Until recently, all stories were wild.
For most of human history, writing did not exist.
Most people couldn’t read.
Then, when that changed, books were often inaccessible.
For most people, stories were limited to oral telling, but they were just as important as the millions of narratives that circulate the interconnected digital world of today.
I believe that narrative is the primary method we use to understand our own existence and the world around us.
Until recently, the majority of people lived outside cities, so it’s not surprising that the stories they told included the natural world as a key component.
Stories and nature are forever intertwined.
The Short Story and Nature
Which stories come to mind when you consider the natural world? You’re probably thinking about man vs nature stories – Noah’s Ark or Robinson Crusoe, or maybe disaster movies like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ or ‘Godzilla’.
The Bible is 2000 years old, the novel – only a few hundred, disaster movies – a matter of decades. Natural short stories are ancient.
When telling a story, we speak at around 120-140 words per minute. Most oral stories vary between five and thirty minutes. Any longer, and we can’t remember what happened and why. Stories of 1,000-4,000 words suit our simian thought patterns.
The shape-shifting myths and folk tales of this length were finally recorded on the page by pre-twentieth century writers like Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
Then nature began to spill into literary fiction. In the short story, it manifested in almost all of the rural settings of the Russian masters.
In Master and Man, Tolstoy explores class, money and perceived mastery over flora and fauna. Two men battle to find their way through a snowstorm because of impatience and bravado.
Chekhov (and his mentor Turgenev) also relied heavily on the difference between the countryside and the city. Gusev is a story about soldiers returning from the far East by boat. As they lie in the cabin, dying one by one from consumption, Chekhov achieves a miraculous act of nature on the last page. You’ll have to read it to find out what it is.
Each culture and people has their own tradition of exploring nature through story.
Many early to mid-twentieth century shorts told of generational divides between those changing from rural to urban lives. Rejecting primary industry was seen as both a shame and a seismic shift for humanity. One example that springs to mind is 1960’s Canadian tale, The Boat, by Alistair MacLeod.
Later stories added elements of magical realism and explored our physical connection to nature. In The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter subverted fairy tales to explore the themes of femininity and the body.
Brokeback Mountain, a 1997 short by Annie Proulx, harnesses the power of seasons and the rugged backdrop of Montana to distort the time experienced by cowboys in a taboo relationship.
Covetithe (2011) by China Mieville presents a quiet dystopia in which a father takes his daughter to a forbidden section of the Suffolk coast. By night, they watch sentient oil rigs battle with the armed guards protecting those on land.
Many of the modern day shorts touch on the theme of transformation. Sarah Hall’s Mrs Fox, a BBC Short Story Prize winner in 2013, depicts the transmogrification of a woman on a woodland walk.
But there’s nothing quite like a man vs nature story, is there? In Kevin Barry’s Fjord of Killary, storm water invades a local pub. Society retreats upstairs and as the punters carry on with their daily conversations, the landlord considers where it all went wrong. You can listen to a great analysis of this very wet, very Irish tale on the New Yorker fiction podcast.
Essentially, short stories derive from folk tales, and their structure and length is well suited to exploring our uneasy interconnection with the wild world.
Characters’ fates are truly fused to their surroundings, and however many people move to cities, however digitsed the world becomes, this will remain true. Natural short stories will keep their relevance even when there is no one left to hear them.
One reason I chose to write about nature this month, is that I recently gave a nature-writing workshop in the mountains of Gran Canaria. Several writers from different countries attended the session to learn about describing and harnessing natural settings for narrative.
The picture below might seem like it was taken in a back garden lean-to, but it is all part of the workshop. To create stories, writers sometimes need to feel a living location, even if it’s a cold, damp shepherd’s cave.
It was nice as ever, to offer a reading in the beautiful surroundings of the San Mateo valley. A good few of the stories in The Fisherwoman feature nature in a starring role. One short piece I shared with the group was Home Invasion, published last year in Bending Genres.
The launch party will be hosted on Zoom on Monday June 6th at 7pm UK time.
I’ll be answering some questions on the book, giving a reading, and drinking an entire case of champagne to celebrate.
Please message me if you’d like to come along. I’ll send you the Zoom link.
Podcast: If there is one thing I’d like you to take from this edition, it would be to discover and explore the work of storyteller and mythologist Dr. Martin Shaw.
How to categorise him is fairly difficult. A well read and knowledgeable naturalist and philosopher, he somehow befriended both Joe Strummer and Doors drummer John Denham. He spent four years living in a tent on Dartmoor. He became a trusted disciple of the influential American poet Robert Bly. He created a school of Myth and Story. He has written many books. A good place to start is his lockdown conversations with different storytellers – Smoke Hole Sessions
Novel: Folk by Zoe Gilbert. If you are looking for a spellbinding book of interconnected natural stories which draw on British folklore, this is it.
Short Story: Sparing the Heather by Louise Kennedy. This is a story I didn’t get time to explore in the newsletter. Wonderful use of location in this chilling Irish tale.
Poems: When talking about the sensory information nature provides us with, poetry is never far away. Explore this list of poems if you want some lyricism in your life.
That’s all for this edition of Coming Up Short.
If you appreciate these deep dives into the sea of short fiction, consider buying me a coffee. Writers are almost entirely powered by coffee.
I hope you make time to explore the nature and the stories around you.
See you all next month.
Same time. Same place.