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On the Evolution of Nature Writing

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:

Robert Macfarlane and Rebecca Solnit on Nature Writing

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
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.

Question:

  • 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.

Writing with a Fountain Pen
“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.

Questions:

  • What’s your definition of “kitsch”?
  • Do you agree that great works must be unpredictable?

An Ecology of Nature Writing (@ 37:00)

Light and TrailFrom 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.

Questions:

  • 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.

20 Comments

  1. As far as non-fiction goes, I just finished reading about persistent organic pollutants (POPs) , the worst chemicals that exist in the world, and their effects on people and animals worldwide.
    The book is called Cold, Clear, and Deadly and follows a chemical engineer that figures out how these chemicals end up collecting in the fat tissues of animals in the Arctic far away from the source.
    Although the worst of the POPs have been banned in the developed nations; developing nations are still using them in great quantities, mostly as the agricultural pesticides toxaphene and chlordane. They travel around the world on weather patterns as they get released and gravitate towards the poles and mid latitudes based on their volatility. Bioaccumulation up the food chain having dire reproductive effects on the animals.
    Not many people seem to be aware of what is going on in regards to this issue… also the Inuit (indigenous people of the Arctic) are left in the dark by the Canadian government who continues to recommend the traditional meat/fat heavy diet despite the contamination.

    • Hi Warren,

      I don’t know the book, but it seems it’s incorporating and connecting ideas across a bunch of disciplines into a bit of a mystery narrative. Did it change how you viewed the issue, or did it contain things you’ve thought about before?

      • Yep that’s exactly what is was; connecting the dots and unraveling a mystery of sorts since few people are able to see things connected on such a global scale.
        It definitely deepened my understanding of chemical contamination and how far-reaching the effects can be. Too often people like to think they are immune from things if they don’t see an impact in their back yard but the more I learn the more I see the interconnectedness it all.
        I have a passion for health and wellness so this was something personal I had to explore to discover the extent of the threats we all face.

  2. I’m reading “The Urban Bestiary” by Lyanda Haupt. (disclaimer – I have met her before, we live in the same neighborhood, but I don’t really know her). I’m really enjoying it! It is very different from a lot of nature books in that it is not exactly lyrical in style, but it is beautifully written and really gives you that embraced-by-nature feeling. It is also a hopeful book, celebrating lots of wildlife species that most people turn their noses up at. I think this book has a lot to offer nature-starved urban dwellers as we try to figure out how we’re going to live in crowded cities while still maintaining that connection to nature we all need. Turns out, there is life all around us if we only pay attention.

    • Hello Denise,

      That sounds right up my alley. I’m an urbanite through and through, and it’s nice to read works that recognizes that nature is all around us, even in the heart of cities. I’m also working on a personal essay on noticing those small wonders that exist around us, so I might check it out for inspiration. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Your questions really got me thinking. On the scholarly side, Between Pacific Tides by Ricketts and Calvin; and Ontogeny and Phylogeny by Stephen Jay Gould. On the less scholarly side, Log From the Sea of Cortez, of course; A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold; Desert Solitaire by Abbey. Fiction…anything by Cormac McCarthy – I still remember how I felt when I read All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. What about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, does that count?

    • Interesting. Solnit mentioned Desert Solitude as one of her key texts as well. So many classics on your list, and barring Leopold’s, all ones I need to get around to.

      I’m curious – what aspects of the fiction you mentioned makes you think of nature?

      Also, I’ve been meaning to ask: Did you get inspiration for your blog’s name from Ricketts? I recently discovered that Steinbeck and him were planning to go to British Columbia (where I’m from) to collaborate on another book called the outer shores.

      • That’s good detective work, Isaac, my blog’s name is a nod to Ricketts and the proposed trip. I started to understand Ricketts’ significance when I first read the preface to Log from the Sea of Cortez (incidentally, while camping on the shores of the Sea of Cortez). I wouldn’t have put the pieces together, however, if not for Joel Hedgpeth, especially his little two volume work, The Outer Shores. The first volume details the work along the work along the Pacific coast , including the BC trip. The second volume is a compilation of unpublished Ricketts material, including The Philosophy of “Breaking Through” and Essay on Non-teleological Thinking, which you mentioned. So, to answer your question, my blog’s name comes from Ricketts’ as described above, with a strong base in his work with Jack Calvin in Between Pacific Tides.

  4. In my opinion, if you would like to read Ed Abbey, it is better to start with his ‘Desert Solitaire’ instead of ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’. Unlike ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’, ‘Desert Solitaire’ is his non-fictional work. Though Abbey did not want to be called a nature writer, ‘Desert Solitaire’ contains a lot of beautiful passages describing nature and landscapes of desert wilderness. This work cannot be classified purely as nature writing. I would say that it can also be classified as a work of social criticism in which Abbey attacks (sometimes quite harshly) some aspects of the modern society and especially what he calls the ‘industrial tourism’, a bitter reality of many modern day national parks, and as a philosophical work in which Abbey explores different themes such as the compromise between society and soul-searching. Though, be warned that compared to most other works of nature writing ‘Desert Solitaire’ and ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ have some passages that might sound quite brutal and appalling to nature lovers, but then again you do not have to completely agree with all the author’s points to appreciate his work.

    As for your question about an outlook changing non-fiction story, I think I have none that falls under both the categories of non-fiction and nature writing. For some reason, all the books that were outlook changing for me are either fictional, with some elements of nature writing, or non-fictional but without the the elements of nature writing. The best example I can see is ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ a short non-fictional work by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which completely changed the way I see the world and myself. However, in this work there is no a single element of nature writing, instead it is a work glorifying human spirit, so I would say it is a humanistic work.

    • Thanks for the overview on Abbey’s work. I am definitely not one to shy away from controversial writing, so I look forward to reading Desert Solitude.

      And fair enough about not being a formative non-fiction work on nature writing for you. I think humanistic works can have some shared qualities with nature writing as they both have the capacity to evoke humility and provide perspective on our place in the universe.

    • Hi Victor, I’d just like to thank you for the recommendation of Wind, Sand, and Stars. I finished it a week ago and It’s an amazing book that I’ll return to again and again.

  5. Hi Isaac…I love good nature writing too and was surprised that I had read some of the books on the list. Glad to see Wendell Berry (a fellow Kentuckian) was included. The notion of kitsch is an interesting one and one that I am more familiar with from a visual art perspective. There is one aspect about appealing to a common denominator (especially with nature writing) that I would like to hear more about. When it comes to our threatened environment and appreciating what we have…doesn’t it make good strategy to try to reach out in an interesting, but understandable way? I recently read David Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo” and felt it could qualify as a book on the Orion lists.

    • You ask a very good but difficult question. Obviously it’s good to make something that’s both interesting and accessible. But making such a universally appealing piece of work is really hard to do! What if you can’t do both? Which is preferable? Interesting but obtruse, or shallow but accessible?

      I’ll have to think more on this tomorrow 🙂

      • Not sure there is a best answer here. One person’s kitsch is another person’s masterpiece. I tread this path myself with my river art. I want my work to have a popular feel similar to the way folk art functions because I want what I am trying to communicate through it to reach a target audience that often doesn’t think about how creativity or conceptual art can be used to positively affect the environment. My own work has evolved over time to include objects, images, and now stories working in tandem with one another. There is some risk taking here and sometimes it works better times than others.

        • I think I understand where you’re coming from. Apologies if I came across as too certain in my last response when I’m also struggling with this. Perhaps MacFarlane is being too elitist/snobby in his definition of kitsch, and I too readily accepted it. 🙂 As you say, one person’s kitsch is another’s masterpiece. Who am I to tell someone that they can resonate with?

  6. Would you consider Tolkien a nature writer? He has an ecological bent. They mentioned Samuel Beckett and Jamiaca Kincaid (good choices), but I often think of Tolkien. The landscape is very much an important character in his books. Though he invented his own world, he still cautioned against the abuse of nature.

    • I don’t want to label anyone as a nature writer per se, because there is an implication with that labelling that they only do that. But I absolutely agree that Tolkien’s work is profoundly influenced by the natural world. The hobbits and their pastoral Shire, the elves wistful for golden age gone by, literal war between Ents and Isengard. I think (and this is completely baseless speculation on my part) that his love for the natural world, which is woven throughout his work, arose from his war trauma. Having faced such death and destruction, perhaps he came to appreciate and value the small miracles of life.

      Nancy Adams over at Saints and Trees has a great piece on Tolkien, if you’re interested:

      http://saintsandtrees.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/j-r-r-tolkien/

  7. One of my very favorite non-fiction nature writing books is: Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America
    by Adrian Forsyth, Ken Miyata, Sarah Landry (Illustrator).

    It engagingly and lucidly presents extremely interesting aspects of ecological interactions in the neo-tropics in a very smooth writing style. It was written by the researchers themselves and they don’t stint on the science, but they use language that is accessible to all readers.

    Another excellent non-fiction nature writer is Bernd Heinrich, one of the advisers to my graduate program. He writes about his work and observations in New England in a way that makes you forget that you are reading science.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I was part of a six week tropical biology field school in Belize, and I grew to love A Neotropical Companion by John Kricher. Now I have to read that one too! 🙂

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