Literary insights: How we see and connect with nature


Week two of my series about what I’m learning from reading and how that applies to how we can understand the physical world in which we live. And, one week in, I’m already changing the series title! This week it’s all about memoirs so ‘a novel perspective’ doesn’t quite fit- hopefully ‘literary perspectives’ will work better.

This week’s topic is about environmental impacts and our role as people, living with nature and being part of nature. We’re at a point where the way most of us live is unsustainable, and needs to change. But that requires a willingness to change and make sacrifices. How do you inspire people to want to do this?  

This topic was prompted by the article How to raise an environmentalist, which suggests that motivating people to care about the environment takes more than just reciting facts and making doomsday predictions. You have to help them connect emotionally. As the author says:

‘this emotional connection increases our sense of personal responsibility toward nature and makes us want to do more to preserve it’.

And one way (which might not spring to mind immediately) is through reading – a well written book can spark curiosity, empathy and, yes, a connection. This week I want to share two memoirs which impacted me and raised some interesting questions in the process.


The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey


If, like me, you hadn’t thought too much about snails (slimy, plant eating creatures that they are), you will change your mind after reading this beautifully written memoir. In particular, it identifies what can happen when all your distractions are removed and you have nothing to do but observe, identify, relate, and, ultimately care about something seemingly so insignificant.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey was 34 when she picked up a flu-like illness traveling overseas. And although she overcame the flu symptoms her health did not return. Bailey’s life shrunk to a single room almost entirely cut off from the outside world. She found herself so weak and dizzy she was barely able to sit up, let alone stand or care for herself, and her doctors had no idea why.

Friends faded away, partly because the illness stretched on so long and they had their own lives, partly because Elisabeth found it difficult to see them:

“There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation: the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time. One cannot bear to live through another loss of function, and sometimes friends and family cannot bear to watch. An unspoken, unbridgeable divide may widen. Even if you are still who you were, you cannot actually fully be who you are.”

However, although Elisabeth spent the majority of her days in bed on her own, she wasn’t alone. A friend brought her a pot of wild violets, and within it, a woodland snail had taken up residence. And, although not overly impressed to start, her curiosity led to a type of identification. 

As she said:

“Survival often depends on a specific focus: A relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.”

In that context, the presence of a snail, doing its snail like things, was absorbing. More than that:

“Illness isolates; the isolated become invisible; the invisible become forgotten. But the snail….the snail kept my spirit from evaporating.”

You can find more details here.

H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald


Similar to Elisabeth, Helen’s connection came from a devastating experience. In this case, it was the death of her father suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, on a London street. Helen did have an association with hawks since childhood, however she’d never before tried to train one, let alone one of the most vicious, being the goshawk. But she identified with goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament which, in her pain, reflected her own feelings.

This memoir follows her process of purchasing and raising ‘Mabel’. In the words of the publisher, by projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her”, Helen tested the limits of her own humanity and changed her life.

There is so much I could say about this book – it is so broad reaching, both in content and in depth, and it does so with a wonderful sensibility (and yes, some weirdness, which actually rings so true – Helen truly is struggling with her loss and sense of who she is).

I’ll contain myself to one quote only:

‘Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest thing of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all ‘

You can find more details here.



I drew a few implications from these books (and the article) – other than pure enjoyment, of course.

  1. Taking time to observe, to identify, to reflect, is really really important. Nothing can replace the curiosity combined with empathy of trying to understand others – and that includes nature. A sense of wonder and fascination can be encouraged, it’s great to get in early, but it’s never too late.
  2. We can find this connection in so many ways – there’s no one ‘right’ way, and, in fact, a variety is probably best. Yes, it’s really important to spend more time outdoors, actively exploring our surrounds and participating in activities like bush walking, camping, fishing. It’s also great to grow your own plants, watching them evolve, appreciating their beauty, or their fragrance, or their taste. Those of us with pets are at an advantage – and a pet can be a small as a snail – or animals that we need to care for in other ways, but we can also benefit from caring for other people’s animals, or from just noticing.
  3. Be part of the experience. We so often watch things from a distance – even more so as we try to capture things through the lens of a camera or phone. But that takes things out of context. Actually being part of the experience makes a far stronger impact.As Helen said ‘I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not‘.Part of that learning helps us avoid attributing things to nature that are unfounded – and equally, claiming some attributes for ourselves just because we see them in others. For instance, animals at times might appear cruel (certainly, birds of prey) but that doesn’t need to form part of ours – we should be able to more sacrificial, if we are to protect what is so important. Appreciate our differences as well.
  4. The stories of others are powerful. Share them. 



Have you read any books which have inspired you to look at the world, and nature specifically, differently? If so, I’d love to hear any other suggestions!

Ps – If you want to hear more of the wonderful thoughts of Helen MacDonald, she gave the closing speech at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival, titled ‘On Looking at Nature’. Really worth a listen.





5 thoughts on “Literary insights: How we see and connect with nature

    1. It was such a powerful read – I couldn’t imagine it either but it made me very appreciative of what I have (plus more aware of what you can gain value from – even a snail) 🙂


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