2021 shortlist

The 2021 Nan Prize shortlist featured eight writers, exploring ideas of common land, access to gardening, herbal medicine, migration, trauma and recovery in the natural world. Read on to discover more about the shortlisted writers and their projects.

Niellah Arboine is a writer, editor and freelance culture journalist born and raised in south London. She is an original member of gal-dem and currently the lifestyle editor there. Her work can be found in House & Garden, Guardian, Vogue, Time Out London, and you can find her nature essay in Daunt Books’ In the Garden.

Who Gets Nature?

Niellah Arboine

Who Gets Nature? is a mix of personal experience and studies to inspire and encourage readers to think differently about gardening, land ownership and access to food in the UK. The proposal is smart, original and from a brilliant new voice. We especially loved reading the author’s beautiful writing on seeds and plants.

With one in eight households in Great Britain having no access to a garden, Who Gets Nature? reimagines and rethinks what we know about gardening, land ownership and the politics of food growing in the UK right now, while asking who truly gets access to nature. Through personal accounts and expert voices find out more about seed sovereignty, land stewardship, the mental health benefits of nature, community gardens and the Black people’s historical contribution to Britain’s botanical landscape.

Helen Baczkowska is a writer and ecologist living in rural Norfolk. Her writing explores the histories, both natural and human, of place and draws on stories of class and power in landscapes. Helen grew up in Norfolk, then in a Scottish new town and finally near Nottingham and has worked as a dry-stone waller, fruit picker, in managing woodlands. Her writing draws on these experiences and on her family background, which includes Welsh colliers, domestic servants and Polish refugees. Helen spent most of her twenties engaged in direct action against ecological destruction, often living in squats and camps in the path of road-building. She is the author of Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance, an oral history of Britain’s first direct action road protest camp at Twyford Down in Hampshire, England.

Common Place

Helen Baczkowska

Common Place tells the history of the author’s Polish immigrant family’s relationship to a small traditional house in Norfolk. It explores the idea of common land and more broadly how the old ways can inform how we live now. It is a fascinating subject from a voice very much kindred of Nan Shepherd in the sense of summoning a world view that is both grounded and spiritually connected, philosophically and historically rich, and one that is harmonious with the landand builds on indigenous traditions in the UK.

In the summer of 1969, Ann Baczkowska drove from London to Norwich with her toddler. Ann’s purpose was to register an area of common land in Norfolk, ensuring that the acres of woodland, grassland and gorse were protected from ploughing or building. For her daughter, Helen, this was the beginning of a life lived among commons – land that belongs to one person, but where others have rights to graze animals or gather fuel. Common Place examines contemporary enclosures, both legal and illegal, and more recent histories, such as the changing fortunes of Greenham Common, are interwoven with Helen’s experience of direct-action protests. At the heart of the book are questions about place, dispossession and belonging in Britain; framed by Helen’s relationship with the Norfolk common she lives near, why her mother, a working-class Welsh woman, decided to protect it and how Helen’s Polish father sought refuge there after escaping from war-torn Europe.

Rhiannon Bull is a writer, illustrator, and forager based in Edinburgh. Her nature writing has previously been published in Summer: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison, and she was shortlisted for the 2016 Bath Short Story Award, with her submission published in the annual anthology. She is currently working on fiction and non-fiction projects that explore queer experiences of the natural world.

Healing Ground

Rhiannon Bull

Healing Ground explores ways of reconnecting women with their bodies and with nature. It brings a fresh perspective to ideas of herbal medicine, plant history and the cunning woman. The writing has flow and immediacy and especially shines when highlighting the contrast of contemporary and ancient stories and finding ways to bring those together.

When Rhiannon Bull moved from Essex to Edinburgh, she made an improbable decision: to take a course in herbal medicine in spite of debilitating health anxiety. Having previously managed her anxiety through totally disconnecting from her body and health, learning about medicinal plants forced her into painful confrontation with her old fears – but also presented a way to heal. Weaving personal narrative together with topics including hysteria, witchcraft, myth, literature and women’s land rights, Healing Ground provides an honest account of Rhiannon’s own experiences discovering how wild plants can support the body, and of how foraging can allow everyone to access a little of the ‘nature cure’ – even if all you have to work with are weeds.

Izzy Dignum is a recent graduate from the University of Cambridge, having spent three years learning about herself, chalk and literature. She grew up in Wiltshire and has since returned there. She currently works in PR and Marketing.

The Swallows Will Return Next Year

Izzy Dignum

The Swallows Will Return Next Year intertwines stories of the author’s time in Cambridge and her missing her chalky home turf in Wiltshire, especially her family garden. The writing is achingly beautiful and atmospheric and the reflections on the shortness of life and reckoning with death impressed us.

Part coming-of-age narrative, part haphazard gardener’s almanac, The Swallows Will Return Next Year explores the necessity of leaving a landscape and a life in order to love them both. Tracing childhood, adolescence, and adulthood from Wiltshire downland to Cambridge fen, Izzy Dignum reckons with survival against the most unlikely of odds. An account of place-making and the garden as memory-space, it is about family, love, and choosing legacies.

Jennifer Jones is a writer, children’s author and scientist based in north-west England. She is passionate about the natural world and loves communicating that passion to anyone who’ll listen. Jennifer has published her research in many scientific journals, as well as creative non-fiction in magazines including Bird Watching and in e-zines including The Pilgrim, The Clearing and Bloom in Doom. She is currently an Honorary Research Fellow in soil science at Liverpool John Moores University.

A Teaspoon of Soil

Jennifer Jones

A Teaspoon of Soil is a book about soil which is present everywhere on earth and yet with which we don’t engage as much as we used to. Written in a warm, accessible style and filled with humour, this is a book which will change your mind about the world beneath our feet. Reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s books on the sea, we loved this engaging book about soil.

It is said that one teaspoon of soil contains as many organisms as there are people on the earth. Soil is a forgotten system, yet there is so much to celebrate in what it gifts us. A Teaspoon of Soil highlights all that soil provides for us and illustrates reasons for celebration. Personal and professional experiences from Jennifer’s life as a soil scientist are incorporated throughout together with interviews with people engaging variously with soil. Bringing together stories from around the world, A Teaspoon of Soil will demonstrate the diversity and wonder of soil, and will allow readers to see soil in a new light.

Shauna Laurel Jones grew up in the Colorado Rockies and studied art history in California. She then spent a decade in Iceland, where she immersed herself as a writer, translator and educator in Reykjavík’s vibrant art scene before earning a degree in environmental studies. Since 2018, Shauna has lived with her partner Helen and daughter in London. Her recent essays have been published in Orion and Carve magazines.

The Gaze That Hovers

Shauna Laurel Jones

The Gaze That Hovers explores the author’s movements from the Rocky Mountains of her childhood, via the adopted home of Iceland through to London where she now lives. The author uses birds as a prism through which to explore sexuality, nature, culture and environmentalism. The brilliant, poetic writing draws you in to wonder at birds.

The Gaze that Hovers is an exploration of aesthetic, ethical, cultural and personal encounters with birds. What do swans, romantic but ravenous, mean to farmers in Iceland? Why are feathers so important to drag queens as they transcend expectations of gender? Ultimately, what is the relationship between the enduring appeal of birds and the urgency of addressing the sixth mass extinction? For Shauna Laurel Jones, whose complex identities, geographies and interests have sometimes left her unsure of her place in nature and society alike, it is the poetry of birds that has helped her find her way again. Jones draws on memoir, observations, interviews and research to demonstrate that not only is it possible to integrate aesthetic interests with ecological concerns, it is also a necessity. This sensibility linking cultural history and natural emergency – a way of regarding the world that accounts for all its poetic and brutal complexity – is the gaze that hovers. And birds, uniquely, can guide us there.

Grace Quantock is a writer and counsellor. She writes narrative non-fiction at the intersection of creative arts, social justice and marginalised bodies. She has been awarded the The London Library Emerging Writers Award and was shortlisted for the Writers’ & Artists’ Working-Class Writers’ Prize 2021. Quantock has been published or has essays forthcoming in the Guardian, Metro and New Statesman; she has also appeared in the New Yorker Online, The Times and Marie Claire. She lives in Wales and is passionate about nature journaling and calligraphy.

The Selkie Papers

Grace Quantock

The Selkie Papers is a memoir in essays exploring recovery from trauma and accessing the natural world as a wheelchair user. The book explores themes of chronic illness, marginalisation and navigating physical and mental boundaries, woven together with the selkie myth. The writing is engaging, moving and considerate in its approach to the natural world.

The Selkie Papers: Field Notes on Finding Boundaries draws from Grace Quantock’s personal and therapeutic work, exploring her experience of learning to access the outside world while finding boundaries after trauma. While Grace crosses borders of limits and stereotypes, she need boundaries to access the natural world safely. As she moved from being housebound to being out in the world, she mapped her process of coming back to her body after trauma, emerging into the world in a body that’s marginalised and maligned. While bed bound, Grace had forgotten what grass felt like, or that stars existed, and rediscovering them was a delight. But she emerged into the struggle of building boundaries after trauma in an environment that disallowed them. In The Selkie Papers, Grace draws on the natural world to support her in finding a way to live well in her body. Through the Selkie legends of seal women’s stolen skins, she takes a psychotherapeutic and lived experience approach to unpacking the process of implementing boundaries. It’s a journey through finding meaning and herself in the wilds.

Marchelle Farrell


Moving between Trinidad and an idyllic English country garden, this lyrical and reflective book is about the search for home.