As NiddFest announces its line-up, Ann Chadwick looks at the relationship between books and nature and why more readers are turning to them as a balm for the woes of modern life.
Wainwright Prize judge, Bill Lyons, noted that nature writing is “exploding”. It’s something that Rob Cowen, the Harrogate author shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize in 2016 for his book Common Ground, has experienced first-hand.
“I’m being leant on by everyone. Every day I’m getting asked to do things,” he says. “I’m turning down all talks until I’ve written the next book, but NiddFest is important because of the correlation between words and the outdoor world; you can literally plot its worth bringing the two things together.”
Cowen is appearing at NiddFest, a weekend that features not just inspiring authors but also numerous outside events in the ancient Fishpond Wood, with everything from bird, meadow and river walks, to landscape photography and garden design workshops.
Common Ground was voted Britain’s third favourite nature book, beating classics like The Wind in the Willows. “Writing Common Ground was like being possessed by somebody else,” he laughs, “that’s what it felt like. I was a channel for lots of different stories. To get back into that space you’ve got to have time... That requires hours, days, and months, years even of reading, researching, being out taking field notes. It’s like mining – you’ve got to find the seam.”
He’s busy working on his much anticipated next book, Road. “I know exactly the shape of it. It’s about ostensibly three things: the great north road that runs from Smithfield (in London) to Edinburgh; it’s about my own personal road and how I ended up where I ended up; and the greater road, the one we’re all travelling, a metaphoric and metaphysical one, but also the country – where we are as a country and where we are as a planet – there’s no small needlework in that.”
Figures from Nielsen Book Research show that sales of animal and wildlife books increased dramatically, up from 426,630 books in 2012, to 663,575 books in 2015.
Cowen says the time taken is integral to nature writing in a world of “shallow digital air”. He believes there’s a ‘slow revolution’ at work as people turn to nature books to fulfil a fundamental human urge for authenticity.
“The way we absorb and process information is done so quickly. Reading news on your phone, scrolling through, there’s no depth to it but although that’s the modus operandi people do need things with value and truth.”
Perhaps ironically, the uplift for nature writing comes at a time when the British countryside is in crisis. Three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. A survey by the Wildlife Trust also found that two thirds of adults felt they have lost touch with nature, while a third of British adults couldn’t identify a barn owl and three quarters didn’t know an ash tree.
The most recent State of Nature report shows more clearly than ever before that nature is in serious decline across the UK. Over the last 50 years, 56 per cent of species have declined, while 15 per cent are at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether.
“We live at a point when nature is in absolute decline in terms of landmark species,” Cowen says. “It’s not too late but we need a mass awakening and these books are part of a wave of people who need to feel they are reconnected with that and also feel that they can do something about it.”
NiddFest is managed by the Upper Nidderdale Landscape Partnership, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and volunteers across the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Nature is the real star of the show.
Alongside Cowen, other authors include acclaimed York author Fiona Mozley, the marine biologist and broadcaster Dr Helen Scales and prize-winning poet, Miriam Darlington, author of Owl Sense.
Darlington says people turn to the comfort and inspiration of nature when times are tough. “Nature books have always offered an inspiring way to connect with the wild environment. These books are doing work that reconnects us, I believe; connects us to how to feel, and to see clearly what there is to be done to enjoy, appreciate and ultimately to save our cherished natural places and their wildlife.”
Cowen agrees. “The otherness of nature is profound and the indifference of it is something we long for and provides a perspective on our own world. Nature just goes on.”
NiddFest’s Artistic Director is the children’s author and garden designer Kit Peel. “The experience of the natural world is enriched through literature,” he says. “If you go into a natural environment thinking about Gerard Manley Hopkins or Carol Ann Duffy, it adds layers of connectivity to the natural world.”
Peel worked as a journalist but it was a stint on a Greek island with his wife Megan where horticulture took hold. “We lived on an island where there were no cars, and you become very aware of the passing of seasons. I got into taking photographs and sketching wild flowers. It makes you look at things more closely.”
The details, he says, make you care. “These days, we’re not so good at seeing detail in nature, but if you understand the personality of plants and wildlife, your world becomes richer rather than just seeing green and brown, and birds.”
Peel moved to his grandma’s old house in Pateley Bridge eight years ago to start a family and to complete his first children’s book, Snow Summer. The first festival in 2014 attracted the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, as its Patron.
It deliberately has a focus on children with wild play workshops in the woods and talks from BBC’s Unsprung presenter, Lindsey Chapman, among others.
“It starts as children,” says Cowen. “All the intrigue and excitement that children feel about nature has gone; that’s the shift that needs to happen. We need more hands on experience of nature. When I grew up reading Tarka the Otter, I understood what a wild river smelt like because I’d spent time knee-deep in them, I knew what a wild rabbit smelt like when I was eight years old, how many eight year olds can say that now?”
He cites the recent success of The Book of Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, which stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. “That’s what’s exciting about nature and what children need to feel and experience.”
“That’s the great hope for the future, if you can rekindle and provide a space for children to have a space for the outdoors, for nature, then we have got a chance.”
As Peel says: “Nidderdale is beautiful so authors want to come, and audiences appreciate seeing nature in so many different ways. We beat a quiet drum for the natural world.”
NiddFest takes place on June 16 and 17. Tickets are on sale now. Go to www.niddfest.com
Some festival highlights...
River walk with Helen Scales – The marine biologist, author and broadcaster uncovers secrets under the Nidd.
The Yorkshire Vet – Join Julian Norton, star of Channel 5’s hit show.
Rural Voices with Anna Greenwood – Tales from the Upper Dales.
Nidderdale Shivers – Night-time storytelling in Fishpond Wood from children’s author/performer, Sam Enthoven.
Family woodland workshop with Twigs N Stix Forest School – Build dens, track animals, climb trees.
Landscape photography workshop with Paul Harris.
Bees and Meadows Walk with Steven Falk – Get buzzing with one of the UK’s pre-eminent experts on bees.