INTERVIEW: Melissa Harrison on nostalgia, responsibility and the future of the countryside

Photo credit: Brian David Stevens

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, and in association with Everybody’s Reviewing and the Centre for New Writing, I spoke to author Melissa Harrison on the research processes behind her fiction and nature writing.

I’d like to start by asking how you feel about the tradition of the English rural novel to which At Hawthorn Time and All Among the Barley belong. As a genre which was immensely popular especially in the interwar period, and seems to be in resurgence now (I’m thinking of writers like Tim Pears, Claire Fuller and yourself), how do you see your work speaking to that canon? Do you feel, when writing, that you are entering a dialogue with Hardy, Lawrence, the interwar writers and others?

You’re absolutely right: rural novels have a long history in this country, but reached a peak of popularity in the years after the First World War, part of a wave of countryside writing that included dozens of farming memoirs like Adrian Bell’s hugely popular Corduroy trilogy, and a rash of motoring and walking guides such as Grigson’s Shell Country Alphabet. Some of these books were aimed at helping the (still relatively recent) phenomenon of ‘townies’ reconnect with their rural roots; others were a reaction against the new horrors of mechanised warfare, and a balm for the social and economic upheavals that followed. The boom in nature writing we’ve seen for the last 10–15 years has its roots in some of the same soil.

I wouldn’t personally include Lawrence as part of the interwar tradition of rural writing – his primary concerns are people and ideas rather than place, I’d say – but you’re right, it’s certainly a period I have a deep and complex relationship with. I suppose I want to interrogate the image of rural England that was conjured up in those years, or if not conjured up, buffed to a high shine. Nostalgic even at the time, I find the vision of farmland and villages and market towns captured by many of those books utterly alluring: it feels rooted inside me, part of my inner architecture, something lost that I long for in a bone-deep way, as I long for the ordered, bucolic rural landscapes drawn by Charles Tunnicliffe and Ronald Lampitt in the Ladybird books of the 1940s and 50s and elsewhere. But at the same time I’m deeply suspicious of this longing, knowing full well how reactionary, excluding, unjust and frankly unhealthy that fantasy of England was then, and still is in the wrong hands today.

My mother was born and brought up in what’s now Pakistan, in the last days of the British Raj. Her mother was Anglo-Indian, her father a British school teacher: national identity, for both women, was never clear-cut, given the prejudices and political complications of that period in that place. My five siblings were born in India; I’m the only one in my family who was born here, in commuter-belt Surrey: a place where none of us had roots. In the foothills of the Himalayas, Mum grew up speaking Urdu and hearing talk of ‘home’, a country she’d never visited, yet when she came here she missed the country of her birth for the rest of her days. The books she loved best – and that she read to us when we were small – were stories of English rural life: Cider With Rosie, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, Lark Rise to Candleford, the Miss Read books, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and nature novels like Watership Down, A Black Fox Running, Tarka the Otter, Duncton Wood and BB’s The Little Grey Men books; even The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings contributed, I think, to a reading culture which was intensely romantic (and elegiac) about the English countryside – although the rural villages and farms it described could be found nowhere around us in the Home Counties of the 1970s and 80s. My continued fascination with that kind of writing feels a bit like picking at a scab, I suppose: nostalgia for an imagined rural past is a faultline in our national psyche that also runs through mine, and I find it hard to leave its contradictions alone.

Running with that theme, I’m very interested in your wider attitudes to nostalgia, both in your own work and elsewhere. You’ve written that ‘political and social nostalgia may be dangerous, but ecologically it’s unavoidable’ (Stubborn Light), which feels like a nuanced view of nostalgia as a potentially useful conservationist tool – something active, akin to what Svetlana Boym calls ‘reflective nostalgia’. What are your feelings on the role nostalgia has to play in conserving our environment, and in the ways you yourself approach the natural world as a writer?

If you’re at all engaged with the current crisis you’ll know that we’re facing ongoing losses and extinctions, some of which may yet be ameliorated but many of which are now unavoidable. Yet one of our greatest blind spots is to the rate of diminishment, captured by the term ‘baseline shift’. We each take as a norm the state of nature in our childhoods, and though we may notice the losses that occur ‘on our watch’ (and many of us never do), it’s very hard for us to understand the far, far greater losses that have occurred across greater sweeps of time. And here, nature writing can prove to be invaluable. The world I grew up in was much richer in wildlife than the one I inhabit now, and I grieve for the nightly hedgehogs, lesser spotted woodpeckers, great crested newts and flocks of lapwing on the Somerset Levels that I remember from when I was a child; but in rural writing from earlier in the 20th century, and beyond, I read of creatures like corncrakes that I have never and may never see in the wild, and of abundance – flocks, swarms, shoals – I can’t even imagine. It’s impossible to read those accounts without a keen sense of nostalgia, and rightly so: we can and should use that feeling as a spur to try and restore species and landscapes not to their condition in our youth but to a carrying capacity we may never have experienced ourselves. That doesn’t, in my view, mean picking a date in the past and somehow rolling back time to try to recreate it; it means working in the here and now to great a newly rich, dynamic and resilient ecosystem that responds to the pressures but also the technologies we have today. And books are part of that toolkit: as I’ve mentioned before, stories are powerful: they can drive engagement and connection, and create change. They can also be a way for us to collectively process our grief, and can be a vital act of witness – a memorial, even – just as books written a century ago are today.

You mentioned the writer and cultural theorist Svetlana Boym. The distinction she makes between what she defines as two types of nostalgia is interesting: “Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt.” (‘Nostalgia’, in Atlas of Transformation). Going by that definition I’d agree that reflective nostalgia is central to the kind of writing I do. Certainly, I don’t believe in restoring the past intact – or in any version of ‘absolute truth’. Any truth we can approach in our own lives is always partial, culturally inflected, temporally unstable and subjective. There is no ‘view from nowhere’, and we’re in trouble if we believe otherwise.

Tied to that theme of nostalgia, I’m interested in the tensions between place and identity that come to the fore not just in All Among the Barley, but in your non-fiction as well. You’ve written about the ‘very real dangers in tying national identity to place […] because it leaves no room for change’ (Article for Foyles, 2019), but also about how ‘connecting with and defending our “home patches” is a powerful way to protect the environment’ (Stubborn Light). I wonder how you feel about the tension between these two ideas, and how that continuum from localism to nationalism (and even fascism) is handled in your work.

It’s crucial that we nature- and place-writers don’t fall into the trap of believing that only a certain set of people with a prolonged history of living in a place really ‘belong’ there, or can appreciate or understand it. If we do that, then any change to the social make-up of an area becomes a threat – and we cannot afford that kind of thinking in an age of climate breakdown and mass population movement. We absolutely must cultivate a way of thinking that is flexible and open and welcoming of change when we create stories and narratives about place – because, as I’ve mentioned already, stories are incredibly powerful.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that as someone bewitched by history, heritage and tradition, welcoming change would be difficult. I love nothing more than to discover an ancient dialect word for a wildflower, or a regional method for laying a hedge; I’m fascinated by folklore and the hyper-local forms of culture that have been preserved in large part by groups of people interacting in a prolonged manner with the specific geography of a place. But there’s only a conflict between caring about tradition and welcoming change if you see the past as a fixed entity, and change as a new thing. Yet we are a nation built on constant immigration: over and over we’ve folded into ourselves the gifts other cultures have brought us us, adding to, not erasing, our set of stories about these isles. All we need to do in this current moment is to keep doing what we’ve been doing for centuries, rather than believing in the (frankly ahistorical) idea of static national, regional or local identities.

When it comes to conservation, the beauty of looking after a ‘home patch’ is that anyone can do it, no matter their cultural background or how long they’ve lived in a particular spot. Whether it’s a garden, a street tree, a park with a ‘Friends’ society or a local nature reserve, everyone can find somewhere to connect to and develop a sense of custodianship for. Entering into an imaginative and emotional relationship with a ‘home patch’ – watching it grow and change, finding out what lives there and what those things need, protecting it from damage – can bring enormous benefits, both for people and for the natural world. Added up, garden by garden, tree by tree, park by park, that kind of care can utterly transform an area’s richness in wildlife, as well as its custodians’ mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health, and their feeling of belonging and rootedness, too.

To sidestep that idea of individual conservation for just a moment, I’d like to delve deeper into your thoughts on political ecologies. At the height of the pandemic, a set of posters (falsely attached to Extinction Rebellion) were circulated claiming that ‘humanity is the disease, coronavirus is the cure’. Reflections of this kind of anti-humanist, deep ecological theory (including problematic aspects like population ethics) are something I sometimes recognise in what is otherwise very mainstream contemporary nature writing (though not, I should point out, in your own). Is this a phenomenon that you’ve noticed in nature writing, and how robust do you feel nature writing is in handling these complex feelings of blame towards the human population?

Right now there’s a real danger of nature writing (and nature writers) being co-opted by both the very far left and the very far right – who, of course, are not very far apart. We can’t afford to be naïve about the potential for texts lauding pure and untouched nature and bemoaning the sullying influence of humankind being used by these groups to promote dark ideologies, often in a way that begins fairly uncontroversially (and sometimes lyrically and persuasively) but leads somewhere very unpleasant indeed.

It seems to me that if what truly exercises you right now is the ecological effect of rising population levels you should be advocating for women’s education and improved access to contraception and abortion, supporting migration into countries with falling birth rates and an ageing tax base, and working to help new citizens connect with and care for the natural world in their adopted homes (which means making access possible, but not dictating the form in which it occurs). Yet I don’t see many eco-fascists doing that work.

We all also need to think carefully about the language we use around native and non-native wildlife so that we using it much more mindfully. Many native species, such as bracken, behave invasively and are causing enormous issues; many introduced species, such as little owls, are not only unproblematic, but beloved. We need to assess species (and people) as individuals, rather than drawing damaging equivalencies between country of origin and intrinsic worth. How we talk about ring-necked parakeets or yellow-legged hornets may seem like a small matter, but frankly, I feel it’s often where we let our pants show.

Finally, you mentioned the idea of ‘blame’ towards the human population, and this, I think, is where a lot of resistance to the changes we need to make is stemming from. None of us like being blamed, so we try to shift that blame on to others, or on to species, or to rid ourselves of the discomfort we simply switch off from the entire notion of engaging with the problems we currently face. But there’s a difference between something being your fault and it being your responsibility. It’s not your fault, or mine, that we are where we are. We were born into the world as it is now, and must live in it: we are not to blame. But that doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility to try and lessen the losses to come, while we still can.

To close I’d like to touch on something I discussed recently in my interview with the author Will Burns. In Will’s novel The Paper Lantern, our capacity for hope in the face of the degradation of the countryside is stretched to breaking point, as it is for many of us when we read about the continuing challenges our landscape faces. That said, how do you envision the future of the English countryside? Does it have a future, and if so, what do you think that future might look like?

Of course: England’s villages, with all their varied, vernacular architecture, aren’t going to be pulled down, and we’re still going to need to grow food, which means the farmland we’re used to seeing will survive, too; in fact, it’s likely to become more and more important that we produce as much food as possible at home, and that requires land. For many people, those villages, set between rolling green fields (or golden ones in summer) are the epitome of rural beauty – despite the fact that although they look unchanging and bucolic, under modern agricultural systems those fields can be staggeringly empty of wildlife (not for nothing did the naturalist Chris Baines once say that if you want to make farmland more biodiverse the best thing you can do is build houses on it, as urban areas are often far richer in wildlife than intensively farmed land). So yes, in that sense, the English countryside has a future.

But I’m guessing that when you talk about hope you mean hope for a countryside that’s species-rich as well as productive, a home for hedgehogs, nightingales, turtle doves, otters, purple emperors, water voles, stag beetles, song thrushes and all the other forms of non-human life that make this country their home. And here I think it’s important to move away from the ‘hope/no hope’ binary: if we fall into that trap, we’re effectively letting ourselves off the hook by saying either that everything is going to be fine so nothing needs to be done, or that the battle is already lost so there’s no point making any effort. The truth is, everything isn’t going to be OK, but how bad things get is in large part still up to us.

I think of what’s coming down the line as a bottleneck. There are going to be more extinctions, and further falls in abundance, but how many species we get through that bottleneck depends on the work we all put in now. And it really will take all of us. Not everyone has the singlemindedness necessary to be an activist; some of us are thinkers or communicators, some are community mobilisers, some have political or public-facing skills, some have the ability to guide children in a way that benefits the world to come, to influence an employer or to flex their economic muscles to bring about change. We can’t each take on all of those roles, and that’s OK. But I think we should all be taking on at least a couple.

And there are enough good things happening to counterbalance the bad. I usually avoid the term ‘rewilding’ as I think a lot of the discourse around it has become polarised and toxic – for which the environmental movement should shoulder a lot of responsibility – but the energy that is currently being generated around restorative and regenerative forms of land use is absolutely staggering to me. From individuals to farmers to landowners and councils, there has been a dramatic and sudden sea-change in people’s understanding of what land might be for that has occurred at a deep, perceptual level and is still gathering pace. Just as much of the degradation of our countryside took years to become apparent, this shift will take decades to fully show results, and there’s very good reason to be hopeful about what those results might be.

Hand-in-hand with that ongoing process, Brexit – for all its terrible effects – has given us the opportunity to change how we pay farmers and landowners to manage land, and what we ask them to provide. We’re still kicking about in the weeds, which is causing all sorts of problems for farmers who need to be able to plan ahead, and many of the most exciting initial proposals have predictably been watered down, but I do think we’ll end up with something better for nature than we had before. And finally, the burgeoning movement for improved access to the countryside is interesting. The pandemic did what nature writers like me could only have dreamed of: connected many people with their inner need for nature, got them outdoors, looking for solace and finding it. And with that has come a growing appreciation that access isn’t always easy or equitable, and that there are barriers – economic, cultural, social, practical – for many groups when it comes to outdoor activities other people take for granted.

I’d like to see a countryside where farmers are supported to produce high-value crops on the most productive land while helping marginal land to become truly species-rich; where dozens more oases of true rewilding such as Knepp are connected to each other by thick hedges, strips of woodland and other wildlife corridors so that creatures can move across intensively farmed land; where rivers are rewiggled and beavers used to restore wetlands, locking up carbon and preventing flooding downstream (and with a sensible management system such as exists in Bavaria). I’d like to see more gardens, parks and entire villages allowed to become overgrown and ‘untidy’, rich in insects and birds and full of decay and dynamic, changing, connected habitats; and I’d like to see people from all sorts of backgrounds finding their way into the British countryside, making rich new connections with it, and feeling welcome there.

Melissa Harrison is a novelist and nature writer. She contributes a monthly Nature Notebook column to The Times and writes for the FT Weekend, the Guardian and the New Statesman. Her most recent novel, All Among the Barley, was the UK winner of the European Union Prize for Literature. It was a Waterstones Paperback of the Year and a Book of the Year in the Observer, the New Statesman and the Irish Times. Her previous books have been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (At Hawthorn Time) and the Wainwright Prize (Rain). She lives in Suffolk.

Melissa is represented by Jenny Hewson at Lutyens & Rubinstein. She can be found on Twitter at @M_Z_Harrison.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England. The above interview was generously funded by the Centre for New Writing in association with Everybody’s Reviewing.

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