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Kate Chandler, an intrepid nature wanderer in her spare time, shares some of her well-worn books of nature writing that often inspire her to go exploring.

Nature writing to inspire wandering

  • Daffodils in Fairview Park. Photographer: Ruth Medjber.

    Daffodils in Fairview Park. Photographer: Ruth Medjber.

For the first time in years, I don’t feel like I’ve missed the spring. Subtle changes in the air, the trees - the signs of the seasons turning, are more noticeable when your world is reduced to a 2km or 5km radius. In these strange times we need to find distraction and joy wherever we can. Nature brings us outside of ourselves and gives us insight into a world of which we are not the centre, just a part. Books can do the same. Together, the two are a powerful combination. Here’s a tiny taste of some of my favourite non-fiction nature writing.

For the eagle-eyed

You may have a balcony, a garden, a window box, a potted plant, or even a tree or patch of grass outside your window that has become a hotline to nature in your new, downsized world. If you enjoy watching these small habitats up close, John Lewis-Stempel may be the writer for you. In The Wood, Meadowland, The Running Hare, and Still Water: the Deep Life of a Pond, he tracks the year in one stretch of land or water with an acute eye for detail as well as the bigger picture. A man who devotedly strives to nurture the land back to health through farming, his encounters with wildlife are uniquely intimate. In The Wood he describes a badger passing him by with the indifferent courtesy of a half-known neighbour - it had grown so used to him it no longer saw him as a threat. Most of his books are written as short diary entries, so you can dip in and out at your own pace and follow the progress of his world through the changing seasons.

“When I first walked the wood’s path and polluted it with my man-scent, the animals avoided it [...] After three months or so, I became as familiar to them as the earth, the sky, the water, and they reverted to the old way.” John Lewis-Stempel, The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood

For the adventurers

Writing and journey-making have a long history together. In the early 1900s, J.M. Synge’s Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara became a classic in Irish nature and travel writing. From Glenmalure to the Great Blasket Island, Synge documents the landscapes he journeys through and the harsh lives of the people he meets, giving a fascinating insight into a world now vanished.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is the incredible story of the author’s trek around the 630 mile South West Coast path in England with her severely ill husband, after they found themselves homeless. Sleeping rough and scraping together just enough money for food - the story of their unimaginable endurance throws a harsh light onto the epidemic of homelessness and poverty, problems we are all too familiar with in Dublin. Winn’s optimism and determination in the face of their dire circumstances is inspirational - it is a remarkable and surprisingly uplifting book.

I can think of no better way to describe Robert MacFarlane than ‘the Gandalf of nature writing’. His knowledge of different landscapes, their formations, and the human stories and activities that have shaped them, is immense. The Wild Places takes you into the last remaining wilderness areas in Britain and Ireland, and The Old Ways journeys along ancient pathways, tracks, and drove roads uncovering their many stories. His newest offer, Underland, is sitting on my bookshelf as thick as a doorstop loaf. If you want to go deep into the layered histories of the land and get lost for days on end, his books are for you.

“When the sun rises there is a morning of almost supernatural radiance, and even the oldest men and women come out into the air with the joy of children who have recovered from a fever. In the evening it is raining again.” J.M. Synge, Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry, and Connemara

For the soul-searchers

Some of the most satisfying and absorbing nature and travel writings are also stories of self-discovery. Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain is the story of Damian Le Bas, half Romany, half gadjo (non-Romany). In a quest to understand one half of his identity, he traces the old travelling routes of his Romany ancestors, seeking out their ‘atchin tans’, or ‘stopping places’ through family history and folk memory. His journey also, inevitably, reveals the deep rooted prejudice still firmly at the heart of perceptions of Gypsy Roma Traveller people.

It is a commonly touted fact that Birmingham has more canals than Venice. As one of the UK’s largest cities, it isn’t the obvious setting for nature writing, but Alys Fowler proves the opposite in Hidden Nature. Her adventure in an inflatable kayak along miles of waterways reveals a surprisingly rich hidden world where nature thrives in strange and unexpected ways alongside - and in spite of - humanity. Along the half-hidden waterways, Fowler comes to terms with her own sexuality and rebuilds her life as she comes out as gay and strives for happiness.

“There is a road that runs from the salt coast of Sussex, back to the green hop gardens of rural Hampshire. It is an old road, a road of black and white; a road composed of many roads ... in me all these disparate roads add up to just one: the road from the world I grew up in, to the world of wagons and tents that passed in the decades before I was born.” Damian Le Bas, The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain

For now

Late last June I bumped over the mountains from Dublin to Glencree, Co. Wicklow, for the inaugural Shaking Bog Festival of Nature Writing. As I discover more of Ireland’s nature writing - A Life in the Trees by Declan Murphy and Wild Dublin: Exploring Nature in the City by Éanna Ní Lamhna are on my ‘to read’ list along with many more - I hope it won’t be long before we can get back out into nature and speak about it with new voices and perspectives in a post-covid world.

For now, the world around us turns no matter what happens to us as a species. Nature writing is a channel between ourselves and the non-human. It can surprise us, dismay and bewitch us with its indifference, pull us off down endless paths and help us escape for a while. Put the kettle on, take a seat, pick up a book, and go wandering.

Kate Chandler is Acting Venue Programme Manager with Dublin City Council Culture Company. She was born in Bath, UK, but now calls Dublin home. Like all of the team, she is working from home but using her spare time to read, plant and dream about putting on her boots and exploring the wonderful nature that Dublin and its environs has to offer.

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