Saturday 16 April 2011

Nature Writer: An Interview with Fortyspot

[Some of my thoughts about nature writing]

Fortyspot  is a blog run by Lyn Reeves, a Tasmanian poet, editor and publisher. Lyn recently interviewed me about my passion for nature and my love of the genre "nature writing". Here's the interview, interspersed with some of my photographs. It is reproduced with Lyn's kind permission.

Fortyspot: When did you first become interested in nature writing, both as a reader and as a writer? What attracts you to this form of writing?

PG: I think it’s come out of a lifelong love of the natural world. A childhood chasing butterflies and cicadas; keeping silk worms; catching skinks and so on. And devouring “How and Why Wonder Books” on volcanoes, dinosaurs and the like.

But it was reading Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” in my 30s that really turned on my nature writing light bulb. It was like discovering a whole new planet that had barely been explored. Dillard is a writer who sees beneath the surface, and writes with a knowledgeable love of nature that leaps from the page.

That was the late 80s, and I spent the next few years trying to find more books like that. I’m strongly attracted to writing that shows me what’s hidden in plain view. I eventually decided to try and write my own local version of that.

Buttongrass and mountains, Southwest National Park 

Fortyspot: Who are the nature writers you most admire or who have influenced you the most and who you might recommend to someone wanting to learn more of the art of nature writing?

PG: I’d start with Annie Dillard and Richard Nelson. Dillard once told an interviewer “You almost have to hold a gun at my head to make me read ‘nature writing’, but I’ll crawl over broken glass for Richard K. Nelson.” Amen to that! I count Richard, who is based in Alaska but often visits here, as both friend and mentor. His “The Island Within” is breathtakingly good.

In a field generally seen as dominated by American writers, I should also mention classics like Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac”, Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams” and the works of writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder and Terry Tempest Williams.

But there’s a British tradition too, often more bucolic than wild in nature. The father figure is probably Gilbert White (“The Natural History of Selborne”), but others include 19th century figures like John Clare and Richard Jeffries. In the 1950s T.H. White wrote a memorable book in “The Goshawk”, but also had some wonderfully observed nature writing in his history/fantasy “The Once and Future King”.

Of the more recent Brits, I was also lucky enough to meet and spend time in the Tasmanian wilds with the late Roger Deakin. His “Waterlog” is a classic; charming, poignant, acutely observed, and as disarmingly eccentric as the author himself. Robert Macfarlane’s “The Wild Places” and Kathleen Jamie’s “Findings” are two other recent book I’ve enjoyed and admired.

A couple of quality magazines that feature this kind of writing are “Orion” (from the US) and “Resurgence” (from the UK).

In Australia the list is thin. Eric Rolls’ “Celebration of the Senses” and “Doorways: A Year of the Cumberdeen Diaries”, and more recently Mark Tredinnick’s “The Blue Plateau”, are some notable exceptions.

King Billy pine at Lake Rhona 

Fortyspot: In 2002 you co-founded the WildCare Tasmania International Nature Writing Prize, the world’s first literary award for unpublished nature writing. What led you to do this, and how did you go about it?

PG: As I noted above, I believed there was a dearth of Australian nature writing. With this in mind I asked Eric Rolls where nature essays might be published here, and he indicated that the options were few. In 1992 I wrote an essay about this in Island (#53, 1992). It was a kind of “call to arms” for nature writers. It took nearly a decade, but I eventually took up my own call, and travelled to Britain, Ireland and the US to study the nature writing traditions there.  

I learned much, including that there was no writing prize anywhere – even in the US – for new nature writing. I came back and shared my findings with people like Pete Hay, and David Owen (then editor of Island), and we came up with the prize idea. When Andrew Smith of WildCare came on board as the major sponsor, we were off and running.

Fortyspot: The prize defines nature writing as literary prose whose major inspiration and subject matter is the natural world, not necessarily excluding its significance for humans and/or their interactions with it.’ How did you arrive at that definition and what were some of the models or templates that you had in mind as examples of the genre?

PG: Pete Hay essentially came up with that definition. He’d been teaching literature and the environment at UTas for many years. We didn’t really have any models or templates, we just knew that we wanted people to engage in a heartfelt and literary fashion with the natural world.

Winter scene: Walls of Jerusalem National Park
Fortyspot: From reading the entries and prize-winners in this biennial competition, can you describe the general direction or particular attributes that distinguish the works submitted as ‘nature writing’. Have there been any ‘stand out’ entries that you’d like to mention?

PG: The best entries tend to be grounded in a particular place, and offer a reflective and knowledgeable consideration of experience in that place. In this context Robert Macfarlane talks about the need for “prolonged acquaintance with a place” so that “the slow capillary creep of knowledge” can occur. I tend to think of nature writing as the “slow food movement” of literature. It involves patient exposure to place; unhurried collection of observations; methodical gathering of relevant detail; and judicious combining of those ingredients with the individuality of the writer.

The fast food versions of nature writing are likely to give superficial descriptions of peoples’ experiences in nature, or worse, offer unsifted thoughts on current environmental crises, such as climate change or drought.

As for stand out pieces, I’d rather not single anyone out. Instead I’d urge people to read some of the winning entries in Island magazines. Past issues that have WildCare Prize winning essays include 92/93, 101, 102, 109 and 118. And the next issue, # 125, will hopefully have the 2011 winning entries.

Wallaby prints in snow, Walls of Jerusalem National Park

Fortyspot: Would you agree that the genre of place writing is less developed in Australia than in North America where there is a strong tradition comprising works such as Thoreau’s Walden, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek and the more contemporary works of writers like Barry Lopez, to name a few? Have you noticed a growing interest in the genre of nature writing in Australia in recent years and, if so, what would you put that down to?

PG: Yes, as discussed above, I think it is less developed here. But I also believe there’s now a burgeoning interest in nature and place writing in Australia. I think part of this is an expression of our desire to finally put down roots in this land, rather than simply camp on its surface. There may be a faddish element to it too, which could mean the spotlight will only hover here occasionally. But I think the more we live in this land, and reflect deeply on it, the more it will come out in our thinking, talking and writing.

Fortyspot: What suggestions or advice would you give to the novice nature writer?

PG: Spend time in the natural world; look deeply; be curious; ask a lot of questions; read widely; and then practice, practice, practice your writing. The good nature writers I know tend to be gentle and somewhat obsessive. It’s probably a helpful combination to cultivate.

My thanks to Lyn Reeves from Fortyspot for permission to reproduce this interview on my blog. Her blog focusses on writing about place. 


Bill said...

Great interview. A wonderful display of your accomplishments and ideas.

As to natural history writers I would point people to Loren Eiseley first and foremost. An absolute original thinker in his time. Dillard is good, though, as well. I would also recommend many books by John McPhee!

Nature Scribe said...

Thanks for your kind comments Bill. I agree with you about Loren Eiseley and John McPhee. Both great, if for different reasons.

Of course the list could be very long indeed! For instance I didn't mention any Irish writers - but try Tim Robinson's extraordinary "Stones of Aran" books, and Michael Viney's delightful "A Year's Turning". Back in England I should have mentioned WG Sebald's astonishing "The Rings of Saturn".

And in the US I enjoy almost anything by Edward Hoagland. So much to read ... so little time ...