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4 British Female Nature Writing Authors: Green Places, Open Spaces

Alice Baynton itcherNature writing is making a comeback. In our increasingly indoor and on-screen lives the 4 British female nature-writing authors on my list – Helen Macdonald, Sara Maitland, Kathleen Jamie and Olivia Laing – all bring a little wilderness back into our homes. ~ Alice Baynton

Variety is the Spice of Life

There is a mysterious place outside the front door, away from the streets and over the bypass. It’s a wild and untamed space where the natural world is king, and the call of a red kite is louder than the rumble of traffic.

The success of these female nature writing authors just goes to show how much readers long to get away from their indoor lives, to go tramping through wet grass and to breathe in clean air. If you don’t have the time to do it, the next best thing is to read about it.

Nature writing can be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or essays. Whatever form it takes, if the writer is as good as these 4 British female authors then it will be a pleasure to read.

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Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald should already be on your radar. ‘H is for Hawk’ won her the 2014 Costa Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, and became a bestseller. The book is so popular that she was even interviewed for Vogue.com (to be found here).

A writer, illustrator, poet and historian, she is also a falconer and is involved with conservation work all over the world.

Book Recommendation: ‘H is for Hawk’ (2014)

I know I know…you’ve all heard of it already.

I wanted to recommend something different and undiscovered from this author, but this is one of the best books I have read in a long time and is also her most easily available.

‘H is for Hawk’ is a memoir describing Macdonald’s experience with grief after the death of her father. During this time, she begins training a Goshawk, one of the most difficult birds of prey to own and work with.

Her descriptions of the countryside, her portrait of the Goshawk, Mabel, in all her fierce, wild glory, and the story of how the two come to know each other make for an immersive and profound read.

Her father took her bird watching as a child. He taught her patience, how to watch and wait. This patience, quietude and attention to detail come through in her writing.

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Sara Maitland

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The second on my list of female nature writing authors was born in 1950. She studied English at Oxford from 1968, and went on to publish her first short stories in 1972.

She writes non-fiction, novels and short stories. Her writing tends to focus on fairy tales, mythology, nature, and the links between all three. She is a true nature-lover and lives in an extremely isolated house on a wild moor in Scotland.

Book Recommendation: ‘Gossip From the Forest’ (2012)

In this book, Sara Maitland argues that forest and fairy tales are inextricably linked. She tells us the history of the old forests that used to cover most of northern Europe (Britain included) and the history of the fairy tale.

Only a few small pockets of ancient woodland still exist in the UK. Sara Maitland explores these for us in beautiful detail. Each chapter focuses on a different forest, and ends with a retelling of a fairy tale.

Sara Maitland’s passion comes through in her writing. She craves silence, rustling leaves and damp mossy places and ignites this longing in her readers.

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Kathleen Jamie

Image Source: Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet and non-fiction writer. She comes from an ‘ordinary, non literary background’ (according to her website) and is not sure why she began writing poetry, but the literary world is glad that she did.

Everything she writes is wrapped up in nature, her travel-writing, her essays and her poetry. She also sometimes writes reviews and articles for The Guardian, London Review of Books and Orion.

Book Recommendation: ‘Findings’ (2005)

In this collection of essays, Jamie takes you into her life, describes family issues and stresses, and then juxtaposes these with detailed accounts of her solitary encounters with nature.

She writes of pacing around a whale carcass on a Hebridean beach, of following the call of a Peregrine, even of discussions of Christmas shopping and school parties in her own home.

Her writing is personal, measured and intimate.

Kathleen Jamie uses her life-long talent for poetry to shape her non-fiction writing. She paints clear and breathtaking images, really bringing them to life for the reader.

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Olivia Laing

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The last on my list of female nature writing authors is not exclusively a nature writer. One of Olivia Laing’s best known books ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ is a study of how some of the most popular works of literature have come from authors in the grip of alcoholism.

She has written for a vast array of publications, she lectures and teaches, and has won many grants and awards. Despite her varied backlist, you can see that her love of the natural world has been a large part of her life. She even spent a spring living ‘off the grid’ as a teenager (read about it here).

Book Recommendation: ‘To the River’ (2011)

Her first book, ‘To the River’ was published to widespread critical acclaim.

It is the story, from source to sea, of the Ouse River in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself in 1941. She explores the history of rivers and people, how they affected our development and our lives, and the role they play in literature and mythology.

Whatever subject Olivia Laing decides to write about, she writes it with depth and intelligence, really engaging with her reader. Much more to come from this author.

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Re-Wilding

The renewed popularity of nature writing shows we are taking an interest in conserving the wild spaces again. Organisations and governments are getting more involved, with projects like Rewilding Britain, and people are getting back in touch with nature.

These four authors bring the landscapes they write about to life and spark a passion in the reader.

Have you read any nature writing recently?

Which books have inspired you to get outside and rediscover the wilderness on your doorstep?

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