In his 1973 work The Country and the City, the Welsh socialist cultural theorist Raymond Williams sifts through centuries of English literature in order to investigate the set of associations that have accumulated around country life and city life over time. The way English literature distinguishes between the city and the countryside, he argues, is not a niche literary question, but rather a fundamental, globally relevant problem. Behind the extractive logics of agrarian capitalism lurks the genre of the pastoral, in which the calm and unproductive idyll of the countryside is pitched against the morally and environmentally polluted city. For Williams, this division flattens the countryside into a lifeless idealization. There is no room for life, work, nor community in the rural as it exists in the classic pastoral work, but only an “enamelled world,” in which exploitative relations are preserved in a seductive tableau.
The patterns Williams identifies are alive and well in much “nature writing” today, of which the majority evokes either a nationalist rural heartland or a non-specific “wilderness” (if the pastoral is the aesthetic expression of agrarian capitalism, then wilderness literature is the aesthetic expression of the colonial principle of terra nullius). In the UK in particular, mainstream environmentalism often has a conservative edge, in terms of its narratives as well as its policies. This is a reflection partly of the fact that the manor house, as Williams writes, was traditionally the center of the rural landscape in Britain—meaning that “nature conservation” came to be known as a preoccupation of the landowning class. Today, English nature writing is populated largely by what Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie has described as “the lone enraptured male,” a figure whose individualized “discovery” of either perceived wilderness or traditional rural values becomes the basis for a vague moralization about the need to “reconnect with nature.” This failure is becoming more urgent. Each successive IPCC report is more insistent than the last: Things are already very bad for a lot of people, and they’re going to get worse, moving along—and deepening—the ruts of inequality. What can be done? Can “nature writing” be saved?
Daisy Hildyard’s most recent novel, Emergency, is a crucial intervention. It drives a stake into the heart of the pastoral genre, Williams’s “diagnostic” form. The narrator—a middle-aged woman living alone at home under lockdown—reflects on the span of several years in her childhood in rural Yorkshire. “The authorities say that the world is fatally interconnected,” she states, “and inside, alone with my thoughts, is the safest place to be.” “Pastoral” is a label that the book outwardly rejects: “It wasn’t pastoral,” the narrator says of her hometown, “in spite of the meadows and the herds and the flocks. I did not know anyone who retailed local folklore or knew the weeds by nicknames, there was no village idiot, no incest, or if there was, I did not know about it because the village was not a close-knit community.”
Emergency is populated by human and non-human characters who may not be “close-knit” exactly, but are nonetheless “fatally interconnected.” These lines of connection are consistently thrumming with potential and actual responsibility. There are cows, and trees, but there is no pastoral tranquility, no peace and quiet (how can there be, when even the moss between the bricks is boisterously alive?). In some ways the novel’s scope is geographically confined to the radial distance that a child living in such a village in the late ’90s might be allowed to travel from home on foot. But in more meaningful ways its scope is global, insofar as the global is always shuddering through the smallest filaments of the world, rendering the most intimate spheres of our lives strange and unhomely.
The child is a familiar figure in environmental movements, evoked frequently as the innocent progeny who links the guilty parent to the delayed outcome of their actions. If adulthood is equivalent to the socialized city within Raymond Williams’s analysis, then childhood is the uncorrupted countryside, a siloed haven of moral purity, Eden before the fall of man. Hildyard’s narrator, by contrast, is a real human being, not a symbol. She is in and of the world. Aware of this fact, she grapples constantly with the question of where “the world” (and where she) ends. “The community went beyond the village,” she observes with certainty, noting that the wood encompasses “the quarry, the stately home, the housing estate, the bacon factory,” and that the quarry reaches all the way to China where the stone travels along with “skin-flakes from the workers’ bodies.” As in Hildyard’s first novel Hunters in the Snow, the line separating the child’s experience from the adult’s interpretation wavers as Hildyard’s narrator slips between past and future selves. Childhood is no more siloed than the village in which she lives.
The unnamed narrator of Emergency is no beacon of innocence, just as her home is no pastoral idyll. She watches a frog dragging itself across the ground, thinks about how it looks like a soldier with its legs blown off, and gets bored. She loves video games; she is seduced by consumer objects. When her best friend cries over a lost kitten, she doesn’t remember comforting her (“I just stood there with her while she cried, looking over her shoulder at the mud mountain in the back field”). She forgets to ask how this same friend is doing when she falls ill with cancer. She watches a playmate torture a starling, notes that the experience is clearly sexual, and doesn’t object. She likes watching the fields burn because it “has a clean feeling.” And all the while, she remains attuned to what Hildyard has described in her 2017 nonfiction work The Second Body—the wider dimension of a body as it makes itself felt in physical, cultural, and geological ways beyond the immediate scope of the sensually available world. While she has very little power to act politically on this awareness, it marks all the narrator’s interactions with the world. In one of the book’s first scenes, while watching a vole become the target of a bird of prey, she is confronted by the problem of her own agency: “I felt a sense of love arise inside me, as huge and widespread as the vole was small and specific, and it occurred to me that I could rescue him.”
When freed from the expectations of innocence and purity, the child becomes again a powerful political force, insofar that children are natural agents of chaos and mischief. The subversiveness of this particular child (perhaps all children, to some extent) seems to come from her natural aptitude for messing up “the business of relentlessly prioritizing and deleting the details of the world.” Hildyard’s narrator gets in trouble at school when she tunes into a small, unexpected worm instead of the owl pellet she is supposed to be examining. She follows her attention where it takes her, diligently ignoring “unrequested information,” and therefore perceives connections that are usually obscured. The event of Jarvis Cocker baring his butt onstage at a Michael Jackson concert becomes bound, somehow, to the brave, pointless task of a lapwing making its nests in the path of a tractor, and this bond is taken seriously. Most of all, she remains sensitive to the ways she is not always in control of what she sees, thinks, or notices. When the toad she has been watching finally reaches his tiny, immense summit, she recalls, “my body was suspended inside his decision.” When in a garlic field she has an experience by which the minute suddenly appears enormous, she insists, “it was the wood, and not my mind, which took me through these scales.” When her attention is drawn suddenly to a small, spirited cow, it is because “this disruption—my feeling her presence inside me—was what she wanted.” Unlike the “lone enraptured male,” Hildyard’s narrator refuses to be exceptional: All processes, including perception itself, are collaborative, and all processes are bodily. The self is a vessel, not a final destination.
For Williams, the renewed intensity of attention to natural beauty that characterized the pastoral from the eighteenth century onward was “the nature of observation of the scientist or the tourist, rather than of the working countryman.” The perceptive mode of agrarian capitalism is one in which a world is flattened to the status of landscape, the spectator set apart from it, bound to it only by the cords of vision, so that the presence of workers becomes decorative. Today, the idea of how to correctly “witness” nature remains influenced by old processes of categorization and compartmentalization. It is also connected to the idea of the ideal “nature visitor”: David Matless has explored how in the UK, the prescription of a certain kind of nature experience (quiet reverence of nature) also carried the expectation of a certain kind of nature visitor (white, middle-class, usually male). Anything that fell outside this remit was considered “alien and vulgar.”
What Hildyard’s narrator can see is a factor influenced by her race—she notes that her “white body” gave her access to “the wood, the fields, and to other people’s homes as though I was an element of infrastructure.” It is also influenced by other people, by television shows, by a young cow who refuses to be ignored, by a garlic field that tips her unexpectedly upwards, by a bog that tips her unexpectedly into the abyss. There is no pretence of omniscience: “when I was a child,” writes the narrator, “I rarely saw anything happen.” Instead, there is an absolute attention to the processes of attention, which highlight the absurdity of defining a correct way to look at nature. The bodily intensity of the child’s perceptual experience works against the distanced perspective of “the scientist or the tourist,” revealing the fact that to witness the world is always to participate in it, to make choices about what to see and what to ignore, and also to be worked upon by forces of differing scales.
When this kind of approach is taken up, things otherwise too disparate, too slow, too big, or too small to be ordinarily perceptible begin to come patchily—chaotically—into focus. As is the case with the multi-scalar phenomenon we refer to clumsily as “climate change,” the central emergency of Emergency is impossible to pinpoint. There is the slow death by cancer of the narrator’s best friend, in which the minute particles of pesticide that filter into the earliest chapters of the book may or may not be a factor. There is the gradual disuse of the quarry as it is alternately flooded and drained again, the digger on the hill disintegrating at a pace “too slow to see it happening,” two cows stuck in a bog. the slow depopulation of the village. Finally, there is the archetypal emergency: a literal home on fire.
Climate marches are full of placards on which the words Our House Is on Fire are scrawled, a message more poignant if it is in a child’s crayon. But “our” is a slippery word. The truth of it is that some parts of the house burn before others, and that many go on living in the house as it burns, experiencing joy, falling in love, taking naps, working, getting bored. Emergency feels honest in a way that a lot of “nature writing” today does not. When Hildyard turns her lens on the forest, the pot-noodle container isn’t airbrushed out of the frame. The experience of being “in nature” is not one of quiet reverence, but instead can involve remembering what one has watched on TV that day, empathizing with a fox and then being suddenly alienated by the otherness of its animality. There is no purity of landscape, no lofty moralizing. There is just a child interacting the world and trying to make sense of it in a way that is utterly chaotic.
In tackling the pastoral genre, Emergency breaks apart the neat distinctions according to which “nature” can be said to be present in some places and not others, and according to which “nature conservation” can be set apart as a distinct issue. “I have noticed,” Hildyard’s narrator says, “how expressions of care for the environment are often outlets for hatred of other humans.” The pastoral genre, like the “wilderness” theme in nature writing, naturalizes the presence of some people and objects, and denaturalizes others. The lines along which it does so are so pervasive that they are almost invisible. Resources are poured into protecting an area of “outstanding natural beauty,” while those breathing in polluted air in cities are left for dead. The country/city divide is a catastrophic aesthetic paradigm; it is not only perceptual, but—in Achille Mbembe’s words—also necropolitical, in it has the capacity to define “who is disposable and who is not.”
I read Emergency over the course of a Covid-19 infection. I was running a fever, and picking up the book felt like having a little fit each time. The kind of attention that Emergency pays to the world is intense and demanding—suddenly the egg on your plate is talking to you about a workers’ strike in Shenzhen, and your handbag is announcing the eventual emergence of a new virus. Nothing is inert in Hildyard’s writing; everything has a voice and a life path and a story to tell. When you really look, each object or moment becomes a portal that opens many other little portals, and so on. At the start of the pandemic, there were hopes that we might be experiencing a window of time in which many of us would un-learn the strategies we’ve developed to filter out the details of the world: There were supply chain shortages and a virus that made clear our “fatal” interconnection, and these forced a wider outlook even as lives were made smaller. Hildyard, who has long been a practitioner of this way of looking, has brought chaos into the manor house of the pastoral novel. This is what nature writing should be: absurd, overwhelming, and chaotically alive with the din of the world.