Nature » Nature Writing

Fresh Voices in Nature Writing

recommended by Jessica J. Lee

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan

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Writing about nature and landscape need not be stuffy or traditionalist. Jessica J Lee, editor of The Willowherb Review—a literary journal dedicated to diversity in nature writing—recommends five books that offer a breath of fresh air: encompassing the whole of life, from sex in the woods to birding in the city.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan

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Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan

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So, Jessica, as the editor of The Willowherb Review, you are perfectly positioned to direct us to the most exciting new voices in nature writing. But first, tell us a bit about the Willowherb and what its aims are.

There has been a lot of discourse over the last few years—particularly on social media, but also in a few critical articles—talking about the lack of diversity in the field, a stagnancy in nature writing, a discomfort with the cosiness or nostalgia of some of it. After decades of people trying to ‘do better’ in publishing, it remained very much a white man’s field.

I’ve been following the Wainwright Prize for many years, and in 2018 I looked at the shortlist, and again was dismayed to see there wasn’t a lot of diversity. I thought: ‘You know what? This isn’t because the writers don’t exist.’ Actually, they were being published. They were just not getting the attention that other writers were getting. They weren’t getting a platform that other writers were getting.

It’s also a bit of a chicken and egg problem. If writers of colour in particular don’t see themselves reflected in publishing, writers considering entering the field might not pursue it. With nature writing, I think, that’s a particularly acute problem. Because it’s not just the publishing barrier; it’s the nature barrier, the fact that communities of colour don’t see themselves represented in natural spaces or in environmental movements. We have such low numbers statistically of people of colour visiting national parks, which compounds the issue.

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It seemed to me that this incredibly complicated thing actually had a really simple solution, of course not just a single solution, but something we could be tackling instead of talking about. I was really tired of talking about it.

So the journal actually developed from a tweet I sent out. I just said: ‘I’m so fed up with this. Should I make up a journal because no one else seems to be doing anything?’ Some people replied, and were like, ‘Yeah, do it.’ I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to have to do this now. What have I done?’

But I did. I was stuck on a train when this happened. The train was delayed. We were just sitting in this railyard, I had nothing else to do, and I’d finished reading the book I had. So I started a Squarespace website right away. I looked out the window, there was some willowherb growing there. That’s a plant I really love, but one that is so controversial. It’s really demonised as an invasive species. I thought, okay, that can be our name.

A couple of weeks later, I launched a Kickstarter to get it funded, and we were funded for two years within two days.

That’s great. Shows there’s a real appetite for it.

That was really exciting. The journal wasn’t planned, by any means. But I’ve been really glad to see it grow into a platform that a lot of writers are really excited to contribute to. I think it offers some sense of hope, and a space where writers of colour feel like they can explore what matters to them in nature writing and environmental writing and place writing—amongst people who they don’t have to explain themselves to.

There’s a bar of understanding that we function with at the journal, and I think that means a lot to people. It’s been running since 2018 and, I think, going very well. We’ve had some really interesting collaborations, incredible submissions. Some of our writers have gone on to win awards, be nominated for awards, and that’s been really exciting to see.

Congratulations. The list you’ve put together for us, highlighting fresh voices in nature writing, is not specifically a list of writers of colour.

Right. I wanted to put together a list that I thought would challenge a lot of the typical conventions of nature writing. Of course, while the Willowherb publishes writers of colour, obviously there’s a need for a much broader range of diversity in the genre. So I wanted to create a list that reflected some of that in terms of the kinds of voices, the topics, geographic range, and all of that.

Well, let’s talk about your first book choice, Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning, here translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J Haveland. What’s it about, and why do you admire it?

It’s a light-touch memoir-meets-nature book about the period after the death of the writer’s husband, when she decides in her grief to go to an introduction to mushroom foraging workshop that she and her husband had booked before his death.

This workshop draws her into a completely different world and, in a way, out of her grief, or through her grief. It’s an incredibly powerful story of finding belonging in a place that is not originally your home, and of getting to know an area of expertise that can seem like it has a high barrier of entry.

“Any book with recipes, I’m 100% on board with”

One of the things I really like about this book is the tone that Litt Woon takes. How should I put it? It’s completely friendly. It’s completely easy to understand. I can imagine giving this book to basically anybody in my life, not just the hardcore nature writing readers, because she explains things with such clarity. And it’s funny! It’s a mix of memoir and mycology, and there are recipes in it—any book with recipes, I’m 100% on board with. It’s sort of a healing memoir but something much more exciting than that, too.

Let’s come back to this point about the barrier to entry. Nature writing or natural history can be quite dense or technical in its approach. But none of the books that you’ve selected are. Was that tactical?

Yes. I think it’s something that I look for, in nature writing particularly. I come from a scholarly background—I’m an environmental historian by training. I spend a lot of time reading those kinds of technical books, and there’s a place for them. But—how do I put it?—I think there’s a really strong need at the moment for voices that are able to demystify that process.

When I was selecting these books, it was really apparent to me that these are all books that, while they may be very heavily researched, have bibliographies, and have a lot of intellectual work behind them, none of them make that an obstacle. None of them treat the reader as if to say, ‘I’m an expert, and I don’t need to tell you how I know these things.’ They’re all books that illuminate the process of learning.

“They’re all books that illuminate the process of learning”

I think that’s what’s exciting right now. Because, as much as I’ve trained in the field that I’m in, I’m also a 33-year-old millennial who grew up in the suburbs. I’m not some nature whizz. So when, in my own writing, I am thinking about learning about a place or telling the reader about a particular place, I think it’s really important to make clear how we get that knowledge. So these are all books that do that, which I think we need right now. It’s this openness and inviting-ness. You don’t need to be some bibliophile old man with lots of books, who’s read everything, and can remember quotes from every book. It’s okay to have to go to the library and pull out a stack of books and learn about it and tell your reader that.

Yes. Although Long does, in fact, become a true expert by the end of the book. 

Yes, she passes the Norwegian Mycological Association test to become a certified mushroom inspector. But she’s always acknowledging the fact that there are different layers of expertise. She makes really plain the intricacies of this field, which I think is actually quite humorous. That’s not something you often find in nature writing, a lot of humour, but she talks about how grumpy people get when their secrets are shared—and then you see her get very grumpy when she founds out her favourite spot to find mushrooms is shared with someone else. There’s this wonderful openness in the book.

I’ve done a lot of mushroom courses before. None of it has stuck in my head, but somehow when she wrote it down it, it would then stick in my head.

That’s a real skill. Let’s move onto the second book of nature writing you’d like to recommend. This is Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other. It’s a work of poetry that draws from the cornucopia of life on this planet as inspiration. I loved what the Telegraph said of this book: “Poets have always looked at the natural world when writing about love, but Isabel Galleymore might be the first to probe the sex life of the slipper limpet.”

There’s love, yes, and there’s desire in this book. She uses Donna Haraway as an epigraph to the book, so the question in all of the poems is really about companionship, which is in some ways a different kind of love.

I think it’s incredibly powerful in the way it slips between the kinds of affection and care that we can offer to other species. So there’s sexual desire; there’s just observation. There are moments in the poetry where she really unpacks the anthropocentric idea of the natural world. She’s very resistant to the idea of reading other species through our lens.

She questions how we name them; she questions how we think we speak to other species. The title poem, ‘Significant Other,’ talks about a woman looking at a tortoise, and there’s this line:

       Did the creature ever think

a thought her way?

It really questions this idea of us being the centre of the universe.

I think I tend to read a lot of very dreamy writing: lots of description. But Isabel’s book is incredibly precise and sharp in this way that, as a writer, fascinates me, because she’s able to distil a single species in a poem.

It’s not ‘nature poetry’ in the sense of that being the only focus of her world. She jumps between suburban trees and creatures in the rainforest and the reality TV she hears through her neighbour’s walls. There’s so much in the poetry that bleeds our distinctions between nature and culture, but it also really forces this dislocation of the human from the centre.

I love that. In the last decade, or more, there has been a real surge of nature writing, certainly, in terms of prose. Has there been a similar pattern in the production of nature poetry, do you think?

There definitely has been. Actually, when I was coming up with this list, I realised that a lot of what I was coming up with was poetry. When I think about new writers entering the field, many are coming by way of poetry. A lot of them actually aren’t yet at the stage where they have a full book I could put on this list.

There was one particular writer, I think, you considered including on this list, whose work is not yet widely available.

Yes, there’s a small press book, with a very limited print run, coming out soon by a writer named Pratyusha who we published in the Willowherb Review‘s Epping Forest issue. Her new one is going to be called Bulbul Calling, published by Bitter Melon. Her debut pamphlet, Night Waters, was published by ZARF in 2018. Pratyusha writes so beautifully about nature. I’ve read her work on forests and birds and the ocean, and it’s incredibly powerful.

Also, I should mention Nina Mingya Powles, who won this year’s Nan Shepherd Prize. I think she’s the most exciting writer among us right now. She runs Bitter Melon, the small press, and has published numerous works of poetry. She’s just published a food memoir called Tiny Moons—I did think actually about including this, because although it’s a food memoir, it’s so sensory. It’s so visceral. There’s such a strong sense of place that I would actually class this as place writing in many ways. She’s currently writing a book called Small Bodies of Water.

Her work is just this incredible mix of nature writing and poetry and migration stories, with plays on language and identity. She’s from New Zealand and is of mixed white New Zealander and Malaysian/Chinese heritage, so she writes a lot about fluidity between places.

There are a lot of writers right now who are producing incredible work that aren’t with mainstream presses yet or whose books haven’t already been released. I think the next few years are going to be just ground-breaking in terms of what nature writing has to offer. So I’m really excited to see that. I’d love to do this list again in five years’ time and look back at what has changed, because journals like amberflora and Caught by the River and Emergence are publishing really incredible work. If these writers go on to produce books, we are in great luck, I would say.

A lot to look forward to, then. A moment ago you mentioned Epping Forest. Perhaps that brings us to Luke Turner’s Out of the Woods, your third book choice. This is a memoir from the co-founder of the cool British music magazine The Quietus, about bisexuality and finding safe haven in Epping Forest.

What I find really compelling about this book, actually, is his rejection of the notion of safe haven. Which I think is really necessary in this field. We have a tendency to write cosy things about nature-as-cure, nature-as-healing. Luke Turner flips this around. He fully interrogates the idea and looks at it through multiple historical lenses, and his own, which I think is really exciting. He’s incredibly frank about sexuality and sexual assault and how when we go searching for beauty we can so easily be thrown back to our worst moments.

In his writing, the forest and the city bleed together. There isn’t a nature/culture divide in his work. He rejects this idea of the forest as rural idyll, and gives us these stories of the forest as a place of work. He talks about how ancient woodlands are managed landscapes over time. He talks a lot of crime, of sexuality, of dead bodies in the forests.

I come to this book with a particular interest because when Luke was working on Epping Forest, I was writing my PhD about Hampstead Heath. I had been studying dead bodies found on Hampstead Heath and sexuality on Hampstead Heath, and Luke does this so much better than I ever could. It’s very raw and visceral.

“He talks a lot of crime, of sexuality, of dead bodies in the forests”

That’s really exciting, because if I have to read another book that’s just ‘I went forest bathing, and everything was okay’ . . . While I know that we can find great moments of healing in the natural world, it’s a dangerous course of thought that allows us to think that it’s there in service of us, rather than an entangled and complicated web that doesn’t have us at its centre.

Luke does a really good job of this. I wrote down a quote: The forest for him is “a space that asks no questions and demands nothing in return.” Not a place where we can go and ask our questions and get them answered, necessarily. He rejects that, which is quite shockingly rare right now in nature writing.

Even the choice of Epping Forest as the setting of a nature book is interesting. I should quickly clarify for our international readers that Epping Forest is on the outskirts of London, and it’s a deeply human-impacted, wild place. Is that a fair characterisation?

Yes. It’s a vast forest that has been managed, and central to a human community over time. There’s a lot of coppiced woodland, where people have used the timber, and the trees have grown in this shape due to our input.

Luke has this wonderful, obscene description of pollarded trees. They look like “cows’ udders, a pair of buttocks climbing into a hollow, old men’s balls, a phallus between thighs, great, heavy, warty growths, welts like parted vulva”.

It’s very much this place where human culture and the natural world are shown to be actually quite entangled things. The thing I enjoy most about Luke’s writing is just he has it out for Millennial nature porn. As someone who really loves social media, someone who is very much torn between those two worlds, he’s just an incredibly necessary voice at the moment, not in a fusty old man way, because he’s a young guy, but rather to force us to disrupt this idea that we can just go out into forest, and it will optimise our way of living, then we can go back to our jobs and be good capitalist subjects. I think Luke really is very good at unpacking the problems with that kind of thinking.

Let’s move on to your fourth book choice. This is Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life, or Birds Art Life Death, depending on your territory. This is also nature writing from an urban perspective.

She does a really great job of bringing the city into her work. I should say that Kyo’s from Toronto, and I also lived in Toronto for many years; I grew up nearby. So part of me enjoys the book because the city is so alive in it. She seeks creative revival through nature; it’s around the time of her father becoming very ill and dying—death runs through a lot of these books in the background—and it’s an incredibly helpful book.

One of the things that is really apparent in Kyo’s book that you don’t see very often is its playfulness. She’s a children’s author, and she speckles the book with these illustrations that are really quite sweet. There are doodles of birds, of the benches that she sits on to look for birds, of writers who like to write about birds. But there’s this moment near the beginning of the book when she talks about sitting in the middle of Toronto, just looking out at all of the things that are jostling for her attention:

I looked across the street at the signs hanging on the discount store. DON’T JUST STAND THERE. BUY SOMETHING. THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOE BUSINESS. FREE 12-PACK OF RACOONS FOR EVERY VISITOR.

This shop was a really famous Toronto institution called Honest Ed’s; it was recently closed and demolished, which was quite devastating for a lot of Toronto people.

But she scatters this great nature book with these lovely observations that are so familiar, so everyday to city dwellers. That’s powerful because there’s a real sense of identification and relatability, a sense that ‘I could be looking for nature anywhere.’ And she does. She looks at birds in her garden. She looks at birds on the sidewalk. She goes down to the harbourfront and looks at birds; she goes to the park and looks at birds.

Perhaps it goes back to what we talked about earlier about demystifying. Kyo goes into this not actually knowing anything about birds. She just meets a musician who’s really into birds, and he starts to teach her, and she becomes quite obsessed with it. So there’s that lightness of touch in it that I find really, really exciting.

Kyo is Japanese-British-Canadian. She was born in the UK, her mom’s Japanese, I think her father’s British, and they moved to Canada. Again, it’s a particular interest of mine, but there’s this sense of negotiating her role and her identity as a mixed-race woman in a field that doesn’t typically represent her. So she really interrogates her belongingness among other birders and the nature writing crowd, which is quite interestingly done. She points it out and reflects her story and moves on quite nicely.

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It’s a short book, but it’s one of those books I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it, and I read it four years ago. It really stayed with me, not only because the imagery is just so beautiful—the birds and her descriptions of the city—but also because of the really friendly tone that it takes. That comes across also in the mushrooms book, Long Litt Woon’s book—this friendliness, lightness, that is a breath of fresh air compared with more conventional nature writing tomes that are so dense, with so many words on the page, so many references and species and so many facts. These are more like going for a walk.

Birding in the city is a lovely concept; this idea that it’s all out there already, and you just have to notice it, or to recognise it when it flashes past. It makes you feel like life is full of potential.

It’s not like she needs to take weeks away. She’s got two young sons, and there’s a lot of talk of putting her sons to bed and listening for birds and finding those spare moments in between obligations: on her way to a coffee date with a friend, sitting and watching some sparrows. Those moments, I think, are incredibly powerful, and much more accessible to many readers.

I hope she writes more books for adults. Her children’s books are also amazing. I have some and love them. I want her voice to stick around in this field. It’s super fun. You can read it so quickly. It’s beautifully done.

Well, lovely. Let’s move to book number five. This is Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s The Grassling. It’s tagged very intriguingly as a ‘geological memoir.’ What does that mean?

If I were a publisher, I would have no idea how to label this book. When I read it, I was left in awe of her bravery as a writer. It asks a lot of the reader, in that you really don’t know what it’s going to be. I’m going to struggle to explain it to you right now.

It’s sort of a memoir. It’s a sort of a book of poetry. It’s sort of a book of history, and an interrogation of place. Even stylistically, chapter to chapter, the form changes multiple times, so there are sections of straight prose, sections of poetry, and sections that are quite experimental. I think that’s what I love about it. I wish I was that brave. I wish I even knew how to pull something like that off.

It’s a book that you can genuinely get lost in, because I wouldn’t say there’s a single thread to follow. It’s a book that you would want to read linearly, but once you’re in it, you feel like you’re in a dream space. She builds this world that is completely hers.

Intriguing.

It follows the period of time when her father is ill and dying, and the journeys that she takes. She goes back to where she grew up, in Devon, and it follows these returns she takes to the place where she grew up, where her father lives and where, I guess, his family and his ancestors had lived. He was a historian, and wrote a history of this place. So it’s got these questions of ancestry and heritage and belonging, but she comes to them as a poet. She’s incredibly sensory in her writing. It’s almost cinematic, because her descriptions are incredibly colourful, vivid, and immediate.

She does not make the claims to a great nature writing convention the way she approaches it. There’s a moment really early on in the book when she talks about Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape: this quote he has about Ordnance Survey maps and how you could look at them forever. She says he has never seen Google Maps, and spends ages talking about being the little yellow man that you drop on the street in Google Maps, of walking the place where she grew up when she’s far away. It’s about shifting this notion of expertise but also, I guess, just finding the beauty in the different layers that we bring to it now. So there’s this technological layer, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s allows us to illuminate something very different.

That’s interesting. It reminds me of Amy Liptrot in The Outrun: “For me, these places . . . exist both digitally and underfoot.”

There’s a section where she rides the train home and lists everything that’s yellow along the way, as a gift for her father. The things she lists are flowers and street signs. I think there’s this real sense of finding that very peculiar beauty across the natural world—and that includes us, so the signs in the landscape are as much a part of the place as daffodils. There’s something really nice in that.

She’s of mixed heritage. Her mother’s from Kenya; her dad’s British. And this is a book that stands out to me, because for writers from different backgrounds—if you’re a writer of colour, if you’re a BAME writer—there’s this enormous pressure, I think, to write your story. You can write a book, but you can only write about migration, or you can only write about race. You can only write about these particular things. I think the reason I really like The Grassling is that she chooses to write about her father’s home, and her father’s side was the white, British half of her family. She doesn’t question her right to belong in the place where he was from and where she grows up. Instead, she takes that as a starting point to ask questions and to delve deeper into the ground. That is what I really like about it, because as much as other people want to demand that of her, she sort of pushes it away, and it’s a nice flipping of the narrative.

“We want so often to characterise the writer of a migrant or mixed-race background as untethered, as divided”

I wrote down another quote that I really love. She says: “There are invisible strings tethering me to the floor.” We want so often to characterise a writer of a migrant or mixed-race background as untethered, as divided, as not belonging. She very fiercely makes the argument for belonging and for a sense of place that, I think, a lot of us might long for. It’s quite inspiring. It’s incredibly brave, but it’s also hard to pin down. I would carry it in my bag for weeks, open it and get completely lost in it, and then miss my bus stop. It’s one of those books.

I love that. To close, let’s return to this question of the ‘nature cure’ narrative. You raised important points about flaws in that way of thinking. But, saying that, many of the books on this admirable list—and other beloved nature books like H is for Hawk, The Outrun, Richard Mabey’s Nature Curefocus upon immersion in nature as a treatment for, or response to, emotional crisis. How best to think about this?

It’s not that people cannot find recovery, but I think it’s about how we frame and interrogate the question. In my work, even in my own books, there’s a lot of me feeling sad and going out into nature—but one of the things I always try to write into that is the idea that I will never get a satisfactory answer, and that if I go seeking a satisfactory answer, I’m actually missing the point.

The natural world is far more rich and far more diverse than we give it credit for in moments when we’re just looking for a bit of green to make us feel better, to release some endorphins, or some cold water to jump into. I do all of that, but it’s also very important to remember that it’s not there for us. As much as we might find a cure in it, we might find solace, that is not its intention. It might be our intention, but it’s not the intention of the natural world. We need to be able to step back and actually see something much bigger than us going on.

It’s the decentering of the human that I’m asking for, right? It’s important to be able to step outside of our own suffering, sometimes, and see that the world is a lot bigger than us. It’s not always going to be cosy. It’s not always going to be satisfying.

There are days when I go hiking, and it’s dreadful. It’s revealed to me how little I know, and I have a terrible time, and that that’s okay, too, because the mountains don’t exist for me to climb them. Shift it a little bit, and we can approach the natural world from a posture of gratitude and from a posture of care. I think Isabel Galleymore points to this often, in asking how we can love other species and other forms of life—not just life, but other forms—without needing to take for ourselves from them.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Jessica J. Lee

Jessica J. Lee is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author and environmental historian, and winner of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of two books of nature writing: Turning (2017), on the lakes around Berlin, and Two Trees Make a Forest (2019), on Taiwan, family, and migration. She has written for The Guardian, BBC Radio 4, The TLS, and writes a column about plants and people for Catapult. Jessica is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review. She lives in Berlin.

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Jessica J. Lee

Jessica J. Lee is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author and environmental historian, and winner of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of two books of nature writing: Turning (2017), on the lakes around Berlin, and Two Trees Make a Forest (2019), on Taiwan, family, and migration. She has written for The Guardian, BBC Radio 4, The TLS, and writes a column about plants and people for Catapult. Jessica is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review. She lives in Berlin.