Raynor Winn's nature books

Landscape and nature have been written about for centuries, and as with any subject that is revisited so repeatedly, a particular language seems to have developed. From the historic, sentimental, almost anthropomorphised view of wildlife, to more recent work that’s totally reasoned, heavily researched and completely detached. So the first time I heard The Salt Path described as nature writing I was shocked. I hadn’t thought I was writing about nature, merely describing my life as it unfolded along a strip of wild headland. But that made me reread my own writing with different eyes and reconsider my sense of what the natural world is, and how I relate to it.

Now I can see that, of course, it was nature writing but, as with everyone else’s work, it was influenced by my own interaction with the environment. That understanding of myself underpins my next book - The Wild Silence. It’s a very personal book, in which I’ve explored how the fundamental need for wild space has driven my life, but it’s probably much more than that.

During my short journey as a writer I’ve been struck by one seemingly unanswerable question – do we choose the books we read based on our own life experience, or are our experiences influenced by the books we’ve read? In considering my favourite books of nature writing, I think I found my answer. 

Henry Williamson wrote his novel Tarka the Otter during four years of obsession with the Devon landscape. Sleeping in the undergrowth at the side rivers and woodlands, waking to the oozing peat-brown wetness of the moorlands; the earth, water and shifting skies under which he would place the fictional otter. I didn’t know that as a child as I read the book over and over, I just felt the river, the wind as it moved the water and the sun as it dried wet fur. Williamson’s wild, compulsive research meant I saw life only at Tarka’s level; from his sightline to his basic instinctual responses. I simply was the otter. Fiction, yes, but attentive nature writing all the same.

So when I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring it resonated immediately. It was the 1970s and I lived on a farm that still used DDT pesticide to conquer nature at all cost, but Carson spoke of the human poisoning of the biosphere and the ecological collapse that would ensue. Despite powerful resistance to her voice both from the chemical companies and simply because she was a ‘hysterical’ woman in the 1960s, her book is still considered one of the most important environmental books of the 20th century. Finally, so many wasted years after she first sounded the alarm, we’re all taking a more holistic view of nature. 

From Tarka onwards, I carried a strong sense that I was fundamentally connected to the natural world – not just as an observer but connected to and part of the whole. Strangely though, I didn’t find that feeling echoed in nature writing, but encountered mainly an abstracted view of the natural world, observed through the lens of academic research, or heavily clichéd prose. Consequently, I stopped reading nature writing. Until a friend gave me a copy of The Wild Places by Rob Macfarlane. At last, I’d found a writer who felt a strong, almost rapturous response to nature, a writer who remembered ‘what the world feels like’.

A year ago I experienced a weird, almost transcendent moment in a book festival tent. A moment that changed my thoughts on what nature writing is, or could be. This was performance fiction, but also nature writing at its extreme. As Max Porter breathed his way through the opening chapters of Lanny, I’d finally found someone who could express the emotions inspired by Tarka. Dead Pappa Toothwort – the spirit of the whole ecosystem, ancient and new – oozed from the stage, in a stinking acid slime of peat bogs, leaf mould, tin cans and sunlight. Porter hadn’t written about hedgerows, or green fields full of wildlife, or birds of prey shaping the skies. He’d written the earth, not about it, or around it, but the impenetrable, translucent, violent, protective essence of the earth and it filled that tent with something immensely powerful. 

Then, less than two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the new book by Barry LopezHorizon, and for days it has kept me awake at night and prevented me writing this article. As with his almost poetic Arctic Dreams, the words drift through time and place like a sparrowhawk’s wing, laconically disguising their power, and bring me to his horizon: ‘that horizontal line where what we take to be real – the ocean, the land, the ice – encounters what we regard as only speculation’, and I think I finally have the answer to my question. The books we read, the experiences we have, they’re interrelated. It’s how we interpret them that’s really interesting.

 

The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn releases September 2020. 

 

  • The Wild Silence

  • Pre-order The Wild Silence, the incredible follow-up to one of the most talked about books of the decade - the phenomenon, Waterstones Book of the Month and The Sunday Times bestselling The Salt Path.
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    'Raynor Winn has written a brilliant, powerful and touching account of her life before and after The Salt Path, which, like her astonishing debut, will connect with anyone who has triumphed over adversity' Stephen Moss, author and naturalist

    'A beautiful, luminous and magical piece of writing' Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

    'The Wild Silence confirms Raynor as a natural and extremely talented writer with an incredible way with words. This books gives us all what we wanted to know at the end of The Salt Path which is what happened next. So moving, it made me cry... repeatedly' Sophie Raworth, BBC
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    Nature holds the answers for Raynor and her husband Moth. After walking 630 homeless miles along The Salt Path, living on the windswept and wild English coastline; the cliffs, the sky and the chalky earth now feel like their home.

    Moth has a terminal diagnosis, but against all medical odds, he seems revitalized in nature. Together on the wild coastal path, with their feet firmly rooted outdoors, they discover that anything is possible.

    Now, life beyond The Salt Path awaits and they come back to four walls, but the sense of home is illusive and returning to normality is proving difficult - until an incredible gesture by someone who reads their story changes everything.

    A chance to breathe life back into a beautiful farmhouse nestled deep in the Cornish hills; rewilding the land and returning nature to its hedgerows becomes their saving grace and their new path to follow.

    The Wild Silence is a story of hope triumphing over despair, of lifelong love prevailing over everything. It is a luminous account of the human spirit's instinctive connection to nature, and how vital it is for us all.
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    Praise for The Salt Path

    'An astonishing narrative of two people dragging themselves from the depths of despair along some of the most dramatic landscapes in the country, looking for a solution to their problems and ultimately finding themselves' Independent

    'This is what you need right now to muster hope and resilience . . . a beautiful story and a reminder that humans can endure adversity' Stylist

    'The landscape is magical: shapeshifting seas and smugglers' coves; myriads of sea birds and mauve skies. Raynor writes exquisitely. . . it's a tale of triumph; of hope over despair, of love over everything' The Sunday Times on The Salt Path

    'The Salt Path is a life-affirming tale of enduring love that smells of the sea and tastes of a rich life. With beautiful, immersive writing, it is a story heart-achingly and beautifully told' Jackie Morris, illustrator of The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

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