Literary Nonfiction

The Best Books of Landscape Writing

recommended by Dan Richards

Interview by Cal Flyn

Good writing offers readers an invitation to explore and engage with the world around them, says Dan Richards—author of Outpost and Climbing Days—as he recommends five brilliant books that exemplify the skill of landscape writing.

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Dan Richards

Dan Richards is a British writer and the author of several books including Outpost (2019), Climbing Days (2016), and Holloway (2013), which was co-authored with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood.

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What makes good landscape writing? Is it the same thing as ‘sense of place’—that phrase that pops up so often in publishing?

I think of sense of place is a layered, multi-faceted thing. It’s not only a sense of emotional connection with landscape, an insight into how that landscape is inhabited—peopled and animal-ed—and a sense of story. It’s also an invitation to explore and investigate and listen and be sensorially engaged with landscape, to investigate the paths that are already there, both in terms of story and in terms of actual physical features.

A lot of the writing that I particularly love about landscape is immersive in that way. Some of the books I’ve chosen are not what you would understand as primarily landscape books, but I think they have enormous specificity, a sense of the uniqueness of a place. Every place has a unique quality; it has its own song. Then writers add this filigree above it: their own associations, their own experiences. A layer cake of song.

The John Berger book that I’ll be talking about is like that. It’s this amazing book about landscape and people, but it packs in all of that in a very subtle, slantwise kind of way. It creeps up on you. It falls light as talc, that book, and then turns to sediment. It’s kind of like a chalky witness of a place.

That’s a beautiful way to describe it. I have the sense of a writer trying to catch the scent of a place on the air.

Yes, exactly.

Do you like to read literature about a place or particular landscape while you are actually there, in it?

Often I don’t. But I have a great belief in ‘mulch,’ this idea of a kind of miraculous compost of reading. The ideas stay in some form with you, you know? You get this sense of echo.

I mean, when I was on Desolation Peak in the Cascades, writing about Jack Kerouac for my recent book Outpost, I did have some Kerouac with me. But I can’t honestly say if I opened that book once when I was there. Because often when you’re in the landscape, you’re engaged with it. The idea of closing your eyes to the amazing world around you that you’ve sought out and are finally visiting, and reading other people’s accounts of it seems kind of anathema. It would be like visiting a friend and then saying, ‘I’m just going to stop you there, and read some of our correspondence, rather than actually talking to you.’ But I think reading other people’s accounts—and seeing how, strangely, other accounts of elsewhere chime with a place—that really interests me.

There are a couple of different approaches to writing about landscape, or place more generally: some offer great depth, wrung from experience, of knowing somewhere inside-out. Joan Didion, for example, has written wonderful essays and books on California, where she grew up and lived for much of her adult life. But others take a much more impressionistic approach. Bruce Chatwin, say, and other literary travel writers. When you were writing Outpost and Climbing Days, you travelled to remote and beautiful areas. What were the pitfalls you wanted to avoid?

Preconceived notions of what they are. That’s the main one. To go to a place, you need to be open to how it really is. You want to be almost scientific in your approach. The last thing you want is to be religious about it, and look for things to back up what you already think.

I think confirmation bias is the worst thing in the world for any writer, inasmuch as you have to be curious, you have to go questing, you have to have your eyes open, and you have to be as physically and mentally engaged with a place as you would be with a person. You must always question what’s going on around you, because to be questioning and inquisitive is to be engaged. Going with preconceived narratives of a place doesn’t move the conversation on.

I always try to talk to people when I’m there. A phrase that has haunted the genre of nature writing for a while is ‘the lone enraptured male’.

A Kathleen Jamie coinage, I believe.

He doesn’t talk to anyone; he just goes, and then he espouses, and then he leaves, and the reader is, you know, furnished with new insight as a result of this reinvention of the landscape wheel. I do kind of think, ‘bollocks,’ because you’re going to somebody else’s home. People who live there, or people, in the case of the climbing book, who have climbed there. You need to know how you fit in. You need to really immerse yourself. Just to skate over the top, in a pompous, self-satisfied, pseudo-knowledgeable way, is a waste of time. You might as well just have stayed at home and read about it from the start.

Well, I’m in love with the idea of tangential mistakes, of things getting out of hand. I think the strongest parts of what I write are when things have gone wrong. I love that. You know, there’s a section of Outpost when I’m in Utah, trying to hitchhike, and say that I feel like Hugh Grant, stumbled onto the set of No Country for Old Men. That’s what you want to do. You want to be haunted by unexpected poltergeists. You want the wheels to fall off a journey that you thought would be fairly simple. I mean, as long as it doesn’t pole-axe the entire trip.

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What’s bad in life is good in the book. That’s my absolute credo and motto and maxim. I will fight anyone who says, ‘Oh no, on a well-organised trip, nothing should go wrong.’ What a boring trip that sounds like! There’s a difference between organisation and a pious rigidity.

A plan is often just a hopeful sketch. Of course it will go wrong. It should be augmented, or thrown away as soon as possible. Once you’re there, let the world lead you and guide you. If you think you know it all before you go, then what’s the point in going?

That’s interesting, it reminds me of advice that the writer Will Storr once gave me. He said not to do too much research before a reporting trip. That keeps the narrative fresh. Then he can quote himself getting off the plane and asking: ‘Where are we? What’s going on?’

It’s also relatable, I suppose. Because whilst people love being in the company of experts, they also I think love being in the company of enthusiastic amateurs.

Sometimes when I’m talking to an audience about a book of mine, I’ll be talking to an audience who won’t ever go to these places, you know? They won’t ever climb these mountains. So to make it relatable . . . I mean, I think everybody has a degree of farce in their life. Having that sense of achievement through adversity, of failure, is something that can build a connection. If you just offer a perfect Faberge egg of a trip, it’s actually quite intimidating, and will fail to connect with a lot of people.

That makes sense. Shall we talk about your first book? This is quite a slim book: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a novella set in the American Northwest.

I love a slim book. A lot of my favourite books are what Stanley Donwood would call a ‘slender volume.’ At the moment, I’m reading my way through all of the Maigrets by Simenon, in the order that they were published. They are all between 120 and 150 pages.

A perfect length. Satisfyingly surmountable.

They’re just beautiful little machines to completely lose yourself in, to export your imagination somewhere completely different. You know: little problems to be solved. It’s wonderful. I love poetry for that—pamphlets and collections often feel like moonshine machines in that way. Every word is so potent.

So I like these short, sharp shocks, but Denis Johnson is sort of the exception that proves the rule inasmuch as he is able to put into a slim volume—this novella-length book—what I consider to be the life of quite a long-lived man. That was Denis Johnson’s singular gift, to actually teleport the reader into the personal, lived, rich experience of a person as they live through the 20th-century in the Idaho panhandle; the strangeness and the beauty and the richness of a life lived without much contact with other human beings, and the tragedy of that life, and the unexpected moments of joy and the simplicity of that life.

“He manages to make this puddle-sized book fathoms deep”

I come back to that word ‘depth.’ He manages to make this puddle-sized book fathoms deep. I adore all his writing. Denis Johnson is someone whose books you would save from your house if it were burning down.

Some of this book is quite simply written, even spare. But elsewhere it takes on an epic, almost biblical quality. Here’s a section about cattle being driven across a frozen river:

They moved onto the blank white surface and churned up a snowy fog that first lost them in itself, then took in all the world north of the riverbank and finally rose high enough to hide the sun and the sky.

Yeah, it’s Cormac McCarthy-esque. But I don’t think he ever quite got the plaudits for it. He was famously up for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in a year where they gave it to nobody. I think that’s such a tragedy for all of the writers who were up for the prize that year. You think: well, there’s a failure here, that’s perhaps not the writers’ failure.

To go back my McCarthy comment, I also think that Johnson has a similar kind of focus. Nothing is too big or too small; nothing escapes him. He has a very concentrated, beautifully lyrical view of the world. Some of his language is quite simple, as you say, but then so is Raymond Carver’s. There’s also something quite Carver-like about his writing, there’s something quite Cheever about it. It’s American writing, and it’s quite male, in a way. But it’s honed. It feels like his writing is built rather than written. It feels like a craftsman at work.

Often his writing deals with the things that are happening whilst the main event takes place off-page—so the main event is left for a moment, as we look at what the light is doing on the wall, and we look at what the ice crystals are doing from the cattle . . . Their effects are mentioned, their polyphonic and prismatic effects are mentioned. In doing that, he actually heightens the main event. There’s a lot of that.

And there’s an amazing bit about two-thirds of the way through the book, which is utterly compelling in its magical realism. It’s a moment of really arresting strangeness in a book, which as you note is fairly stripped back and plain in its writing, although the effects are kaleidoscopic. Suddenly we’re in this magical-realist moment, and you have several pages of just utterly bizarre wonder. But that only whets the sharpness of the rest of the book, the knife-blade clarity of his writing, I think. He’s a real master.

I think of this book as an elegy for the American West

Also an elegy for an American existence within nature. The man at the centre of the book lives in a symbiotic relationship with his environment, at a time when America moved from being a nation that lived in nature, to a nation who saw it as its duty to overcome nature. His relationship with the world is very of its time, sadly, but it still has a synchronicity and equivalence, perhaps, to the way Scandinavian people still live.

He’s a man of the forest, he’s a man of the trees, he’s a man who is immensely practical and skilled. You can imagine his hands being calloused from tools. He is a craftsman, and in a way he’s mirroring his creator and writer. I’ll say his creator as he would have understood it; it’s quite a God-fearing book in that way.

The fact it was written by somebody who’s mainly known for Jesus’ Son, this book of vignettes of junkie life and violence and crazed goings-on is wonderful and just goes to show the author’s range and deep interest in the human condition; his eye and ear for life lived in all its incarnations. This is a very contemplative, beautiful meditation, this book.

Let’s move onto your second choice, Joan Didion’s The White Album. This interests me. Didion is not known as a landscape writer per se. She’s a cultural commentator, a memoirist, an essayist. But Martin Amis once described her as ‘the poet of the great California emptiness.’ I assume you selected this book because of her synonymity with a place, with California?

Yes, but also her filmic ability to lead the reader into a landscape and then fill the reader’s mind with it, to let it spool out. She is the great American road-trip writer, to my mind. She has that great widescreen filmic quality to her work. One of my favourite pieces from this book, The White Album, is ‘At the Dam’—about the Hoover Dam—which was written in 1970. I’ve got it here. She writes:

There was something beyond all that, something beyond energy, beyond history, something I could not fix in my mind. When I came up from the dam that day, the wind was blowing harder, through the canyon and all across the Mojave. Later, towards Henderson and Las Vegas, there would be dust blowing … but out at the dam there was no dust, only the rock and the dam and a little greasewood and a few garbage cans, their tops chained, banging against a fence. I walked across the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left. I had not thought much of it when he said it, but I thought of it then, with the wind whining and the sun dropping behind a mesa with the finality of a sunset in space. Of course, that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.

That’s fabulous. It imbues a manmade structure with the sense of permanence I normally associate with vast landscapes. The sense of something larger than ourselves.

There’s a lot of zooming in and zooming out in her writing. There’s also an essay in The White Album about Georgia O’Keeffe.

I quote O’Keeffe in the final chapter of my book, about the things she saw through the prism of pelvises when she was drawing; the different blues—she was talking about how it’s the blue of the world after all people are gone . . . So there’s this idea of an unpeopled reality, which chimes with things discussed in The White Album. Joan Didion is in California when the Manson murders are happening, and she says the strangest and scariest thing was that no one seemed to find it odd they were happening, because people knew something was going to happen. It had been a febrile atmosphere for too long.

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So there is this idea of the unpeopled landscape, or the over-peopled landscape, or the landscape peopled with the wrong people, and the strangeness of the movie industry. All of this going on, on top of California, you know, only scratching the surface. The impermanence of people just perched on this land, like birds ready to fly off at any moment. A really troubling short-termism about the art, about the people, about the place itself—built on its fault, on this ocean with its storms, and the cultural storms and race storms that were happening at the time. I feel that Joan Didion is the patron saint of a maelstrom of culture and environment of a particular time. She is the still point in the middle.

In her own way, she is as qualitatively American in her writing as Denis Johnson is with his tales of the West, and the forest and the mountains. There’s something in her style that that marks her as an American Writer, with a capital ‘A’ and a capital ‘W’.

I absolutely agree, and also I think she has that idea that I was talking about earlier of being a curious, childlike, questing questioner. There isn’t a lot taken for granted, and what is taken for granted is done so with a sidelong look at the reader, and the comment, ‘I took that for granted.’

So, again, quite filmic. The way she writes is signalling the trouble to come, signalling the fact that this is all temporary. All of her writing is in some way of the moment, in the sense that it could be returned to and in some way revised. She lives in that ongoing moment; she is a chronicler in that way, like Dylan is a chronicler. Her voice changes, the songs change, it’s not always going to be this way. But this was absolutely how it was then.

Let’s talk about John Berger, and his book A Fortunate Man. We spoke to Gavin Francis, who wrote an introduction for the new edition, a while back. He saw the book as a meditation upon the practice of medicine; Francis himself is a doctor. But what drew your attention to this text as an example of landscape writing?

It captures a moment in time at the Forest of Dean, at a changing point in history. I think it’s just pre-Thatcher. But that doesn’t really help with the Forest of Dean, because it’s probably still slightly pre-Thatcher there. You know, they shot the recent Star Wars there, not far from where this book is set; they needed a kind of primordial, moss-filled forest-swamp, and they chose the Forest of Dean.

So the landscape is almost virgin and primordial, but at the same time, you get this very forward-thinking, almost revolutionary, doctor John Sassall. He’s kind of as much an alchemist as he is a doctor. He reads a lot. He’s almost as much a sociologist as he is your standard GP. He has to be a real Renaissance man to do his job. Some of his cures, if you can call them that, are quite clever and psychological.

There’s an amazing scene where he rushes to the aid of somebody who’s been crushed under a fallen tree, and Berger describes the animal noises coming from the man who the accident has literally befallen, and the doctor, in his quiet manner, being something akin to a vet with a frightened animal.

And you have this amazing duality in the book, the words and the pictures.

These are the photographs taken by Jean Mohr.

The photographs give you the sense of the doctor’s isolation, and—because they’re black and white—they have this amazing timeless quality. The idea of a country doctor, I think, is quite a stark turn-of-the-20th-century image. Sassall was a thoroughly modern man in a very backward—in both the pejorative and the sincerely correct sense. He’s in the sticks, you know? The Forest of Dean is quite isolated, a kind of interzone. It is between things; it isn’t in most people’s minds a destination in-and-of-itself.

One of the reasons that I love the book is you get this sense that John Berger has gone to see this man in his habitat. It’s almost a nature documentary, this little microcosm of the country doctor as viewed through the lens of John Berger. It’s quite episodic, this book. It is really beautiful, and has a very humane but quite wild heart to it. On the surface you have this almost prosaic life of a country doctor, but nothing is really normal. The life of this man is absolutely extraordinary: the things that he does and the decisions he makes, and the—I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say—tragic epilogue, which is terribly unexpected. But then, you begin to see the ghosting of it throughout the book, perhaps.

How did they know each other? Berger and the doctor, I mean.

I don’t know. A friend of a friend, I think. I remember the doctor was a great reader, and had a large social group. He wasn’t himself of that place. I can’t remember exactly where he was from, but somewhere with a cultural life, you know? So he would go off and do other things.

That’s another key thing in the book: this idea of belonging and strangeness, which is I think key to landscape writing. Who is an incomer and what belongs in a landscape? How do we judge the suitability of nature and architecture and people within a place? What is the interplay between all of these things? The doctor, the way that John Berger wrote about him, was really central to this whole community. Then his influence and his skills really began to fan out and have a great impact on a wide circle of people. That is, the influence of one person within a landscape. I think that’s what drew me to this book.

I want to pick up on that point about incomers, and of who belongs to a landscape. It reminded me of the writer Norman Lewis, who said, “I’m looking for the people who have always been there and belong to the places where they live. The others, I do not wish to see.” I think he was suggesting that he brushed over the less ‘authentic’ aspects of a place.

I think that’s dangerous. I think you have to focus and zero in on aspects of a scene, a situation, a society of course—as Joan Didion and Denis Johnson did—but I think it’s a slippery slope to just ignore a bigger picture because this thing, the people, don’t fit with your imported worldview, otherwise you’ll get a very dull two-dimensional view of a place, and you begin to write a narrative that’s not actually real. A wished-for narrative. Without wanting to go too far, that’s a sort of National Socialist route of storytelling, isn’t it? Who belongs here, who does not belong here, who do we want, and who do we want to get rid of, and who will we close our eyes to, or who will we deport? We need to have a generosity of spirit, but at the same time, we need to be honest about what’s going on in places.

Let’s move onto book four. This is Alice Oswald’s Dart, a poem that won her the T S  Eliot prize. I’m really thrilled by this selection. I came across Oswald’s work when Helen Mort chose Falling Awake as one of our best poetry books of 2016. But this was new to me: it’s a poem that plaits together the voices of fishermen, boat builders, sewage workers, wild swimmers, ferrymen from along the River Dart. Landscape writing at its purest, really.

Yes. It’s one poem, but in the Faber edition I have, it’s 48 pages long. Oswald can recite it by heart. She recites all of her work. She doesn’t read, she speaks, which is astonishing to see—an astonishing skill of memory. It’s amazing.

As you say, different speakers occur throughout and they’re referenced sometimes on the righthand border of the page, but not always. It follows the river from its very slenderous beginnings out to the sea.

The poem builds as the river builds and you see a whole landscape through the river; often the river is a prism through which things are seen. There’s an amazing line on page 22, where someone jumps in: “Then I jumped in a rush of gold to the head.” That is just the most wonderful description of jumping into water: the way the light changes, you can feel it, you can hear it.

Alice Oswald is an utter wonder for saying in a line what other people would take a whole volume to gesture towards. I love this book very much. It seems to be made of verbs and actions and thoughts. It’s incredibly kinetic as a book. Exciting, and physically alluring. You get a real physical response to a lot of what’s going on with this book; it feels really alive and wild. It’s incredibly visceral.

She herself described it as “a river map of voices, like an aboriginal song line,” which I think is wonderful. Its ambition and approach reminds me of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, an epic poem about the Passaic River in New Jersey. Rather than following the Passaic from source to mouth, he follows it through time, but takes the same approach in interweaving dozens of voices.

John McPhee is very good at this as well. He wrote The Pine Barrens, which is a sort of cultural history of an area in New Jersey, perhaps not far from the book you’ve just described, this huge expanse of wilderness that’s still quite untouched. You know, I say untouched, but it’s got this whole amazing human history and wild history. Now, just because it’s abandoned, people think that it’s pristine. What does ‘pristine’ even mean? All of these terms are human constructions that we lay over landscapes that just are.

But Oswald’s investigation of water and river and the course and the flow and the lyricism of that, the lyricism of the people who use the water and also the chatter of the water itself, the Dart, its voice and its tonality and its physicality runs through this book.

“A lot of landscape writing is really a writer’s paean to place”

One of the amazing things about Alice Oswald is that she manages to be the conduit for so much pure thought—both of the people that she speaks to and also the way that she interprets that. She is not a ventriloquist in that way. She doesn’t seem to put her own voice through the voices of other people. This seems like a kind of palimpsest book, a collage of found things, in the same way that when you see a river, you know that it has come from somewhere and it’s going somewhere, but it seems perfect, ongoing. It’s a thing in-and-of-itself at the moment you meet it. Like a person.

I read a little about her research for the poem. It took a long time; she conducted dozens, maybe even hundreds, of interviews.

It’s a testament to how much love she had for place. Because I think a lot of landscape writing is really a writer’s paean to place. A celebration of its specialness, its uniqueness through the prism of the writer, or the person who engaging with the landscape. This poem seems a really exciting way of going about telling a story through the voices of those who interact with this amazing natural feature, in an amazing part of the country.

Well, let’s move onto another work of poetry, Seamus Heaney’s Field Work, the Nobel-winning poet’s fifth collection, written after he left Belfast for a cottage in Glanmore, Co. Wicklow. This is writing about the landscape in which he now lives; a series called ‘The Glanmore Sonnets’ form a core to the book. What drew you to this collection?

The opening five lines, really. It opens with the poem ‘Oysters,’ one of my favourite poems. It begins,

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

I love this poem so much because it manages to capture the idea that a landscape can exist within a shell, basically. There’s a Shakespearean line: Hamlet says he “could be bounded in a nutshell and count [him]self king of infinite space . . .”

Here we have a whole landscape in an oyster. The fact that people are the product of their environment, and so, at a beautifully direct level, are oysters. “My tongue was a filling estuary . . .”—the fact that this oyster is also a microcosmic version of its environment. And beautifully tasty for that, and beautifully exciting on the palate. You know, “my palate hung with starlight.” Just one little oyster, but it is everything. I think that’s as close a description of love as I’ve ever read. It’s utterly mesmeric and beautiful.

But, to go back to the idea of interlopers, one of the next poems is ‘The Toome Road’:

One morning early, I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them? The whole country was sleeping.
I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping,
Tractors hitched to buckrakes in open sheds,
Silos, chill gates, wet slates, the greens and reds
Of outhouse roofs. Whom should I run to tell
Among all those with their back doors on the latch . . .

This idea of the coming of the soldiers into this landscape. The idea of rights-of-way, the idea of ‘my fields,’ ‘my land.’ And the fact that the camouflaged soldiers have these alder branches, that they’re trying to blend in to a landscape—yet their very presence makes it a hostile place, makes it frightening to the poet, or the child in that story. The book is full of these. You can’t really narrow this collection down to, ‘this is a good one,’ because I’d read you every single poem in it.

But there’s a poem called ‘The Casualty,’ which is about a man that the poet meets in a park. He’s a fisherman. He gets blown up and we oscillate between the poet and “His deadpan sidling tact, / His fisherman’s quick eye, and turned observant back.”

This is a man of the world, and yet he was out of his depth. He was in the wrong place, but he felt at home; he felt assured in his roots, of a locale. It’s about the way we exist within place, that’s how I’d sum up the work. Field Work is about the way we exist within place, the comfort we take from place and what happens when that apparent solidity and belonging is challenged.

It’s interesting to read the critical response from the time it was published. Heaney was seen as a political poet; and Field Work was interpreted as a step back from politics. Yet reading these poems now, The Troubles are threaded through his poetic awareness, even from this rural retreat.

Yes, I think it’s another case of stepping back to see the bigger picture. I think there’s a huge sense of dread in this collection. There’s a huge amount of foreboding that runs through even the most pastoral and apparently peaceful poems here. You get the sense that the poems are of a world waiting for something, of a world unsettled, a world in flux, and a world that is holding its breath quite a lot of the time.

As a poet he does that to us, because of the way that he brilliantly manipulates the mind while the poems spool out, but equally I think the words are chosen to forestall a conclusion to the poem: you’re given certain things, clues and images but other things are held back.

There is no easy passage through this book. It feels like the foot is constantly hovering over the clutch for a change of gear. It feels like this is real engagement, not just with Heaney and his work, but Heaney and the readers, and there is as much between the lines as there is in the actual lines themselves.

When we discussed ‘landscape writing’ as a topic, I assumed that this would be a list comprised largely of nature books. But none of these titles are explicitly works of nature writing, and most would not self-identify even as landscape writing. Was that a conscious decision?

I think anything that self-identifies as nature writing is something almost to be suspicious of. I say that because I think nature writing is a quite recent invention.

I have a problem with ‘nonfiction’ as a term, because I’m not overly keen on defining what I do by its lack. You know, it’s ‘not untrue’ . . . It’s a strange way of saying that these are stories from the world.

“Nature writing is a strange kind of hinterland”

Nature writing is perhaps a useful genre for selling books, and for shelving books. But nature writing is a strange kind of hinterland, which is neither fish nor fowl, although it claims to know everything about both.

Maybe that’s a pious or pompous way to end. I don’t want to just slag off nature writing. I just think that a lot of the writers that I love that we could describe as ‘nature writers’ are not writing about nature as a separate thing from the world. Nature is not somewhere we choose to visit. Nature is somewhere we live.

The rush on ‘nature writing’ did seem to spawn a lot of books that might contain some lovely lyrical description, but not necessarily tie that to a greater cause.

I do think about this a lot. I think the problem is that the term ‘nature writing’ plays into this idea of compartmentalization; a lot of these nature writing books look at the minutiae at the expense of the bigger picture. They play into this false narrative: that nature is a whole area of unconnected goings-on.

It ties into what you said, the writer who was like, ‘I want to only see the things that should be there, and I’ll ignore everything that’s wrong with it.’ That’s nature writing. Yeah, sure, don’t tell me about the sewage plant at the edge of the farm. Just leave out all the inconvenient stuff.

I think that nature writing runs the risk of being really myopic. Myopic and quite pleased with itself, and none of the writers I have spoken about here are any of those things. They try and see this connectivity and universality, rather than the false specialism of trying to sell books on a certain shelf, or fit things in a certain prize bracket. Because: bollocks to that. Look at Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer debacle; they didn’t know where to place him, how to pin him because he was beyond genre. All my five are interzonal in that way, perhaps—books like rushes of gold to the head, experiential portals into the thrilling in-between.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Dan Richards

Dan Richards is a British writer and the author of several books including Outpost (2019), Climbing Days (2016), and Holloway (2013), which was co-authored with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood.