Nature Writing: Prose
The term “nature writing” conventionally refers to one particular category of nonfiction, rather than to the entire spectrum of literature about the natural world. Nature has, of course, like love, been a central topic for authors in every language and in nearly every form. Scholars who are interested in the broader range of genres thus sometimes prefer to use the term “environmental literature.” That said, nature writing remains a remarkable, vivid, and continuous strand within the fabric of American literature. Such continuity comes from the fact that, above all, this genre has been a conversation. Authors within the lineage often address each other directly, as well as emulate each other's postures, personas, and excursions. Nature writing is a sort of ongoing experiment, an investigation of how imaginative literature and close observation of natural phenomena can be integrated.
To define this genre more precisely, it may be helpful to consider the example of Henry David Thoreau. His book Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) has proved to be an enduring inspiration for nature writers, with its story of a strategic retreat from society and its remarkably fresh and vigorous language. Another especially reverberant piece by Thoreau is the essay Walking (first published in Excursions in 1863), in which he makes the memorable statement, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In the following passage, Thoreau reflects upon what wildness means for a writer:
Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them,—transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half-smothered between two musty leaves in a library,—ay, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature.
Emerson and Thoreau, 1991, p. 104
Thoreau's distinction between merely using words and deriving them from their concrete, physical origins relates not only to his fascination with etymology but also to his desire to ground his ideas in nature. He believed that books “with earth adhering to their words” could blossom in the human spirit, revitalizing our lives and our musty institutions alike. Although Thoreau did not invent the genre of nature writing, the power of both his language and his convictions has made him central to the tradition in America. In light of the images above from his “Walking,” this field of literature might be described as follows: a species of personal, and often narrative, nonfiction that is both knowledgeably appreciative of science and open to the spiritual potential of natural experience. The fact that such writing often includes elements of memoir is recognized by two of Thoreau's rhetorical questions in Walden: “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” (Thoreau, 1983, p. 183).
There is a provisional quality to the term “nature writing”—as to any literary genre that tacks on the word “writing.” In this it resembles the closely associated academic field of environmental studies. Such two-word titles contrast with familiar and assured categories like fiction and English. But such compound terminology may also reflect the emergence of nature writing along a dynamic edge—an edge both between conventional ways of classifying writing and between the arts and the sciences. Ecologists speak of “edge-effect” where two ecosystems meet. Examples of such an “ecotone” would be the brushy margin between woods and pasture or a rocky coastline. Ecotones in the physical world are characterized by their extraordinary richness, both in the numbers of species they harbor and in the biotic mass they produce. Similarly, where science and literature meet, with lyrical and figurative language becoming entangled with technical nomenclature, there is a special opportunity for an unpredictable and illuminating conversation. Nature writing not only typically offers a wider range of concrete information than is usually found in contemporary poetry and fiction but also displays an unusual array of formal and stylistic innovations. A recent example of such originality would be Janisse Ray's book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (1999), in which chapters relating a memoir of the author's girlhood alternate with chapters on the natural history, ecology, and destruction of Georgia's native longleaf-pine forests.
Anthologies and Critical Studies
Numerous anthologies of American nature writing have been published over the past century. Three works are particularly good resources for anyone wanting an overview of this genre. Thomas J. Lyon's This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing appeared in 1989. In addition to containing a sequence of substantial and well-chosen examples, from William Wood (New Englands Prospect, 1634) to John Hay (The Immortal Wilderness, 1987), Lyon's anthology contains an excellent introductory essay. The part of his introduction entitled A Taxonomy of Nature Writing proposes a spectrum running from Field Guides and Professional Papers through Natural History Essays, Rambles, Solitude and Back-Country Living, Travel and Adventure, and Farm Life, to such philosophical essays as Man's Role in Nature. Lyon's taxonomy brings out the diversity of the genre and suggests that the relative weight placed upon a given writer's personal experience is one good way to organize and unify the spectrum (Lyon, 1989, pp. 3–7). Robert Finch and John Elder's The Norton Book of Nature Writing (1990) begins with the scientist-parson Gilbert White, in order to emphasize the Linnaean origins of nature writing, and includes selections from other English-speaking countries as well as from America. A revised and expanded edition of The Norton Book of Nature Writing appeared in 2002, including many more contemporary selections and also representing a significantly wider range of racial and ethnic backgrounds of authors than in the first edition. Sisters of the Earth: Women's Prose and Poetry about Nature, edited by Lorraine Anderson, was published in 1991. This collection—which juxtaposes the work of woman nature writers with female authors in other genres and which organizes its table of contents thematically—has had an important role in stimulating scholarly research in the field.
Two other works are appropriate to mention as background for any thorough exploration of American nature writing. One is Lawrence Buell's 1995 study The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, in which he relates the field of American nature writing to the larger framework of American literary history. It remains the authoritative critical work. American Nature Writers (1996), a two-volume collection of biographical and critical essays, surveys many of the important authors in this genre—including contemporary figures—and includes a bibliography for each of them.
This essay focuses on a particular sequence of writers who exemplify important developments in the field from the evolution of the genre in the revolutionary era to the early 1960s. Specifically, William Bartram, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson are the principal examples. The essay concludes with a look at the wealth of American nature writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century and a consideration of themes and voices emerging in the genre.
Early Voices in the Conversation
Many early voices in American literature placed a special emphasis upon the natural scene. From William Wood's New Englands Prospect (1634) to Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), the civic leaders of fledgling communities surveyed the geology, climate, flora, and fauna of their new homes in order to understand the available resources and the character of their landscapes. In such works, however, there was often a less individual voice than we have come to associate with the genre. The authors spoke for the larger educated community rather than focusing upon their own experience or feelings. The real impetus for the more personal accounts and reflections of what we now call nature writing came from the English clergyman and naturalist Gilbert White, who in 1789 published The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. White wrote in the generation after the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus had published Systema Naturae (1735) and Species Plantarum (1753), the volumes that established and elaborated his binomial approach to identifying all organisms by genus and species. Linnaeus's system for keying out plants, birds, and animals inspired what the critic E. D. H. Johnson has called the “golden age of natural history.” This flourishing of natural history as a pursuit of educated amateurs lasted for about a century, from the publication of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne through the lifetime of Charles Darwin. After Darwin's Origin of Species appeared in 1859, the life sciences became steadily more specialized and professionalized. Gilbert White, who served all his life as a curate of Selborne, the village in which he had also been born, typified the clerics, gentlemen and ladies of leisure, and poets who so enthusiastically ventured forth into the countryside armed with their Linnaean keys to the creation. Many readers were charmed by White's combination of acute observation with a humorous and charming personal narrative; his book had a place on those short shelves beside Darwin's bed aboard the ship Beagle and Thoreau's writing table in the cabin by Walden Pond. As the genre of nature writing flourished in America, explorations of the wilderness, speculations on evolution, and various forms of political advocacy took it in directions far from White's quiet village. Still, there has remained a family resemblance between these later, more boisterous books and the highly personal and reflective approach of the clergyman-scientist.
If White was the founder of a tradition of domestic natural history—in which scientific observation was part of a process of claiming one's home on earth—his younger American contemporary William Bartram took that combination of autobiographical narrative and Linnaean science on the road. A Quaker from Pennsylvania, and the son of John Bartram, one of Linnaeus's most important correspondents in the New World, he set off during the Revolution to explore the American Southeast. His Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws was widely read and praised on both sides of the Atlantic after its appearance in 1791. Bartram's reports on the natural history of this region were of the greatest interest to scientists of his time. But the main source of his appeal to a wider readership was the rapturous voice with which he expressed his observations. Watching mayflies drifting through the evening air before settling on the water and becoming food for trout, he writes, “Solemnly and slowly move onward, to the river's shore, the rustling clouds of the Ephemera.” Bartram describes with equal wonder a “subtle greedy” alligator rising out of the water to do battle with a competitor: “Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder” (Bartram, 1988, pp. 88, 115). Studies by wildlife biologists in the twentieth century have confirmed the essential accuracy of Bartram's descriptions, even with all the exuberance of his language. White and Bartram, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, established two poles for American nature writing—the naturalist at home and the explorer reporting back the wonders of exotic landscapes. But in both instances scientific observations are interwoven with a personal quest for meaning and are inseparable from the observers' own engaging personality.
While Linnaean natural history, embodied in such observers as William Bartram, was one crucial influence in American nature writing, another was the transcendentalist vision and language of Ralph Waldo Emerson—in particular his 1836 volume Nature. Emerson's essays are often more abstract and speculative than the narrative form we associate with the term nature writing. But Nature has had a profound and abiding impact on writers in the tradition. Both Thoreau and John Muir, themselves so influential in the genre in their different ways, found a mentor in Emerson at the commencement of their careers—Thoreau through his conversations with the older man around Concord, Massachusetts, and through the example of Emerson's journal-keeping; Muir through reading Emerson's essays in college and carrying them with him as he commenced his travels. Thoreau and Muir, like so many others since, were impressed by Emerson's sense of nature as holy—a sanctuary where one might escape from humdrum routine and social restrictions. From passages like this one in Nature, they imbibed a religion of nature from passage in Nature. For example:
In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
Emerson and Thoreau, 1991, p. 8
While subsequent writers may sometimes go further than Emerson in regrounding their mystical revelations in the particulars of a landscape, experiences such as he describes here have continued to be essential to the genre's motivation, meaning, and appeal.
Representative Woman Writers
Until about 1990, few women were included in collections of nature writing from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One explanation that has been offered was the prominence of institutionally affiliated and subsidized explorers like Bartram, and his successors John Wesley Powell and Clarence King, in the early years of the genre. During that era, men were also dominant in the military, in government, and in the sciences. Celia Thaxter (1835–1894), who wrote about New Hampshire's Isles of Shoals (1873), and Mary Austin (1868–1934), who evoked the deserts of the Southwest beginning about 1903, were among the small number of women who were widely recognized before the middle of the twentieth century. However, one important result of the increasing prominence of nature writing, of related courses in environmental studies at the university level, and especially of anthologies like Lorraine Anderson's Sisters of the Earth has been a surge of scholarly interest in woman nature writers. This has led in turn to the rediscovery of a number of woman writers who were in fact well known during their lifetimes but whose books had largely gone out of print by World War II. Two such important writers who have been republished and are increasingly being taught and written about, are Mabel Osgood Wright (1859–1934) and Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924). Wright both anticipated today's renewed attention to gardens by such authors as Michael Pollan and Jamaica Kincaid and was an early advocate for the protection of wild birds. Stratton-Porter was best known as a novelist but also wrote knowledgeably and sympathetically about northeastern Indiana's Limberlost Swamp and became a distinguished photographer of its birds and moths.
The most significant recovery of an early woman nature writer, though, has been that of Susan Fenimore Cooper. Her book Rural Hours by a Lady went through several editions following its publication in 1850 and was read by Thoreau when he was writing Walden. Since Cooper was herself an appreciative reader of Gilbert White, her book thus forms an important bridge between the two main English and American influences on the genre. But between 1876 and 1998 there was no unabridged printing of Rural Hours available. Now that it is once more widely accessible, Cooper's work grows ever more interesting to scholars of the genre—in part because of its status as a sustained meditation on one small community. By including both human and nonhuman inhabitants in her reflections, and by speculating so thoughtfully about their interaction, Cooper anticipated today's bioregional movement at many points. She could read the histories of immigration, deforestation, and agriculture, as well as the underlying geological processes, from such signs as the prevailing flowers in a particular locale, the health of the crops, and the sandiness of the soils. An example of her ability to make these connections may be found the following passage from Rural Hours:
A path made by the workmen and cattle crosses the field, and one treads at every step upon plantain, that regular path-weed of the Old World; following this track, we come to a little runnel, which is dry and grassy now, though doubtless at one time the bed of a considerable spring; the banks are several feet high, and it is filled with native plants; on one side stands a thorn-tree, whose morning shadow falls upon grasses and clovers brought from beyond the seas, while in the afternoon, it lies on gyromias and moose-flowers, sarsaparillas and cahoshes, which bloomed here for ages, when the eye of the red man alone beheld them. Even within the limits of the village spots may still be found on the bank of the river, which are yet unbroken by the plough, where the trailing arbutus, and squirrel-cups, and May-wings tell us so every spring; in older regions, these children of the forest would long since have vanished from all the meadows and villages, for the plough would have passed a thousand times over every rood of such ground.
Cooper, 1998, p. 92
Cooper tells the human history of her town through its natural history. As Thoreau also did, she bears in mind both the native flora and the native cultures that preceded her own family's founding of Cooperstown two generations before her birth. Another way in which rediscovering Cooper's work can orient us to Thoreau's is the recognition that he, despite his frequent celebrations of solitude, shares her central interest in neighbors as a part of the landscape of home. Not only in visiting a nearby railroad laborer's family and in conversing delightedly with a French-Canadian woodchopper, but also in his wry descriptions of “Brute Neighbors,” Thoreau presents himself as a member of a community. Stepping out of the social mainstream offers him an opportunity to broaden his circle of acquaintance and to explore his affiliation with other living creatures, in what the contemporary writer David Abram has called “the more-than-human world.”
The West Coast and the Desert
If Susan Fenimore Cooper represented a bridge between the intimate and domestic world of White and the more individualistic emphasis upon home in Thoreau, John Muir (1838–1914) accomplished a different kind of transition. He carried Emerson and Thoreau's sense of nature's holiness, and of its profound personal meaning, into the mountainous wilderness of the West. Born in Dunbar, Scotland, but raised from boyhood on a Wisconsin homestead, Muir grew up with remarkable physical energy and an insatiable hunger for wild beauty. Although he kept photographs of Emerson and Thoreau on the mantel of his Martinez, California, ranch in later years, Muir also scoffed at the idea that Concord could offer anything resembling the “wildness” that Thoreau called for in “Walking.” His criterion for natural beauty, and his landscape of the heart from the day he first entered it, was the Yosemite Valley. His efforts to protect Yosemite (as well as his unsuccessful attempt to protect the nearby valley of Hetch Hetchy) led both to his 1892 founding of the Sierra Club and to a series of articles for the influential Century magazine. The Mountains of California, published in 1894, is a compilation of these articles. From the start, Muir's writing was motivated by an impulse of advocacy. Like Thoreau, he called for a less materialistic sense of “natural resources”—for an understanding of nature's meaning in our spiritual development. But in his political lobbying and his engagement in formulating legislation to protect wild spaces, Muir introduced a new, activist note in American nature writing.
Another characteristic of Muir's achievement was the sophisticated awareness of natural processes behind his response to individual phenomena. Bartram and Thoreau had both been highly skilled naturalists—fine botanists, in particular. But Muir's years at the University of Wisconsin (1860–1863) exposed him to both the glacial theories of Louis Agassiz and to Darwin's theory of biological evolution. It has often been noted that Muir's literary style tends to become florid and highly adjectival. Yet his scientific eye is so acute that he continually grounds his observations in highly persuasive analysis. He was the first writer to suggest, in contradiction to the theories of the California state geologist Josiah Whitney, that Yosemite Valley had been formed by glaciers. His explanation was eventually proven to be right. A passage from The Mountains of California illustrates the integration of Muir's scientific authority with a rapturous voice recalling that of Bartram. He describes the formation of glaciers—in eras when snow annually accumulates in greater amounts than can melt in the following spring—and accounts for the shape of exposed rock through variations of mineral structure and hardness. But he also finds within such physical factors a providential power whose result is wild beauty.
[O]ur admiration must be excited again and again as we toil and study and learn that this vast job of rockwork, so far-reaching in its influences, was done by agents so fragile and small as are these flowers of the mountain clouds. Strong only by force of numbers, they carried away entire mountains, particle by particle, block by block, and cast them into the sea; sculptured, fashioned, modeled all the range and developed its predestined beauty.…Then, after their grand task was done, these bands of snow-flowers, these mighty glaciers, were melted and removed as if of no more importance than dew destined to last but an hour. Few, however, of Nature's agents have left monuments so noble and enduring as they. The great granite domes a mile high, the cañons as deep, the noble peaks, the Yosemite valleys, these, and indeed nearly all other features of the Sierra scenery, are glacier monuments.
Muir, 1985, p. 12
Nature writing arrived at the West Coast on the heels of the Civil War—not only with John Muir but also with Clarence King, whose Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada was published in 1872. Only after that did the tradition circle around to explore regions passed through too quickly in that wild migration. An important figure for filling in the map was Mary Austin. Like Muir, to whom she refers in her writing, Austin was raised in the Midwest (Illinois, in her case) but fell in love with the West. Her real love, though, was the deserts of southern California, Arizona, and, especially, New Mexico. A successful and prolific writer, known in her own day as a novelist and poet, as well as an essayist on feminism, language, native cultures, and natural history, Austin largely passed out of print following her death in 1934. Today, though, she has once more become celebrated as a key figure in the tradition of nature writing and an early, eloquent partisan of the desert's beauty. We have in American literature an impressive lineage of desert writers, who have reversed the conventional sense of these areas as “waste” lands and led to them being viewed more commonly as places of visionary beauty. Other writers in this line include John Van Dyke, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, and Terry Tempest Williams. Although she was preceded by Van Dyke (whose book The Desert was published in 1901), Austin's tangy voice, and her passionate appreciation of the subtleties of the desert's ecology and its indigenous cultures alike, can really be said to have inaugurated this tradition. Here is the vivid opening of her best-known book, The Land of Little Rain (1903):
East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian's is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snow line. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows.
Austin, 1988, p. 1
Austin's opening passage is notable for its similarity to Georgia O'Keeffe's vision of the New Mexican landscape. A new palette entered into nature writing and painting alike through these artists' depictions of wind- and water-worked expanses of rock. In fact, a striking aspect of American nature writing is how frequently such a close connection is established between writers and painters in love with the same landscape, even though—as with Austin and O'Keeffe—they may not know each other or even be contemporaries. Similar pairings would include those between Emerson and the Hudson River and Luminist schools of painting and between John Muir and the Yosemite photography of Ansel Adams.
Austin's celebration of the desert took a region that had been perceived as barren and celebrated it both as a place for communion with the stars and as a laboratory of evolution where the fundamental principles of ecological balance could be perceived. In both regards, she anticipated the achievement of Aldo Leopold (1888–1948) in A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (1949). In effect, Leopold turns to the Wisconsin farmland from which John Muir had set off as a young man. He finds an abused and eroded farm not far from Madison, where he is teaching at the university, and sets out both to learn all he can about it and to restore it to health by his own efforts of practical stewardship. The actual location of Leopold's “shack” was Sauk County, Wisconsin. But his generic name Sand County encompasses all of those neglected or cut-over regions of America to which authors from Austin on have returned for a closer look, and with which they have developed an intimate sense relationship.
Leopold has another link with Muir, but one more significant than their shared connection with Wisconsin. Both of them contribute in crucial ways to the tradition of environmental advocacy within American nature writing. Muir was a prophet of conservation, who placed a special emphasis upon the sublime mountainous terrain of the West. Leopold looked at conservation not simply as a matter of protecting land but also as a marker of our cultural evolution. In one essay from Sand County Almanac, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he introduces this perspective through a story about killing wolves when he was a young man in New Mexico. Watching the fire die in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot gave Leopold a new realization about the importance of predators to a healthy ecosystem: “I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view” (Leopold, p. 130). Leopold went on to become a leading proponent of wilderness as the criterion of natural health and of predators as essential to that wild balance. In his central essay in Sand County, entitled The Land Ethic, he called for an extension of human ethical standards to the entire community of life, writing that it was, “if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity” (Leopold, 203).
Rachel Carson (1907–1964), like William Bartram, became famous for celebrating the wonders of a realm little imagined by most of her fellow citizens. In her case, this was not the alligator and orchid country of the southeastern swamps, but the evolutionary marvels of the sea. In The Sea around Us (1951) she portrayed the ocean as a single environment, while in The Edge of the Sea (1955) she explored the remarkable richness of shorelines, “the marginal world.” Through these best-selling books, Carson became the first teacher about the science of ecology to a worldwide audience. She is especially remembered, however, for her book Silent Spring (1962), in which she traced the unintended consequences of widespread pesticide use, including substances like DDT that permeate the food chain—making it impossible for raptors to reproduce and contributing to cancer and other diseases in human beings. Just as she had earlier taught her readers about ecology, in Silent Spring she offered them a course in cellular biology. Her point throughout this book is that we need to intervene much more carefully in natural systems, out of an increased awareness of the web of life upon which we, too, directly depend. The upshot of Carson's careful exposition is an admonition to take a more modest and careful approach in our science and technology: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man” (Carson, 1994, p. 297).
New Directions in Nature Writing
If the century that followed Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne can be called the “golden age of natural history,” the decades since the publication of Silent Spring might well be characterized as the “golden age of American nature writing.” This burgeoning of fine writing in the genre doubtless relates in part to an increased awareness of environmental problems. Just as Rachel Carson raised awareness of the unintended consequences of our large-scale agricultural practices, people have now become more conscious of the influence of burning fossil fuels on climate change, of the threat posed to biodiversity by human population growth and by the fragmentation of wild habitats, of the depletion of marine fisheries, and of the connection between first-world consumerism and third-world poverty. These are daunting issues, and a troubled tone pervades much contemporary nature writing. At the same time, by grappling with matters so essential to the human prospect—and by bringing to bear upon them a broad range of artistic, cultural, and scientific references—nature writing is increasingly impressive for its constructiveness and its moral dimension. Although many of them are quite sophisticated about current literary and academic conversations, today's nature writers tend to be less compliant to the coy, self-congratulatory aspects of deconstructive theories.
One can enumerate a group of accomplished nature writers whose energy, originality, and civic impact are difficult to equal with a comparably long tally of current novelists and poets. A highly incomplete list of authors who have achieved a major body of distinguished work in this genre would include Peter Matthiessen, Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders, Robert Finch, Gretel Ehrlich, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Ann Zwinger, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Richard K. Nelson. As environmental issues come more to the fore in our national conversation, a number of writers best known as poets or novelists have also begun to produce important pieces of nature writing. Among the authors in this category would be Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jim Harrison, Jamaica Kincaid, and Barbara Kingsolver. As a wider range of writers turn their hands to nature writing, even when it is not their principal field, one result has been greater diversity in the racial and ethnic backgrounds represented in the genre. In addition to several of the writers just mentioned, Ray Gonzalez, David Mas Masumoto, and Evelyn White have all produced striking pieces of nature writing that address the relation between their landscapes and their Chicano, Japanese-American, and African-American backgrounds, respectively.
Leslie Silko's 1986 essay Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination (reprinted in The Norton Book of Nature Writing) deserves special comment. It has become widely recognized as a landmark for contemporary nature writing. While the figure of the Indian has long been prominent in America's literature of nature, before World War II there were relatively few Native American voices available in direct, untranslated form. Since the war, though, there have been an increasing number of distinguished works in this genre by Native American authors. Although Silko's reputation rests primarily on her novels, especially Ceremony (1977), her 1986 essay is a compelling statement of her Pueblo culture's reliance on stories to knit the people to their past and to their landscape. It offers a counterpoint to Western assumptions about a separation between wilderness and society. For Silko, stories may map the land, make a people at home in it, and enhance the human community's respect for all of the creatures in the ecosystem. Her point of view is congruent in these regards with powerful essays written by such other important Native American writers as N. Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan, and Louise Erdrich.
Just as a greater diversity of voices has entered into contemporary nature writing, certain themes have also gained prominence. One of these is the interest in gardens, both as natural landscapes and as cultural artifacts. Michael Pollan's book Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991) was a catalyst for this increasing attention to gardens. But the fiction writer Jamaica Kincaid has also written on this subject. Closely associated with gardens is the literature of farming. Wendell Berry has long and eloquently reflected upon the role of agriculture in America's landscape and culture alike. One representative piece by Berry would be The Making of a Marginal Farm, in Recollected Essays, 1965–1980 (1981). Other noteworthy works in this line include David Mas Masumoto's Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm (1995) and Jane Brox's Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family (1995). As both of these titles suggest, there is often an elegiac cast to literature about the family farm; industrial agriculture and economic strictures can make this way of life feel like just one more gravely endangered habitat. At the same time, writers about the farm, like those about the garden, often bring a special perceptiveness to the wholeness of nature and culture. One of their contributions to nature writing—like that of the Native American writers—has been to discern continuity rather than separation between humanity and the natural world.
The twenty-first century has been described by the biologist E. O. Wilson as “the bottleneck” for biodiversity on this planet. Human population is projected to peak some time after 2050, along with the consumption of fossil fuels. In such an era, every major institution—religious, educational, scientific, and political—will be challenged to realign itself to new environmental realities. Nature writing, for so long a resource at the edge between literature and the earth, will certainly play an even more important role in illuminating these challenges and these efforts. While continuing to offer the fundamental literary values of wonder, delight, escape, and sympathy, it will become a crucial resource for readers—in America and around the world—who are striving for a more ecologically informed outlook on humanity and our natural home.
Anderson, Lorraine, ed. Sisters of the Earth: Women's Prose and Poetry about Nature. New York, 1991. An influential anthology of women's writing about the natural world.Find this resource:
Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. New York, 1988. An early celebration of the beauties of the desert, originally published in 1903.Find this resource:
Bartram, William. Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. New York, 1988. One of the first American travel books that integrated the nomenclature of Linnaean science. Originally published in 1791.Find this resource:
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. An authoritative and scholarly discussion of environmental literature, looking at nature writing as well as fiction and poetry.Find this resource:
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston, 1994. The book that led to legislation restricting pesticide use in the United States and, eventually, allowed for the return of such endangered raptors as the peregrine falcon. Originally published in 1962.Find this resource:
Cooper, Susan Fenimore. Rural Hours by a Lady. Edited by Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens, Georgia, 1998. The first publication of the full text of this important book since 1876.Find this resource:
Elder, John, ed. American Nature Writers. 2 vols. New York, 1996. Biographical and critical essays.Find this resource:
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Henry David Thoreau. Nature and Walking. Boston, 1991. A publication in one volume of two essays essential to the nature-writing tradition.Find this resource:
Finch, Robert, and John Elder, eds. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. New York, 1990. A collection of nature writing in English, starting with Gilbert White in 1789.Find this resource:
Finch, Robert, and John Elder, eds. Nature Writing: The Tradition in English. New York, 2002.Find this resource:
Lyon, Thomas J., ed. This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing. Boston, 1989. Includes a substantial and perceptive introduction surveying the genre in America.Find this resource:
Muir, John. The Mountains of California. New York, 1985. Originally published in 1894, this book did much to inspire the conservation in the mountainous West, by a man sometimes called the “father of the national parks.”Find this resource:
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. New York, 1983. The central work in the tradition of American nature writing originally published in 1854.Find this resource: