One of the cover stories in this week’s TLS is “Plashy Fens: The Limitations of Nature Writing” by Richard Smyth. Or so its title is described on the contents page, if not in the heading of the on-line version of the article itself. The article is a broad (and rather lengthy) survey of nature writing from Gilbert White to Robert MacFarlane, Helen MacDonald and Richard Mabey.
In discussing previous characterizations of Gilbert White’s works, in which they were deemed to be “charming”, Smyth has occasion to cite Evelyn Waugh:
Today we are more likely to call it “lyrical” nature writing than “elegant” nature writing. And “charming” is not quite right now, either – at least not in the feather-footed-through-the-plashy-fen sense in which Fisher meant it. Perhaps we might now use something a little darker – “bewitching”, or “enchanting”.
Smyth goes on to provide examples of nature writers striving for descriptive phrases through the 19th and 20th centuries. He assumes knowledge of the source of “plashy fen” and does not mention Waugh as its author or offer any context for Waugh’s own satirization of nature writing. He may be unaware that one of his exemplars, Robert MacFarlane, also recently resorted to the “plashy fen” to describe 18th century nature writing, requiring his Daily Telegraph interviewer to provide square brackets for a reference to the source of the term. See earlier post.
All this leads to a concern that “plashy fen” may be about to make the leap from satire to cliche, at least among nature writers. It would be sad if that were to be the case. Perhaps Waugh supporters should propose a moratorium on the use of this phrase by nature writers to protect its satirical status.