Skip to content

Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

The Wainwright Prize 2021: rethinking nature

What is nature writing? What does it do, who is it for, and can it help us think about the climate crisis? These questions were threaded throughout this year’s Wainwright Prize ceremony, an award given to books that celebrate and nurture a respect for the natural world.

Its winners were James Rebanks’ English Pastoral and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, awarded the Nature Writing and Global Conservation prizes respectively.

In his acceptance speech, Sheldrake highlighted the entangled nature not just of the fungi his book explores, but of human life generally: ‘I’ve realised that our blindness to the intimacy and fecundity of life’s symbiotic relationships has led us into trouble, as have our views of humans as neatly bounded individuals existing independently from the rest of the living world,’ he argued. In the face of the climate and ecological crises, humans’ interconnectedness with the nonhuman must be recognised – and it is perhaps nature writing that can expedite this shift.


‘We’re all looking for hope…for some way out of this mess that we’re in.’
Cal Flynn, author of Islands of Abandonment

For despite being called ‘nature writers’, many authors were keen to question the very idea of nature: ‘nature is not something we observe…we are part of it,’ commented Raynor Winn, while Kerri ní Dochartaigh emphasised that ‘we are the natural world and the natural world is us.’ Ní Dochartaigh, whose Thin Places interweaves explorations of the nonhuman with memories of the Troubles, found that seeing herself as part of nature was also a form of self-love: ‘it made me feel like a thing worth saving, because I wanted to save the natural world too.’ Awareness of the climate crisis doesn’t necessitate despair: writing about nature can still be hopeful, and tender. As Cal Flynn summarised, ‘we’re all looking for hope…for some way out of this mess that we’re in.’

‘I love the non-judgemental aspect of nature’
Anita Sethi, author of I Belong Here

But if nature is truly for everyone – if nature is everyone – then the voices in nature writing need to reflect that. Marc Hamer, author of the gardening memoir Seed to Dust, described how he used to carry around Vita Sackville-West’s In Your Garden, noticing how Sackville-West never mentioned the labourers that made her garden possible. Instead, Hamer wanted to write as ‘the person who crawled down on his hands and knees’ – a perspective that has been absent from the typically middle-class genre. Similarly, Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here, which traces Sethi’s journey through northern England after her experience of a race hate crime, aims to expand our sense of who belongs in British nature; it’s not the preserve of white people.  ‘I love the non-judgemental aspect of nature,’ said Sethi.

However, whilst there were many brilliant titles shortlisted, perhaps the most compelling take out from the evening was that being outdoors, in nature is even more important that reading about it. ‘I hope that all nature books are gateway drugs for the real wilderness,’ joked Charles Foster, author of The Screaming Sky.

Nature writing is important because it expresses and propels the connections between humans and the world around them – but you don’t have to read them to feel that you’re part of nature.

Author: Nicole Jashapara

Nicole Jashapara is a writer and editor based in South London. Her work examines the relationship between literature and activism, with a particular emphasis on issues related to climate justice. Nicole is an editorial trainee on Penguin’s The Scheme @ChattoBooks and was a mentee on The Literary Platform’s inaugural Lit:Up mentorship scheme in 2020. 

Back to Archive