The Nature Writing of Jim Crumley

“The landscape matters first and last for its own sake. It owes us nothing, yet it offers immeasurable rewards to those who revere it.”

April saw the publication of the third of Jim Crumley’s seasonal nature studies. Following Autumn and Winter, we now have The Nature of Spring.

Crumley is a well-established name in nature writing, but one who seems to lack the profile of some of his younger peers. Crumley sees himself as belonging to a distinctly Scottish nature-writing tradition; heir of Seton Gordon rather than English pioneers such as Gilbert White and Edward Thomas, or Henry Williamson. A Dundonian by birth and upbringing¹, now resident in Stirlingshire², his books have ever looked west and north. With thirty years of publishing behind him – and as many books to his name, including the superb, beautifully-presented Encounters in the Wild series – his powers show no sign of flagging as he enters his seventies.

His writing voice is a slightly quirky one, and can take a little adjusting to. What jumps out in the more recent books is his self-description as a “nature writer” (five times in sixty pages in Spring) which is curious, and not something I’ve spotted in other writers. Perhaps they consider themselves “writers” first and foremost, and their involvement in writing about nature is just a facet of that. But Crumley has written poetry (which does nothing for me, I confess) and fiction, too.

Nonetheless his distinctive voice is one that is warm, humble and unfailingly self-deprecating. I suspect these are qualities which makes him a good fit for the couthy (some would say sentimental) Scots Magazine, in which he has published a column for many years.

There is much to be charmed by in the seasonal books. Autumn, he reveals in the book dedicated to it, is

“my preferred season of the year, my preferred portion of nature’s scheme of things, nature’s state of grace…a tapped kaleidoscope”

and a season he calls “the indispensable fulcrum of nature’s year”. As with the best nature writers, he can make you think about everyday things in a whole new way:

“leaves must produce food out of thin air, or else there is no tree. Luckily…they are extraordinarily good at it…As much as ninety five percent…is nothing more than carbohydrates ensnared from the air by leaves”

But there is steel in Crumley’s pen, too. These are not couthy times, nor twee:

“one of the by-products of writing this series of books is that i have started to scrutinise the performance of all the seasons of all the years of the project, which in turn has sharpened my focus on climate and its effect on what most of us consider to be an annual seasonal pattern in which every season has a function to perform. A particular sense of disquiet set in early…the disquiet grows, intensifies, becomes clamorous. The land is talking to us again. For nature’s sake, for the Earth’s sake, and yes for our own sake, for God’s sake, listen.”

Nature writing that does not engage with man’s impact on the environment is naive, disingenuous and ultimately self-deluding. Crumley, on the other hand, grows more inflamed and passionate with each passing book, and not only on the climate change we are creating. In The Nature of Winter (a season he memorably describes as “the anvil on which nature hammers out next spring”), he writes that we are “travelling with terrifying speed toward the point beyond which it will not be reversible”.

He is no longer able to plot a progression through December, January and February in the same way as the turning leaves mark the months of autumn. “Winter itself may be halfway towards extinction” and will appear in future as “fleeting shadows…but no more seasons of sustained snow and ice”

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But it isn’t all foreboding. When nature works as it should, it’s a source of – not joy, not inspiration, nothing so banal – but a kind of rapture. Crumley spends hours in one place, immersing himself in nature in order to become invisible to the birds and mammals who would otherwise be disturbed by his presence. His immersion, though, differs from that of Mike Tomkies³. Crumley lives among people: he does not shun civilisation.

“If you go often enough and in an open frame of mind, and if you take the trouble to win a degree of intimacy with your subject whenever that allows, there will be moments when you see something other in the familiar.”

His decades of experience are not only evident, they bring results. As he writes in his paean to the Cairngorms, A High and Lonely Place:

“I had spent seven hours without leaving a glen I could walk through in less than two…I had spent a third of those hours with the eagle, but otherwise had seen nothing more exotic than a wren and a dipper…there are those who would regard that as a poor return for a day spent in these mountains, but such days have less definable rewards, more durable too than the ticking off of one more summit. There is, i think, in the physical framework of the land, a terrain of the mind, a spiritual journey which can enrich the physical experience of being in wild places, or – as in…that dire January afternoon in the grey depths of the pinewood – impoverish it…what it does is to intensify the scope of responses to the landscape at both extremes of the emotional range”

And if as a species we’ve broken the climate, it’s because our impact at the local level has been catastrophic. Crumley is strident in his views about the conversion of the Cairngorms into a winter playground:

“[They] will be safe only when … protection is enshrined in law, only when legislation makes it unambiguously clear that the Cairngorms are not available for development, not available for poor land management, not available for thoughtless tourist promotion, not negotiable.”

He strays into the trap awaiting all those who successfully convey the magic of a place to an audience who may not otherwise be minded to explore that place for themselves. Mike Tomkies fell into it, too, railing against people (his own readers) who, enthused by what he wrote, wandered into “his” territory for themselves, spoiling it for him. Crumley writes:

“Why bother to try and understand the landscape at all? Why not turn up, enjoy, stand and stare if you have a mind to, seek, find and go home, pleased that you came and saw and conquered, grateful perhaps that your city-beleaguered spirits were lightened, however briefly, sure in the knowledge that when you come back the hills will still be there when you need them? Is that not enough?

No, it is not enough to come and go and be glad. It has become necessary to understand, so that those aspects of the Cairngorms which slake your wilderness thirst do not shrivel as dray as a Kalahari watering-hole when the rains do not come.”

This isn’t the first time Crumley has despaired over our attitude toward nature. The Winter Whale is his imaginative recounting of the doomed exploits of the whale that appeared in the Tay estuary late in the nineteenth century. Appearing in the waters off Dundee – one of the world’s biggest whaling ports – at a time when the docks were full of restless whalers, this story was never going to end well.

“It all happened in the place on the map that I call home, my own ancestors were surely among the cheering, laughing mobs, the descendants of the whalers themselves are in the streets where I am accustomed to walk. For a nature writer, that is not an easy inheritance to be handed…to choose to write it down, knowing in advance how my home city comes out of the story, is like firing an explosive harpoon into the exposed flanks of its reputation among the seagoing places of the world. Without apology, I take aim and fire. And I hope she feels it”

But despite the past, he knows we are capable of learning from our mistakes:

“The…notable characteristic of Victorian attitudes to wild animals is, alas, not yet wholly extinct in Scotland. It is that if one species of nature was found to conflict with the vested interests of people’s pursuit of another species of nature, then the one interfering species was eradicated – the eagle that hunted over the grouse moor, for example, could not be permitted to kill grouse. It had to be killed so that the people could kill the grouse. I believe that in the Victorian era we grew retarded as a race because of that perverse relationship with nature. It feels now – some of the time at least – as if we have begun to reverse the process.”

This brings me to the other subject to which he has a passionate attachment, re-wilding. This is a controversial notion, but only in that certain vested interests are against it. What could be more attractive than allowing nature to reclaim some of what we have lost destroyed? He’s delighted by the foothold that beavers have found on the River Earn, for instance, and has written in favour – many times, across several books – of reintroducing wolves to the Scottish countryside. He also looks askance at the way we categorise species as “native” or not. Of the larch he writes “after 400 years it has earned the right to be native”.

The word “native” is indeed problematic. If we are so rigid as to believe “native” means “originated from a specific geographical area, in an unbroken line, since the earliest recorded evidence”, then extending that to humans – we are after all a species, part of nature just like a larch, or a rhododendron – puts you on very shaky ground indeed. In The Great Wood, his quest to discover the last remnants of ancient Caledonian Forest, he observes that

“The Sitka spruce is a native of Alaska, not Scotland, but is a natural fit in Scotland, perfectly suited to our latitude and climate, and demonstrably it thrives here. It may be a late arrival in the context of the Great Wood, but the Great Wood itself was a late arrival in a landscape whose oldest rocks are 4,000 million years old”

…which adds a bit of perspective. Who of us, if we go far enough back, are truly natives of anywhere?

Crumley thinks wildlife management is “an addiction” (and not in a good way), but rewilding – or actively reintroducing beavers and wolves – is still management: just more “hands off”. As he says himself in the most recent book:

“We cannot re-wild anything. Wildness is in nature’s gift, not ours. All we can do is remove from nature’s path the obstacles our species has put there.”

It’s a paradox. No land is truly wild: we’ve been shaping it for millenia. However, our impact on – and involvement with – our countryside is so total that even to not act, is still an act.

 

 

Notes:

¹ But, from my perspective, a fan of the wrong football team from that city.

² Stirling is, according to Crumley, the “belt buckle on [Scotland’s] waist clasping Highlands and Lowlands together”

³ The Nature of Spring is dedicated to Tomkies, who died in 2016. Tomkies’s own Last Wild Years (1992) was dedicated to Crumley, who he called “a brilliant poetic writer who…could make more in words of the flight of the cormorant than ever I had done of eagles.” That said, Crumley can also write beautifully about eagles:

“And there was the eagle.

Falling.

Falling as nothing on earth falls, and nothing in Earth’s sky.

Falling as a state of grace.

Falling as an art form, with beauty and purpose.”

 

Sources:

Crumley, Jim: A High and Lonely Place (Whittles, 2003)

Crumley, Jim: The Great Wood (Birlinn, 2011)

Crumley, Jim: The Nature of Autumn (Saraband, 2016)

Crumley, Jim: The Nature of Winter (Saraband, 2017)

Crumley, Jim: The Nature of Spring (Saraband, 2019)

Crumley, Jim: The Winter Whale (Birlinn, 2008)

Tomkies, Mike: Last Wild Years (Jonathan Cape, 1992)

 

photo: Steve MacDougall, copyright: DC Thomson & Co. Ltd

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