A Writer’s Guide to Great Ecological Fiction
Despite the fact that as a kid I was both a voracious reader and a budding ecologist, for some reason I never made a conscious link between the two. In hindsight, this seems absurd. When you spend hours listening to your mum reading stories about anthropomorphic kangaroos saving lost children, life and death battles between mongeese and cobras, and islands where dinosaurs never went extinct, how can you not grow up with a passion for the natural world.
The last few years have been a steep learning curve in science communication for me, and one lesson that has been hammered home is the power of good fiction to inspire care and curiosity in the world around us. So for the sake of anyone looking for a good book for themselves or (with the holidays coming up) for relatives of any ages, I asked four brilliant ecological writers to tell us about the fiction which has inspired them.
I credit ecological themes in literature as a strong influence on my drive to become an ecologist. From my early childhood I was engrossed in tales of British wildlife. In Beatrix Potter’s books and The Wind in the Willows I discovered the magic of the UK countryside – the beauty of our fields, hedgerows and riverbanks that the animals we share our country with call home. As a child growing up in a big city it gave me a real sense of wonder at UK wildlife, much of which I had never seen at the time (badgers, hedgehogs), and some of which I have never seen to this day (it’s a life-long dream of mine to see a mole, no luck yet). These stories provided a childhood escape, and I readily wolfed down all and every book about the natural world around us. Soon, books introduced me to the threats and perils that the characters in these magical worlds face. The Animals of Farthing Wood covers not only the darker sides of nature like predation (that bit with the shrike!) but also human threats like habitat loss, fragmentation and pesticide use.
It was the Redwall series, by Brian Jaques that really paved the way into the world of fantasy novels and science fiction. Although a somewhat simplistic narrative (vermin = bad, other animals = good) the characters behaviour and diets still linked in with their real life ecology, and the English history interwoven with the tales gave me a taste of what English fantasy books could be, leading me to read Lord of the rings cover to cover before I had finished primary school.
Really, what is a fantasy book, but ecology? The best bit of any fantasy or science fiction book is, in my opinion, the world building. From Stephen King to N. K. Jemisin, from Isaac Asimov to J.G. Ballard, whether the protagonists are aliens, humans, dwarves or animals, the underlying world building in any fictional book has its roots in ecology. Learning about the landscapes, plants and animals and how the protagonists interact with them for the first time is when you really fall into a book, only emerging again once you get to the last full stop on the very last page. I have a passion for post-apocalyptic fiction (think Day of the Triffids, or the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Attwood) – it gives insight into what happens when our interactions with the ecosystems around us shift, and how we might cope with it. The current circumstances have not put me off in the slightest, after all, we may be mid pandemic, but at least there aren’t aliens, or zombies, or suddenly all being blind to contend with on top of everything else – just your regular old disease. I hope that as we establish better public health policy and improve our relationship with the natural world we will move further from the post-apocalyptic scenarios that I use as an escape, and more towards becoming part of the ecosystems we belong to, in a way that is positive rather than detrimental to the amazing creatures that inhabit the fields, hedgerows and riverbanks that I grew up reading about.
Naturalist, photographer, freelance writer and author of the fascinating Nature Obscure: A City’s Hidden Natural World.
Deep in the Moomin Valley nature is never far away. To the east of the Moominhouse lies the sea where the Moomin’s boat sits and waits for Moominpappa’s next adventure. To the northeast is the river where Moomin waits for his friend Snufkin to return each spring like a migratory bird. Out in the sea is the Hattifattener’s Island, where nonspeaking beings who roam the land in herds, gather once a year for a lightning storm which charges them.
Tove Jansson’s Moomin series reflects her own relationship with the nature of her homeland in Finland. Like the Moomin family, she spent much time on the sea shore and islands in the Gulf of Finland. But don’t mistake the Moomin books as children’s books even though that’s where you’ll find them in the bookshop. They speak to adults in many ways and for me, it’s the theme of nature that draws me back again and again. Each of the characters are highly in tune with the nature around them and the every changing seasons. But the roaming vagabond Snufkin has always been my favorite. He travels around with only a tent and his mouth organ going whichever way he feels pulled. His sense of injustice is highlighted in Moominsummer Madness when he has to “settle an old account I have with a villain!” Who is the villain? “There’s only one person in the whole world whom I really dislike, and that’s the Park Keeper.” This park keeper has dared to put up a fence with signs that say “absolutely no admittance.” The park is described in the most unforgiving terms. The trees had been cut “into round blobs and square cubes” and the paths in the park were “straight as pointers.” It was not allowed to be natural or messy in any way and this greatly offends Snufkin. On Midsummer eve he sows Hattifattener seeds in the park and when they sprout, chaos ensues. After the Park Keeper flees the crowd of Hattifatteners, Snufkin gleefully pulls down all of the signs in the park which had dictated people not to run, sit on the grass or laugh. And thus Snufkin had his revenge.
My favorite book of the series is Moominland Midwinter. The Moomin family hibernate all winter, but for some reason, Moomintroll has woken up around the beginning of the year. Alone. He goes outside and experiences snow for the first time in his life. “It was a more serious smell than any he had felt before, and slightly frightening. But it made him wide awake and greatly interested.” It’s a delightful story of Moomintroll’s journey from being curious, to thinking the world has died and that it belonged to someone else, to the pure terror and joy of sledding down a snowy hill. He meets a new season, but also new people along the way including the Lady of the Cold who brings death to the Moomin books for the first time.
I think it’s the most profound and poetic of the Moomin books and really touches on the sense of being alone or different. “There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all the year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep—then they appear.”
Marine scientist and journalist.
The natural world is on full and vivid display in Prodigal Summer. Set amidst the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia, this remarkable novel follows three story lines: a widowed entomologist suddenly entrusted with running the family farm; a reclusive forest ranger who is irresistibly drawn into a romance with a hunter; and an elderly gardener battling to rescue the American chestnut tree from the genetic bottleneck of oblivion. As in biology textbooks, the business of creation is front and center in the novel, and Kingsolver makes no attempt to conceal this fact. Spawning frogs, phallic orchids and aggressive bat sex all make an appearance, and all in the first 20 pages. The human characters’ lives are influenced in surprising ways by nature’s persistent cycles, and each plot twist gives the reader an ecological education that is beautifully effortless. The best thing about Kingsolver’s books—any of them—is that nature is never a backdrop, but an indispensable part the story. She has a gift for showing how we are inextricably bound to the land and its creatures, all of which are rendered with such realism that you can almost feel the pollen grains tickling your nose.
While Kingsolver is the queen of minutae, Annie Proulx tackles historical ecology with a masterful hand. Barkskins is a multi-generational saga that chronicles the descendants of two French axe-men, or barkskins, brought to seventeenth-century Canada to log its vast forests. One of the men builds a logging empire, but the other is not so lucky. Running through the novel is a warning against the false promise of everlasting abundance, the idea that the forest is “too big to fail.” The characters, of course, ignore this warning, and over the centuries crisscross the globe in search of more trees to chop down. Importantly, Proulx centers the brutal genocide of indigenous people, drawing a straight line between their oppression and the West’s at-all-costs thirst for power and resources. We also see how the annihilation of indigenous culture leads to further loss as new generations are driven from their traditional, more sustainable ways of live. The novel is a summation of the many harms wrought, at breakneck speed, by people who believed themselves to be detached from the natural world. It is a testament to Proulx’s skill as a storyteller that, at the end of the book, you feel an urgent determination to be better than those who came before, for the sake of those who will follow after.
Environmentalist and author of everything from English-German film dictionaries to eco-sociology.
There are so many wonderful novels that have, at heart, an ecological story to tell. The first that comes to mind in recent years is Richard Power’s Overstory, which looks at an environmental movement to save trees, both from the perspective of the activists, and from the trees themselves. It’s an approach that’s integrative, subjective, dramatic, and informative all at the same time. Another novel that has an ecological story as its driver is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, about a woman who discovers a misplaced migration of monarch butterflies on her property, and what happens then. It integrates not only the environmental issues of altered migratory patterns due to climate change and habitat destruction, but follows the evolution of someone’s ecological awareness as a result of the experience. It also has, and this is a rarity, a working class protagonist who pushes the momentum forward – a reflection of the reality of so many environmental activists.
A more recent title is Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, which starts off looking like a story about an antique book dealer and blossoms into a story about habitat, human-animal interaction, subjective connectedness to places, and climate change. What’s impressive about the Ghosh is his fearlessness in portraying an almost spiritual awakening to the environment. Ghosh has been very vocal about the need to integrate environmental perspectives into fiction and film.
Finally, I think it’s important to read each story for its ecology. So many stories and novels do, in fact, portray the environment—both urban and wild—even if they aren’t specifically ‘environmental’ novels. I’m currently reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, about Shakespeare’s son. Set in the 16th century, O’Farrell has a meticulous eye for what the landscape, the sounds, the smells of a pre-industrial society might have been, and it’s an immersive experience that can sharpen the reader’s senses for where we are now. If you are looking for the ecology in stories, you can almost always find some aspect of a story that will tell you about its environment, intentionally or not.
If you have also enjoyed any of the stories mentioned above, or have likewise been inspired by ecologically-themed fiction, tell us about it below!
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who obviously has sorted out his reading list for the rest of 2021. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.