Too many nature writers descend into poetic self-absorption instead of the sharp-eyed realism the natural world deserves
I worry, sometimes, that knowledge is falling out of fashion – that in the field in which I work, nature writing, the multitudinous nonfictions of the more-than-human world, facts have been devalued; knowing stuff is no longer enough.
Marc Hamer, a British writer on nature and gardening, said in his book Seed to Dust (2021) that he likes his head ‘to be clean and empty’ – as if, the naturalist Tim Dee remarked in his review for The Guardian, ‘it were a spiritual goal to be de-cluttered of facts’. ‘It is only humans that define and name things,’ Hamer declares, strangely. ‘Nature doesn’t waste its time on that.’ Jini Reddy, who explored the British landscape in her book Wanderland(2020), wondered which was worse, ‘needing to know the name of every beautiful flower you come across or needing to photograph it’. Increasingly, I get the impression that dusty, tweedy, moth-eaten old knowledge has had its day. Sure, it has its uses – of course, we wouldn’t want to do away with it altogether. But beside emotional truth, beside the human perspectives of the author, it seems dispensable.
Am I right to worry? I know for a fact, after all, that there are still places where knowledge for its own sake is – up to a point – prized, even rewarded.
Some years ago, I appeared on the long-running British television quiz programme Mastermind. I did fairly well, answering questions on ‘British birds’, and afterwards I was recruited to write questions for the show, working alongside a small team of ex-contestants and quiz champs, all of whom knew a great deal more than I did about practically everything. It was an excellent schooling in what we might call raw knowledge. We didn’t have an office but, if we had, we might have pinned a motto from Charles Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind on the corkboard: ‘What I want is, Facts … Facts alone are wanted in life.’
The quiz-show contestant is, like Gradgrind himself, ‘a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts’. They are not there to impart information – the host, after all, has all the answers written on his cards. They are not there to explain anything (there’s no time for that) or show off their powers of logic or articulation. Facts, sir! The contestant is there to present facts.
As a contestant, I duly put across my share of knowledge – the Eurasian jay! The black-tailed godwit! The peregrine falcon! And over the next few years I trafficked extensively in the same undressed product: facts about the Battle of Balaklava, Charles Schulz, Porsche cars, the Pentateuch, grime music, disaster movies, Isaiah Berlin, Tottenham Hotspur football club, malt whisky, Monty Python, John Steinbeck, the Manhattan Project; something in the vicinity of 3,000 questions: 3,000 airless, decontextualised base-units of trivia.
At the end of each season, the Mastermind champion is presented with a beautifully engraved glass bowl – and no money, this being the BBC and not NBC, where the closest US equivalent is Jeopardy! It’s a pretty big deal, among people who care about this kind of thing. Knowing stuff, just knowing it, still has some cachet, some meaning.
Meaning is of course fundamental to knowing – the search for the significant datapoint, the sifting of the signal from the noise. Yet there are as many ways of finding meaning in nature as there are people on our planet – as there are people who have ever lived.
The American poet Wallace Stevens wrote of 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. Perhaps there are different ways of knowing about a blackbird, too; perhaps, in different knowledge systems, different traditions of learning, there are different blackbirds.
Natural history can certainly accommodate a profusion of perspectives – indeed, it will always benefit from greater diversity in how we look and think. But I wonder if there are unhelpful dichotomies in play, where we pit ‘knowledge’ against lived experience, against emotional engagement, and where the idea of scientific expertise in nature summons nothing in us but Linnaean binomials, mothballed drawers of beetles, airless data, the charts and graphs of dead white European men.
The English journalist John Diamond, shortly before his death from throat cancer in 2001, wrote that ‘there is really no such thing as alternative medicine, just medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t’. Ecological knowledge might be thought of as similarly indivisible. There are no alternative birds, non-traditional plants, complementary ecologies. More often than not, bodies of knowledge develop not in opposition to one another but along parallel tracks.
The Florentine Codex, for example, was compiled between 1558 and 1569 by the Spanish scholar Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, with the aim of documenting Indigenous Aztec knowledge of the natural history of the Valley of Mexico: around 725 life-forms are catalogued, very much in accordance with any modern zoological survey. A 2008 study of Indigenous names for plants in the Ejina area of Mongolia showed a high degree of correspondence with ‘scientific’ names (‘a total of 121 folk names of local plants have correspondence with 93 scientific species’). Research among the Akan people of Ghana in 2014-15 found that Indigenous bird-naming systems ‘follow scientific nomenclature’.
None of this, to be clear, is a question of one body of knowledge requiring corroboration or validation from another. Rather, this is about overlap and commonality; more than that, it makes the point that knowledge, the knowing of things, identification, distinction, naming, is a foundation of any understanding of the more-than-human world.
‘The term “traditional knowledge” is not in keeping with the Inuit definition of the world around us,’ argue the Inuit rights activist Rosemarie Kuptana and the author Suzie Napayok-Short. This term, imposed by ‘outsiders’, limits the Inuit way of knowing (Inuit Ilitqusia) to the past, reducing it to ‘a source viewed as anecdotal evidence and of little consequence for inclusion in discussions that impact Inuit in the Arctic.’ Rather, it is the dictionary definition of ‘science’, they point out, that ‘closely reflects the Inuit Way of Knowing’. The Inuit do not dismiss ecological knowledge – the whats and wheres of the places they inhabit – as clutter. Far from it.[…]
Edited byMarina Benjamin