In this glorious Pocket Guide, Kerri ní Dochartaigh highlights the value of Nature writing, whilst sharing her personal tips, resources and opportunities on how you can get inspired to write.
What do we really mean when we talk about ‘nature writing’? And what do we even mean when we talk about ‘nature’?
Nature writing, like pockets, is a politicised thing – embroidered with different threads; depending on your race, class, gender, (dis)ability, wealth or place in this world. Is there space here for you? Do you feel safe? There has never been a more important time to make safe space: for every single thing on this earth. The writing, then, will just do its own thing, you see. It will come and go as it pleases, like a moth to a big aul’ light.
How about a wee browse through these background reads, and then we might, in the words of Edwyn Collins, (the most inspiring nature punk on earth): ‘Rip it up and start again’?… (What is nature writing if not the constant riotous act of starting again? Of learning, again, to listen and to look, to draw close and keep our distance, to break and to weep; to get back up and love the world afresh?) In this NY Times piece three and a half decades ago, David Rains Wallace wrote ‘NATURE writing is a historically recent literary genre, and, in a quiet way, one of the most revolutionary.’
We’re ready for this revolution but who is going to lead it?
For far too long we have allowed a very particular voice, from a very particular background, with a very particular outlook – dominate bookshop displays, library shelves, reading lists, bestseller rankings and our own homes. This, the idea that there has only ever been one nature story, is wildly incorrect. Other standpoints, other views, other stories, other voices: have always been there. In ‘Heart Berries’ Terese Marie Mailhot summarises: ‘So, where are we? Where we have always been. Where are you?’
To write about nature with truth and integrity means to ask questions about the past and the future – who, where and what have been mistreated – and how do we make that stop, through how we approach this genre? I only want to be a part of any gathering where every single one of us is there as an equal.
So, who is doing the important work in this area? Where should you go to read more? Where should you send your fledgling words?
Let’s start with The Willowherb Review because I think they are incredible. Their aim is ‘to provide a digital platform to celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour’, and already their writers have seen prize nominations and awards (all links on the site). Most importantly of all the writing is cracking; beautiful, raw and necessary. Jessica J Lee, the editor, has a no nonsense approach to the genre that I deeply admire. If you are a nature writer of colour, check out their website for submission dates.
Jessica has also organised a reading group, Allies in the Landscape, a fantastic support for nature writers and anyone wanting to widen their reading in the genre.
The folks at Caught by the River do stellar work for those who love the natural world across a plethora of genres. If you are in need of inspiration, or events to go to when we can, start here. You will not be let down. They read everything they’re sent but are a busy crew so – as with submitting anywhere, patience is kindness.
More folks with big hearts and brilliant writing are The Clearing.
The art of nature writing itself can be a children’s story, a poem, a list, a eulogy, a translation – it can be fiction or non – written or other – short or long; it is anything that takes our world and makes it sing. The best nature writing, for me, speaks of transformation – anything from a fiercely hungry caterpillar, through to strong women swimming themselves to safe places – making lists of yellow things for their sick fathers – moulding grief through sowing seeds: the best nature writers might not even call themselves that at all. Some books I have recently loved are: ‘Trace’ by Lauret Savoy, ‘Braiding Sweet Grass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer Elizabeth J Burnett’s ‘The Grassling’, ‘Bulbul Calling’ by Pratyusha, Seán Hewitt’s ‘Tongues of Fire’, Jessica J Lee’s ‘Two Trees Make a Forest’, ‘The Promise’ by Nicola Davies and ‘The Diary of a Young Naturalist’ by Dara McAnulty. I return over and over to writers like Amy Liptrot, Kathleen Jamie, Annie Dillard, Robert McFarlane and others but I am constantly trying to find new voices, approaches and stories – new to me, not new in their existence, of course: it’s important to make that distinction in a genre such as this.
The important thing, needed now more than ever, is that they each take their place in this symphony of hope.
There is room, here, on these mountains and beaches, in these gardens and fields, in these bodies of water – in ASDA parking lots and unsafe spaces – on the streets, and in every place both ‘wild’ and not (both outer and inner) – for you and your story.
From me to you, here a few exercises I return to over and over as a means to get started…
Choose something – a moth, the colour blue, a tree, a wren, a pebble, the waves on the beach – and write about it as if the reader will have never before seen or heard of it. Really stay with the description for as long as you can, and try to get down to what it really is: its thingness. Make your description almost like a love letter in how much care you take with it, and the depth of your words. Another interesting take on this is to write yourself as the thing – to really imagine, say, going through all the stages of the cycle from caterpillar to moth – or the ebb and flow you would experience as a particular body of water etc.
Journal – at least three free-flow pages without thinking about them or rereading – every single day. This one really helps to get me out of my normal flow of thought, and does something to my brain that welcomes experiences, creatures and thoughts that are conducive to nature writing. It really doesn’t matter if I am not writing about nature in these pages, really that is not the point, I think it’s in the act of carving out space and time – bringing awareness to the act. The space in which I write these can be a cafe, on a train, or at home, and still I find myself in a wild place, one that is on the inside not the outside.
The thing that most helps me to write about the natural world is actually being in it – walking, swimming, running, laying, laughing, crying – just allowing myself to be outside as much as I can seems to be the best way for me to try to write about the world we share.
Once you feel more confident, you might be interested in entering your writing into a prize or sharing it online (an incredible amount of links can also be found in the hyperlinked pages too) and I can share only a fraction but here are a few that sing to me:
https://nanshepherdprize.com This prize is changing the landscape of this genre. Every single section on the site is invaluable.
Christina Riley has put such a wonderful thing together here. Have a browse / follow.
Clare Archibald’s inspiring, inclusive site is really making ripples in this area.
https://beachbooks.blog/about/ A gorgeous, generous sea library full of joy.
https://www.elementumjournal.com Submissions are closed for this journal but there is lots of fine work to peruse.
https://www.elsewhere-journal.com This is a superb journal of place, and submission are open.
The Moth Nature Writing prize, The Rialto Nature Poetry Competition and others are great to look at too. There are courses, schemes and more online but I think the most important place to start is by looking and listening, reading and caring; by loving the world and by writing it down in any way you can.
For me, any time any of us looks and listens to the non-human beings we share this earth with – when we pause in humility to acknowledge the interconnectedness of us all – the threads tying us to each other; invisible often, but so strong – we are playing a part in making this a safer, fairer earth. To go one step further, and to write about this connection, to name, explore, celebrate and honour – whether we choose a swan or a stone, a moth or a lough, the wild sea or our gut flora; things nearby or faraway, the known or unknown – we are shining light on one of the most important truths of this earth: our need to be alive, and to remain connected to every other living thing. There is power in trying to find traces of ourselves in the nonhuman, as well as acknowledging our difference. In searching for the beat of something unnameable; the simple act of being alive, at the same time, as each other, and in the same way as even the smallest insect.
Nature Writing holds the hope, for me, of reminding us how to treat everyone and everything on the earth. The best nature writing shines light on places we need to see; on beings we need to learn to accept as our equal. It is only a proper telling of the earth if we can tread gently on the land and the non-human as well as human while we do it. If we can speak honestly of the places and the past – if we can find a way to write it where every single one of us is heard; where each one of us, and our stories, are kept safe.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh is from the North West of Ireland but now lives in the very middle. She writes about nature, literature and place for The Irish Times, The Dublin Review of Books, Caught By The River and others. Her first book, Thin Places, is out with Canongate in January 2021.
Published 7 July 2020