Eco-writing: Kathleen Jones looks at a new genre

Eco-writing is the new buzz-word, an exciting genre for the times we live in when the word 'endangered' seems to turn up in every media article.  But what is it exactly?

Field Work - photo Harriet Fraser 'Poet in the Meadow'
If you go on the internet and search for a definition it will probably tell you that it's what used to be called ‘nature writing’, ( as in Gilbert White),  except that it has broadened out and now embraces a huge field of ecological, environmental and biological material.  But it isn't just scientific observation, it's a vast body of literature, non-fiction, fiction and poetry, that deals with human engagement with the landscape, flora and fauna of the natural world. It is often very personal, narrating one human being’s relationship with it. Eco-literature is a very popular genre at the moment, (there's even an academic field of Eco-criticism!).
An Eco-literature magazine open to submissions
The first literature I came across that fell into that category, though it wasn't called 'eco-writing' when I studied it at school, was the poetry of John Clare, whose life was blighted by mental illness.  His poetry has unique observations of the diversity of plant, bird and animal life that was still common during his lifetime, and he found healing out of doors.
‘All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;’

John Clare
Then as a teenager I discovered Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart, which is an account of the author's ecstatic encounters with the wild landscape. Jefferies lies prostrated on the ground, trying to achieve the union of his soul with nature, with a religious fervour that is deeply pagan.

"There is so much beyond all that has ever yet been imagined. As I write these words, in the very moment, I feel that the whole air, the sunshine out yonder lighting up the ploughed earth, the distant sky, the circumambient ether, and that far space, is full of soul-secrets, soul-life, things outside the experience of all the ages. The fact of my own existence as I write, as I exist at this second, is so marvellous, so miracle-like, strange, and supernatural to me, that I unhesitatingly conclude I am always on the margin of life illimitable, and that there are higher conditions than existence. Everything around is supernatural; everything so full of unexplained meaning." 

It's interesting that Richard Jefferies also wrote one of the first futuristic dystopian novels.  It's called 'After London' (1885) and describes a time in the future when we have made the world uninhabitable and cities and villages are reverting to their wild forms.  Human beings have to learn to live as hunter gatherers again.

Jefferies and Clare both saw Nature as something separate from human life, something even 'distinctly anti-human'.  The very natural world whose diversity they observed with such delight was at one and the same time an enemy to be protected from, a resource to plunder and a 'Mother' that provided food and shelter. The biblical idea of an uncivilised, chaotic world created for mankind to be in control of, was the norm at the time.  We went into raptures about its unspoilt beauty and raped its resources at the same time.

This resulted in the irony of Shell Petroleum supplying schools with nature posters depicting the wildlife that was rapidly becoming extinct due to the burning of fossil fuels, as well as the kind of excesses that drove a new generation of Eco-writers, such as Rachel Carson, whose 'Silent Spring' jolted the whole world into a new consciousness. Nature was not a finite resource.   It was a delicate ecology whose wellbeing had to be balanced with our needs and wants.

Of the next generation of Eco-writers, Roger Deakin is probably the best-known, though only Waterlog, his book on wild swimming, was published in his lifetime.  Wildwood was published after he died.  But his other writings, his environmental activism and his documentary programmes opened the floodgates to environmental awareness and encouraged the publication of shelves of books about our relationship with the natural world we live in.
Roger Deakin at the door of his house
Contemporary authors include Deakin's friend Robert MacFarlane whose Wild Places and Landmarks have been popping up in the non-fiction best-seller charts, and Richard Mabey, author of Beechcombings. If you love the ocean, you have to read Philip Hoare's Leviathan and The Sea Inside, which, between them, pretty much cover the effect we've had on the sea and everything that lives in it.

Women are having their say too.  Roger Deakin's work inspired the poet Alice Oswald to write her long poem Dart, a meditation that follows the journey down the river from its source. And the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie has written two beautiful, thoughtful collections of essays, Findings and Sightlines.  I can recommend both of them.  She has also written a very detailed critique of the genre, in a review of Wild Places that appeared in the London Review of Books. In it she writes incisively of the cult of 'the lone enraptured male' in nature writing. I laughed a lot, but had to take a long hard look at myself when I came to the paragraph about the educated middle classes disappearing into the wilderness on spiritual quests!

Eco-writing is becoming increasingly political as the health of the natural world becomes more and more endangered by our relationship with it.  The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy made me realise that it's possible for things to slip from view so gradually that we don't notice their absence. He remembered nocturnal car journeys as a child when the moths flocked to the headlights so thickly his father needed the windscreen wipers on in order to see where he was going. We don't get moths like that any more.

But the ultimate political eco-book has to be Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, which shocks and saddens with the evident truth of its message.  If we don't do something soon, there won't be much Nature for us to write about.

Kathleen Jones is a biographer, novelist and poet who publishes on both sides of the fence.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life', is often to be found wasting time on Facebook, and Tweets incognito as @kathyferber 

She is currently writing a travel journal about a trip to the islands of Haida Gwaii, to find out how First Nation people are dealing with environmental issues.   Journey to the Edge of the World should be out by Christmas! 


Sandra Horn said…
Fascinating and timely post! Thank you!
Wendy H. Jones said…
This was fascinating. I have never heard the term before. I always learn so much when I read this blog. Thank you
Kathleen Jones said…
Happy to pass on useful info! It's always good, as a writer, to know about new markets and trends in publishing.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes it is Kathleen, thanks for pulling these eco-strands together for us. 'Nature writing/poetry' seems to have been going through something of a renaissance lately (though always popular as a subject). Travel writing must include quite a lot of this, not only nature but how a culture responds to and lives with it.
Kathleen Jones said…
Yes, Lydia Bennet - I think that last sentence nails how eco-writing differs from 'nature writing' - "how a culture responds to and lives with it". Exactly!
And there are quite a few poetry prizes for eco-poetry now. Resurgence coming up? Dark Mountain?

Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Kathleen, for this wonderful informative post on a trend close to my heart. Last Thursday I attended the launch soiree for "City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness."

This is a beautiful volume of literary essays, poems and fine art, edited by Gavin Van Horn, the passionate, environmentalist director of conservation at the Center for Humans and Nature. My partner, imagist painter Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, is one of its contributors.

Gavin edits an eco-blog about co-evolution and multi-spieces co-habitation to which he invites guest bloggers, if anyone here wishes to take a look and submit something. It's by no means limited to Chicago. The scope is worldwide. I'm proud to number myself among its contributing bloggers. (
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks Umberto - it's always good to know about new markets. Will take a look at the blog and also 'City Creatures' - the ecology of urban environments often gets overlooked.

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