Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River, by Charles Rangeley-Wilson, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99, 288 pages
Field Notes From a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary, by Esther Woolfson, Granta, RRP£16.99, 368 pages
Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal, by Al Alvarez, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99, 288 pages
Nature writing is undergoing a renaissance in the UK; there are even courses now, aimed at teaching students how to write about landscape and wildlife. Previously centred around a few texts by committed environmentalists such as Richard Mabey and the late Roger Deakin, the genre has drawn in poets, travel writers, philosophers, academics and essayists until the definition itself has begun to split open like the husk around a burgeoning seed. My own contribution, Clay, is a novel: further proof, perhaps, that the term “nature writing” (usually understood to mean non-fiction) is no longer helpful – or a sign that we should leave off trying to ringfence environmental literature and accept that these concerns are no longer niche, but part of our common consciousness.
In some ways “nature writing” never really went away. Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places (2007) and The Old Ways (2012), has recently been championing “lost” works such as Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) and JA Baker’s The Peregrine (1967). If you trace the tradition back via Ronald Blythe, Kenneth Allsop, JHB Peel, TH White and others, you’ll find John Stewart Collis, Edward Thomas’s prose, Richard Jefferies and, of course, Gilbert White and his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789 and which has never been out of print. And that’s before you consider the nature poets.
Much of our most famous literature of landscape was produced during the Romantic movement, and that may shed light on the genre’s current popularity. For then, as now, technological changes were convulsing society and creating perceived threats to the countryside; then, as now, science was in the ascendancy, promising answers to questions previously held to be beyond its reach; and then, as now, a belief in the inherent moral quality of nature developed in reaction to those changes, and, along with a renewed interest in myths and folk history, created a literature that celebrated a spiritual relationship to our environment and an emotional and historical connection to place.
England was the first country to industrialise, and 90 per cent of the UK population now live in towns and cities, where wildlife must also find a way to rub along with us. The literature of nature has come to reflect that shift. Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside (1973, republished in 2010) led the way for those looking beyond the bucolic for an experience of nature; as did the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their dystopian and genre-defying Edgelands (2011). Three new books published this spring also explore our relationship to our urban environments, albeit in very different ways.
Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road shares with Edgelands a celebration of marginal territories. In this case, the focus is the river Wye in Buckinghamshire, a chalkstream now lost under concrete and tarmac as it passes beneath High Wycombe. Though not completely: “I pull into the car park,” he writes, early in the book. “Along the northern edge spindly sycamores reach into the fading light from a tangle of scrub beneath … here, hidden inside a dark furrow, I find the stream … It smells of damp ground and unburnt exhaust fumes.” Further on, he comes upon the place where the Wye plunges through a metal grid and into the ground. “Beyond this rush is the hollow, in-darkness echo from within the tunnel, the sound of water lost to a man-made drain. The sound of a river ceasing to be a river.”
Silt Road is a history of a river, its long-gone paper mills and water meadows, country houses and slums, and an inquiry into how it came to be lost (“a suicide of the collective spirit”, Rangeley-Wilson calls it). It’s also a dreamlike account of his quest to trace the source of an obsession. He’s known as an angling writer but this is about far more than fish – despite the chimerical trout he glimpses in the Wye’s surviving stretches. For Rangeley-Wilson the past remains present in the landscape, and it is the river itself that haunts him: “I see the grassy marshland of the valley floor, its thickets of willow, pilasters of dog rose, the stream switching this way and that … I open my eyes to the rush of tyres on a wet road, the distant drone of aeroplanes. I feel how the centuries have broken over this landscape like waves.”
Although the river is invisible beneath High Wycombe’s streets, its course can still be read: in place names (Brook Street, Riverside Surgery, Mill End Lane) or in the route that waterfowl sometimes take through the town. One of the most memorable moments occurs when the streets flood after a cloudburst: “I watched the water streaking over the pavement and suddenly realised that the buried river was there in front of me, that I only had to follow the rushing water and I would be walking a stream that no one has seen since 1965.” It is as though the author has become a divining-rod through which a lost landscape can be sensed. The result is a work of extraordinary power and resonance.
A hidden river also runs through Esther Woolfson’s Field Notes from a Hidden City: the Denburn, long since sent deep beneath the streets of Aberdeen. But while her book shares with Silt Road a sense of an urban landscape’s history and geology, Woolfson’s quest is to record her encounters with urban wildlife over the course of a year, from a young pigeon she rescues from the snow to the spiders she finds in her house. The diary structure is loose: as well as dated entries – some brief, describing weather conditions or natural observations in precise, and often lovely, prose – there are longer, conscientiously researched and undated essays on such things as slugs and passenger pigeons. This allows Woolfson to follow her own interest free from structural constraints but it does make for a slightly uneven texture, especially as the narratorial voice shifts between the confidingly humorous, sparsely poetic and scientifically detached.
As Rangeley-Wilson is to fish, Woolfson is to birds: in her previous book, Corvus (2008), she described sharing her house with a rook and a magpie, and in Field Notes it is the sections on birds (and rats, which she has also kept) that come alive with affection and authority. Perhaps it is the respect learnt from life at close quarters with these creatures that drives the fierce moral payload of her project: Woolfson’s belief that, even in the cities we have built, we are not the only living things that matter and our needs do not trounce those of the animals that manage to coexist with us. “I think of how, as humans, we feel free to treat others, both human and not, and of the ways we find to explain to ourselves what we do,” she writes. “I think of the dangers of separating the lives of animals and men, believing them to be irreconcilable or subject to different standards, of assuming righteousness.”
There’s a similar sense of democracy in Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal. Al Alvarez, poet, literary critic, poker player and rock climber, is 73 when the book opens, 82 when it stutters out, and in his nine-year account of his dips in the ponds on Hampstead Heath, the cormorants, swans, coots and heron are just as important as the affable lifeguards, his fellow regulars and Alvarez himself. In one entry, a hawk goofs around on the thermals, “enjoying the sunshine like everyone else”. In another: “The terns were fishing for breakfast … They seem to fall apart as they hit the water and, for a moment, they’re gone. Then they surge out and beat upwards again, scattering drops of light … heavenly presences are hard to come by in London, so what with the terns and the birdsong and the shining day, I go home feeling blessed.”
Alvarez has swum in Hampstead ponds since he was 11, and their water has flowed through a rich life, with all its attendant crises. Each spring he joyfully records in his journal the trees coming into the leaf, the candles of flowers on the horse chestnuts being lit and the scent of the mayflower when it blossoms; each autumn he describes the leaves changing and falling, the water temperature dropping and his anticipation of some adrenalin-boosting winter swimming. Unlike many of us (in particular, those of a bookish disposition) he never forgets that despite living in the heart of a city he is an animal: formed in nature, and not separate from it. “For my imagination to kick in and my language to come alive, I need to feel alive physically – that is, I need to get out into the weather and use my body,” he writes.
Approaching the end of his life, it is in his contact with nature that Alvarez finds a kind of sanctity: his own intimation of immortality, perhaps. Yet to call this vital, luminous book a meditation on ageing would be to imply an acceptance of old age that is very far from the ardour that actually impels it. The entries seethe with love and anger: love for the beautiful world that is moving out of his reach, and the anger of a life-long sportsman faced with failing strength. His devotion to the Ponds remains undiminished almost to journal’s end: “My body may have been falling apart, but in some ways I had never felt more alive, and the world had never seemed more beautiful,” he writes. “Anne and I drive over the top of the Heath with the car’s roof open, saying, Look at this, look at that. The world seems more and more beautiful now we are running out of time, as though we hadn’t properly noticed it before.”
When Wordsworth sought in nature a “sense sublime / of something far more deeply interfused” he found it most readily in the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Cumbrian lakes. And yet his “Upon Westminster Bridge” is a breathtaking evocation of a city at dawn. As a nation of urbanites we would do well to value the natural world on our doorstep just as much as the places we see when we “visit the countryside”. Developing a felt connection with our urban landscapes and the creatures we share them with, as these books demonstrate, is not just good for nature: it’s good for our souls.
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)