’m cheating a little on the blog brief with this next one since Sharon Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted was published in 2019, not this year, but it’s such a wonderful story-telling book, deeply rooted in our Celtic landscapes, about our ancient symbolic and mythic connections to the natural world – and so different from any type of ‘nature’ book I’ve read before – I wanted to mention it here. It’s not for everyone, but Blackie is very clear both in this book and her wider work about how our turning away from story, myth, ritual – what might be termed ‘the poetry of life’ – is affecting us on a deep inner level, and implicated in how we are treating our lands, our oceans, our communities, and indeed our very selves.

I got to here realising that however wonderful the books so far listed might be, none of them major on the climate crisis, even though most refer to it. I spoke with my XR friend and climate change awareness guru Sophia Cheng for her recommendations on this and although she had many suggestions for recent publications, the two books following – both published this year – were her no-brainers. I am now on the reading case myself with these, so my comments refer you to Sophia in the first case, and are limited in the second since I’m too emotionally engaged with the book to be sensible yet… and was awake until 2am last night reading it!

So, for The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, here’s the link to a very readable review and 4 minute video review. I must admit I love reviews that are so informative there’s no need to read the book, but perhaps authors don’t! 

The second is The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by the geobiologist Hope Jahren. Suffice to say here Jahren makes the links between the state of the planet and our levels of consumption in an extremely readable way – as she does with the science, and I normally find that a struggle to read. And since this blog is about nature writing and gender… Jahren is clear about drawing attention to gender issues where she thinks they are relevant in both the ‘how we got to’ parts of her book and the ‘where to go from here’ parts. And the where to go from here parts are solid, sensible and do-able. She’s not called Hope for nuffink.

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3 Replies to “Guest blog – Nature Writing and Gender by Daphne Pleace”

  1. Thanks very much for this, Daphne. I particularly enjoyed reading Kathleen Jamie's review of The Wild Places via the link in your blog - a bravura critique if ever there was one. I'm a big (but rather ignorant) fan of Jamie's writing so had obviously not seen this before - a marvel. Thank you.

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  2. Thanks, Daphne I have my pen and paper beside me as I read your words and I have jotted down some titles and authors you mention for my future reading. Love it.
    Hope you will be able to read my first attempt at publishing 'Between the Harbour and the Mountain' coming out later this year in Auckland, New Zealand.

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