Ten years ago, Frances Lincoln, publishers of the Alfred Wainwright pictorial guides to the Lake District, launched a brand new literary prize for published nature writing books.
Now managed by an independent marketing agency and The National Trust, and sponsored by a Lake District-based paper manufacturer, the James Cropper Wainwright Prize has expanded into three prize categories: nature writing, writing on conservation, and children’s writing on nature and conservation.
Nominations for this year’s awards close in a few weeks’ time, but the growing popularity of nature, landscape, and conservation writing means the market for this genre is blooming. But what exactly is nature or landscape writing, and how can writers break into this market?
Nicola Chester (https://nicolachester.wordpress.com/) is a columnist for the RSPB, Countryfile magazine, a regular contributor to The Guardian’s Country Diary series, and author of On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Wainwright Prize for nature writing.
She believes there are two reasons this genre is growing in popularity.
‘I think we are all becoming increasingly aware of the peril our wildlife and planet are in, and how we’re actually reliant on it all for our own health and survival,’ she says.
‘We’ve lost almost 70% of the earth’s wildlife in the last fifty years, and are living through the largest loss of life on earth since the existence of dinosaurs, and this is taking place on our watch. As a species, most of us are as far removed from nature as we’ve ever been, in where our food comes from, in experiencing its awe, wonder and abundance, and in our connection with it.’
Nicola also believes our experience of lockdowns in recent times has reminded us of what we’re losing, but has also helped us appreciate what we have on our own doorstep.
‘I think the pandemic accelerated and shone a light on this broken relationship in a new way. Many people sought nature out—at first as a form of exercise and escaping the confines of home—where we could. Those who had access to nature, wildness and the countryside realised they had a genuine privilege. A deep inequality of access to—and the presence of—nature can lead to personal and societal ills. It made us re-address what nature is and what it means to us, to our physical and mental health.’
‘Writing and reading about it will only become more important as we face the deepening climate and wildlife crises, as well as the crises of inequality, the cost of living, and mental and physical health. It’s a way to connect, to deepen our knowledge, to travel without going anywhere, and to understand the world better.’
Writing about nature, the landscape, or conservation does not mean we’ve got to traipse across isolated, desolate moors or navigate uncharted mountain ranges. As Nicola reveals, we can find nature in a wealth of our experiences.
‘Nature is everything! My best moments—with family, friends, or on my own—have been outdoors in nature. It’s the air we breathe, the earth we stand on, the other world—that we are intrinsically part of and are reliant on—that we share this one wild, lonely planet with. It gives us pause for awe and wonder.’
She also uses her writing to better comprehend the world around her, which helps her to argue through her words why we should all be working towards protecting what we have left. And because this genre affects the world in which we all live, she feels we should all include some nature in our writing, no matter in which genre we write.
‘Writing and reading about it helps me connect with the immediate and wider world, to make sense of it, to celebrate and understand it and crucially, to engage and galvanise others in wanting to protect it and resist its loss. I do feel that nature should be threaded through all writing to make it complete. It’s also undergoing a new renaissance of greater diversity of voice—and that is both essential and exciting.’
Nature and landscape writing is an accessible genre because we are all part of this planet. It’s not about having access to the most beautiful scenic locations, or knowing the Latin name of that fungi growing on the dead tree trunk over there. It’s about experiencing the environment we’re currently in and noticing it.
When I was a small child, my dad often led fungi forays around parks in south-west London, and I often accompanied him. Despite being the only child among two dozen adults, I always pointed out every beige fungi I spied. When I asked what they were, sometimes my dad reeled off a multi-syllable Latin phrase that made no sense to me at all. At other times, he declared it an ‘LBJ’.
It was many years later that I learned LBJ stood for a little beige job, a term my dad used when he couldn’t identify the fungi in question. But the point is, that didn’t stop us from appreciating the wonder of that particular fungi at the time. And it’s now become a family joke. Whenever we can’t identify anything, it simply gets labelled an LBJ!
‘It’s important to be honest, too,’ Nicola continues. ‘There’s no shame in not knowing what something is, or the name or identity of a bird or wild plant, but it’s always best to admit that, and make it part of your exploration and story. A big part of nature writing is also research and discovery.’
Little did I know back then that I was exhibiting the skills Nicola suggests any budding nature or landscape writer should have.
‘Observation, curiosity and the willingness to make connections with your own experiences (or others’) and the natural world is key,’ she confirms. ’This is more important than knowledge, or having the right clothes or a pair of binoculars.’
Often, it’s about noting our experience, using all of our senses, and then learning to interpret it.
‘It sometimes takes time to process or understand what we see, feel or witness in a natural encounter,’ says Nicola.
So, landscape and nature writing aren’t just about detailing the flora and fauna of our world and its habitat. Sometimes it’s about the atmosphere of a place, such as the weather’s impact on the landscape or the lighting at that moment.
The James Cooper Wainwright Prize has helped spotlight this writing genre, and turned some of its winners into household names. But, as Nicola explains, while the awards are always nice to have and can boost a career, we still need to produce a body of work first before we can win something. Ultimately, writing for ourselves is the best way to begin.
‘Prizes like these are hugely important to the genre, because they validate and amplify it—and not just those books and voices who have been chosen to make the long or shortlist, or won the award, but the whole genre. They make it important and relevant and highlight it to readers and writers.’
‘I sometimes say that my writing career began in 2004, when I won the BBC Nature Writer of the Year Award—but in truth, it began before that, when I was writing for myself and reading about the new nature writing, and deciding that’s what I needed to do.’
‘Writing for competitions is great,’ continues Nicola, ‘because it hones your craft and gives you deadlines to write to. Of course, winning is wonderful—but it’s the writing and the honing that’s important. It makes you get better at what you do. In both cases, winning and being Highly Commended was a huge honour; especially as rural working-class voices, and voices of protest aren’t heard that often.’
For anyone keen to explore the genre further, it’s important to read the genre to get a feel for what it is, but we should also accept that what we have on our own doorstep is just as interesting as anywhere David Attenborough might travel.
‘Although it’s wonderful to go somewhere wild and exciting for inspiration,’ says Nicola, ‘it’s absolutely not necessary, or always possible. We are part of nature and we can find nature wherever we are. For example, sometimes, what we think of as the countrysidecan be very hostile to nature, with the industrial farming practices our food system demands. An urban pocket park, a railway siding, a piece of scrub behind industrial units, a garden shed, your home or you yourself can also be wild. Be inventive. Think about what wildness means to you.’
‘Sometimes, the connections, revelations and meaning come after you’ve experienced the wild thing, once you know what it is and have perhaps explored a relationship with it. Open up your senses and revel in them, as well as your words. Enjoy using metaphor and simile that relate the natural thing back to you and your life—find your own ecological niche, and make it personal!’
We all live in the landscape and among nature. Just because David Attenborough hasn’t produced a television programme about the house sparrows living in our suburban privet hedge, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about our observations of them.
The world is changing. Therefore, our landscape and the nature within it are changing too. Perhaps more of us should make it our business to write about our landscape and nature experiences. Not only might it be good for our writing business, but it could also help us play our part in saving the planet.
James Cropper Wainwright Prize: https://wainwrightprize.com/
Nan Shepherd Prize: https://www.nanshepherdprize.com/
The Guardian’s Country Diary series is the world’s oldest newspaper column and has some of the best examples of nature and landscape writing every day (including Nicola’s contributions): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/series/country-diary
The Clearing: https://www.littletoller.co.uk/the-clearing/
Emergence Magazine: https://emergencemagazine.org/
Inkcap Journal: https://www.inkcapjournal.co.uk/
Resurgence and Ecologist: https://www.resurgence.org/magazine/
The Countryman: https://www.dalesman.co.uk/magazines/the-countryman-magazine/
Nature’s Home (RSPB): https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/natures-home-magazine/
© Simon Whaley