Filling our 21st-century spiritual void with another account of nature-healing in literature
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
The idea that nature holds restorative power arrived in the UK with the Romantic poets. Wordsworth saw nature as a balm to human suffering, writing in Tintern Abbey how “the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world / Is lightened” upon contemplating nature. In Ode on Melancholy, Keats encourages the melancholic to “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”: to pour their despair out into nature. Romantic poetry, often written in response to increasing industrialisation, is rich with references to the healing power of nature.
Fast forward 200 years, and we find ourselves surrounded by this very same sentiment, albeit in different forms. Every day, Instagram posts present modern-day rehashes of Romantic ideals, with pictures of waterfalls accompanied by captions along the lines of: “get lost in nature and you will find yourself. #nature #FindYourself.” Although Wordsworth may be turning in his grave at this cringe-worthiness, these Romantic sentiments clearly strike a chord with many people. The rise of ecotherapy (sometimes referred to as “green exercise” or “green care”) reflects how the mental health and wellness industries have caught on to our enduring search for nature-healing.
“Nature cure,” the new subgenre of fiction popularised by Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure in 2005, fits neatly into this ecotherapy trend(1). Its general narrative is perhaps predictable – a suffering person discovers the healing power of nature – and The Outrun adheres to it closely. The latter is autobiographical: first-time author, Amy Liptrot, relates her struggle with and recovery from severe alcohol addiction. Despite its clichéd storyline, The Outrun is hard to criticise for being trite. As a memoir, it describes its author’s authentic experiences – this can’t be merely run-of-the-mill literary fiction; it’s someone’s life. There’s also much more to The Outrun than its predictable narrative arc. Carried by Liptrot’s self-aware, stripped-down prose, this book guides its reader down into the badlands of addiction and out through the other side to the craggy cliffs of Orkney. But I’m jumping ahead.
The book opens with a memorable scene on the runway of Orkney’s Kirkwall airport in Scotland. A man and a woman are pushed towards each other in wheelchairs. The woman is cradling a newborn baby, and the man is in a straitjacket. The woman is Liptrot’s mother, the man her father. He has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act following her early birth. On the island of Orkney, the crashing of waves and ceaseless buffeting of wind forms the backdrop to Liptrot’s upbringing. The island’s extreme weather mirrors her father's behaviour, who swings in and out of manic states. As a teenager, Liptrot walks from their family farm to a slab of rock at the top of a cliff, “headphones on, dressed up and frustrated, looking out to the horizon, wanting to escape.”
Of course, the horizon the teenage Liptrot yearns for ends up less promising than she had hoped. After getting fired from a cleaning job, she buys a one-way ticket to London, trading sea cliffs for skyscrapers. At first, London is brimming with hedonistic possibility: there’s a “manic freshness” in the air, and Liptrot and her friends are “overgrown children... searching headlong for a good time.” This is where Liptrot’s prose is at its most powerful. In a wonderful passage, Liptrot writes of a long summer afternoon spent with friends at London Fields, moving with the sun across the park while swigging fizzy wine as “limbs and sun cream and honey and ants” coalesce. Like the Romantic poets, Liptrot seeks the extremes of sensation. Later in the novel, they are to be found atop cliffs, her hair streaming in the wind, but in London, she pursues these heightened states at 2 AM on the dancefloor or whilst sipping the dregs of another bottle of wine in her empty apartment. Wandering the streets as the sun rises, Liptrot compares London to a drug that she wants to “rub into my skin” and “inhale.” She wants more and more, higher and higher sensations until she eventually forfeits control.
Throughout the book, Liptrot conceives of beautiful juxtapositions between Hackney and Orkney. One particularly tall tower is analogous to St John’s Head on Hoy, while the aircraft warning lights on tower tops are like lighthouses on the island. There is a sense of discordance, a clash, between her internal environment – which reflects Orkney – and the bustling, grimy city around her. Liptrot longs for cliffs and clean air. She perceives a “quietly vibrating sense of loss and disturbance,” falling back on the imagery of her childhood to describe herself “dangerously suspended high above crashing waves.” This is a book about the boundaries between the internal and the external. Liptrot writes how the wind and waves of Orkney are a part of her, forming her inner environment. We are reminded of a thin, permeable membrane between the internal and the external. Liptrot’s alcohol addiction burns a gaping hole through this membrane, through which the waves and gales from her upbringing seep through to churn inside her along with the alcohol. Passing back through the membrane – from internal to external – these forces obliterate her life in London. Liptrot loses her boyfriend as well as numerous jobs, friends and homes as her life is increasingly gripped in the clutches of addiction.
After completing a 90-day rehab course, she ends up “washed back” on Orkney, “like the inevitable tide.” It’s on the Orcadian islands that her slow journey to recovery truly begins. Liptrot puts all of her energy into learning about her external environment. Each subsequent chapter focuses on an aspect of the natural world: geology, underwater life, birds, etc. She orientates herself towards recovery by mapping out the natural world. Liptrot sees the outer landscape as a reflection of her inner self. The island geology, fauna, flora and weather mirror her inner journey and self-narrative. Strings of metaphors and similes link stretches of nature writing to her struggle with addiction; for example, “I had worn my brakes down, like the action of waves on rock, so much that they could never be repaired,” and “[my] injuries and hurts” are “like scars in the coastline, continually worn away.” Some of these metaphors are effective, but others seem contrived.
For this reader, it began to feel as if the writing was following a formula, a simple step-by-step guide: 1) build up a section of nature writing leading to a metaphor 2) using this metaphor, link the natural world to the inner self. You could say that reading this book became like watching waves crashing on the shore: sometimes captivating but often repetitive. Oh no. As you can see, it’s difficult not to fall back on these similes and metaphors; however, I wonder if such language reflects a problematic view of the relationship between humans and nature.
Just like for the Romantic poets, Liptrot is very much at the centre of her relationship with nature. The natural world's value lies in its healing power; it does not exist independently of its use to humans. Nature is conceived of as a service provider, soothing our ills and reflecting our egos back at us. The tendency to conflate the inner self with the outer landscape is most exemplified toward the end of the book, wherein the natural world shifts from being a mirror for Liptrot to being one and the same with her. She writes how “the islands’ headlands rise above the sea, like my limbs in the bathtub, my freckles are famous landmarks and my tears rivers.”
How can we relate to nature without projecting ourselves onto it? Mabey, the writer of Nature Cure, argues that there are other, less egoistic ways to connect to nature. “We need to rethink where we stand in relation to all these other organisms and what the transactions are between us,” he argues. Yet perhaps, as Richard Smyth argues in an excellent essay, it’s impossible to disentangle nature from our experience of it. We cannot appreciate it without reference to ourselves because to experience it, we have to be a part of it.
Although the winds and waves of Orkney provide therapy in The Outrun, they refuse to be harnessed for energy by humans. On the island of Papay, the wind turbine is, ironically, blown down. The wave-energy devices off mainland Orkney are “overcome by the very tugs and flows of the waves, currents and winds they were meant to harness.” These images present an opportunity to explore the ambiguities embedded in our relationship with nature: it is not possible to totally harness nature; nature can exist independently from our touch. Yet Liptrot takes the opportunity to contemplate further her inner self: “Like the electricity devices,” she writes, “I’m trying to find the right way to harness the powers and achieve my aims without being destroyed by the very energy I desire.”
Whether The Outrun strikes you as self-absorbed and contrived or poetic and moving will depend on your predisposition. Regardless, Liptrot’s debut is a thought-provoking and well-written book that contains several lovely sections of prose and some interesting psychological insights. It will surely appeal to anyone looking for a dose of “nature-as-medicine.”
About the writer
Evie is in her third year of university, studying History and French. She believes that public sexual harassment (PSH) reflects something deeply wrong with our society – it must be stopped!
Title - The Outrun
Author - Amy Liptrot
Language - English
Genre - non-fiction
Date published - 2015
Published by - Canongate (1) Mabey, Richard. (2005). Nature Cure. Chatto Windus.