I search the web for others' takes on nature writing, so why not offer my own? I hope you'll respond. Here's more on the blog philosophy.

February 7, 2008

Nature Writing for All in a Time of Crisis

It is hard to think of a time in history when a literature of nature is more desperately needed, and yet readers have never lead lives more distant from nature. In the last year, global warming has begun to surface as a mainstream issue for Americans. We are groping for the will and imagination to respond to the threat, but many of us feel at sea. Polemics and how-tos abound, but we are not all going to stop flying, ditch cars, and go solar tomorrow. Many of us are scrambling to hold ourselves or our families together, with abundant recourse to antidepressants, painkillers, Yoga, and credit cards. We may be the most privileged people in the world, but we often feel helpless. If we are to act, we must find a bridge between our current lives and needs and the life and needs of the planet. Where more logical to turn than to the genre which has long connected the personal with the natural, the genre which helped create the environmentalist movement?

Starting with Thoreau, American nature writing has explored both what we owe nature and what it gives us. Yet despite the wealth of respected contemporary writers like Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry, the genre today remains marginal. When mainstream critics speak of it, they yawn. Joyce Carol Oates famously criticized nature writing for what she called its "painfully limited set of responses: reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness." Nature writer David Gessner declares himself "sick of nature," and imagines livening up the nature writing soirée by getting Thoreau drunk. Even eco-critic Robert MacFarlane feels no need to substantiate his claim that, "So much nature-minded art suffers from the tonal sins of polemicism, piety or plangency."

Nature writing is no narrower or more pious today than it was in Thoreau's time. It's we, the public, who have grown restive and indifferent. Thoreau's fellow citizens knew the local huckleberry patch almost as well as he did, and they responded not just to his exhortations but to his "hail fellow" moments of humor and camaraderie. Now, the bio of every prominent nature writer includes a career as a naturalist or a dwelling in undeveloped country. These writers still address the reader both charismatically and informally, as spiritual authorities and as peers. They draw on the familiar, friend-to-friend essay tradition as well as the Romantic prophetic tradition. Americans, however, cannot easily see them as peers. It is hard for us to imagine living in the sagebrush or recognizing an egret's spoor. We still need our prophets, but we also need to supplement their works. We need a nature literature by and for the laity.

Some signs point to the beginning of such a literature. Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle preaches local food for global reasons, but it also recounts, whimsically, a family experiment. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson presents himself as an inexperienced middle-aged man who walks the Appalachian Trail with a hopeless-case buddy. He asks us to worry with him, in between comic scenes, about the trees and the songbirds. Ian Frazier stalks urban parks in search of suspended trash in "Bags in Trees." Still, despite Bill McKibben's 2005 call, "What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art," we are hard pressed to find personal essays that confront the most urgent aspect of our relationship to nature--climate change. In one exception, the essay “My Bird Problem,” Jonathan Franzen describes how his obsession with birds makes him "inconveniently obliged to care" about the species that will disappear with rising temperatures. Franzen doesn't convert to activism at the end, but he suggests that even the inactivists may have a role to play.

It is easy to criticize the self-absorption of Americans, but we will get further if we consider the self a gateway to the political. Personal essays create a sense of intimacy and make space for irreverent, exploratory, self-critical, humorous reflection, even on a topic as nauseating as the cooking of the biosphere. I am curious to know what essayists from Richard Rodriguez to David Sedaris think and feel about this looming subject. Could there be memoir along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love or Annie Lamott's Grace, Eventually which delves into the reconsiderations which climate change necessitates? These writers and a host of others might help me figure out how I, short of becoming an Al Goress, want to act.

So far, the world hasn’t tried to curb emissions enough to prevent widespread human and non-human loss of life. Nature and the way we're heating it had better show up soon in our shared inquiries into our lives. Else it will be business and neuroses as usual, until it isn't.