Hear from the 2021 Wainwright Prize shortlisted authors

Published: 16 August 2021

Last update: 16 August 2021

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Covers of the Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist

The shortlists for the 2021 Wainwright prizes on nature and conservation writing have been announced. Discover what the shortlisted authors said when we asked them ‘How did you find the experience of writing your book, and has it changed your relationship with nature since then?’

First, hear from Mark Funnell, National Trust Campaigns and Communications Director and judge of the Nature Writing Prize.

'Reading and "judging" books of this quality and candour was an absolute privilege and pleasure. When you read them, you sense the writers have poured their whole selves into their words. It is nature and humanity entwined – nature lived and loved so intimately that all boundaries crumble.

'You find yourself immersed in urgent and topical issues. How farming needs to turn back to nature for its very future. How nature’s healing powers can transcend the blight of trauma and mental illness. How in lockdown we reforged our relationship with the outside world – and what this could mean for the future.

'Reading the insights below from the shortlisted authors took my breath away. Their responses reveal fascinating hinterlands, humbling in their honesty. All of which reinforces the burgeoning power of this genre. This is writing, as Wainwright himself said, that is "exercise for the imagination, escape from the shackled body, solace for the troubled mind". The National Trust continues to be immensely proud to support the Wainwright Prize.'

Read on to hear from the shortlisted authors…

Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist for Nature Writing
Covers of the Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist for Nature Writing
Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist for Nature Writing

Kerri ní Dochartaigh, author of Thin Places:

Writing Thin Places was a harrowing, humbling and, ultimately, healing process. It reshaped my ideas of myself, the things I’d experienced and my place in this exquisite world.

Sometimes we look around us and cannot quite find the words for it all; for the loss and the deep ache; the beauty and the wonder; for all that lies in between. And that’s what it means, too, to live a respectful co-existence alongside every other creature on this planet.

Writing the book taught me that the natural world is not something separate. We are the natural world, and it is us. Our gut flora, the spider in the corner of the bathroom, the birds we cannot name, the ever-changing face of the planet as we hurtle further into the depths of climate emergency: the time to protect and respect those we share this earth with is now.

Anita Sethi, author of I Belong Here:

I walked hundreds of kilometres through the Pennines, roaming meadows and moorland. My journey was prompted by having been racially abused – I walked as a way of saying: I won’t let having been victim of a race hate crime stop me travelling freely and without fear in a country where I belong.

Writing I Belong Here was a journey in itself – exhilarating, challenging and joyful. It was poignant looking back during lockdown, when it wasn’t possible to go far at all. I felt how nature grows inside of us, takes root in our memories and hearts, and how we can draw on it for strength and sustenance.

My relationship with nature deepens by the day, and the past year has shown how vital nature is for our wellbeing. It’s crucial that people from all backgrounds have access to nature, for every one of us belongs here.

Charlie Gilmour, author of Featherhood:

I wrote much of Featherhood with a magpie peering over my shoulder. Sometimes she was a great help: when I needed a new way to describe the rainbow flash of a magpie’s tail, she might oblige me with a swish of hers. Other times she was a hindrance. Ever tried to type while a carrion-eater attempts to tear a plaster from your wounded thumb?

At first, I thought the tale of a man and magpie living together was an unusual one. But I came to see it as part of a larger story. Magpies shadow human populations. They construct their homes alongside ours: within sight but, usually, just out of reach. Their cities are superimposed on our own.

Writing Featherhood made me think in new ways about the lifeforms we allow to flourish alongside us: appreciating what exists, mourning what is lost, and longing for more.

James Rebanks, author of English Pastoral:

Writing is basically sitting alone in front of a screen and hoping that the words you’re typing might mean something to someone else. Mostly, the words you type aren’t as good as you want them to be, so you delete them or file them somewhere you’ll never see them again.

Then there are moments of elation like nothing else you’ve ever experienced, when your mind races and sentences flow out of you. So, I kind of hate and love writing at the same time.

I wrote English Pastoral because I wanted to explore how my family played a part in the changing of our landscapes between the end of the Second World War and the present day. It forced me to reckon with what we did to our land, and to think deeply about what we want, and need, from farmers. It’s changed the way I think about my job as a farmer. I want to be a proper steward of the land, facing up truthfully to the challenges, but ultimately doing the best I possibly can.

Charles Foster, author of The Screaming Sky:

Since I first saw swifts over a Sheffield field as a small child, they have represented otherness: they were fast, I was slow; they were sleek, I always had my shirt hanging out; they were ethereal, I was earthbound and lumpen.

That otherness taunted me. And then I became a writer, and thought I’d follow the swifts around the world: into their nesting holes, the details of their biology, and the poems that have been written about them.

I arrogantly expected the distance to reduce. It didn’t. It increased. But as it increased, so did the wonder. I learned to rejoice in the otherness. I learned that the harder one looks, the greater the mystery.

The swifts reminded me to look upwards and outwards. They taught me that human ideas and boundaries are hubristic and ludicrous; that we should tremble with gratitude at being allowed to share this extraordinary place with such creatures. They taught me that love of the planet, so vital for our survival, must start with love of particular things in it.

Marc Hamer, author of Seed to Dust:

Writing Seed to Dust was like gardening: a daily immersion in a workplace filled with drama and poetry. I wrote it after I’d finished working as a private gardener. While I wrote, I felt as if I were still there, pruning roses, mowing the grass or watching my employer pass by in her straw hat with her paper while I cut down the meadow.

The smells, sounds and textures of those passing days were all around me as I wrote. Writing still feels like gardening – an exploration into what could be, into how to make it beautiful, to fill it with life.

I spend my days writing and watching people – some of them fresh and springy new, others fading into glorious autumn. Blighted or battered, bigoted or blooming; they are nature too, and my deep love of nature has, since writing Seed to Dust, expanded to include people.

" In the wild grip of nature we had formed a bond that didn't need words, a bond as palpably real and completely untouchable as the song of the deer in the quite stillness before the storm. "
- Raynor Winn, from The Wild Silence
Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist for Global Conservation
Covers of the Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist for Global Conservation
Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist for Global Conservation

Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life:

When I started writing Entangled Life, my intention was to draw attention to the neglected world of fungi. The project quickly deepened and expanded. Fungi entangle their bodies with their surroundings – with their physical environment, and with other organisms. This is their staple mode of existence, so any discussion of fungi must also deal with the context in which they’re living and evolving.

My exploration of these entanglements caused me to re-examine much of what I knew. 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. There’s something about these themes that speaks to the complex moment we find ourselves in.

I've been delighted to see Entangled Life catch readers' imaginations; many have contacted me to tell me that the book has made them see the world with new eyes. I couldn't have hoped for more.

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Under a White Sky:

In the 21st century, humans play such a dominant role on Earth that it’s hard to say where our influence ends and nature begins. Humans now outweigh all wild mammals – all of them! – by a ratio of eight to one.

In my research for the book, I visited a marine science centre in Australia where biologists are trying to breed corals that can withstand warmer water temperatures. I went to a power plant outside Reykjavik where engineers are attempting to turn carbon emissions into stone. I met with chemists and physicists who are seriously thinking about shooting reflective particles into the stratosphere to dim the sun.

Writing the book made me realise just how much power humans have over nature. With great power, it’s said, comes great responsibility. Let’s hope we can learn to be more responsible.

Rebecca Giggs, author of Fathoms:

The lives of many of today’s whales capture global or trans-hemispheric environmental concerns: ocean plastic, climate crisis, marine acidification, industrial noise, ecological disruption. These problems can seem too immense to wrap our heads around but looking at whales helps us to empathise with what it means to live through these changes.

Fathoms explores our obligations to other animals, beyond attempts to merely preserve their species. In writing the book, my imagination was stretched to express intrigue and compassion not just for whales, but for the weirdest, creepiest deep-sea creatures that feed off whale carcasses as well.

The main message I hope people walk away with is that, though human impact on the environment may be global in scale, our powers to effect positive change are too. The sea is not eternal and unchanging, as we once might have imagined. But neither are we condemned to be changeless.

Cal Flyn, author of Islands of Abandonment:

Writing is a transformative process. It pushes me to learn, and then that knowledge deepens my appreciation of the world around me.

For Islands of Abandonment, I had to teach myself a great deal. I learned to recognise species that I had not come across before. I stayed up all night studying scientific papers on metallophyte plants, climate feedback loops, and the succession of new ecosystems on old fields. But most of all I taught myself to look around with fresh eyes.

I found myself stopping in the street to look at thistles, dandelions and fireweed crowding in vacant lots, and to admire the tenacity of the buddleia and fuchsia taking root in chimney pots and guttering.

I spent two years travelling to some of the most desolate, eerie, damaged places on Earth, but what I came away with – unexpectedly – was hope.

Dieter Helm, author of Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change:

As I wrote Net Zero, it became increasingly clear that emissions are only half the story; sequestration of carbon by nature is the other half. Helping nature take up carbon provides opportunities to deliver much wider benefits. We can restore and enhance much of what nature gives us for free, improving our physical and mental health, better protecting our catchments, rivers and coastal ecosystems – or we can make the same old mistakes, with dense conifer plantations, often in places that do great harm to nature.

It also became clear that whilst much attention is focused on new technologies and getting businesses to act, the real cause of climate change is our unsustainable and carbon-hungry lifestyles. I recommend keeping a carbon diary to engage with the carbon-intensive things we consume, and to think positively about the contribution we can all make to help the planet. Mitigating climate change is about putting nature and natural capital at the heart of the economy.

David Attenborough, author of A Life on Our Planet:

This book records some of the dreadful damage mankind has already wrought upon the natural world and the real and imminent danger that things could get much, much worse if we do not act now.

But it is also a hopeful book: it offers a different future. It describes some of the ways in which we can begin to turn things around if only we all have the will to do so. Surely together we must now find that determination, and begin to make that change, for the sake of all the inhabitants of our planet.

Covers of the Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist

Wainwright prize 2021 

Now in its eighth year, the Wainwright Prize is awarded annually to the book which most successfully reflects the work and ethos of renowned nature writer Alfred Wainwright. The 2021 shortlists have now been announced.

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