When it’s due to interest or temperament, I’ve always been drawn to nature writing. For many, its mere mention conjures up certain associations – bucolic landscapes, nostalgic meditations, longings for golden ages, of days lost. But nature writing has never been a static genre, and increasingly it transcends the standard pastoral narratives. Last month, I had the pleasure to listen in on a live chat with critically acclaimed authors Rebecca Solnit and Robert MacFarlane as they delved into the evolving form of nature writing. In this entry, I’d like to summarize a few points I connected strongly with. You can listen to the entire talk below:
If you want to follow along the timestamps I have provided in the post, you can also access the discussion directly on Orion Magazine’s website.
The Power of Words for Change (@ 6:00)
Arctic Dreams and Northern Lights. Image from wikimedia commons.
Early on, MacFarlane speaks of the power of words for profound change and connection. He traces his views on nature and the trajectory of his thoughts back to a single significant book: Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. To him, the work was revelatory, a testament to the “unexpected consequences of words, of literature”. MacFarlane’s awe of Lopez’s skill in melding ideas from a multitude of disciplines with lyrical language mirrors my reaction for Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Non-fiction, MacFarlane claims, can be as “exploratory and adventurous as any novel. Reflecting on the influential works in my life and the narratives I’ve written about on Ekostories, I can’t say I disagree.
- Is there a non-fiction story that changed your outlook on life? What was it?
Kitsch Vs. Great Work (@ 33:00)
A tremendous amount of aesthetic judgement and creative energy goes into writing fiction or non-fiction. But what makes a work great? MacFarlane believes unpredictability is the crucial element. Writing that presupposes outcomes, he contends, is always in danger of becoming kitsch – well-written, reliable, comfortable, but kitsch nonetheless. By contrast, he argues that a great work is inherently chaotic, possesses the ability to surprise, and as a result is loaded with “fabulous, unmappable consequences” that are capable of leaving deep psychic impressions and affecting change only identifiable in hindsight.
“Great writing comes from left field…” – Robert MacFarlane. Image by Antonio Litterio.
MacFarlane’s assertion resonates with me because as a writer, I often struggle with predictability. It is a matter of control; often I write with messages and endings in mind, and as such attempt to fit the writing around those elements. But on occasion, the piece resists, and the work suffers, falling fatally into cliché and romantic indulgence. Perhaps I need to learn to let go, to trust that it will find where it needs to go, and so discover its own unguided consequences.
- What’s your definition of “kitsch”?
- Do you agree that great works must be unpredictable?
An Ecology of Nature Writing (@ 37:00)
From the lyrical to the practical: A spectrum of nature writing. Image by Jacek Cisło.
Solnit speaks of the need to map out an “ecology of nature writing”, one that spans experience writing that stirs the soul to incendiary writing that enrages, and everything in between and beyond. This ecology will have room for polemics and manifestos, for field notes and scientific journals, even graphic fiction and multimedia projects. It should acknowledge past influential works, like John Muir’s work which led to the founding of national parks, while providing space for new and previously suppressed perspectives, such as stories of the urban environment and of indigenous cultures. This ecology recognizes that the genre is always changing, endlessly proliferating in ways that both resists easy categorization and unites around a center founded upon wonder and mystery.
A Diversity of Nature Writing
Both authors offer intriguing examples of what constitutes nature writing over the course of the chat. Many are familiar; some are unexpected. You can find their entire list of recommendations here, but I’ve picked out a few that stood out to me:
- Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – I’ve always wanted to see this play. MacFarlane interprets the sprouting willow tree as a possible hope in a cindered landscape. (@ 12:50)
- Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – Another story of hope in the midst of absolute despair. It is one of the bleakest and most beautifully written books I have ever read.
- Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Place – I’ve referenced some of the anthropologist’s work on the Western Apache on Ekostories before as he explores the fascinating relationship between a people and their place.
- Ed Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang – Many have recommended this subversive tale as a potential Ekostory before. I’ll check it out one of these days.
- Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire – I’ve written about this one before. Good read.
- Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us – Explored in some detail by Solnit, this is the ultimate hypothetical book: What if humans were to vanish overnight? How would the world and other creatures be affected? She points out that while Weisman writes in a very clinical style, the premise itself is steeped in imagination and creativity. It is indeed a very interesting combination.
- Amy Leach’s Things That Are – An author I recently discovered, and one I am eager to become more acquainted with. Her essay on pandas, titled Radical Bears in the Forest Delicious, is funny, whimsical, and just a joy to read.
- What are your favourite works of nature writing?
- What is your personal definition of nature writing?
- Are there other works that you would include on the list of recommendations?
There are many more great insights throughout the discussion. I urge you to listen to the whole thing, and look forward to your thoughts.
Featured Image, European Bee Eaters, by Pierre Dalous.