Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Passion or sex: what motivates nature writers? (and can we jar it up and sell it to schools…)

This week’s review discusses nature writing – what it is, why we humans seem to like it, and how we can help seed other budding nature writers. There’s also a bit of a search for resources online to help you.

Bizarrely, I spent the whole of World Cup 2002 sat on a sofa typing up the life-histories of 5,000 authors. Why? Well, I was trying to work out whether or not writing could have evolved through the process of sexual selection, the same process that drives the fancy male peacock’s tail or the horns of male stag beetles.

The question I was trying to answer was this: could writing, or story-telling (or any form of human creativity), have evolved as a way for human males to show off to females how good their genes are? Could big brains and creativity be like men and Ferraris? (“Look at me, I can afford to run an expensive car! / brain!”).

It’s one theory behind the massive increase in brain power that humans have seen in their two million year history, and I was to investigate it as part of my studies. Plus I could do it from a chair, in front of the football. Everyone’s a winner (except the England team - it was a World Cup year after all).

In many mammal life-histories, the production of testosterone increases the things associated with sex. So in my studies of authors I was hoping to see, when males reached their mid-twenties (which is a bit of a sexual peak), a huge surge in book production. I could almost hear the metaphorical slapping of fist on chest with each book published.

The large number of authors included in my study, from a variety of cultures, was supposed to offset societal complications, like paying bills and child care.

So, was it a success? Is creative-writing a gift from evolution, or specifically, through sexual selection? Is the writer Richard Mabey really that inspired by nature, or is he secretly hoping to sow his wild oats throughout his female readership… (Bloody hell, I hope he never reads this).

Of course, no. Nothing much came out of my study –I was wasting my time. No, writing is about something else. It’s a human adaptation that’s hard to put in a box, to explain rationally, let alone with data. Plus there's the obvious point that women and men are equally blessed with such skills.

I can see now that writing can’t be simplified in the crude boundaries of sexual selection or human evolution. It transcends this, and offers us more somehow – a way of communicating feelings that our brains can’t allow through other senses? It flows out of many writers like water, sometimes unstoppably. Perhaps our creativity is a handy by-product of another adaptation (like big brains needed for community-living)? I must confess this is one of those areas of human evolution that still baffles me…

I think about my failed research every time the subject of nature writing comes up. To those that love it, nature is the ultimate muse – mainly because there’s something in nature for everyone: lust, anger, family, love, sex. Whatever your mood you can find an outlet. And nature writing is turning into big business (comparatively speaking!) in the conservation arena.

It’s on this note that I refer to BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Nature Writer of the Year competition in this month’s issue. This competition is open to anyone and everyone – published or unpublished. Why not consider giving it a go this year?

So, what is nature writing?

What is it all about then? The first rule is, well, there aren’t any rules. It’s all about expressing how nature makes you feel. It comes in many forms: symphonies, sonnets, novels, phonological observation or simple scrawlings (my favourite).

I use it (as readers of this blog have no doubt worked out) as a sort of therapy. I download my thoughts, worries, concerns and inspirations about nature and, hey-presto, I feel better. Nature writing stirs up feelings within me that normally only occur when I’m outdoors. It leaves me happy to be alive.

There are some seriously amazing nature writers out there. If you want to see some of the best, most heartfelt examples, I’d recommend reading Richard Mabey’s numerous books (or his column in BBC Wildlife Magazine) or Simon Barnes (of the Times). Another favourite of mine is Paul Evans. Google these people, take a punt on one of their books. You’ll see what I mean.

You could also get a grounding in nature writing by reading about the greats: John Clare, Gilbert White, Rachel Carson or E. O. Wilson.

But don’t let these people make you think this is how nature-writing is done. Anything you write about nature is ‘nature-writing’. It’s not like you get a certificate in the post – we can all be nature writers. So write about whatever it is about nature that moves you. And make sure you’re honest. Oh, and do it when you’re ready. Don’t push it – it’s got to feel natural.

How can we get more nature-writers?

I think that if nature writing was even more of a national past-time we’d have greater passion for wildlife conservation in this country. Maybe it’s something we should be teaching at a younger age? Let me go even further: let’s teach nature-writing in schools. (English teachers take note).

Here’s some advice that young nature-writers could take on board:

1. Write things down: The best ideas, thoughts or observations are the ones that pop into your head when you’re doing something else; but like butterflies they’re fluttery things – they’ll disappear if you don’t write them down. So get yourself a notepad and a pencil and have it in your pocket at all times. When you’re feeling in the mood for writing, reach for your notebook, scan the pages and pick a topic or an observation you’ve made recently. All nature writers rely on this method.

2. Make time for writing, but don’t push it: In chick-flicks, girls seem to write in their diary before getting into bed. Make it this way with nature – both forms of writing are invariably about love. If you set aside some time which is yours each day or week -almost like Buddhist contemplation- you will have time to keep the nature part of your brain serviced and nourished. Having said this, don’t push it. If you sit there and nothing’s happening in your head, then what you pen will be strained, and it won’t be natural. Do something else.

3. Read other people’s work: Reading other people’s work can help you get a feel for the variety of forms of nature-writing out there. You might then notice that your own nature-writing find its own direction in terms of style. When you’ve found your own style you’ll find the words come more easily and you feel more ‘you’ – you’ll be left feeling more satisfied when you write like this.

4. Get out there: This is the golden rule for nature writing. If you are wanting to write about how nature makes you feel then you need to get out there and feel it for real. It might be that you use your nature writing as a diary for your learning about nature (this is still how it is for me). Everyone loves a journey.

So there we have it. Some bits of advice that might, or might not, prove useful. Let me know if you’ve got any other comments or titbits of support to offer young nature writers. Add them below.

The BBC Wildlife Magazine Nature Writer of the Year competition is now open and you can find out more about it here. The closing date is 30 April 2011. You can see last year’s finalists here.

What else is on the web to help you become a nature writer?

If you’re keen to do a bit of nature writing yourself, or to inspire other nature writers (Do any English teachers read this blog?) then sadly there isn’t many online resources to help you. I was quite shocked at how little there is actually.

One site that is pretty good though is The John Clare Cottage (John Clare is one of history’s finest old-school nature writers). The site has a number of teacher’s resources aimed at helping you incorporating nature writing into your workplan, particularly if you want to approach nature writing from a historical viewpoint.

I was encouraged to see that there’s a Festival of Nature Writing (it was last week!), where writers (speaking!) included Richard Mabey and Patrick Barkham (author of the fantastic The Butterfly Isles which I’m reading at the moment). A diary date for you next year perhaps…

Nature writing doesn’t have to be flouncey or particularly lyrical. One blog that I really like is Arkive’s – where sometimes wildlife conservation is given a human face through stories from scientists, posted on their blog. This week’s Finding the Rubbish Bin Frog is a great piece, summing up what it’s like to discover lost species of frog all over the world.

Lastly, can birds be nature writers? Hmmm… the BTO this week posted a link to the only birds to feature on the social network, Twitter (fitting eh). It’s at: The birds punch letters on a suet-soaked keyboard, then someone submits the bird’s random punchings as Tweets (message postings). It’s sort of like a modern take on Skinner’s rats. Can we expect Shakespeare from our avian wordsmiths? No. But it’s less cruel than a room full of monkeys chained to a fleet of typewriters I guess.

Right, I’m off to get a big jar of Nutella and see if my backyard birds fancy giving me some ideas for next week’s blog.

Until then, happy writing! Jules

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