|The first paperback edition 1974|
'Nature Writing' (the genre so cleverly mocked in its newspaper Nature Notes manifestation by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop; the twee vocabulary and laughable purple prose) has always been a bit of a hybrid, combining sharp scientific observation of nature in the field with a whole range of personal obsessions from the thought-provoking to the plain dotty. Even the great Gilbert White was obsessed by the idea that swallows didn't actually migrate in winter but went into hibernation somewhere not very far away from their spring and summer homes. Today it is more likely to be holding up the natural world as an alternative to our consumer capitalist obsessions or as a place to soothe our poor, bruised little selves. Traditional nature writing was not much concerned with the political world (The Natural History of Selborne appeared in 1789, the same year that a certain upheaval took place in France) but today, sharpened by our ecological sense of what we are doing to the natural world, the broader context is unavoidable.
As it happens I had just finished Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk when, by what process of serendipity I don't know, I plucked off my shelf a book that has sat there unread for several years, The Leaping Hare (1972) by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson. Evans was the author of many books about traditional rural life based, like Ronald Blythe's Akenfield often on oral history interviews (Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay etc etc) and David Thomson is the author of a haunting and beautiful memoir of youth and love in Ireland, Woodbrook (1974). This is a quite fascinating book about the hare, a creature about which we still don't know everything and which has been mythologised and made strange down the centuries. The authors tell us about its natural history, its habits and behaviour, the way in which it has been incorporated into myth and legend, its life as the hare-witch of folktale, and so much else. They have talked to countrymen as well as zoologists and there is nothing about the hare that they seem to have missed. The contrast between this book of informed and attentive inquiry and Helen Macdonald's part-misery memoir of using the training of a hawk to exorcise her grief is, it seems to me, significant. There are some similarities. Both books talk about the history of their subject and the traditions surrounding it, both are based on some real research and thinking about the context in which their subject lives. But where Evans and Thomson concentrate on telling us as much as it is is possible to know about the hare and its life in our imaginations, Macdonald's obsessive need to talk about herself, and the hawk in relation solely to herself, gets in the way of learning more about the goshawk, the history and practice of falconry, the stories that have grown up around it. There is too much of the writer (and too many words) and although when she writes directly about her loss of her father she is convincing, honest and moving, as a book about a living creature it cannot compete with the book about the hare.
Of course we cannot be strictly objective. Like the mediaeval bestiaries which described animals partly in natural history terms, partly in terms of their moral symbolism, and partly in relation to their religious or sacred significance (as when the red breast of the robin is accounted for by its attempt to pluck out the bloody thorns from Christ's calvary crown, a hypothesis that wouldn't cut much ice with Prof. Dawkins) we bring ourselves and our assumptions and our anthropomorphising tendencies to the way we think and write about our fellow creatures. I have done it myself in my Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems (Melos, 2013) where I have implied a moral relationship between humans and animals. I think it is natural, inevitable, to do this but it works only if we keep our eye firmly on the object and try to learn.
I give the last word to Richard Mabey. The best nature writing, he says, lets what is out there speak to us clearly in its own terms. I take this to mean that the hare and the hawk are interesting, in the end, for what they are and not solely for the ways in which our ego uses them.