What is nature writing?

For part one of this reflection on nature writing, please see the previous post where I considered what is nature and why do we care about it.

What is nature writing?

So, having avoided a firm definition of nature, we must next consider another intangible idea, that of nature writing. What is it, what does it look like, how do we know that something is nature writing? And again, we find ourselves without solid ground.
Wikipedia tells us that:

Nature writing is nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment. Nature writing encompasses a wide variety of works, ranging from those that place primary emphasis on natural history facts (such as field guides) to those in which philosophical interpretation predominate. It includes natural history essays, poetry, essays of solitude or escape, as well as travel and adventure writing.

There is no doubt that writings about nature cover a wide range of genres (essays, fiction, poetry etc) but when does writing that includes nature become nature writing. Is, for example, Wind in the Willows an example of nature writing? Is Tess of the D’Urbervilles? The former is based entirely around a community of animals and the latter includes detailed description of the landscape. How much nature must feature in writing in order for it to become nature writing?

We find another description on thoughtco.comthoughtco.com from Richard Nordquist:

Nature writing is a form of creative nonfiction in which the natural environment (or a narrator’s encounter with the natural environment) serves as the dominant subject.
“In critical practice,” says Michael P. Branch, “the term ‘nature writing’ has usually been reserved for a brand of nature representation that is deemed literary, written in the speculative personal voice, and presented in the form of the nonfiction essay.

Whilst not a definition, I do like the description that Richard Smyth provides in his commentary Plashy Fens – The Limitations of Nature Writing:

Nature writing is nothing if not the broadest of churches. All human life – and all other life, too – ought to be here: at a time when a troubling homogeneity of sex, race and class prevails in nature writing, diversity of every kind must be welcomed.*

One way of defining nature writing could be in relation to natural history writing, one often considered the scope of amateurs perhaps and the other of professionals. Often nature writing is in first person whereas there is a great stigma around anthropomorphised or personalised writing in academia. This is a way of narrowing the scope but it feels like a line that is, in reality, impossible to find. It also speaks to a hierarchy of nature writers, which in truth does not reflect the readability or enjoyability of the writing itself.

It is possible that we will never truly define nature writing. Indeed, the writers themselves do not seem to have a grasp on what this flimsy phrase means. One of our popular nature writers, Richard Mabey, has said he is confused about what the genre means and Robert MacFarlane has said he would prefer the phrase travel writer. Many are uncomfortable with the term and the loose phrase means that the nuances and variety of the genre are often missed. We must also consider people’s assumptions about the word nature. For many people, this summons up ideas of wilderness and remoteness or great beasts and rare creatures. The use of the word nature can, at surface level, seem to erase the contributions of urban nature writers and can also isolate potential readers who do not feel they would connect with “nature writing” by virtue of not being ‘great outdoorsmen’.

Perhaps purpose and intent have a role to play in sorting out what is nature writing and what is not. Rachel Carson set out to create appreciation of nature in the hope that it would lead to changes in ethical principles and result in social action. And many nature writers do write to share the magic of the world in the hope of making a change in the world. Andrea Nolan in Fiction Writers Review claims that “unlike literary writers, nature writers have a mission statement… to create love in his reader and thus spur them to also love the world.” If this is the case, then is this sufficient enough of a definition? But then what of writers which do not intentionally set out to write nature writing? And what of nature writing which does not have a call to arms or spur to action? Should all nature writing be an appeal to a reader’s conscience or a way of provoking guilt?

Another direction to approach a definition could be through the consideration of content. The Oxford Book of Nature Writing notes that there are recurrent themes, or metaphors, within the genre, in addition of course, to the natural world. These nature based imageries include nature’s breadth and depth, the mysteries of migration, the marvel of adaptation, the cycles we find in nature and the sheer relief that we are not alone on this planet. Whilst not all nature writing will focus on these, it is one way we could perhaps start to include books in the genre, even if we cannot use this as a tool to exclude.

The undefinable being that is nature writing is not even static from country to country. Culture is an important part of the conversation around nature writing. As nature is so vast and changes so much all over the world – think of the extreme difference between rainforest and arctic tundra – what is relevant to one culture’s sense of nature is not necessarily so for another. The wisdom gleamed from nature in one area may not translate well to another. The relationship different cultures have with nature also differ. And this, of course, extends to nature writing. When the journal Ecozon@ was putting together a special on nature writing, they found that “nature writing” was not a category that translated easily in the rest of Europe:

“The lone writer making trips into the countryside for personal epiphanies of engagement or enlightenment was not a common mode of literary production in mainland Europe.”

The boundaries around nature writing are loose and changeable. Perhaps, like nature itself, nature writing is a case of you know it when you read it? Or perhaps it is not really a genre at all, just a construct which helps writers and publishers who feel a need to categorise.


In my next post I will look at nature writing through history.

*Diversity within nature writing is a topic I will be returning to, especially in regards to women and the voice of the disabled nature writer. Much of our “wilderness” is inaccessible to many people still and the emphasis on wild over urban nature excludes those of us who are disabled, as well, obviously, as those who are city dwellers.

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