I have to admit that I’m somewhat of a novice when it comes to nature writing. I like writing, having done it in one capacity or another for over twenty-five years. And I have always enjoyed nature, preferring to be outdoors rather than in at any given moment. So it seems like nature writing would have been a natural and logical marriage.
But, sad to say, it hasn’t turned out that way up to this point. Instead, it has been more like two people destined as soul mates, both living in Manhattan looking for each other. Except the one has been looking in Chinatown and the other in the Upper East Side. It seemed like my writing aspirations always headed in a separate direction from nature; more concerned with the nitty gritty of commenting on social issues. My time in nature was solely to get away from all the noise, writing included. They very rarely mixed in the same crowd together.
For much of my writing career, quite frankly, the idea of nature writing never occurred to me. I was too busy thinking of other topics to even consider writing about nature. Most nature writing that I’d heard of was poetry, and I couldn’t get into that type of writing. I’d gone through a minor stint with poetry, but couldn’t wax sentimental about robins or dew with iambic pentameter, nor did I want to. Living in a suburban environment, I was more inspired by social commentary and prose, which eventually reverted my writing back to nonfiction essays and fictional stories. I’m sure that in the back of my mind I was aware of botany books that explained nature in detail, but not having a science background, there was no inclination at all to pursue that strain of writing.
It wasn’t until I was introduced to travel stories that I’d even heard of the idea of prose nature writing. I vaguely had learned of Henry David Thoreau, but switched my major from English to sociology too early to learn anything of him, other than he wrote something called “Walden”. But it was when I read the writings of people’s personal encounters with the wild and the outdoors that the thought really occurred to me. So at least now the two soulmates had been introduced.
Yet even though I was enthralled with reading the writings of other outdoor and nature enthusiasts, I still was reluctant to pick up the pen and write my own experiences. Now the reason for the delay was pure procrastination. Fear might be as much a reason for procrastinating on this issue, just as fear is many times the root of any type of procrastination. Most writers have been instructed about the truism, write about what you know. And many writers, whether they publicly admit it or not, have the fear of coming off like a blabbering idiot. Combine these two, and you get to the root of why I was afraid of writing nature essays. Most of what I knew about nature was in a general context. I was afraid that if I tried to get specific, I’d be venturing beyond the scope of “what I know”, and sound like a blabbering idiot. I’d be exposed for the fraud I was if I began a nature expose.
Describing sensory details have never been my strong suit, and this certainly came to root in my love for nature. Which is why it may have never occurred to me to write about it in the first place. I love the outdoors because I can sit in its beauty and feel the grass surrounding me, the birds singing, and the warmth of the sun. Or the harshness of winter, with the snow glistening, reflecting the sun’s prism, the icicles hanging deceptively belying the fact that they are sharp daggers ready to pierce anyone who get in their way. I couldn’t tell you what growth I was sitting in besides the grass, or what time it was according to the sun, summer or winter. I couldn’t tell you which bird was singing, unless it was something universally recognized like an owl, goose, or crow. Only when I got my official bird clock from the Audubon Society could I extend this recognition to chickadees and robins. But that was the limited extent of my descriptive talent for nature; woefully deficient for great nature writing. Or even passable nature writing.
This being so, nature writing was a fairly daunting prospect, however logical the union might seem. What would I write? “I sat in the grass and contemplated the sun”, and that’s it? Some essay. At least when the apple hit Newton’s head, he came up with something profound. My lack of knowledge about the natural world hindered my speaking of my experience of it.
Of course, this is as much an excuse as when someone doesn’t go hiking, because they don’t think they are in good enough shape to keep up with more experienced hikers. Or not going to a forum about natural energy because all the panelists are Ph.D.’s who are registered Green Party and know Ralph Nader personally. Meanwhile, you’re a college dropout that just registered to vote yesterday, you’re a Republican, and the only bureaucrat that you know is your local DMV agent. To begin the process of nature writing, to get Zen about the whole thing, one must begin somewhere. From a writer’s point of view, to not begin at all is tantamount to saying that my experiences with nature are unworthy to record because they are not the caliber of Darwin’s scientific observations or Thoreau’s poetic ones.
My experiences of nature tend to be panoramic. The vision I have is that of a wide-angled lens rather than a telephoto one. I see the hills in the distance rather than the blade of grass in front of me. The place I grew up was a suburban landscape, where you saw almost nothing from your front stoop but other houses. At least in the back behind the yard, it was fairly undeveloped, and gave some semblance of wildlife. When I became an adult, my first two residences were on suburban streets where in any direction you saw either concrete, houses, cars or people. Nature was more a haven to run to than a universe with individual members waiting to be known better.
In a way, it was easier to see nature as an idyllic oasis away from the nonsense of urban life, rather than a molten atmosphere with its own cataclysmic events. It’s sort of like a friend that you expect to be funny and cheery all of the time, and shy away from when she is in a bad mood. Of course, I was aware of nature’s ferocity, at least on a distant or intellectual level. I knew all about hurricanes and earthquakes, especially from television. And I had some experience with severe weather; the eye of Hurricane Gloria in 1985 went right over my house. It left me and everyone else locally without power for three days. That’s a big deal in a large suburban area on the verge of becoming its own metropolis. Without power, everything ground to a halt. Major storms such as that crash the illusion of mastery over nature.
But illusions are easily restored, once the veil of forgetfulness drapes over reality. Even Gloria wasn’t enough to stop the electricity from flowing again. Long Island was pretty much the same, except for the people who lived on the beach on the South Shore. But in such a megalopolis, it was easy to not notice what happened to someone only ten miles away. Hey, nothing but some beach erosion, no sweat. They’ll just allocate some sand in next year’s state budget because the ocean’s such a tourist magnet. And everything will be just the same as it is before. Nature makes a great destination to get away from real life. Hurricane Gloria became a relic to be featured on the Weather Channel’s “Storm Stories” to boost primetime ratings.
Maybe it’s just an excuse, but I’ve been so inundated with this ambiguous relationship to nature, that actually writing about it is difficult. What does it mean to experience nature as it really is, rather than to see it as a tool for some political agenda, whether as an ecologist or an agribusinessman? If you pay any attention to the news at all, you’ve been peppered with stories about the glaciers melting away, threatening environmental disaster for all. But how many people who write about global warming, whether pro or con, have actually seen a glacier up close, touched a calf of it as it floated away from its parent? Or has it all come to them via satellite fed in from some scientific station in Antarctica? Has nature just become another pawn in the chess game of politics? Or is it something left to poets of old like Whitman and Dickinson to tell us of its soul? Even modern poetry has taken to the streets rather than to the forest: few slams compete over the dark romance of a rose or a nighttime prairie where civilization is too far away to protect you from illusion. And confessional poets like Sexton and Plath were too haunted by their own nature to explore the nature at large in their works.
Humanity’s intertwined relationship is one of the few truly universal experiences all people share, on one level or another. Even the busy urbanite whose only thought of nature is how the weather will affect his tennis match is influenced by nature as much as the survivalist living in the Grand Tetons. To me, nature writing captures this truism on paper. It is being conscious of what surrounds me, acknowledging that the environment that shelters me is what shelters all others. What is it like to spend time with a tree, to get to know its essence, rather than walking by it like it does not exist? What is it like to watch a family of birds nesting, as the mother and father gather food for their young?
Nature writing is a way of recording the harmony of humanity melting into the symphony of life. For no matter how busy, how forgetful one is of nature’s role in the human drama, she still has her lines to say. There is nothing to stop her from speaking when she wants to, no matter how much humanity thinks it has silenced her energy.
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