A Negotiable Nature

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Have you ever experienced one of those moments when something is said, and you know, for whatever reason, that it’s hugely significant, even though the reason for this might not be immediately apparent? I remember one of those moments now, only because it has finally gained the context that allows it to make sense, kind of like blinking yourself out of a dream and into the wakeful clearness of the day.

This particular moment happened at university, in a packed lecture hall during a lecture on Wordsworth’s 'Tintern Abbey'. Not only did the poem immediately establish itself as a firm favourite (even to this day vying for the position of absolute favourite with Keats’s 'To Autumn') but something else seemed to strike a chord when the lecturer, discussing Wordsworth’s walking tour and views over the landscape, said: “When you leave here today, remember that whatever you look at, someone, somewhere, either owns it or controls it in some way.”

For years after, that sentence swilled around loosely in a dark, neglected corner of my memory until eventually my interests meandered through the world of angling and its writers, spilling over into a more panoramic interest in nature writing and the wider natural world beyond the seas and estuaries and rivers I knew so well. Suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me: George Monbiot’s theses on “rewilding”; the often parochial, intimate observations of Deakin and Blythe, the country-crossing ramblings of MacFarlane and the ecologically-tinted wilderness wanderings of that great modern-day voyageur Sigurd F. Olson, to name just a few. I became fascinated with my own self-built grand fantasies of “wild secluded” Canadian wilderness and the “deep seclusion” of remote Scottish highland forests, lamenting the fact that there were no such comparable things near to me, vowing that ‘some day I would...’, a burgeoning sentence whose wide open spaces were filled with a rolling sequence of overblown, romanticised ambitions that would arrive and then disappear almost as suddenly, carried away upon their own energy as twigs in a stream.

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But then, something happened. With further reading, came an awareness of the deeper themes and arguments that ran across decades and continents, leading me onto some strange assimilation of all these factors, and it was whilst I computed all of these ideas and influences into my own understanding of the natural world that the old phrase from my university lecture that seemed so long ago finally found a niche into which it could click, where it began to cast light upon these new ideas, kick-starting a new process of understanding.

I quickly realised that the phrase “natural world” belonged within quotation marks. Why? Because I could no more define it than could anyone else. My understanding of the “natural world” is uniquely my own, and thus, should be taken with a pinch of salt by anyone other than me, as should anyone else’s version. Perhaps the “natural world” as society has come to understand it is a concept that doesn’t actually exist. Maybe it never existed in any one true, idealised sense. This revelation was finally hammered home when, as chance would have it, I returned to the source of my early fascination, re-reading Lyrical Ballads, this time in preparation for teaching it to A-Level classes of my own.

I devoured the book quickly, looking for remembered phrases and lines as I might scan for friends on arriving at some party. There they were, tripping off the tongue once more until, that is, I returned to Tintern. The powerful words and images were still there alright, as majestic and poetic as ever they had been on my first reading years before; they had lost none of the Romantic power. But there, nestled alongside them were other more subtle things that I had long since forgotten, or perhaps missed entirely in the first place. For all of the seclusion and tranquillity and restorative power, there was also a calm and unfussy acceptance from Wordsworth, present in the “plots of cottage-ground”, “orchard-tufts”, “hedge-rows” and “pastoral farms” that were framed by “wreaths of smoke/Sent up, in silence, from among the trees”.

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Here was a genius of the English pastoral, searching for silence and solitude and quiet contemplation, and having to find, instead, a negotiated version of the natural world. In a landscape as used and farmed and tamed as the British countryside, even the great searchers who had come in search of their own idea of nature had been forced to settle upon the version of it that was afforded them by the other people and purposes with whom they shared it: Wordsworth’s vision of Tintern; Keats witnessing the seasons change in the fields and granaries. Even the great Robert Frost could only find a road “less traveled by” in his American landscapes rather than one never before walked upon.

And here it was, laid bare in black and white lines of iambic pentameter: it is okay to negotiate. I don’t need someone else’s wilderness when I can find solitude whilst fishing an empty beach at dusk; I don’t have to hike through some distant forest when I can walk the slopes of the hills behind my home, following my well-worn route through its tree-tunnels; I can hear birdsong and wind-sifted leaves in Margam Country Park, a beautiful green space once owned by the Talbot family, and only ten minutes drive from my home, just as well as I can anywhere else. 

To some, this might be unacceptable. Maybe they are not prepared to settle for less, needing the raw confrontation of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, but that is for them to search for and discover on their own terms. Good luck to them. I am perfectly happy to give a little, working with my negotiable nature, so that I can continue to receive so much in return.

MusingsSimon Smith