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Words of the Soil: Nature writing and Nationalism in Britain

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Sylvia Warren


“So", Dan said, "Silvie, short for Sylvia?" Sulevia, I said. I was about to say as I had been doing since I first started school, she was an Ancient British goddess. My Dad chose it.  but they were already exchanging glances. "Sulevia’s a local deity", said Dan…"Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, co-opted by the Romans", said Molly.

He wanted me to have a proper British name.

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

Fruit of the Earth

Britain has an affinity for nature writing. It gives the country a sense of itself: even if we do not have geography, we certainly do have history. It is a history rooted in the soil. Afternoon tea in National Trust properties. The certainty of an ancient turf maze, safely outside the difficult histories of colonialism and modern multiculturalism. 

The concept of ‘proper Britishness’ does not fall comfortably into left-wing and right-wing allegiances. It is a malleable principle for all sides. To consider the concept of Farewell, Earth we must not only stop romanticising a natural, proper Britain, but also critically examine the common themes that allow the idea to hold such power. 

There is a sleepy normality to the nature genre, and it starts when children are introduced to The Wind in the Willows. 

Books of Our Youth

In Greene’s book, Toad is jovial, aimless, and conceited. Children are given a blueprint from what to expect from rich, powerful people, in the form of a capricious, lazy, yet ultimately harmless and successful aristocrat. It represents class division and normalises it through the descriptions of lush river banks, messing around in boats.

Tarka the Otter, in print since 1928, and longlisted for the UK’s favourite nature book in 2017 by the Arts & Humanities Research Council was written by Henry Williamson, a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. There seems to be little that a bucolic description of rolling countryside as our very own Eden does not excuse. Some may argue that the current trend of ‘cancelling’ people for problematic opinions has its own downsides, but the packaging of fascist 

or social norms into digestible children’s classics has implications for the way that the UK grows up interpreting nature. 

There is a natural allure for the Green-minded left to nature writing. The problems of pollution, overcrowding, fragmenting habitats and ecological destruction are all worthy of scientific papers and serious critique. If you read peer-reviewed journals on this subject suggest the outlook is bleak, yet they wrap it up in dry statistics and p-values and longitudinal studies with inconclusive evidence as yet.

This is far less appealing than a call back to the wildwoods, to this ‘sceptred Isle…this other Eden…fortress built by Nature herself’, or to the land where men erected stone circles for (archaeologically contested) sacred purposes. 

Whilst most green-leaning people are thoroughly left-wing, there is a small subsection that can merge their ecological protectionism with a desire to protect This England, with all the xenophobia and nationalism that entails. 

Ghost Wall (Granta, 2018) examines this particularly elegantly. Sylvie’s father is an amateur history buff, deeply invested in the history of Britain, foraging off the land, self sufficiency, hunting and using seasonal products. He re-enacts ritual with his daughter and some students, ending by deconstructing what ecologically sound practice is, and the split between that and a fanatical obsession with an earth in this country that never existed. 

Occasionally he seems like a monster, an all too believable one. You probably know him, or someone like him, and his cloak of historical environmentalism and misogyny is plausible – understandable – if you look at him from a purely ecological viewpoint. 

Toad 2.0

Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s 2017 Booker shortlisted novel, also dissects the verdant covering of countryside-writing to reveal the all-more-natural carcass within. The father and Daniel and Cathy, siblings, retreat to a copse, build a cabin, live off the land (what fantasy, what pull this has for a certain type of man? Both here and in Ghost Wall the fathers are odd, angry, and yet the description of their freedom is seductive) and come across Toad 2.0. 

Toad with a Landrover.  Toad with a lawyer. Poop poop no more jovial aristocrat here.  Here is entitlement over what is your land by right, and people who appreciate the land. The narrative gets blurred. 

It is reassuring for the legacy of British nature writing to have a counterpoint. I should also mention Jon McGregor, whose Reservoir books are sumptuous love-letters to the environment, but also clinical and cruel in their treatment of those who walk over the ground.  That said, the canon of British with a capital B Nature Writing continues. Paul Kingsnorth evokes the mythic British past, was a Brexit-voter, and weaves together Britishness and ecology in a way that falls neatly towards the conservative. City writers – the psychogeographers if you will – can ricochet the other way. Critics of psychogeographers ignore human factors that keep people within cities, and pass value judgements on not being able to recognise a dock leaf.  There are no simple answers to this. Even the question is nebulous. We can only listen to one of Molly’s fellow students:  “So it’s actually more of a Roman name, does [your father] know that?” Want to write for The Radical Art Review? contact us at radicalartreview (at) gmail (dot) com


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