Simile and Metaphor: Figurative Language in Nature Writing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide by John A. Murray.  It’s a good book and is helping me see nature writing more critically as well as pushing me a bit in my own writing.  Being able to critique and pull apart other people’s writing can help you to be more discerning with your own.  It can also help you to understand why a particular piece might feel powerful and help you to understand what it is you like and don’t like about different authors.

I’m about half way through and so far we have considered:

  • The importance of journals
  • The essay as a form
  • The writing process
  • The opening and closing of nature writing, touched on in my post about The Doe’s Song
  • Word pictures
  • Figurative language

It is the latter that I want to consider here.  In any kind of creative writing, metaphors and similes are powerful tools.  They help readers to see images in their minds and make connections between different ideas.  And when it comes to nature writing, nature herself has given us a vast encyclopedia of potential metaphor to play with. With this rich bank, we can weave together the natural world and the human condition, we have tools which allow us to get a sense of something otherwise undefinable and evoke feelings and ideas that are difficult to express.

Fresh imagery can provide a new way of seeing the world and that is essential for the progression of humanity.  We become numb to cliched imagery, we stop seeing it, we no longer respond to it’s power.  And so, in this chapter, Murray invites us to develop our skills.

Each chapter ends with suggested exercises and there are a few which particularly appealed for figurative language.  One is to read a nature book and keep a list of all the figurative language which particularly appeals, something which I looked at with Otter Country.  The second exercise gives us the start of similes and invites us to complete them in an non cliched way.

As dark as… a mole’s world.

As smooth as… a well loved, much kissed, teddy bear.

As bright as… a triumph of daffodils ringing with the laughter of children.

As green as… the life blood of a tree. 

Damning a wild river is like… trying to hold the world in one hand.

Peering through a microscope at one-celled organisms is like… god on the sixth day, creating life in his image and reflecting on his work.

(Italics mine)

A third exercise asks us to turn literal language into figurative.  The example is around the word trembled.  We are given the sentence: The aspen leaves trembled in the wind.  And the response was: The northern lights trembled in the Alaskan night sky like the thoughts of a mother sleepless with concern for her baby.

Played: The young grizzly bear cubs played in the grass. -> The starlight played upon the lake, casting ripples of childlike joy across the water.

Whilst not mentioned as an exercise, playing with found words is something that I’d like to do at some stage.  I started it by flicking open a book and picking a random word and repeating it but with a little more care for the second word:

Blizzards as tangy as lemons * The blinding sheen of meditation contains glittering vulnerability * The wheels of mill houses scooping water over and over, spinning river into flour

Nature writing works well for this as there are already a wide range of literal and figurative images for you to combine.  The first half of the wheels of mill houses image, for example, was found in Salar the Salmon by Henry Williamson, of Tarka fame where as the other two were found in the creative guide itself.

Share your metaphors and similes, or examples you’ve come across below!

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