James Canton is a writer and lecturer who has written widely in creative non-fiction forms and taught on the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex since its inception in 2009, exploring the fascinating ties between the literature and landscape of East Anglia. His first book From Cairo to Baghdad (2011) explored the writings of British Travellers to Arabia from 1882 to 2003. Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape (2013) is inspired by rural wanderings in the county. Ancient Wonderings: Journeys into Prehistoric Britain was published by William Collins in 2017 and tells some remarkable tales of life in ancient Britain. His latest book The Oak Papers was published with HarperOne in February 2021.
A little backstory: How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments, or what are your primal experiences with the natural world?
I began teaching an MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex back in 2009 which is all about literature, landscape and the environment and is very much centred on being out in the natural world, engaging and exploring the vast variety and wonder that is around us. Before that I was working on my PhD that was on travel writing -- specifically travel writing on Arabia – so I guess I’ve been working with natural environments for a while! I was always a pretty feral child in suburban London where I grew up and spent most of my time in the parks, up trees or peering into a pond when not kicking a ball around.
The Honywood Oak through years and seasons, North Essex, England.
It’s so important that as we grow older we do allow ourselves to be that child in nature again – I realized that primal aspect of being in the wild recently when climbing into a local oak and recognizing the peace and calm that can be reached by simply sitting there looking out on the world. In The Oak Papers, I write about that sense and also of feeling an unease about being discovered there as an adult man. It’s somehow not acceptable to be seen sitting in an oak tree but I would urge everyone to break this societal taboo. Climb your local climbing tree. Hang out there.
A love: Share one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.
I’ve been working recently on a commission to write a story about ash dieback disease which is a serious issue in Britain and reckoned to kill some 150 million mature ash trees in the next few decades. What’s been so creatively challenging is trying to write from the ash trees’ perspective – not in some trite way, but in a genuine sense of trying to see the matter of the disease from their viewpoint. The disease was brought by humans and now humans are seeking to breed some tolerant strains of ash trees. Writing this story is making me realize that on a wider framing, one vital role of writers in the next few years is to help build the narrative of climate emergency – to work to construct a way of seeing the future where other species are also appreciated and respected. Those species includes other living beings like trees. One of the great moments in my research for The Oak Papers was coming across the work of the philosopher Martin Buber who helped me see the simple truth that every tree is a separate, individual living being. Once we recognize that then we act differently to each tree. We care and respect each one. It’s something that Gary Snyder also writes beautifully about.
A lesson: What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?
The simple starting point is to spend time outside. Sit and observe. It’s the most basic lesson but holds true. I sat beside an eight-hundred-year old oak tree in all kinds of weathers and at all times of day and night for The Oak Papers and that practice was vital to opening my eyes to the complexity of the world of that oak, the ecosystem that lives within that tree. It was also a wonderful thing to do.