Women on Nature

By Katharine Norbury

A wide-ranging and timely new perspective on writing about the natural world and our place within it

Monday, 5 March 2018

Women on Nature

When Unbound asked if I would be interested in curating an anthology of women’s writing about the natural world, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done already.  When Susan Griffin published her controversial book Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her in 1978 it became a deeply controversial cornerstone of feminist literature. It’s starting point was that women were somehow perceived to be  ‘closer to nature’ than men, and that in being ‘more intuitive’ they were somehow also more uncivilized, wild and, by implication, inferior. Lady Macbeth might be a reasonable example of such an archetype, acting on instinct and pushing her ambitious and superstitious spouse to extraordinary excesses of barbarism. Three witches, with their toads, newts and cauldron, were Macbeth’s other key advisors. Since then, any number of positive archetypes of women have pushed the frightening banshee/witch aside, and equality between the sexes is now, in this archipelago at any rate, enshrined in law. How odd, then, for writing about place, landscape and the natural world to still appear to be dominated by men over forty years later.

Or is it? By narrowing my focus to the Atlantic archipelago of the islands of Ireland, Britain and the surrounding islands, and by stretching the time frame from the 14th Century, all the way up until today, there is a fascinating opportunity to redefine what we might think of, loosely, as “nature writing”. In her review of my book The Fish Ladder Melissa Harrison observed that: “cultural forms of all types look the way they do because they have been shaped quite naturally, over time, by the interests and preferences of their proponents. But those preferences can become self-perpetuating as uncanonical ways of contributing – ways that don’t ‘fit’ – are tacitly excluded or ignored. And if a genre’s proponents are unrepresentative of society we can find ourselves judging a work ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on a template that’s been limited right from the start, rather than questioning or broadening the template itself.”

Women On Nature is the opportunity to broaden that template, indeed, to create an entirely new one – and one that compliments the existing form. By simply removing men’s writing from the pool of available material, new patterns, different ways of looking, become apparent. Rather than looking to the legacy of writers such as John Muir, Richard Jeffries and Edward Thomas – all of which, to a greater or lesser degree, involve striding out in to a landscape on a walking holiday of sorts, observance of the natural world can be relocated, liberated, and redefined. The keeping of a kitchen garden, a walk to the post office, bee-keeping, cheese making, mushroom gathering, driving an elderly relative to see the bluebells, and a whole host of other pursuits that all involve looking at and writing about the natural world have, until now, been overlooked or marginalised by the perhaps more intentionally heroic pursuits of our male counterparts. But by pushing this writing to the foreground, and listening to the voices of women who have made these islands their subject – and that really is the only prescriptive attribute that the pieces have in common – we have an opportunity to explore new ways of engaging with the natural world. The women themselves are poets, gardeners, broadcasters, novelists, journalists as well as travel and nature writers in the more conventional sense. The anthology will feature new work by Kathryn Aalto, Sineád Gleeson, Deborah Orr, Andrea Wulf as well as extracts from the novels of Melissa Harrison, Amy Liptrot; the poetry of Christine Evans, Chrissie Gittins and the Scottish Makar Jackie Kay alongside the work of Emily Bronte, George Eliot and Mary Shelley. There are so many more names – these are only a handful – and I am very excited about the task that lies ahead for me.

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