Where grass is greener

Nature Writing in 2014

Looking north, Kirriemuir, Angus, June 2012
Looking north, Kirriemuir, Angus, June 2012


Philip Hoare’s previous book Leviathan, or The Whale—which won the 2009 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction—was dominated by one big idea, as advertised in its title; The Sea Inside starts off as an exploration of the big idea’s medium, the vast connected body of salty water on our planet that nourishes us, moderates the climate, represents our unconscious life, serves as modernity’s cesspool, and is still the most important vector of global trade.

“The sea sustains and threatens us, but it is also where we came from.” So what is interior about it? Although he mentions that “[b]eing 50 per cent water, we all contain the sea inside us”, and his last chapter is titled “The sea in me”, his book has little to say about the fluid dynamics of land animals: the bio-container for the growing foetus provided by the amniotic sac, or even the crucial role of the kidneys (at a macroscopic level) or cell membranes (at a microscopic level) in regulating their own “internal seas” get hardly more than a mention. James Hamilton-Paterson’s magisterial Seven-Tenths (which happens to be the proportion of the earth’s surface occupied by the Biblical “great waters” in contrast to the “one-seventh” of the earth which, according to Columbus as he set out on his exploration of the Indies, consisted of the “damp element”) has a far surer grip on cell as well as marine biology. What Hoare is after is a “body of water” rather than “body water”: the sense of how a maritime space defines the United Kingdom, even though, with its inhabitants always less than sixty miles away from the sea, its marine wilderness has a taken-for-granted quality.

His first chapter, “The suburban sea”, is a good place to observe it. It opens with a walk along the shoreline of Southampton—“an unspectacular, unremarkable landscape” which has always been an important settlement—first Roman and then Norman—by virtue of its sheltered deep-water estuary and double high tide. Southampton Water is where he grew up. He comes to watch the crows wait for the tide to recede so that they can pounce on the exposed shellfish; and runs into schools of seals. He is reminded of the desert saints befriended by ravens, and we are asked to consider the sea, at least symbolically, as a desert. He consults Admiralty Navigation Charts of the stretch where he likes to go swimming: “East Mud” is its unappetising name. You can almost smell the seaweed, just as Hoare has auditory hallucinations in the family home that is now his study. He tries to cajole a sense of what it is to be at home from memories of his parents. “Our first fear is abandonment; our last, too. We all leave home to find home, at the risk of being forever lost.”

Just off Southampton, the Isle of Wight sits like a “stopper” on the Solent. Hoare introduces us to the early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived there in the 1860s, just along the coast from Tennyson. By 1875, she had moved back to the family estate on Ceylon; and very soon we are there too, visiting “the sea of serendipity”. On Sri Lanka, we are introduced to Taprobane, the tiny island off the south coast where the extravagant Count de Mauny-Talvande built a folly in the 1930s, and attracted scores of literary visitors including Paul Bowles and Arthur C. Clarke, who also settled on Sri Lanka and though a better name for our planet would be “The Sea”. For all the skilful scene-changes, the uncharitable thought arises that the title of Hoare’s book is really something of a misnomer: he is really writing about a mobile private island, an outcrop of the self that can be towed off the coast of just about anywhere on the planet.

It is a mobile island that brings him all the way to New Zealand; and although his discussions of half-forgotten scientific and literary figures (chief among them the relentless eighteenth-century anatomist and surgeon John Hunter) are never without interest, including his speculations about the Moari war leader Te Pehi Kupe, whom he believes was a model for Melville’s Queequeg, his prose becomes truly engaged when he talks about dolphins and whales. They live, as he writes, “in an element in which noise travels five times faster than in air”. With their sonar systems and large auditory cortices whales live in a largely transparent world, able to peer, like medical ultrasound devices, into the interior of bodies. “The world is naked to a cetacean.” Off the Kaikoura Peninsula, he even goes swimming with dolphins, and sees dozens of them heading straight for him. “For a moment I think they’re going to swim right into me. A ridiculous notion. They, like the whales, register my every dimension, both inside and out, my temperature, what I am, what I am not.” A pod of sperm whales off the Azores is similarly fleet: they dart and flit, and yet their size offers a kind of assurance. “Nothing else matters. I feel nothing bad can happen if I’m with a whale. As if its grey mass insures against all the other evils.”


Like Hoare’s book, Tim Dee’s latest book Four Fields—another hybrid of naturalist’s notebook, travel writing and cultural history—is haunted by his previous one The Running Sky: A Birdwatching Life. A keen knowledge of birds and their habitats makes for some memorable writing in a book that is not short on evocative passages. The reader will come away knowing a lot more about cranes, corncrakes and wheatears: while the latter might owe its curious name to its white “arse” Dee memorably describes a cluster of them, “with their black eye-stripes like compass needles all looking the same way.” The entire book is full of such “Martian” proofs of sharp sight.

The field, ubiquitous and enclosed, functional if not semi-industrialised (“a chemically treated food factory” according to Hoare), might initially seem an unpromising subject—of as little interest to wheatears as humans—emerges as something far more complex and mysterious: most of what goes on in a field is underground, and what it produces has radically altered the ways humans live since the Neolithic era. We are “grass carnified”, in Sir Thomas Browne’s resonant term: rice, corn and wheat are all specialised grasses. And while we moderns might protest that we don’t give a sod about fields, the language knows betters. “Fields live as proverbs as well as fodder and we reap what we sow.” Fields may be man-made plots, but also “the greatest land art on the globe”—as well as being firmly entangled in property rights. In fact, Dee could also have mentioned their figurative extension into science, where as Rupert Sheldrake observed, “[i]n most respects fields have replaced the souls of classical and medieval philosophy.”

“Every field is at once totally functional and the expression of an enormous idea,” Dee enthuses; and the field he knows best are the fens, which he first saw when he arrived in Cambridgeshire as a student, in particular the rough, soggy land at Burwell Fen. “The ghost of water is everywhere,” he says about them, as if he’d been looking over Philip Hoare’s shoulder—although he admits to being afraid of the open sea. Initially he too thought the fens were “banal, flat farmed and drained.” His bird-watching taught him otherwise; and he is no less informative about their eels and moles—John Clare’s “mouldiwarps”. He offers a seasonal study of the fens which in their circumscribing flatness are not immediately eye-catching. Nevertheless, “every inch of them represents a human victory over the wet.” Exhuming ancient place names and bringing back to life forgotten ways of life, Dee achieves that rare thing: an unforced lyricism for an unfrequented place.

Like Hoare, he succumbs to wanderlust. Four Fields intersperses his observations of his home patch with visit to other fields in central Africa, Montana and the Ukraine. It’s not that what he observes in these three “outlying” fields is uncompelling, but the chapters feel no more than dutiful visits—to the tobacco farm in Zambia which features in The Running Sky, an eerie walk across the “abattoir” of the Little Bighorn battlefield at which Custer was killed in 1876, ironically one of the very few places in the US in which the original tallgrass prairie still exists on account of its “sanctuary” status, and to the “Zone” around the former nuclear power station at Chernobyl. The enduring sense of his finely written book is one of immersion in a very particular landscape, with an expansive sky above: it has little need of the glamour of elsewhere.


John Lewis-Stempel—a patriotic admirer of Edward Thomas and his own Elizabethan forebears—also writes about a field, but avoids succumbing to the distractions that mar, if only structurally, Dee’s book. Like the fen, the meadow is not a natural habitat: “it is a relationship between nature, man and beast.” Meadowland is a year’s diary of events on the sward of a field in the far west of Herefordshire nigh on the River Escley—“where England runs out” against the line of the Black Mountains. He chronicles the year’s events, from the first primroses emerging through the snow through the trials of lambing (and the slog of sheep shearing) to his hand-scything of the meadow grass in July and August. What had been an ancient hay meadow is now Lewis-Stempel’s farm, with assorted livestock. Given the generally domesticating drift of his similes—meadow ants are “the ginger colour of tea made by grandmas” and “someone has stirred the clouds into milk pudding”—it seems in character when he harrumphs in cheerfully un-PC manner: “Say what you like about artificial fertiliser: you do get a nice shade of green.” Elsewhere, he shows an impressive eye for detail, as when he spies the clutch of four curlew eggs—“gorgeous avocado green blotched with brown”—on his meadow. He can also expound knowledgeably on topics such as population pressure, and the imperative for grassland to be managed “intensively”—even if the economics of being a gentleman-farmer are never discussed in any depth. The cost (in a profounder sense) of high yields has been the disappearance of nearly all traditional meadows, which used to be cut late, thus preserving the life of ground-nesting birds and small mammals. Conditions on his personal Eden are different, and spring has already offered a glimpse of the way things used to be: “By 12 April the brightness of the flowering celandines means that to cross the meadow in the evening is to walk through a starfield.”

For a working farmer, even with only 55 sheep, he does a lot of dreaming outside. “I lie on my back in a casual crucifix, which seems an instinctive shape, since it is both arms-wide welcome and submission before Nature.” The other instinctive shape is the coffin-sized one, for fields are also giant graveyards. Although he observes nature in the round, its events sometimes catch him wrong-footed: when his arthritic cow Margot dies in November (his livestock have names) he is stricken. He sits with her until she dies, and then covers her head with a sugar-beet sack “so the crows won’t peck out her eyes.” Earlier, he talks about sparrowhawks and the “murder” of their prey. The notion of one animal “murdering” another is about as intelligible as the supposition that a field could have a “private life”. Anticipating this kind of criticism—although he confused me by asserting in an earlier passage that “anthropomorphizing moles is an ancient meme”—he asks rhetorically (of his putative “science Puritan” critic) what is wrong with anthropomorphism: “The worse anthropomorphizers of all are country people… And I wonder, is it really so difficult to enter, in some slight degree, into the mind-frame of an animal? Are we not all beasts?”

That naïve question gets to the heart of the conundrum in “nature writing.” Lewis-Stempel’s biocentrism (or Hoare’s zoophilia for that matter) might seem the ethically proper response to the enormous challenges facing the globe in the third millennium, but his solitary ruminations on his forty-acre plot—all three writers here are to some degree descendants of Rousseau’s promeneur solitaire—sometimes obscure the fact that it is precisely the destructive species, humans, which values the ecosphere. Nature never comes to us unmediated, as if we could slough our skins and commune with it: there is no nature that humans have not in some way first intended—or “messed with” as Tim Dee puts it. Indeed, nature is vacuous as a source of values, as John Stuart Mill observed in one of his finest essays. It simply doesn’t care. But we do; and we need to realise that adopting a misanthropic moral rhetoric in which “nature” is our exploited victim, and we, by extension, are so devoid of any intrinsic qualities as to merit eradication or a dramatic downsizing, merely replicates an earlier, minatory Calvinist discourse of sinfulness towards God dense with the guilty thrill of seeming to expose the deep corruption of our own souls. The respect we owe to nature is one we owe to ourselves, in the first instance, since only humans can ever experience nature—at least in the lyrical way so scenically enacted by these three books.

© Iain Bamforth. “Outcrops”, Times Literary Supplement, 27 June 2014