The world is full of invisible strings, relics of things we have done but will never speak of. I imagine the unpenned affairs that forge cobwebs around even the smallest of towns; the silent navy of midnights spent with strangers but never retold to friends. I think of what happened when I left Oxford with the intent to never come back. It is something I could never write but is observed instead by the quiet eyes of nature.
It seems there are certain things that to try and make words of, is impossible. We cannot always come to terms with our experiences through writing, for fear of damaging their meaning. To put things into sentences has an equal ability to obliterate an experience as it does to commemorate it. Indeed, commemoration itself has been argued to be a form of destruction. Writers and literary theorists are no strangers to these ideas. They constantly battle with the question of whether putting ‘things’ into words is even possible, and if so, can it ever be done without our individual ideologies controlling what is written?
Nature comes into this because I believe it is something that is increasingly difficult to write about. Even now, there is a slight guilt that arrives in saying Nature ‘comes’, as if I somehow can summon it to me and, in due course further jail its identity with the tyrannical force of language. In contemporary writing, there has been a great effort to recognise and relinquish our linguistic grip on the environment. From travel guides to poetry, Oswald to Macfarlane, there is an attempt to revive the Earth through words. But, nature risks being yet again buried in our own talk. Although eco-writing makes its way steadily up both academic charts and popular conscience, is it simultaneously destroying the very thing it stands for?
At first, I would be inclined to say no. As I walk into the Waterstones of my home town, I notice an expansive Nature Writing section that I am certain barely existed seven years ago. I see Roger Deakin line the shelves, and Raynor Winn take a well-deserved central seat at the table of ‘must reads’. The natural world has reemerged from its Romantic settlement and placed again at the forefront of our literary imagination. So much of myself wants to believe this is good. To speak of ‘nature’s connectedness’, of ‘rewilding’ and ‘re-birding’, of the ‘loco-descriptive’, must mean we care more for the planet. Surely, we are better off with these words than without them. Still, I look at the array of books with this ‘green moral agenda’ and cannot help feeling imposed upon, as though this bookshelf has shackled Nature into neat, pleasing, and perpendicular dimensions.
I do not mean to say that Eco-writing is a force of evil; it is appropriate in many ways and probably necessary. Yet, as I leave the bookshop and take myself away onto a public footpath, I look at the sorry-browned grass and can’t help thinking that the most appropriate response is silence.
How could I possibly speak for this? How could I faithfully communicate what I see without making it unforgivably smaller? Every time I try and put a sliver of nature into words I feel I have already lost it. To understand its grief, its pain, and its anger I feel can only be done by becoming mute. To not speak, and instead just watch the Earth helplessly is perhaps the only way to get a sense of its tortured soul. To understand how it has had to watch us, for centuries and with no say, as we push its surrender to destruction.
I find a quiet spot on the footpath, a hidden patch of grass which lends itself to a view of the muddied river. I pause here for a while, sitting with my notepad and pen. The sun is already hot, perhaps she is burning me as punishment for not preempting this in May. I stay anyway and watch a fish in the reeds who looks disturbed, not just by me but by the feel of the water made sticky with coke cans. I sit here for as long as it takes for my blank page to absorb all the anger and mistrust of the greenery surrounding me. Eventually, I came to realise that I would die before my page could complete this, and so leave the spot with nothing to say of it.
I wonder, if everyone sat with nature in silence, could something begin to happen? If we stopped responding to nature in the language of sustainable consumerism; wild swimming, and carbon offsetting, could something start to change? If we all just stopped speaking, would nature have more room to talk? And could we stay quiet enough to listen?