Nature writing, celebrating and meditating on the non-human environment and our relationship with it, has a long literary history, stretching back to the 18th century. Nonetheless, as with the rest of the literary canon, men have more or less dominated the sphere of nature and environmental writing.
Male vs Female Gaze on Nature
Nature writing is shaped by traditional explorer narratives that propagate a masculine experience of nature. This approach focuses on certain types of landscapes and affects how we experience them, influencing our perceptions of what we see as worthwhile nature. A significant proportion of this writing takes place beyond the immediate local or home environment. Many of these narratives take the shape of journeys that are often impossible for women.
Thus nature writing has created the image of an environmentalist as a white guy who goes out into the wilderness. Yet there have always been more culturally diverse writers, in particular female writers, bringing other ways of seeing this human-nature connection – not as a remote place, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture and identity.
History shows that women have for centuries explored the natural world in writing. With rich diversity in voices, attitudes and styles, their work achieved a lot in expanding the traditional definitions of nature writing. Female nature writing is often more localized, often because of certain constraints rather than by choice, and more attuned to the ways in which nature happens often on the edges of life, rather than front and centre.
Here are 3 examples of contemporary female nature writing worth to get acquainted with:
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
After a decade of heavy partying and hard-drinking in London, the author returns home to Orkney, a remote island off the north of Scotland. The book shows Amy’s inspiring recovery through reconnection with the place that shaped her. By tracking Orkney’s wildlife, swimming in icy Atlantic waters and walking along windy coasts, she finds a way back to herself.
It is not just a memoir, it is nature writing at its very best. The Outrun follows Amy as she immerses herself in nature, where she rediscovers herself through introspective thought, anecdotes on addiction and nature, as well as personal accounts of nature. Using interpolation and braiding she connects her personal story of addiction to the story of Orkney.
To the River by Olivia Liang
At a moment of personal crisis, Olivia Laing walks the length of the river Ouse, where Virginia Woolf drowned herself more than sixty years ago. Over the course of a week walking from the source to the sea, she traces the memories of Virginia’s life, grapples with her own ghosts and explores the roles that rivers play in human lives.
Laing wrote a walking journey, that weaves the long history of the planet, of geological time and evolution, with historical facts, social history and the short lives of individuals, and how they connect to place.
Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear
In search of inspiration, beauty and solace Kyo Maclear embraces birdwatching, following the footsteps of the fellow musician in his observation of birds. Birds Art Life looks at urban spaces and explores the creative and liberating effects of keeping your eyes and ears wide open. Far from seeking the exotic, Kyo discovers joy in birds she spots in city parks and harbours, along eaves and on wires. In a world that values big and fast, she pays attention to the small and slow.
Moving between the granular and the grand, looking into the inner landscape as much as the outer one the book explores how we are shaped and nurtured by our passions, and how we might come to love and protect not only the wilderness but also the challenging urban spaces where so many of us live.
Why write about Nature?
Not only is the who in nature writing evolving, but also the why we’re writing about nature. It is not just about observing the natural environment, it’s about participating in it and taking responsibility for it, addressing broad human involvement in our diverse environments.
Humans and nature are intertwined – humans are a part of nature. Contemporary writing explores relations between selfhood, landscape and ethics and addresses the way we perceive and talk about nature. We need to hear more diverse voices and we need to hear about more diverse environments and how those environments shape us. Sharing the impact land and nature had on us creates empathy in the reader – not just for our character but for the land and nature. Hopefully, this empathy will influence readers to take action to protect and conserve the land and environment.