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A history of urban nature writing

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Image from Wildlife in the City by Alan C. Jenkins

Image from Wildlife in the City by Alan C. Jenkins

Some time ago (I don’t remember when or how – though I can guess that I was probably on a train, which is where I have all my best ideas) the idea popped into my head to read and review every work of urban nature writing ever published, from Richard Jefferies’s Nature Near London, right up to the present day when the genre seems to have exploded. Once lodged in my mind, the idea refused to budge and it has been there ever since.

Whenever I get an idea that strikes me like that, I’m always reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson drawing his treasure island one rainy day in Scotland:

“I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression, it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets…”

The shape of this particular idea has taken my fancy, and so, I’ve decided to finally get on with it. As a starting point I’ve put together a timeline of all the urban nature writing books and essays I’ve been able to find. It’s an ongoing process, so I’ll probably be editing this list as I go along. If you have any suggestions for books or essays to add, please let me know in the comments. I’d be particularly interested in any suggestions for fiction (novels and short stories), poetry collections or plays, as the list is largely non-fiction.

I haven’t really defined urban nature writing as such, partly because I can’t be entirely sure until I’ve read a book whether it belongs on this list and partly because I wanted to be as open as possible. However, I think a book has to have urban nature (whether in general, a specific nature area or park, or a specific species of animal or plant) as a sustained theme – even better if the book explores the relationship between the city and nature. The writing should also ideally be creative – although there are one or two exceptions on this list.

It’s not a precise definition, so my choices may also be slightly subjective. Please let me know if you disagree with any of my inclusions!

As I said, the timeline begins with Richard Jefferies’s Nature Near London, published in 1883. The book is based on Jefferies’s explorations of the London suburb of Surbiton, where he lived from 1877-1882. It could be argued that Jefferies’s book is not strictly urban nature writing, but rather suburban nature writing. However, Jefferies was one of the first writers to explore the differences between nature in a built-up area and the countryside, and the ‘metropolis’ is a constant presence in the book. In contrast, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a work of suburban nature writing but Annie Dillard does not explicitly explore the uniquely suburban characteristics of the nature she is writing about.

The next book on my timeline takes us forward 60 years to 1943, when Kenneth Allsop published Adventure Lit Their Star (I came across Allsop’s book recently via Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks). It is a novel about little ringed plovers nesting in a gravel pit near Staines. That is all I know about the book and I’m already really looking forward to reading it – and hoping I can get hold of a copy, as it is no longer in print. Allsop’s novel was followed in 1950 by another urban nature novel, The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay. Macaulay’s novel is about two teenagers exploring London bomb sites and the plants and people that have reclaimed these spaces.

After The World My Wilderness, there is another big gap in my timeline until 1973, when Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside and Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City were published.

Following shortly after comes Wildlife in the City by Alan C. Jenkins in 1979. It is a detailed field guide to nature in the city, full of lovely black and white pictures and captions (see image above). I came across this book in an antique store whilst holidaying in Wales and I’ve flicked through it often but not yet got round to reading it.

The 80s saw the publication of Eric Simms’s The Public Life of the Street Pigeon (1982) and The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design by Anne W. Spirn (1985) – I’m not entirely sure Spirn’s book belongs on this list, but I want to read it anyway so I’m including it here. The following decade saw the publication of Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral by Charles Siebert (1997) and The Nature of Cities by Michael Bennet (1999).

From 2001, things start to pick up pace: Wild Nights by Anne Matthews (2001), City Wilds edited by Terrell F. Dixon (2002), and The Cincinnati Arch by John Tallmadge (2004). In 2008, Granta Magazine published ‘The New Nature Writing’ edition, with two essays on urban nature: Netherley: Returning to Liverpool by Paul Farley and Niall Griffiths and Cherry Tree Garden: A rural stronghold in the South Bronx by Matthew Power. 2009 was a crowish year with the publication of Corvus by Esther Woolfson and Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, both of which explore corvids in an urban setting. In 2010, an essay appeared in the New York Magazine by Robert Sullivan called The Concrete Jungle.

2011 saw the publication of Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley and The Urban Birder by David Lindo. Followed by Constance Sidle’s Second Nature in 2012.

However, 2013 was a particularly bumper year: Field Notes from a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson, The Urban Bestiary by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Marshlands by Gareth Rees, Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou, and Clay by Melissa Harrison.

Things seem to have gone quiet again in 2014 and then this morning I found out about Common Ground by Rob Cowen (via @M_Z_Harrison), which comes out on 7 May 2015, bringing us up to the present day.

I’m currently reading Nature Near London and I’ll posting about it on here soon.

N.B. My list has grown a lot since I originally posted this. Thanks to Bug Woman, Kelly Brenner, Lines of Landscape, Fife Psychogeography, and Gavin Van Horn for all the great suggestions. Please keep ’em coming. You can see my full, updated list here: Urban nature writing

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Author: Naomi Racz

I am a nature writer, with a particular interest in urban nature. I also write about social media and work in communications with an NGO.

14 thoughts on “A history of urban nature writing

  1. Hi Naomi, for a historical perspective there’s the Richard Fitter book in the New Naturalist series on London’s natural history, and the recently published Nature in Towns and Cities, also in New Naturalist and published last year (by David Goode) – both full of information. I love Scarp, so glad you’ve included it. And Corvus. And Crow Planet…..

  2. Great sounding project, there. Can’t think of much else, except perhaps Silt Road by Charles Rangeley Wilson about a lost waterway in High Wycombe. Also, suspect this essay may be useful (though I’ve not read it for a long time and can’t be sure) http://www.simonsellars.com/postcards-from-the-edgelands

  3. Great project and look forward to following it. Wondered about ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines. (Kes)

    • Thanks – and thanks for the suggestion, A Kestral for a Knave is one I’ve wanted to read for a while anyway so I’ll give it a read and see what I think!

  4. Oh can’t believe I forgot: this might seem a bit left field, but environmental pragmatist Andrew Light has written some terrific stuff on people’s connection to ecology in an urban context, particularly in New York. Suggest at least a cursory look at his stuff, I’m sure you must be able to find a few papers or articles for free (if you can’t access journals).

  5. Ok, here are a few:

    Natural History of Vacant Lots by by Matthew F. Vessel and Herbert H. Wong
    Subirdia by John Marzluff
    The Urban Naturalist by Steven Garber
    The Thunder Tree by Robert Michael Pyle
    The Street-Smart Naturalist by David Williams (about Seattle specifically)

    There are a lot more I can think of that have to do with planning and design, but I think those don’t really fit in here.

    I’m sure I’ll think of some more!

    • An older one; Hunting Big Game in the City Parks by Howard Smith
      City critters: Helen Ross Russell
      Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field & Street by Jerry Sullivan

      I could make a huge list about urban nature in kids books too! There are a surprising number of good ones.

      There are quite a few for Seattle and Portland, but they’re mostly about specific places.

  6. I’m so glad you’ve taken on this challenge, Naomi. There are several on your list that are familiar to me, but also many that I’d never encountered. You’re building a valuable resource here, one that could easily be shaped into a syllabus or a “must-read” list for urban nature writing. I’m currently picking my way through Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, and I’m looking forward to your review of it (and all the others)!

    • Thanks, that’s my hope, that it will be a useful resource for anyone interested in urban nature writing. I love The Unofficial Countryside, it was one of the books that really got me interested in urban nature.

  7. “The Urban Naturalist” was originally published by John Wiley and Sons in 1987 (reprinted in 1998 by Dover). Glad you are doing this. Thanks!

    • Sorry I’ve only just seen this, I’ve moved my blog over to my website (naomiracz.com) so haven’t been checking this blog as regularly! Thanks for your correction and great to hear from you!

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