21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Recovering Nostalgia in Nature Writing

Deborah Lilley


In Edgelands (2011), Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts explain their intention to ‘put aside our nostalgia for places we’ve never really known’ and instead seek out ‘complicated, unexamined places’ and ‘see them afresh’ (10). Their collection of nature essays forms part of a recent proliferation of contemporary nature writing in Britain that is being written and read in conjunction with environmental concerns and in contrast to conventional interpretations of the form. As Jason Cowley suggests in his introduction to a 2008 Granta issue devoted to the topic, new nature writers ‘share a sense that we are devouring our world … but they don’t simply want to walk into the wild, to rhapsodise and commune: they aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect’ (9).

Farley and Symmons Roberts attempt to highlight ‘an overlooked England’ that exists ‘between our carefully managed wildernesses’ ‘with no obvious artistic or literary analogue’ (10). Resisting prescribed and pristine versions of nature, in chapters that run from ‘Paths’ to ‘Landfill’, ‘Wasteland’ to ‘Woodland’, they explore, as Marion Shoard discusses, the ‘interfacial landscape’  between the urban and the rural (Shoard 2002: 1). However, despite the post-pastoral character of their locations, idealising and idyllizing tendencies can be picked up in the celebratory style of their explorations.

Understood as the ‘acute longing for familiar surroundings’ ("nostalgia, n.". OED Online), a sense of nostalgia can be detected in the seemingly unquestioning transplantation of pastoral’s effects onto a determinedly un-pastoral landscape. As Robert Macfarlane comments in a review for the Guardian, in their efforts to negotiate the ‘routine prejudices’ that inform conceptions and representations of natural landscapes, Farley and Symmons Roberts appear to ‘also install replacement biases and nostalgias of their own’ (2011). Is their depiction of these post-pastoral landscapes limited by their celebratory approach, relocating the pastoral idyll and effectively reinstating the nostalgia they seek to avoid by celebrating and still not really knowing the places they describe?


La Paire de Boeufs de Jacques

Representing nature: nostalgia is frequently considered to be sentimental and escapist
[Image by Mary.Do under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


Described variously as ‘sentimental’ (Lasch 1984: 65), ‘elitist’ and ‘escapist’ (Lowenthal 1989: 25), nostalgia has been understood to ‘palliate present inequities and sanctify traditional privileges’ (Tannock 1995: 454): as the editors of a special issue of the journal Memory Studies on the topic introduce it, ‘nostalgia is always suspect’ (Atia and Davies, 2010: 181). However, does nostalgia always signify ‘withdrawal from any full response to an existing society’ (Williams 1973: 140)? In a recent interview for Green Letters, Macfarlane identifies elsewhere in contemporary nature writing ‘a keen cognisance of the dangers, but also the opportunities of nostalgia’ (2013: 80).

Nostalgia’s multiple and contradictory interpretations emerge from what Linda Hutcheon refers to as its ‘semantic slippage’ (Hutcheon 2000) away from its original usage in medical terminology. As innumerable commentators on the topic have noted, ‘nostalgia’ was coined by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688 to describe a potentially fatal mental and physical malaise associated with homesickness, deriving from the Greek ‘nostos’: ‘a homecoming or homeward journey’ and ‘algos’, ‘denoting types of pain’ ("nostalgia, n.". OED Online). Subsequently the uses of the term have become abstracted from the ‘spatial/geographical separation’ of homesickness, referring instead towards a ‘temporal one’ (Rubenstein 2001: 7). Without the possibility of the remedy of relocation available to Hofer’s patients, nostalgia has been reinterpreted as an ‘incurable condition’ (Boym 2007: 8):  the ‘familiar surroundings’ sought after belonging to an imagined past.

Accordingly, the unbridgeable gap between perspective and object in nostalgia means that the representation of the past depicted is irrevocably tied to the present. On the one hand, this is potentially obfuscatory: turning away from the present towards an imagined past and using that past to reframe the present. While Davis suggests that ‘the past thus conjured up is, to be sure, largely an artefact of the present’ (Davis 1989: xvi), Boym’s description of nostalgia as a ‘double exposure … of home and abroad, past and present’ perhaps more accurately conveys the illusionary nature of its practices (2007: 7). Rather than blurring together past and present, nostalgia focuses the version of the past captured according to the specifications of the present. Emphasising the blinkered viewpoint of nostalgically adjusted images of the past, Sales suggests that ‘reflection breeds selection’ (Sales 1983: 16), a process that Hutcheon refines as ‘sanitiz[ing] as it selects’ (Hutcheon 1998: n. pag.).


Christmas Pastoral

Christmas Pastoral: can a futural dimension to nostalgia be unearthed, recovering the desire for home?
[Image by Puzzler4879 under a CC BY-NC license]


Yet, compelled by environmental concerns in the present, does a backward look towards the past in contemporary nature writing necessarily exclude consideration of the future? Can a futural dimension to nostalgia be uncovered, or even exploited? Tannock suggests on the other hand that ‘nostalgia [...] can equally function as retrieval [...] Nostalgia here works to retrieve the past for support in building the future’ (1995: 458), and Boym has written that ‘nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future’ (2007: 9). In her influential differentiation between ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia, Boym identifies in the latter a stronger focus upon the ‘algia’ or longing component of the form; rather than emphasising the concept of a ‘nostos’ or home, this version of nostalgia addresses the desire for that home, and the form and effects of such longing. (2007: 13) Within ‘reflective’ nostalgia, for Boym it is possible to explore ‘ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones … taking time out of time and [...] grasping the fleeing present.’ (2007: 13-14)

Contemporary nature writing presents an opportunity to reconnect some of the meanings of nostalgia, addressing a perceived estrangement from our environment through examination of our surroundings in search of new or renewed ways of understanding and relating to nature. Discussing the limitations of Edgelands, Marion Shoard suggests that the edgelands now need something beyond a merely subjective celebration of their identity’ (2011). The importance of ‘learn[ing] to see these zones’, and to ‘see them afresh’ stressed by Farley and Symmons Roberts must be complimented by the importance of examining the ways that we see them.


Who Knew Seagulls Could Read

Expected landscapes: Kathleen Jamie places "familiar surroundings" alongside social and ecological changes to the Hebridean island of Coll 
[Image by blmiers under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Addressing edgelands of a different kind, in Findings (2005) Kathleen Jamie contrasts her expectations of the apparently wild landscape of the Central Highlands with the realisation that its present composition betrays the traces of previous human activity. Gazing upon a deserted hillside, Jamie attributes ‘piles of grey stones’ to the glacial shaping of the land. Looking more closely, though, she comes to find the piles connected by a path, leading between ‘green knolls’ and not stones but the ‘gable-ends’ of the remains of ancient shepherd’s ‘shielings’ (2005: 120). Neither the imagined wild of the island or the imagined lives of its former inhabitants are emphasised here: the ‘familiar surroundings’ of an expected landscape are placed alongside the social, political and ecological changes that have shaped the island’s past and influence its future. The desire to see the landscape and the past a certain way is open to question, as is the relationship of such desires to the land itself.

Closer to home, in Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain (1999) Roger Deakin contrasts the redirected River Lark with an imagined version of its previous state: ‘I stood outside the Bury St Edmunds Tesco. Here, the Lark had been treated with something less than reverence as it flowed through the forecourt car park [...] The hapless Lark, which once meandered gently through water meadows here, had been neatly packaged in an outsized concrete canyon. No water vole would dream of venturing here, nor otter, purple loosestrife or figwort’ (2000: 67). Questioning the adaption of the watercourse, Deakin works around a straightforward nostalgic contrast between then-and-now, lamenting not the loss of the ancient river but instead opening up considerations of its consequences.


Washerwoman and Buffalo

Can nostalgic representations of the natural environment address our relationship with the environment or act as agents of change? 
[Image by Orin Zebest under a CC BY license]


In these examples, nostalgia is invoked to address our relationship to our environment, rather than simply to alleviate its effects. Here, it is used to question both our conception of ‘familiar surroundings’ and the ‘longing’ that conjures them. Further, the analytical approaches to the use of nostalgia allow the unfolding of the landscape in spatial and temporal senses. A version of the ‘opportunities of nostalgia’ proposed by Macfarlane can be found here. Both the invocation of nostalgia and its intended effects in this case appear to be active rather than passive; the intention is not to restore or simply make visible the connections between the past and the present, but to explore them.

In a similar way, Davies and Atia redefine nostalgia as ‘a force that complicates, rather than one that simplifies’ (2010: 181); a desire framed by Nicholas Dames as a critical switch towards a ‘purposeful functionalism’, revealing ‘the therapeutics, rather than the diagnostics, of nostalgia.’ (2010: 274). Fredric Jameson has argued that when coupled with self-awareness, nostalgia can act as an agent for change: ‘there is no reason why a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present on the grounds of some remembered plenitude, cannot furnish as adequate a revolutionary stimulus as any other’ (1971: 82). Understood in these senses, the appearance of nostalgia in new nature writing illustrates the different ways that places can come to be known.


CITATION: Deborah Lilley, "Recovering Nostalgia in Nature Writing," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 3 (2013): n. pag. Web. 13 May 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.3.03


Deborah Lilley is a final year PhD Candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London working in the field of contemporary literature and theory. Deborah co-convenes the Literary and Critical Theory Seminar series at the Institute of English Studies, University of London and is a member of the Editorial Board for Royal Holloway's new ejournal Exegesis. 


Works Cited:

Atia, Nadia and Jeremy Davies. ‘Nostalgia and the Shape of History.’ Memory Studies 3 (3) (2010): 181-186, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1750698010364806

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

Boym, Svetlana. ‘Nostalgia and its Discontents.’ The Hedgehog Review, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

Cowley, Jason. Granta: The Magazine of New Writing 102: The New Nature Writing (London: Granta, 2008).

Dames, Nicholas. ‘Nostalgia and its Disciplines: A Response.’ Memory Studies 3 (3) (2010):  269-275, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1750698010364820

Davies, Fred. Yearning for Yesterday (New York: Macmillan, 1979).

Deakin, Roger. Waterlog (London: Vintage, 2000).

Farley, Paul and Michael Symmons Roberts. Edgelands (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011).

Hutcheon, Linda. ‘Irony, Nostalgia and the Postmodern,' University of Toronto English Library, 19 January 1998: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism/hutchinp.html [accessed 11 may 2013].

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

Jamie, Kathleen. Findings (London: Sort Of Books, 2005).

Lasch, Christopher. The Politics of Nostalgia,’ Harper's Magazine (November 1984): 65-70

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Macfarlane, Robert. ‘Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts: A Review,’ The Guardian, 19 February 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/19/edgelands-farley-symmons-roberts-review [accessed 11 May 2013].

Rubenstein, Roberta. Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women’s Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2001).

Shoard, Marion. ‘Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wildernesses: A Review,’ The Guardian, 6 March 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/06/edgelands-england-farley-roberts-review [accessed 11 May 2013].

Shoard, Marion. ‘Edgelands’ in Jennifer Jenkins, ed. Remaking the Landscape (London: Profile Books, 2002).

Stenning, Anna. ‘Interview with Robert Macfarlane.’ Green Letters 17 (1) (2013): 77-83, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14688417.2012.750849

Tannock, Stuart. ‘Nostalgia Critique’, Cultural Studies 9 (3) (1995): 453-64, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502389500490511

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).



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One comment

  1. Lewis Ward /

    Really interesting article – thanks!

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