I have compiled two collections of nature poetry and, whilst doing so, I came to realise that many of the very best nature writers never wrote poetry and that many of the most moving descriptions of the natural world appear as prose rather than verse. Equally, writers such as Jane Austen, Thomas de Quincy, Daphne du Maurier and Samuel Johnson may not be best-known for their descriptions of the natural world but write on nature with great insight and feeling.
This anthology dips its toe into fact and fiction, letters and diaries, practical field guides and wild imaginings. Following the seasons, day by day, there are identification notes and musings from bygone times, magical forests and many timely warnings, throughout the ages, of the perils of mistreating nature and taking her riches for granted. Increasingly, it has become evident that humans wield enormous power over the wild places of the earth. There is then the added problem of how best to safeguard nature; Aldo Leopold, writing in 1949 made the point, ‘All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.’ Not all writers even liked the wilderness, Daniel Defoe, while travelling round Britain, went from town to town and deplored the wildness of the Lake District.
Like the Bedside Companion for Gardeners, this is not intended to be a practical manual but I have included entries from field guides where the description is particularly beautiful, interesting or humorous. Anne Pratt, Edward Step and Rev C. A. Johns write so lyrically that their descriptions go far beyond merely useful. Much of the best nature writing allows the imagination to soar and with this in mind I have included the opinions of witches, griffins and a phoenix. Amongst these pieces you will also find bears (grizzly and duffle-coated), cats, dogs and talking ravens. You will discover how to make a cowslip ball, what advice to offer an oak sapling and the way in which many animals become Real.
This is a very personal selection; readers may be surprised to find the novelist Charles Dickens has more entries than the naturalist W. H. Hudson and that the probably lesser-known Aldo Leopold appears more than Gilbert White. These are the books I love and reread: childhood favourites, moving novels and haunting descriptions of nature. In many cases it was hard to limit the number of extracts but the book I found hardest to cut was Jean Giono’s novella The Man Who Planted Trees. Over the years many publishers and readers have taken it to be a true story, and so it should be, a lesson in what one man can achieve in a relatively short space of time. There are many writers who, for reasons of space and copyright, do not have as many entries as I would have liked; my reading life, indeed my life in all respects, would be poorer without the works of John Lewis-Stempel, Robert Macfarlane, H. E. Bates and Roger Deakin. My hope is that the extracts in the collection will lead readers to their and other original works.
The aim of this anthology is to bring the wild world into readers’ homes and cross the frontier line that Richard Jefferies described in 1879. Since then cities have expanded, roads spread and populations grown but the natural world is still there for those who look for it:
There is a frontier line to civilisation yet; and not far outside its great centres we come quickly even now on the borderland of nature.
(From Wild Life in a Southern County by Richard Jefferies)
Nature Writing for ever Day of the Year is published by Batsford on 14th October, £20
The previous post is on Bedside Companion for Gardeners.