Maria Sledmere recently took part in our youth delegation to the British Council Nature Writing seminar with Robert Macfarlane in Munich, as part of Scotland's Year of Young People. Here she reflects on a transformative weekend.
Arriving in Stiftung Nantesbuch, the environmental arts venue nestled in breathtaking Bavarian countryside, we were asked by the poet Helen Mort to write down freely our first impressions. On a whim, I wrote the line: ‘Meadowland, straight from cool coach seat to country air’. Reading it back, the suddenness of that sentence recalls the opening to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: ‘Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay’. And as the river reruns, in medias res, the circular time of that sprawling novel, the sense of a meadow flowed through my weekend in Munich. Whether attending keynotes, conferences, panels or dinners, all talk of ecology summoned this imaginary meadow: Edenic vision of nature’s primal scene (serene), abundant in biodiversity. A nostalgic childhood meadow, a virtual plain. The way I took notes that weekend felt like trawling my way through its grasses: gathering flowers, sentences, sketches and specimens—greedily pressing warm ink into paper, finding my way through the density.
The intellectual eclecticism of the recent British Council Nature Writing Seminar left me with many exciting impressions. Whether listening to Helen Macdonald talk animatedly about her time with Mabel the goshawk, or Nancy Campbell reciting her breathtaking, lyrical ice poems, Horatio Clare recounting his adventures at sea, Sarah Hall on wild species, Helen Mort on the poetry of the body or Robert Macfarlane on everything from edgelands to his ever-growing, coruscating ecological glossary, I found myself hooked on dialogues about process, ethics, speculation, politics, poetics. What was special about the seminar was its disciplinary border-crossing: those in attendance varied from interested scientists and academics to artists, translators and writers. Fostered by the generous, congenial atmosphere of the seminar’s many panel discussions, everyone in attendance seemed willing to come forward, offer their opinions, ask questions.
As a tentative academic, about to start a PhD in Anthropocene aesthetics, creative-critical practice and the everyday, the seminar experience feels already invaluable. Dwelling awhile in that rare space in which everyone has their unique version of how to approach such a vast and challenging topic gave me plenty food for thought. Discussions of form and language, literary movements and a continual focus on negotiating daily routine and personal autonomy at potentially nonhuman scales of climate, ice, sea and stone, proved highly relevant to my own research. Each writer was charismatic, approachable, generous with their time. The conversations I had with my fellow young writers—Kate, Liga, Lois and Patrick—and our British Council representative, Jordan Ogg, were also constantly productive. We shared aspects of our own creative-critical practice, debated the day’s talks as we wandered Munich’s wide, lush and lively streets. We talked anthropomorphism, travel writing, coexistence and care, wildness and bearing witness. Our first dinner was interrupted, quite appropriately, with a dramatic thunderstorm which saw the boughs of the restaurant canopy slump under rain, hailing our attention to nature.
One striking aspect of the seminar was its consistent attention to international perspectives. While the writers were all British, each seemed keen to discuss nature writing that diverged from Anglo-American traditions. Macfarlane’s eco-glossaries borrow of course from many dialects and languages, sparking an appetite for German authors (from the Romantics to W. G. Sebald) and approaching the audience for literary suggestions in the final Q&A. Despite my unfortunate monoglot status, I now feel more confident reaching out to works in translation and reflecting on the cultural-historical contexts of nature’s literary construction.
Hearing about the personal and political impulses behind contemporary nature writing, myself and the other young writers developed a stronger sense of where we might emerge in relation to this burgeoning canon. Our discussions honed in on how technology fits into or troubles many of the speakers’ perspectives on nature, how it shapes our own approach to environmental writing and thought. Whether it requires a different tack of formal experiment, a more splintered, mediated approach to the lyric ‘I’—an ‘I’ so oft-contested in nature writing.
The intellectual ‘meadow’ I started with, then, has since welcomed many more curious species. The Anthropocene necessitates a discourse that is both intellectual and affective, vibrantly cross-disciplinary; this was reflected in the frank, reflective and often personal talks which peppered the breaks between readings. We talked about shifting baseline syndrome, solastalgia, grief, loss, regret; but also low-carbon joys, journeys we’d made, zero-waste lifestyles, expansions of consciousness attuned to new landscapes. I came away with as many questions as I started with; but surely the imperative mode of the question itself, speculatively open to the future, is vital in a time of crisis—and indeed, at the start of a PhD! If all of our meadows and dear green lands are sadly (as Rachel Carson noted back in the sixties) becoming more silent, the challenge now is to find my own voice in the changing winds, channel a little of that lingering richness, listening. Meadows, after all, are strangely multifarious things: both themselves and everything in them.