It hardly needs stating that the so-called “new nature writing” is a literary phenomenon – it has been putting broad smiles on publishers’ faces for about a decade now, and shows no sign of losing momentum. Spearheaded by the endlessly articulate Robert Macfarlane, whose 2007 book The Wild Places set the tone for much of what was to follow, this enormous wave of words has washed up all kinds of exotic treasures, ranging from the profoundly psychological (Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun) to the groundbreakingly experimental (Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast, Cynan Jones’s Cove). It has also had the beneficial side-effect of refocusing attention on some of the great nature writers of the past, notably Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Thomas and Nan Shepherd, who wouldn’t have found herself anywhere near a Scottish five pound note pre-2007.
Much ink has been spilled trying to explain this sudden spike in demand for books with pictures of trees, birds and mountains on the cover. The general consensus seems to be that, in an era when the natural world is increasingly under threat, we seek out writing that helps us feel some sort of affinity with the poor, battered ecosystems on which we rely; and that with more and more of us living urban or suburban lives, disconnected from the land, we seek other ways of experiencing that connection.
That all seems logical enough, but if this process is happening in literature, could it also be happening in visual art? And if it is, where are all the lengthy essays about “the new nature art”? Sure, there was the Land Art movement in the 60s and 70s, and many of its leading lights – Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton – are still working today. But where are new nature artists?
There are, of course, plenty of people out there painting pictures of solitary whitewashed crofts with day-glo sunsets going on in the background, and these bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. It would be unfair, however, to try to find some sort of intellectual equivalence between these pictures and the new nature writing. So is there anything else out there that feels as if it might be coming from the same place?
The paintings of Mary Golden, a featured artist at this year’s Dundee Mountain Film Festival, which runs from 23-25 November, certainly cover some of the same ground. The new nature writing is sometimes also referred to as “the literature of place” because of the way it often fetishises particular locations, and Golden’s work does that too, in the sense that it focuses very specifically on the landscape of Glen Coe. Often, in her oil paintings, she will return to the same peak again and again, looking for different angles and moods, while in what she calls her composite drawings the picture plane is divided up with stark straight lines, almost as if she is trying to build up a three-dimensional image by collaging together different views of the same landform.
She also produces studies in charcoal in which she tries to show the ways in which mist and fog interact with the mountain landscape. To capture the way in which craggy knuckles of rock can suddenly appear from out of the clouds as authentically as Golden does requires many hours wandering about in damp waterproofs, waiting for it to happen. And she isn’t just interested in Glen Coe’s mountaintops: in a series of paintings and drawings called Habitats and Landforms, she focuses on the minute details of plants and rocks, even creating “rock maps” of very small areas of ground, complete with contour lines. It all speaks of the kind of careful, meditative study of the natural world that Nan Shepherd – who famously advocated walking “into” the mountains rather than simply “up” them – would have recognised.
Also at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival this year, there’s a chance to see some of the work included in Shelter Stone: The Art of the Mountain – a magazine printed on 55-gsm newspaper, edited by Duncan of Jordanstone lecturer Edward Summerton, that will be available in bothies and huts in Scotland, England, Wales, Iceland and the French Alps. Summerton has said that those who find it and need some extra warmth should “use it to dry your boots, light a fire or even use it as a draft-excluder” but with contributors including artists of the stature of Will Maclean and Ilana Halperin and writers as sharp as Helen Mort and Linda Cracknell, it seems likely that the majority of copies will survive intact well into the spring.
*The 2017 Dundee Mountain Film Festival runs from 23-25 November, www.dundeemountainfilm.org.uk