The wordsmith discusses his latest book and the importance of nature writing.
Tell us about Turning the Boat for Home
I wanted to put together a collection of pieces from the last 20 years that summed up a life’s work. The pieces I chose were ones that had an autobiographical aspect to them – to simultaneously map out the field in which I have worked and to reveal a bit about the situations in which various events and books happened, so they had a context. Some of those were political – I write about how I discovered Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. When I read it, it was the dawning of understanding that ecological crises were political as well – people caused them, they weren’t just accidents of fate.
As a genre, should nature writing do more to highlight the problems surrounding the natural world?
I think it’s very important that the experience of nature is put inside the experience of all other things in our life. To say that one enters a room called ‘nature’ and it automatically switches off all other things in your life is ridiculous. What I would like is to bring politics into the very marrow of what we’re writing about. Books vaguely in this canon are of one or other sorts: either they’re memoirs or descriptions of the natural world – encounters with it or journeys through it – or they are eco-political polemics. I think it’s very sad that these two are separated. To try and express both one’s joy, concern or response to the natural world intricately entwined with one’s political position about its rescue is very hard to do because the tones of voice of the two sorts of writing are quite different. But to keep them separate – particularly in the critical situation we’re in ecologically at the moment – always runs the risk that purely celebratory writing will be seen as ignorant, in denial, or as quite wilfully misrepresenting the situation.
Which themes would you like to explore further?
I’m concerned that climate change is grabbing all the headlines – quite rightly in some ways – but it has overshadowed the extinction crisis. If one had to choose which is the more serious, I would say extinction is more serious because if the fabric of life is unravelled too much, the natural world’s resilience to climate change is going to be utterly diminished. If we can maintain the diversity of ecosystems on the planet, they will have solutions to climate change that are as clever as ours, but if we allow them to crumble for other reasons – agriculture and pollution – the implications for things beyond us is enormous.
Nature writing can highlight the beauty of our world, as well as the threats it faces.
Turning the Boat for Home Chatto & Windus, £18.99