Navigating nature loss through fiction

According to the UN Environment Programme, between 150 and 200 species are driven extinct – are killed – every day. What sense can we possibly make of that?

Writers are as confused and lost as anyone in this strange weather.

A group of young men climb a mountain in Wales to club a lake monster to death. The monster is called the afanc: part otter, part dog, part seal.

Each man is hoping to gain acclaim, and a kiss from a beautiful maiden, for being the first to cleave its spine, but the beast proves hard to kill.

They club it in shifts for half a day. Snow begins to fall. Most of his friends grow tired and leave, but Aled, the protagonist, cannot drag himself away. He cannot stop the rhythm of his club on the monster’s body.

This article first appeared in the latest issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.


By the end of the day he has become an unthinking machine, far beyond pain or tiredness, driven only by the mindless impulse to beat the monster into mush. He no longer knows why he is doing it. I don’t know why either.

I wrote this short story, To the Bone, precisely because I didn’t know why. I didn’t know why St George had to lance the dragon.

I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, why it is that our culture has to keep clubbing everything to death, pounding away with its bulldozers, drills, fracking rigs, deep-sea oil wells, pipelines, poisons and SUVs.

All I know is that the assault is relentless and unending. I could have written about these things directly – I could have written the facts – but I didn’t know where to begin. A story about a brutalised monster made more sense to me.


A journalist takes a seat at a table lined with empty bowls and spoons. At the head of the table, a giant egg-timer quietly spills its sand.

The other diners – the faces of whom are strangely amorphous and hard to make out – take it in turns to intone the names of animals, plants, languages, cultures and antediluvian megafauna that have become extinct, whether recently or long, long ago.

At the end of this ritual they drink a soup that is viscous, greasy, foul-smelling, but ultimately tasteless. There is no sadness or joy to the process, no catharsis or release. They don’t know why they are doing it. Again, neither do I.

According to the UN Environment Programme, between 150 and 200 species are driven extinct – are killed – every day.

What sense can you possibly make of that? The numbers are meaningless. By writing that story, Loss Soup, I suppose I was inventing a ritual that might make sense of such dizzying loss, a holding vessel to contain the numb disbelief I felt.

The monotony of the intonations was more relatable than grief, and certainly easier on the soul. But beyond that, my reasons for writing the story were mysterious to me, as mutable and tricky to grasp as those faces around the table.

Writers are as confused and lost as anyone in this strange weather.


Recent years have seen a spate of fiction about climate breakdown, the loss of biodiversity, ecological crisis and collapse.

These include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour; Jenny Offill’s Weather; John Lanchester’s The Wall; Richard Powers’ The Overstory; Ian McEwan’s Solar; Gregory Norminton’s The Devil’s Highway; Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island; Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future; and Jessie Greengrass’s The High House.

I have admired some of these stories immensely, others not so much. At its best, fiction can touch the sides of the gaping hole that ecosystem collapse and extinction leave in my consciousness, briefly giving me a sense of bewildering vertigo.

Again, at its best, it can help me glimpse the descent more clearly. At its worst it can be contrived, worthy or polemical, treating the death of the living world and the slow collapse of all we know as another ‘issue’ to be discussed, or a mere backdrop against which characters play out their human dramas.

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At its best it asks the right questions, unsettles, bears witness and provokes. At its worst it insists on conclusions and easy answers.

I believe that the messy sprawl of our times – the Anthropocene, or the Great Dying, or the Sixth Mass Extinction, or the Unravelling, or whatever else you want to call it – is simply too perplexing and vast for our imaginations to grasp.

I have never subscribed to the view that writers, drone-like above the world, can see things that other mere mortals can’t see, transcending all imaginative limits.

Writers are bound by the same inescapable physics as everyone else, breathing the same parts per million of carbon dioxide, buffeted by the same rising wind. Writers are as confused and lost as anyone in this strange weather.

Good fiction, I think, acknowledges this. It does not wriggle out of the trouble. Perhaps good fiction writers – and certainly poets – should not fully understand what they write, or know where the story is leading them.

Narratives are unstable these days, their arcs bent out of shape. As rapidly converging crises overwhelm our certainties, as trophic cascades and positive feedback loops make nonsense of the plot, who knows where the story we are telling ourselves will end?


I am not saying that fiction and storytelling cannot help us live our lives, or cannot be a useful guide through the darkening terrain ahead. I believe that they can – perhaps they are the only things that can – as long as we acknowledge that our guides are as lost as we are.

A young woman prepares to leave everything she has ever known. In this near future, you have a choice between ways of being human.

Born into a sterile, techno-utopian city of machines, she has emigrated and adapted to the lifestyle of a peasant.

Now she is leaving again in order to enter the wilderness, the uncut forest that lurks, unknown, on the far side of the wall.

It is dawn. She lingers nervously. A door in the wall swings open. Beyond, she glimpses greenery. It is darker than she expected.

The woman does not know what is next. I do not know either. But fiction can be a door in that wall. And I am inviting you to step through.

This Author 

Nick Hunt is the author of four non-fiction books, most recently Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes (John Murray, 2021). His short fiction collection, Loss Soup and Other Stories, is published by Greenbank Books and is available in the UK through The Dark Mountain Project. This article first appeared in the latest issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.