Themed Reads: Great British Nature Writing

I’ve always loved nature writing. I grew up on a steady diet of Lucy Maud Montgomery, so how could I not? As an adult, I identified with The Blue Castle‘s Valancy Stirling and her anxious awaiting a new book from her favorite nature writer; I have certainly gotten a little too excited about a new book from Melissa Harrison or Stephen Moss. But one hole in my nature reading has been: I have not found many American nature writers or nature books to enjoy. Terry Tempest Williams, yes. Maybe a little Henry David Thoreau, but I have to be in the mood. Most of my nature writing in recent year has been imported from Great Britain – England, especially, but some Scotland too. The Brits do seem to have the most robust tradition, and I can’t get enough. Here are three favorites of the genre.

If you’re a bird lover, you can’t go wrong with anything by Stephen Moss. I loved Mrs Moreau’s Warbler (all about the naming of birds) and The Twelve Birds of Christmas (a pithy and original take on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol) but I think my favorite has been The Robin: A Biography, which I just read recently. Moss takes the reader through a year in the life of the English robin (not to be confused with our American robins, who are no relation) and drops in bits of cultural miscellany and natural science along the way. It’s a total joy. And it’s the first in a series; The Wren, The Swallow, and The Swan followed in short order. I have all three on my shelf to get around to reading soon.

Another favorite writer currently living and working today: I’ll read pretty much anything if Melissa Harrison is involved. I loved the series of four seasonal anthologies she collected and edited (Spring, Summer, Winter, and Autumn, of course) but most of the pieces in there were not hers – she wrote an introduction and contributed one piece to each volume. Although the seasonal anthologies are well worth your time (Winter was my favorite, but they’re all great) I liked The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary, even better. This volume collects several years’ worth of Harrison’s Nature Notes columns from The Times of London and follows her from life as a city-dweller to a new abode in rural Suffolk. It would be a wonderful volume to dip in and out of over the course of a year, if you can stop yourself reading it all at once (I couldn’t). Bonus: Harrison recorded a weekly podcast of the same name, memorializing her country walks during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a lovely and refreshing listen (and still available).

Another collection of newspaper nature columns, A Countryman’s Winter Notebook – newly published by Slightly Foxed – gathers pieces by Adrian Bell, who is if not the grandfather of English nature writing, at least the wise uncle. Bell wrote a trilogy of memoirs (all published by Slightly Foxed as well) about his life on a Suffolk farm, and it was his writing that inspired Melissa Harrison (see above) to move to Suffolk. Harrison isn’t the only Englander to have been inspired by Bell. According to Slightly Foxed, English soldiers during World War I used to carry copies of the first volume of Bell’s classic memoir trilogy (Corduroy) into the trenches with them in their pockets to remind them of what they were fighting for. (Slightly Foxed has hinted that they are considering publishing a series of four collections of Bell’s seasonal writing; I hope they do!)

It was almost impossible to choose just three examples of British nature writing. There’s just not enough space with such a wealth to choose from! (And please accept my apologies for leaving H.E. Bates and Claire Leighton off. Consider this their honorable mention.) For a smallish island (hello, Bill Bryson!) the Brits have contributed several continents’ share to the nature writing field. I haven’t scratched the surface, I know, and I couldn’t be happier to have so much more to discover.

4 thoughts on “Themed Reads: Great British Nature Writing

  1. I haven’t read any of these and have made a note of them all. Have you read anything by Robert Macfarlane? I like his nature writing and he also writes about words and language which is equally fascinating. Notes From a Small Island is an absolute joy. I reread it regularly.

    • I really like Robert MacFarlane! I read both The Lost Words and The Lost Spells and loved them both, and enjoyed Ghostways as well (although could have done without the swears…). I’ve got The Old Ways on my shelf and need to pick it up soon.

  2. The UK does seem to really dominate the nature genre, so many fantastic writers, you should try Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a young naturalist. I run a nature reading challenge from my blog and I have a master list of nature themed texts if you are interested. As an Australian I am always looking for great Australian nature writing, we have such a unique and magical environment and yet our authors seem to have been a bit slow to celebrate it. Really enjoyed your post and The Stubborn light of things is on my current TBR.

    • Thanks for the tips! I am definitely going to check out Dara McAnulty – have never heard of Diary of a Young Naturalist, so that one is going on my list for sure!

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