What is nature writing?
Nature writing in not a single genre. It’s a term that encompasses a great range of literary forms. Whether it’s a poem, an essay, a fictional story or a travel journal, nature writing is bound its theme, not by its style.
For each of the great writers we’re about to look at, the natural world is central to everything they do. It is the source of their inspiration and, at the same time, the focus of their work.
While nature writing tends to draw on factual information about the natural world, it is not limited to scientific truths. Nature writers are free to branch out from the tradition of natural history, to offer the reader rich imagery, personal observations and philosophical reflections.
What’s special about nature writers?
The most influential profiles are a product of expertise, experience and passion. Some start off as writers; others are scientists with a story to tell.
Whatever their background, nature writers can take on any number of roles. They are artists, philosophers, observers, interpreters and educators.
The best nature writers have the power to sharpen our senses, shape our visions, encourage us to explore the natural environment and remind us of our place within it. Or as the great John Muir put it… “I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.”
Great nature writers
Before we look at some great nature writers, a quick note. This is not ‘The top X best nature writers of all time’ – such a list would be nigh on impossible to compile. No, this is a personal, hand-picked selection. It’s no more than a sample, representing the variety and quality of nature-inspired literature through the ages.
An obvious choice, perhaps, but to overlook the founder of the modern theory of evolution would be a crime! Although The Origin of Species is his most famous work, if you’re picking up Darwin for the first time, we suggest starting with The Voyage of the Beagle.
This is a journal of his formative, worldwide voyage. He was just 22 when he left from Devonport in 1831, but ‘The Voyage’ contains the careful observations and wise reflections of an experienced naturalist.
Extract from The Voyage of the Beagle
“To admit that species generally become rare before they become extinct—to feel no surprise at the comparative rarity of one species with another, and yet to call in some extraordinary agent and to marvel greatly when a species ceases to exist, appears to me much the same as to admit that sickness in the individual is the prelude to death—to feel no surprise at sickness—but when the sick man dies to wonder, and to believe that he died through violence.”
Scottish-born American naturalist, John Muir, was born just two years after Darwin returned from his great journey. As an early conservationist, he was a highly influential figure and largely responsible for the establishment of Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park.
However, he was more than just a writer and a conservationist. He once defined himself, as a ”poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist”. This is a sign of his far-reaching interests, as well as his wry humour.
Extract from My First Summer in the Sierra
“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”
Born in Oxford in 1976, Macfarlane is one of a new wave of UK nature writers. Rather than wild life, his main subject matter is wild spaces, especially mountains.
His first book, Mountains of the Mind, is an insightful account that tracks the development of our relationship with mountain landscapes. Marking the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest, it explores the essence of our fascination with the wilderness.
Extract from Mountains of the Mind
“Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia.”
Kathleen Jamie is a prize-winning poet and nature writer. Her writing, characterised by wonderfully precise and detailed descriptions, draws on a personal connection with the Scottish landscape.
‘Findings’, written in 2005, and the sequel Sightlines, written in 2012, are two sublime collections of essays dedicated to nature. Read her work, nourish your soul and learn to fully appreciate your surroundings.
Extract from Sightlines
“There was a time—until very recently in the scheme of things—when there were no wild animals, because every animal was wild; and humans were few. Animals, and animal presence over us and around us. Over every horizon, animals. Their skins clothing our skins, their fats in our lamps, their bladders to carry water, meat when we could get it.”