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.


Anonymous said...

I hope that climate change will be mild enough for people to have time to write and read personal essays about it - essays that would help us adapt to the change. I fear that it will be not be so mild. I read that the coming climate change will be severe even if we completely stop all CO2 emissions today.

If it will be as severe as many scientists have begun to believe, a large part of humanity and other species will suffer and die from the effects of climate change. Some individuals may leave personal diaries recounting the horrors of starvation, disease and war that are likely to accompany severe climate change. Someday, if there are survivors, maybe they will find meaning in those diaries.

Anna Mills said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree with your assessment of the severity of climate change, but I don't agree that personal essays are a leisurely luxury. Climate change is already underway, and writers have plenty of time now to write about it. They are currently writing about everything else. The personal essays that interest me are those that concern themselves with the shift in consciousness required to confront and mitigate climate change before the major disasters set in. The actions we take in the next few years will still have an impact on the magnitude of the crisis.

A host of jeremiads and journalistic accounts of climate change have come out in recent years, but relatively few from a personal perspective. Essays with broad appeal that link the personal with the political could serve the environmental movement now just as anti-racist and feminist personal essays and memoir served those movements in the twentieth century.

AB Apana said...

I have been following your blog for a while and look forward to your posts. I thought this to be an excellent post.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for implying that personal essays are a leisurely luxury. I think you are right about the value of personal essays.

If we disagree, and I am not sure we do in any important way, it may have to do with the value of mitigation. I suppose I fear what we may do to mitigate it. If humanity would stick to conservation and changing our lives to reduce our impact, I would not be afraid, but I don't believe humanity will stick to that. I believe we will attempt to engineer the weather and take other steps like those Bill McKibben, for example, believes humanity will take.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an outstanding essay and should be sent out for publication in some widely read magazine or newspaper, so as to get the word out.

Kathryn and Ari said...

Saw your message on the ASLE listserv and thought I'd stop by. Great blog! I'd love to link it on my own (www.outwithari.blogspot.com) if you don't mind.

Claire said...

Thank you, Anna. I agree that personal essays on climate change would help us cope with what feels like a scary looming catastrophe. But in this country, the news from the scientists hasn't yet sunk in enough for many people to feel much of a need for that kind of writing. The British are well ahead of us - a whole section of the BBC's website is devoted to "Climate change: news, opinion, and explanation." It's not exactly nature writing, but it includes a lot of stories and opinions from people who are learning to respond to the challenge of climate change. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/portal/climate_change/default.stm

Jeane said...

What a beautiful blog you have here, I just discovered it thanks to your own visit. You address some important issues. I am eager to read through your past posts and find more nature books which I must read. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Anna, I am a novice at nature writing. Thank you for offering so much for me to consider as I explore nature writing in my own personal path into the woods. How will this writing change me? That's what your blog prompts for me to think about. Thanks, Kelly DuMar

fred said...

Thanks for this, Anna, and I thank google for bringing me your way this morning. I have an "emergency" need to think about nature writing so I can talk about it to a yet-unknown group this weekend.

I'm an elder-blogging nature watcher turned writer with a small audience of newspaper and blog readers that could perhaps be "reached" by the right kind of nature writing.

For me, to avoid the big, tough issues in our nature-future (like global warming) is to fiddle while Rome burns, but to only preach the oughts and shoulds will soon numb us to what needs to be known, cared for and done.

Perhaps in following where your "call" leads I too will find my voice between the precious and punditry while there are ears to hear.

I am hopeful that together, those of us who have a heart for nature can, like Kingsolver, capture the attention and focus the convictions of today's readers for good.

Anonymous said...

I believe the genre has its best potential as bioregional education. I have had a local newspaper column for 10 years that seeks to have our local citizens be more familiar with their own home. I cover local ecology, history, and culture.

Unknown said...

Miss. Mills,

I applaud your effort and wish you continued success. If you do not already know his works, please review E.O. Wilson's CONSILIENCE, BIOPHILIA and, his latest, CREATION. Also, Richard Louv's, LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS and Michael Pollan's, BOTANY OF DESIRE are must reads.

Warm regards,

Joe Bunton

Clark Meyer said...

Great blog . . . glad to have come across it. Hope you come back to posting more often.
I had the same thought about the need for more nature writing by and for the laity a few years back after hearing David Petersen speak at a Nature Writer’s Retreat held by the North Cascades Institute. In describing his close-to-the-land lifestyle in the San Juan Mountains, he more-or-less said that a nature writer who lived otherwise lacked credibility. Shortly thereafter, in a group reading and response session, one of my fellow workshop participants got all apologetic before sharing her piece, an essay about the view from the window of her backyard writing shack in suburban New England. “I guess this doesn’t qualify as nature writing,” she said, to which I thought “Of course it does . . . we can’t all move to the Colorado backcountry (thank goodness), and so the rest of us need stories like this to help us learn how to realistically live fulfilling and sustainable lives in our familiar world.
And the more of us who can write thoughtfully in this vein, the better. We not only need stories for the masses but by the masses as well. If our narratives shape our culture, then we can all have a role to play by sharing ours. To that end, this past summer I blogged the extended camping trip I took with my two boys, and I had a sizeable and devoted readership back home, many of whom might otherwise never read “real” nature writing.
I humbly invite you to check out the fruits of our labors at www.clarkbeast.wordpress.com.
My current project: bringing nature writing (both reading and writing) into my teaching (as it’s even more marginal in secondary schools than it is in the wider culture).

Ashwin Baindur said...

Your comments are very interesting. You are fortunate indeed to have reached a level of advancement where such issues become of import. In India, we are still fighting a battle to create much-needed new protected areas and to protect those already created from the forces of exploitation.

As far as the States are concerned, I recently came across an interesting essay at:

The author discusses the American attitudes towards nature, why it should be preserved and how man sould make use of it. The subject of the essay broadly parallels your concern. The role nature literature will play will depend ultimately on the way all members of society view nature and its 'utility'.

Its a frightening thought that the vast majority of countries outside the developed world are in a far more primitive stage of development as far as understanding the need to preserve nature is concerned. My country India, is a case in point.

Generic articles and books on nature are definitely the need of the hour in India not just in English but in each of our many national languages, amongst a host of other initiatives required to spread the word.

Sadly, dedicated Indian nature periodicals, journals and newsletter are slowly giving way to scholarly articles while the generic account is losing ground. While these scientific articles are great for recording scientific progress they are incapable of enthusing a youngster and ultimately may be just as futile as shouting into the wind if nature itself is not preserved and cherished.

This then is a clarion call to nature-lovers in my country and in my own very small way, I am trying to contribute to this field.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm really happy to find your blog. This is great stuff! Keep writing!


tess said...

I love coming back to this post as I always feel as I read it that I am becoming more and more grounded in meaning. I read it as a guide for living that makes sense. Your intelligence is well-directed. Thanks

tess said...

Thank you for writing this post. I return to it when I need clarity concerning my engagement with nature and writing. Thank you, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Are you still writing? I hope so! Your blog is terrific and has introduced me to lots of great nature writing.

Anonymous said...

I read a article under the same title some time ago, but this articles quality is much, much better. How you do this?

Anonymous said...


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Trendle Ellwood said...

I gobbled up this post. It is nourishment for the nature writer's soul.