Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature writing in Australia

Blogger Michelle (Adventures in Biography) posted last week on a presentation by literary agent, Mary Cunnane, at the HARDCOPY writers’ workshop she attended here in Canberra. Answering a question about narrative non-fiction, Cunnane apparently said “I do wonder, for example, why there isn’t more really good nature writing in Australia”. Quite coincidentally, last week another blogger, Stefanie (So Many Books), asked her readers for recommendations for “good nature books”. Both these posts got me thinking about nature writing in Australia. We have such varied landscapes not to mention interesting flora and fauna, that you would think examples of nature writing would roll off our tongues – but it doesn’t seem to.

What is “nature writing”?

Let’s start with Wikipedia which offers a definition, albeit an unsourced one. Nature writing, it says, “is nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment”. I must admit that when I think of “nature writing” my mind immediately leaps to the strong tradition from Stefanie’s home, the USA, with non-fiction authors like Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, John Muir ( “A wind-storm in the forests”) and Mary Austin (“The scavengers” and “The land”). These writers focus very closely on landscape and the nature within it.

Cunnane, as far as I know, didn’t elaborate her understanding of “nature writing”, but Stefanie did, taking a broad view:

It might be a science-y book on moss or a sociology/psychology/philosophy kind of book on coping with climate change or a travel through the jungle/desert/forest/arctic sort of book or it could be about a cabin on a pond and planting beans and watching ants or about a garden or a farm … Something to take my mind outdoors while my body is stuck indoors.

Looking a little further … Last year, I wrote a Monday Musings about Australia’s relatively new Nature Writing Prize. This essay prize has been described as being about “relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape” or for writing that “demonstrates a deep appreciation of Australia’s magnificent landscapes”. The sponsor, the Nature Conservancy, calls it the genre of “writing of place”. “Place” seems to me to be a little broader than nature, but presumably the entrants know what the prize is looking for.

Mark Tredinnick, A place on earth

Published by Bison Books

Briefly researching this topic, I came across an article Charlotte Wood wrote in 2004 on an anthology edited by Mark Tredinnick and titled A place on earth: An anthology of nature writing From North America and Australia. Tredinnick, Wood says, wanted to kickstart a new genre, “an Australian ‘literature of place'”! There’s that word “place” again. Wood discusses form and content, starting with the idea that the essay is a natural fit “with this subject matter”. But, not all writers in the anthology agree. Eric Rolls sees no reason why the “essay should be considered the most suitable form for writing about place”, and Patrice Newell, whose farm-memoir The olive grove I read before blogging, says “I’m simply a story-teller. I tell stories about our family, our farm, the flora and fauna, our river, our olive grove”. She refers to the issue of place saying:

There’s a lot of talk about ‘place’ but every place is a place. A tram is a place as crowded with memories as passengers. I’m troubled that ‘place’ is becoming a descriptive term for somewhere in the natural world. It can be too precious.

I’m with Newell. Conceptually, place can include nature, but I don’t think it’s useful as a synonym.

All of this confirms for me that “nature writing” is a rather broad church: it can be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, but its focus must be nature and the environment.

Nature writing in Australia

NewellRiverWood, in her article cited above, quotes essayist Peter Hay as agreeing that an Australian tradition of nature writing has been lacking, though he says that poetry is an exception. He’s right. Many of the early ballads focused closely on the interaction of humans with nature, and then there are those poets he names, like Henry Kendall and Judith Wright. He also says that “Australian fictionalists [a new word for me!] have always unselfconsciously written of the natural world”. In other words, he says, we haven’t “neglected the natural world in our writing”, we just don’t have a “literary genre specifically devoted to these themes as there is in North America”.

And so, while the names of Australian nature writers don’t jump immediately into my head, as they do when I think of the USA, it doesn’t take long for some to float to the surface. How about the two Tims – Flannery and Winton – for example? Tim Flannery’s books on palaeontology and climate – such as The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, and The weather makers: The history and future impact of climate change – are obvious. In much of Tim Winton’s fiction, the environment is almost a character itself. Breath, The turning and Dirt Music are three examples, but landscape is critical to most of his books. Winton has written non-fiction about the environment too, including Land’s edge and Down to earth. Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus is an obvious contender with its specific focus on gum trees.

What about those “farm books” which explore human interaction with the landscape? Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living and Mateship with birds (my review), Andrew McGahan’s White earth, Gillian Mears’ Foals’ bread (my review), Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review) and Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my revieware all good examples.

And then, of course, there’s the relationship of indigenous Australians with the land, or country. Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review) and Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) jump immediately to mind, but much indigenous literature encompasses relationship with and responsibility for country.

Anna Krien, Into the woods

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc)

Wood’s article raises another aspect of nature writing – “eco-activism”. She feared, she said, that this would be the main thrust of the anthology – but it wasn’t so. However, Tredinnick does admit there’s a connection between “creating a literature of place and creating a practical sympathy for the land”. Some writers are conscious of this connection, while others aren’t, but the contributors to the anthology agreed that such writing is not about “preaching”, but about “showing”, about creating the “sympathy” Tredinnick talks about. Anna Krein’s investigative, analytical Into the woods (my review) about the forestry conflict in Tasmania and her quarterly essay about our relationship with animals, Us and them: On the importance of animals (my review), are conscious exemplars of this aspect: they actively grapple with ecological/enviromental issues.

I’ve barely introduced the subject, but it has confirmed for me that while Australia may not have an easily definable tradition of “nature writing”, nature and landscape are integral to our literature, across forms and genres. So, let’s end with the opening of one of Judith Wright’s most famous poems:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

(from Judith Wright’s “South of my days” at PoemHunter)

What does nature writing mean to you? And, does it interest you?


36 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature writing in Australia

    • Thanks Terri-ann – and thanks for the disclosure! I mentioned her in my post – last year I think it was – on the Nature Writing Prize – so decided not to focus on those prize-winners here BUT I’m very happy for commenters to do so!

  1. John Kinsella is the most devoted, serious and inventive living Australian nature-poet I can think of. I went away from Tredinnick’s own Blue Plateau with the impression that he was trying to kickstart a genre but it’s a shallow, self-conscious book. “Now I am doing Nature Writing,” he seems to be thinking. “I must mention the people and also the earth, as others have done. Let us balance one thing with another.” He’s not insane enough, not consumed enough, and the best nature writing is ambitious and consumed; his model, the American William Heat-Moon, approaches PrairyErth as if he’s launching the next Moby Dick, and John Clare the English country poet would use a severe classical framework to tell you that he loved, loved, loved snails.

    “Sequester’d nature was his heart’s delight;
    Him would she lead thro’ wood and lonely plain,
    Searching the pooty [snail] from the rushy dyke.”

    “Roaming about of raptures early wing
    To hunt those very Pooty shells in spring.”

    & so on. John C. Van Dyke in The Desert seems to have wanted to sculpt some hard, elegant object out of his experiences and he was willing to create and mould and lie to do it, but Tredinnick doesn’t have that sharpness.

    • Thanks DKS … You know I was only thinking of William Least Heat Moon, as he was in his first book, Blue Highways, the other day.

      I like your point about passion and nature writing. I think that ‘s a good way to separate it from simply using landscape or nature as backdrop, symbol, metaphor – passion, and that pervading sense that landscape or nature is both bigger than us and part of us.

      I haven’t read Tredinnick I must say … Just Wood’s review of his anthology … So can’t comment on him.

  2. I think I am sometimes draw to the idea of nature writing more than the execution, perhaps because the grass always seems greener and more fascinating some place else. For myself I suspect fiction is a better way to explore far off places. For nature writing I fare better when I stay close to home and look for work that blends nature with history and personal drama.

    I read an award winning book call A Geography of Blood by Candace Savage that blew me away. Savage and her partner were drawn to a geographically unique area near the Canadian-Montana border, mythologized in a sense by Wallace Stegner. She not only writes her own journey (and one sided dabate with the dead author) into her exploration of this mountain-like terrain in the middle of the prairie but uncovers a shocking and bloody chapter in the history of American and British encounters with Aboriginal North Americans. This book hit close to home.

    • Thanks RG. I haven’t heard of Savage, but that sounds a great example. I like your point that “For nature writing I fare better when I stay close to home and look for work that blends nature with history and personal drama”. I hadn’t thought of that. I think that sense particularly of writing that’s close to home is true for me too … Both writing my real home here in Aus, and what I often think of as my second spiritual home, the American west. Those landscapes too move me and I love reading about them. I can appreciate other “nature” but it doesn’t necessarily reach my heart.

  3. I might mention here, Sue, my now late husband Tony Taylor’s book, Fishing the River of Time, which Mary Cunnane in her role of literary agent was extremely enthusiastic about and instrumental in getting published. It came out with Text in 2013 and was shortlisted for a Victorian prize (can’t remember which) and praised by many, including Tim Flannery and David Suzuki.

  4. A less well known Australian poet, John Leonard, writes in a poem called ‘Nature’:

    The calendars and postcards agree:
    For nature you need green grass,
    Trees, hills, some water as well.

    But what about dirty water?
    Or dirty trees, feral trees, growing
    In the wrong places, shouldering
    Aside pavement slabs, buckling walls?

    For nature, read where you are:
    Think of the mould on buildings,
    Rank grass alongside the canal,
    Think of everything that has life,
    That you don’t like—and that’s it.

    And think of yourself: lame movements,
    Dark thoughts and moods, of yours
    And of the time, of the time’s desires,
    Of the tumour—cells which refuse
    To change, to die and be renewed—
    You and all yours are nature too.

    • Ah Anna, thanks for that! That’s brought us back to reality. I love it … It’s so easy to wax lyrical about the beauty and the power, but he’s right, it’s way more complex than that.

  5. How interesting that Australia doesn’t have a nature writing genre tradition! I would have expected there to be a big one given your varied landscape and the importance it so often plays in fiction (and poetry too judging by your quotes). I wonder why that is? Great post!

    • Yes, I know. I was thinking about it. I wonder whether it’s because historically Australians spent a long time battling and/or being fearful of the landscape, the outback in particular, that the focus was more perhaps on it as a physical, metaphorical and spiritual barrier to be managed that its beauty and value was not appreciated. I think we probably still do have a complicated relationship with our environment, albeit most of us are proud of it.

      • I wonder too. The perception of beauty and value was there at an early stage. Charles Harpur (1813 – 1862) had it: “all the trees, | Clearly defined to their minutest sprays, | Stand in unspeakable beauty.” Catherine Martin (1848 – 1937) did as well, in a more multi-faceted way, though she put it into novels. I wonder how much of it was a matter of form — Wordsworth and the other Romantics had given the appreciation of nature a poetic structure that the public had learnt to understand, and poets like Harpur could borrow the structure and expect to be comprehended and respected, but prototypical prose nature writing was diaristic (Dorothy Wordsworth, Francis Kilvert) or epistolary (Gilbert White), and perhaps the Australian public was not – ready? – willing? – in the mood? – to accept diaries and letters as respectable publications? – for some reason? – or does that sound very weird? Was the reactive element not there – the love of nature writing as a reaction to the countryside being rearranged by Enclosure, railways, and the nouveau riche as in the UK? (The Gothic-Romantic appreciation for craggy plunges being driven at least partly by snobbery and the shifting of goalposts. It was not enough to be wealthy and fatly housed, now you should be sensitive as well.)

        • Oh DKS, you’re on the ball. Yes, I’d say so. I haven’t read much about them but my sense is that many were published for the home market. I wonder what the readership was here vs England? It would be an interesting research project if it hasn’t been done already wouldn’t it.

        • Diaristic and epistolary. Yes, interesting. I think of Kate Llewellyn’s writing now. It’s diaristic or journal-istic and she writes of gardens, nature and weather. Another writer I could have mentioned.

          Your reactive comment is interesting re England given the suggestion that UK’s current interest in nature writing might be reactive to today’s increasing urbanisation.

  6. Great list and article, WG. I really enjoyed Harry Saddler’s book, ‘Noticing animals’ (which was based on his blog Harry is consciously trying to bring to the Australian ecosystem some of the style of nature writing that’s more common in the UK, and he’s now working on a book for Affirm about the migration of the Eastern Curlew Perhaps Claire Dunn’s ‘A year without matches’ might also fit into nature writing?

    • Ah thanks Jane. Have you mentioned him before? His name rings a bell, and I feel I’ve been sent to his blog before. I shall keep an eye out for his Eastern Curlew book. If Affirm is publishing it I reckon it will be beautiful. I don’t know Claire Dunn’s book. Another to check out.

  7. Sue, there’s a writer in Albany, WA, called Sarah Drummond and she writes most beautifully about nature, about place. Her first book, NF, Salt Story, was published by Fremantle Press last year or year before. It is splendid. She is working on a novel about the historical intersection between whalers and indigenous women in a specific part of the west’s coastline. I cannot wait for it. Salt Story was so beautiful (about her work as a fisherwoman/apprentice and the local fishing industry around Albany.) Look it up if you haven’t read it!

  8. Great post WG – it’s really set me thinking. A seemingly obvious contender that has not yet been mentioned is Don Watson’s The Bush. And the excellent book which totally changed the way I see the Australian landscape: Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth. Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu then goes on to provide a fascinating follow-up.

    • Oh yes, of course, it’s on my TBR! But yes, I did think of Bill Gammage’s The biggest estate on earth. I initially included a link to my posts on the NLA Seminar Writing about place, at which Gammage spoke, but the post was getting too dense, so I deleted it.

      Dark Emu is clearly something I should read. Maybe I’ll put it on options for my reading group for next year. I was just thinking about something different to suggest.

  9. What an interesting post. Patrick White’s Tree of Man must be up there, no? And much of Randolph Stow’s fiction is deeply rooted in place and landscape.

    Interestingly, nature writing is booming here in the UK. The Wainwright’s Prize is a good example: this year’s shortlist was stunning. I keep a close eye on this genre for work (an aspect of the magazine I work on is about countryside/conservation) and I can attest to the dozens and dozens of volumes being churned out about everything from a year in the life of a sheep farmer to the amazing bird life in the Highlands. They are all books written in a narrative non-fiction style, so quite accessible. Their sudden popularity is thought to be a reaction to our increasingly urbanised and digital-heavy world: people want to get back in touch with nature, even if it’s just through the pages of a book.

    • That’s fascinating Kim – I mean the suggestion that the success of this sort of writing is a reaction to the current world. I do enjoy intelligent narrative non-fiction.

      And yes, White and Stow, I agree. Tree of man, and of course Voss for White, in particular.

  10. Looks like a topic people are really interested in, Sue! Inga Simpson is writing her PhD on the nature writing tradition in Australia & will eventually turn her research into a book. She also won the Eric Rolls Nature Writing Prize in 2012 (but I don’t think the prize has continued).

    • Oh thanks for telling me that Jess. I’ll be wanting to read that book. And yes, it does appear to be a topic people like doesn’t it. I can’t always tell, and I must say I wasn’t convinced this one would be a drawcard but I love that people have engaged with it.

      I hadn’t heard of that prize. I wonder if the Nature Conservancy’s Nature Writing Essay Prize has replaced it, though I think it started a year or so earlier. Interesting that both were essay prizes.

  11. Hi Sue,
    There is quite a significant Australian nature writing tradition (Louisa Atkinson, Donald Macdonald, Alec Chisholm, E.J Banfield, Eric Rolls etc etc) it has just evolved a bit differently than the US and UK – as you’d expect with such different landscapes, flora and fauna. And it has been forgotten a bit until recently!

    The Eric Rolls prize was attached to the Watermark Literary Festival, which finished in 2012. I was there with Tony Taylor (I’m so sorry to hear of his passing, Sara), I love his book, and he was really lovely, too.

    You’re all fabulous here, mentioning explorer’s journals (especially Leichhardt’s, I think), landscape poetry, place-based fiction like Tree of Man and Voss, natural history works like Where Song Began, creative nonfiction, and the environmental tenor of nature writing.

    I have found that a key element of what is considered nature writing is the central narrative of the writer’s relationship with a particular place, and the use of imagery/metaphor, not only for lovely description, but to ask questions about the human relationship with the natural world. As you say, all very timely, at the moment – hence it’s current resurgence.

    Recent books I didn’t see mentioned here: Maya Ward’s The Comfort of Water and Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby. 🙂

    • Thanks Inga for joining in, and welcome. Yes, of course Louisa Atkinson. I’ve written about her on this blog in the past and her pioneering work as a nature writer. Your finding that the key thing is “the writer’s relationship with a particular place, and the use of imagery/metaphor, not only for lovely description, but to ask questions about the human relationship with the natural world” makes sense – and can clearly encompass all forms of literature.

      I haven’t heard of Maya Ward or her book, so will keep that in mind, but thanks for suggesting her and Lucashenko. I love the comments on my blog – they provide a rich resource of ideas for me to return to. And I love the fact that this topic has garnered such interest.

    • Thank you, Inga. I am re-reading Tony’s book now and am seeing things I hadn’t picked up before. So nice too that he’s remembered.

      Sent from my iPhone


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s