If there’s ever been a year to binge-read nature-travel books, it’s this one. Through most of 2020 we barely journeyed beyond our living rooms, and really, the only conversation worth having right now is how to stop utterly wrecking our planet.
In honesty, you probably wouldn’t find a “nature-travel” shelf in a bookstore; it’s a genre I’ve concocted to describe travel books with a “nature” bent, the ones in which the focus is landscape, the elements, botany. Admittedly my interest in this began long before lockdown, spurred by research for a new novel, a blossoming love for green growing things – perhaps because I moved to a ground-floor apartment with a small garden – and a general interest in forms of indigenous knowledge about the natural world.
My armchair quest has taken me far and wide. From mid 19th-century accounts of sailing up the plains of Sylhet, through the “Kassiya” hills, to solo adventures in the remote forests of Siberia, from following rivers through picturesque Sussex countryside to chasing mists in early 20th-century Japan. What I learned along the way is that good nature-travel writing is transportive not only because it takes you out into the world, to places familiar and new, but also, to echo John Muir, it allows you to “travel in”.
Many of these writers are travelling out of happy curiosity (and can afford it), many more because they seek healing, and it is in nature that they find it, and then there are others who aspire to the transcendental, so they may, to borrow from Thoreau, “live deliberately”. For some, it’s all of the above.
I also learned that nature-travel is largely white-leaning – as, of course, is all of travel writing historically. White men traipsed off to see the world, because, well, they could, further aided in their ambitions in no small way by the forces of colonialism.
So there is very little diversity – not only in terms of writers, but also approach. Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland, drew my attention to this. “The narratives tend to be about observation,” she said, “rather than an exploration of emotional response or connection. Philosophically too many seem similar.”
Only recently have the winds begun to shift, with writers like Reddy, born in London to Indian parents who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, emerging on the scene. Even so I struggle to find accounts, contemporary or otherwise, by Native Americans, by local writers from South America, or all of Asia. Perhaps I must attune myself to other ways in which “nature-travel” exists – within oral culture as song and stories. For now, read the following books, that I hope will amuse, delight, thrill, and change you as they did me.
A Tour of Lapland, Carl Linnaeus, 1732
This Swedish botanist, obsessed with taxonomy, later in his life categorised the human race according to skin colour (Red Indians, Yellow Chinese, etc) but here, in this marvellous travelogue, we meet him as a young, not yet hardened racist, setting out to explore remote Lapland. His aim is to bring order to the natural world, so brace yourself for much botanical naming – yet, his observations of landscape, the Sami, and their beloved reindeer are astute and endearing. He does get whingey – bad roads, awful weather, disobedient pony – but there’s much joy in his step most of the way.
Journals of travels in Assam, Burma, Bootan, Affghanistan and the neighbouring countries, William Griffith, 1847
As was often the case at the time, Griffith was a doctor, naturalist, and botanist all rolled into one. His postings as civil surgeon took him to Madras, Burma, the highlands of Sikkim, the Himalayas around Shimla, and the plain valleys of Assam. What a thrill to read “September 14th – Came in sight of distant very elevated land which we supposed to be the Kassiya Hills.” Not so thrilling are his views on the natives: “Decidedly ugly, very dirty.” If you can skip past the racism, his journals are a treasure-trove – the hills of my home as they were almost two hundred years ago. Here are treks through deep jungles, boat journeys down vast, shimmering rivers, and the pleasure of a long walk to “Gowahatty”.
Himalayan Journals: Or, Notes of a Naturalist in Bengal, the Sikkim and Nepal Himalayas, the Khasia Mountains, James Dalton Hooker, 1854
One of the most famous British botanical explorers of his time, Hooker made it all around the world – to the Arctic, to New Zealand, the Rocky Mountains and California, Morocco, and pretty much all of British India. In two volumes, he wanders the length of this eastern region – Sikkim, “Dorjiling”, the Tibet frontier, Chittagong, and “Churra”, modern-day Cherrapunjee, or Sohra in the Khasi Hills. Here he is amazed by the profusion of palm, bamboo, orchids and rhododendron, and is possibly one of the first Western visitors to write about Sohra’s famous “living root bridges”.
Recollections of a Happy Life, Marianne North, 1893
Artist and botanist Marianne North travelled alone around the globe, paint box in hand, at a time when it was close to impossible for women to do so. Granted, she was rich and white – but also wonderfully rebellious. Her text is very much of its time – don’t expect glowing friendships with the natives anywhere, unless they too are rich or high-ranking officials or royalty, but the vast expanse of where she travels to is thrilling – Java, Borneo, South Africa, South America, Japan, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, and the length and breadth of British India. All the way, she is marvellously undeterred – even on a slippery mountain path, 2,000 feet up, in torrential rain. “My men carried me splendidly.”
The Garden of Asia, Reginald Farrer, 1904
It was the age of plant hunters, and Farrer travelled extensively through Asia in search of plant specimens he could carry back to his home in North Yorkshire. He was especially enamoured of rock gardens and in The Garden of Asia, an account of his travels through Japan, his descriptions are especially delightful: “[The garden] was not ambitious. It did not aspire to rivulets and bridges and paraphernalia. But it was perfect.” He finds “pure joy to the eye” in his wanderings. As evocative are his descriptions of landscape: “Japanese mist is a frail film…a curtain in the theatre of dreams – it is airy, remote, incredible in its dainty unreality.”
In the Land of the Blue Poppy, Francis Kingdon Ward
In this volume you can find the collected plant-hunting writings of Francis Kingdon Ward, a plant collector known for his daring and impossible escapades over the course of 24 expeditions through China, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. He is also a wonderfully funny writer – peppering his accounts with anecdotes, and helpful tips for other aspiring botanical adventurers. “The worship of new species is more idolatry,” he says wisely, “a beautiful flower is still beautiful, whether millions have seen it, or one, or two, or none.”
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, 1978
This classic book has a wonderfully immersive present-tense narrative – so you feel you truly are accompanying Matthiessen on his two-month sojourn in Nepal, seeking the mythical snow leopard. It turns quite quickly into a spiritual exploration, after having found his physical state in tatters a mere two weeks into the expedition – he is terribly sore, all his gear is wet, socks and underpants torn, glasses broken, and so in monk-like minimalism he strips himself of worldly accoutrements, including his watch, for “the time it tells is losing all significance.”
The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich, 1985
These essays began as a series of raw journal entries that Ehrlich would share with a friend – while she was struggling with grief after the death of the man she loved. She moved to the vast plains of Wyoming, tossed out her city clothes, learned to ride and rope, and deliver sheep, and survive in minus 30-degree winters. “In the silence that such cold creates I felt like the first person on earth – or the last.” Within the “absolute indifference” of this landscape, Ehrlich finds sturdiness, steadiness, hope.
Wild, Jay Griffiths, 2006
This odyssey of a book follows Griffiths in her journeys to all the last remaining wild places of the earth. It is travelogue yes, but so much more – it is memoir, and feminist manifesto, a radical anthropological diary, linguistic guidebook to the natural world, as well as utterly magical work of literature. Wild befittingly spills beyond boundaries, defying genre and classifiability. It is a scathing indictment of modern capitalism and a war cry for the experiential, the free, the indigenous. She evokes place, community, linked to elements – earth, fire, air, water – in all their untamed irreverent glory.
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin, 2007
Now considered a classic of nature writing, Wildwood is a passionate paean to what Deakin calls the “fifth element”: the element of wood. “To enter a wood,” he says, “is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed.” While Deakin doesn’t journey far and wide – his travels in these chapters are limited to his back garden, picnics in the woods, visiting nature reserves, and friends around the country who happen to live in rural quietude – there is a strong sense that you’re following the stories of trees. A 500-year old oak, for instance, deep in Tiger Wood in Suffolk’s Stour Valley.
Consolations of the Forest, Sylvain Tesso, 2011
The most “Walden-esque” of the books on this list, Consolations of the Forest sees Tesso move to the banks of remote, desolate Lake Baikal in Siberia. “I’d promised myself that before I turned forty, I would live as a hermit deep in the woods.” And he did. I was quite prepared to be annoyed by this most stereotyped of premises – white man surviving alone in the woods – but Tesso has a gentle, persuasive style that won me over. Reading this, I too yearned for a life centred on “simple gestures”.
To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, Olivia Laing, 2011
A meandering, meditative narrative befitting a book about following a river. In this case, the Ouse in Sussex, in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself in 1941. Not the only reason why Laing is drawn to it, though. It has a peculiar quality to it that she finds fascinating, and like all rivers, it has a sense of knowing exactly where it’s going – reassuring, she says, for us lost souls. Laing undertakes to walk forty-two miles, from where the river rises near Haywards Heath until it empties into the Channel at Newhaven – a journey from source to sea.
The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane, June 2012
There are, happily, many of Macfarlane’s books to choose from for this list – but The Old Ways, which he describes as the third book in a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart” (after Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places), holds a special place because it is about the simple act of walking, and because he is walking around an island, many pathways lead to the sea. His writing is extraordinarily rich – with a vocabulary (in English) for the natural world that’s unsurpassed, and yet, that’s also coupled with the absolutely thrilling simplicity of “I picked a trail and set out along it…to see where it might lead.”
Eyes of the Wild: Journeys of Transformation with the Animal Powers, Eleanor O’Hanlon, 2012
Years of travelling as a researcher for various environmental organisations took O’Hanlon to places of “great elemental power” – the Russian taiga forest, the Siberian coast of the Bering Strait, the Northern Rockies, and the edges of the Arctic pack ice. Like Griffith’s Wild, it is impossible to categories. In Eyes of the Wild, we explore our species’ own historic connections with – and attitudes – to wild creatures, whales and wolves, bears and wild horses, bringing up many questions about our relationship with the natural world. Also any book that begins “The gray whales come to us” has my heart.
Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape, Jini Reddy, 2020
Reddy’s beguiling book begins with a mysterious voice – heard when she’s alone atop a mountain in the Pyrenees. And it is this call, magic, inexplicable, that she follows through the “Wanderlands” of Britain. “Call me sentimental but I wanted something more than to walk through an alluring landscape and admire its beauty.” What she wants, and achieves, is to be more “porous”. A wonderful word to describe the organic reciprocity between us and the natural world. Reddy’s voice is distinct, rebellious, witty, and more importantly, bold. “I’ll make the outlier world my home.”
Janice Pariat is a novelist, short story writer, and poet.