Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nature - or why I will never make a nature-poet which has never saddened me until now

I first studied writing, seriously, in the woods, surrounded on either side by lakes. My writing teachers were brilliant nature poets and essayists, they wrote the poetic twists and turns of streams and the complex balancing act that is man in nature, man outside nature, man against nature. We read everyone from Gary Snyder to Jim Harrison to Mary Oliver, all writers in their way firmly connected to a wild outdoor environment.

To be honest, I got my fill of nature-writing then and there. It was something that I remembered nostalgically, as a relic from my relatively happy and intensely creative schooldays, but a habit that I never picked up.

For one thing, I am terribly unobservant when it comes to the natural world, to the point where I have sometimes worried about how anyone so obviously unobservant can ever claim to be a writer. In the Alps, bravely soldiering up mountains, I missed eagles, marmots and interestingly-shaped clouds even when given minute directions ('you see that peak over there behind the fir tree... no?). Recently, I have been trying to rectify my abysmal knowledge of trees and flowers on the basis that specificity in writing is important when setting a scene and that the lovely heroine leaning against a silver birch twirling a crimson crysanthemum while waiting for her lover is a more evocative scene then, say, the girl sat under a tree holding a flower. I've made an effort to learn the leaves and bark of the basics - oaks, beeches, horse chestnut, the most confusing rowan and mountain ash. I am ashamed, however, to admit that so far I can only identify by cheating: if it has acorns, or prickly conker shells, I can manage, otherwise they mix themselves up in my head. I can give you a list of trees, and I can see a tree and know that it is familiar, but never do these two trains of thought end up on the same bit of track.

This has all come about because, after gleefully abandoning reading about nature throughout my undergraduate degree, I have plunged myself into a creative writing MA that starts off with three books about the natural world and the wider concept of wilderness and wildness. Beautifully written, intensely thoughtful and perceptive, this is personal creative nonfiction that seems to test all of my reading abilities. Normally a fast reader, even in study mode, it's taken me weeks to get through the first one and a half books. My mind drifts in the spaces between paragraphs, a philosophical point will send me off on a tangent that brings me back two or three pages later when I realise I haven't taken in a word. The effort of concentration has put me to sleep more than once. It is incredibly frustrating - today, I read a few pages of Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places aloud to focus my thoughts and I was impressed by the sheer brilliance and rightness of the language, the description of Irish limestone as coated in pewter, the red berries against white snow in a Scottish forest. It is a beautiful book and Macfarlane has much wider messages about our relationship to nature and our very understanding of the wild places in the world. But I miss so much, seemingly inadvertently, me who can reel off characters and plots and family relationships from books I read years ago.

I think perhaps that it is because I feel an outsider in this world. I want desperately to understand this relationship with the natural world, this feeling of seeing it from the inside out. I go lightheaded in the outdoors - last weekend, dead-tired after endless days at work, I spent a few hours outside in unusually glorious English sunshine in my in-laws' garden a steep hill overflowing with colour and steps made of slate. I lay in the hammock, half-aware of bird song, with my sunglasses, reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a densely exuberant exploration of a year at the author's Virginia home. Dillard muses passionately on everything from the lifecycles of cicadas to the sheer fecundity of nature to the experience of patting a dog at a gas station. She writes with wonder and both an intensity of focus and a lightspeed zoom outwards looking at the natural world from all angles and all distances.

The sun often affects me strangely, and that afternoon I tried to absorb bits of Tinker Creek in a daze. I spent hours outdoors and I could not tell you what flowers I saw, what birds I heard, or really what words I read. I have a vision of it, vague, powerful and lightheaded with a sunstruck headache. I deeply admire this writing, this sort of depth of understanding, of seeing a tree and recognising it not just for its name but also for its mechanics and its cycle through the seasons. I blame, perhaps, my abysmal scientific education, but this all comes back to the same problem - the science I learned didn't stick.

I don't want to sell myself too short. When I stand on one of the Dartmoor tors (that expanse of moorland wilderness is something for another entry, the openess that I miss crammed in between hedgerows, that ability to breathe that you don't always know you've lost) or smell the salt of the sea when the waves hit the side of my train to work in the morning, I want desperately to write it, to capture the feeling of that breath, that wildness, what it means to be a person in that world. I want that Anne Hathaway rose-covered cottage in the country, I get absurdly excited when my tomato plants bear fruit. But I find an allure to nature mainly as setting, almost a persistent anthropomorphic backdrop, as the Yorkshire moors are to Heathcliff and Cathy or, conversely, to little Mary Lennox with her secret garden. I think, for me, it's the natural world as metaphor and as atmosphere that interests me most, and it depresses me that I can't seem to appreciate a world without characters.

Jay Griffith's Wild is proving the easiest read for me although it's possibly the most complex of the three in many ways. It's because, sad as it is to admit it, it's scattered throughout with people that I can latch onto, people as reference points for the wild, and people are something I feel I can understand.

*Notice the abandon with which this entry is written however - perhaps a bit of this joy in the world, this intense way of seeing, this unselfconscious wonder has started to rub off after all.