Why do we read and write nature writing?
We read and write nature writing to engage with nature and natural history for all the reasons previously discussed. However, the act of writing or reading about nature is clearly different to the act of going for a walk. It allows for reflection, guided thoughts, metaphors and a glimpse into the mind of another. Nature writing and nature writing reading help us to see things with new, focused, eyes.
For the writer, nature can provide a muse. To write it, nature writing begs us to pause, to think, to notice and to attune our senses. This as an exercise in itself brings great benefits but the act of seeing, hearing and feeling in order to write does, for me at least, enhance this experience. When you are thinking in order to share ideas with others, you tend to develop the ideas more clearly, more rigorously.
We have already seen that some nature writers have intentional aims when they set out, in particular those which are political or activist. MacFarlane said that “The natural world becomes far more easily disposable if it is not imaginatively known, and a failure to include it in a literary regard can easily slide into a failure to include it in a moral regard”. This suggests to me that there is strong element of environmentalism driving his own writing.
Nature writing can challenge us, demanding we stop taking nature for granted or quietly rebuking us for doing so. Nature writing can be a call to arms to question the assumptions that capitalism, consumerism and industrialisation bring. Nature writing can even just be a reminder that nature exists. Moss explains that nature writing exists because individuals want to understand their own engagement with nature. They want to unpick why nature matters to them and in turn why it is that nature should matter to all of us.
Nature writing gives authors a way, not just writing about nature, but writing for nature, advocating for the rights of the other beings that live alongside us. Nature writing is a way of reaching revelations and understanding the self, both for writer and reader. Nature, and hence nature writing, provide a retreat from humanity. They provide something which (mostly) seems fixed in our ever changing world. They provide something reliable and dependable in a society where nothing is certain. They give us a moment of stillness in the busy rush of being busy for busys sake.
Nature writing allows a particularisation of the overwhelming entity which is nature. Through personal notes, memories and observations this consuming, infinitely large and incomprehedible concept becomes one we can reach out and touch. In nature we face our mortality, our smallness and our fleetingness and in nature writing we try to comprehend this.
We live in a world of short attention spans, and within a limitation of human lifespans, meaning our momentary glances at the landscape or our walk in the woods is not even a tiny dot in the life of the world itself. All natural beings move at different time scales. By engaging with nature writing, our attention can be drawn to this and perhaps we too can slow down and experience the world in a different way, at a different pace.
Nature writing decentralises the human, returning us to be a part of the world, not the only focus or thing of importance. Through nature writing, and nature itself, we can experience both being very very small and very very large. A humbling and yet expansive experience.
Nature writing engages the imagination not just the intellect and this brings us back to symbolism. Nature gives us a vast dictionary of metaphor to play with. We can see ourselves in the tree that bends over wearily. We can connect to the exhausted part of ourselves as we watch a bee, buzzing away, never ceasing to work. With nature’s rich bank of metaphor, we can weave together the natural world and the human condition, something which provides a sense of something otherwise undefinable and evoke feelings and ideas that are difficult to express.
John Stuart Mill wrote that “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty… In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure which could be shared in by all human beings.”
When discussing his own writing, Roger Deakin said, “I want [it] to bring people not just to think of “trees” as they mostly do now but of each individual tree, and each kind of tree.”
Perhaps the greatest aim of many nature writers and readers is simply to show or see the world differently. Arguably, more accurately or at least more personally. And language and writing is an excellent vehicle for doing this.
We need bird poems as much as the RSPB”
– Tim Dee
There is something fundamentally different between literature and factual writing and there is something powerful about how we experience each. There is a place, indeed a need, for both, but to have one without the other would do a disservice to the natural world.
Nature writing can be a powerful tool. It can help evoke a sense of place and emotion, it can allow an author to share their passion or a reader to develop theirs and it can help to filter down scientific advances in a more accessible way. It provides information in a more relatable way than pure facts or textbooks do. James Stephen said that “I have learned… that the head does not hear anything until the heart has listened, and what the heart knows today the head will understand tomorrow.” And this feels like it is one important reason for nature writing to exist. It gets under the skin and gets churned over in the mind in a way that other writing about nature does not.
Language, and specificity, help us to see things, they isolate particular characteristics and draw our attention. Language changes how we think or locks us into a particular way of thinking and how we talk about nature shapes our stories and thus informs our decisions.
“How we use words to portray the world in acts of imagination is a serious matter. Metaphors have the power to structure attitudes that express themselves as action”
– Adelheid Fischer
The power of language is inevitably a key part of why nature writers chose to write the way they do. Creative writing, whether it be a personal essay, a poem or prose, has the power to evoke emotion and a sense of spiritual conviction. Creativity takes something inanimate and turns it into something of inspiration which stirs us. The nature writer may take something which is often overlooked, that goes unseen or unthought of and turn it into something that holds our attention.
Ruth Sawyer, as a storyteller, holds the art of the story in high regard. She discusses the joys of stories, the ways they can create wonder and laughter, inspire courage and love. The ways in which they can bring us to our knees in reverence. There can be no doubt that literature, in all its forms, is powerful.
Literature can provide the capacity to shock us in a way that news reporting and facts cannot. Authors can take us into the future, to a world where we have destroyed nature, where there is mass extinction, it can even take us beyond human existence. Indeed, a (debatable) sub section of nature writing, that dealing with the Anthropocene, is doing just that. These writings often aim to jolt our imagination and potentially have the power to make more of an impact on us than many other forms of media.
Literature can change us, revise our ethics, shape our consciousness, open us to possibilities and help us see afresh. The very existence of nature writing opens up a conversation about nature and for those who read nature writing, the conversation can easily extend to the relationship between nature, self, landscape, ethics and language. In essence, nature writing can be a gateway into a more eco-literate society.
Turning away from the writing that shocks and scares and guilts us, I wish to turn to Robin Wall Kimmerer who writes with love and care about nature and language in her article Speaking of Nature. She notes the importance of words. Words matter. The language we speak is not neutral. In many cases, the language we use to speak of nature is strikingly similar to that of colonialism but that is a topic for another day. She reminds us that words can be tools to help us, to inform us. The Hudson River, for example, was once called “the river that runs both ways”. Perhaps in today’s world, Hudson is more helpful, but surely it is still important to know the nature of the river and of the two, the latter is both more beautiful and more evocative. The names we use matter. Think of a loved one, would you dream of (seriously and continuously) using an offensive nickname?
One of Kimmerer’s students, Carson, writes on the use of it to describe non human things:
“It numbs us to the consequences of what we do and allows us to take advantage of nature, to harm it even, free of guilt, because we declare other beings to be less than ourselves, just things”.
This echoes Wendall Berry, who wrote:
“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”
Within the same essay, Kimmerer gives a great example of the power of grammar. She speaks of replacing it with Ki as a way of speaking of non human nature in a more respectful way. One of her students, Evelyn, asks “Are these dead limbs considered Kin [plural for Ki] too? Even though they’re dead? Looking at the dead branches on the ground, I found myself thinking a lot about firewood. I’ve always spoken – and thought – as if I were the one who made firewood. But when I thought of that tree as Ki, as a being, I suddenly saw how preposterous that was. I didn’t make the firewood. The tree did. I only picked it up from the ground.” Our language and the way we use it shapes our thoughts, ourselves and our world.
In Fischer’s article A Home Before the End of the World, the importance of precision in literature is discussed. The subtitle, ‘What does it mean when a famous novelist makes careless errors in his depiction of nature?’, could be considered to be a provocative one. But the article discusses the relevance of the type of literature. The main focus is A Home at the End of the World, a novel praised for its detail. And yet, the author, Michael Cunningham, tells of a night sky featuring a hunting hawk, a bird which hunts during the day using sight. Perhaps here the detail is less crucial but in other cases it could have transformed the story or jarred the telling of it.
In writing of all kinds, we use details as short hand, as ciphers. If I write about palm trees, you are going to think it’s likely my story is set somewhere warm and near the coast unless I provide contradictory evidence. This means I don’t necessarily have to explain that we’re on the beach on a tropical island. I may later provide more information but as a starting point, telling you there is a palm tree provides you with a lot more sense of place than if I just said tree. And if I were to tell you the main character was sitting under an old oak tree, you are transported again. Details such as these evoke a sense of place, they are code for certain characteristics. The palm tree denotes warmth and the oak, for me, English weather with all its unpredictability.
At this point in time, we have only identified and named a fraction of the species on our planet. This means there are a lot of unnamed plants and animals out there. And those we are aware of, that we know and have a name for, are disappearing rapidly, lost to extinction*. For those who have had the misfortune of not being scientifically classified and labelled, they have the double misfortune of no one noticing the loss of the species and no one having a way of talking about it. Without a name, it is much easier to slip away, unnoticed and uncared for.
“We will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it sustains. Can you imagine a satisfying love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can’t. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for a whole world.”
And thus, one of the roles of nature writing is to help us get to know the natural world, names and all, more deeply.
Next The limitations of nature writing
* We are living in what is known as the sixth great extinction. A third of amphibian species are at risk of extinction. A fifth of known mammals are endangered, threatened or vulnerable. Birds are becoming extinct at what is probably a faster rate than ever before in their 150 million year life span.