At several points in my life, I wanted to be a “nature writer,” or as I thought of it in geekier moments, a natural history writer. The first time I considered it seriously was when I realized I was not going to be the next Jane Goodall (because Jane Goodall still has that pretty well locked up), somewhere in my early 30s. I toyed with it again before deciding to return to graduate school to study environmental ethics, and after that, well, just about every weekend since…
Nature writers like to talk about the landscapes that “shaped” them: the mountains, the forests, the deserts, the coastlines… I grew up in Ohio, as most of my dwindling readership knows. And in the flattest, dullest parts of Ohio to boot – areas where all the trees were cut down to grow soybeans, and then, once the soil was exhausted, to grow middle class housing subdivisions or long, flat, aluminum-sided industrial buildings. This birthright could be a near-fatal blow to the budding nature writer. (Quick! Name one from Ohio…) So the landscape of my imagination was shaped by Audubon magazine, Arizona Highways, National Geographic, and big scenic picture books like “Beautiful America.” I remember spending ninth grade study breaks in the high school library looking at college catalogs from Colorado, Montana, New Mexico – plotting my escape to a state with an actual topography. (But I stayed in Ohio and went to Wittenberg University.)
Though I was convinced that Ohio somehow lacked “nature,” I could always nonetheless find creatures to watch. If you grew up in suburban-outskirts Ohio, in the ’60s and ’70s, imagining yourself to be the next Jane Goodall or Jacques Cousteau, you learned to look creatively for the wildlife around you. You looked in the scrawny little stands of trees the developers left between subdivisions, you looked in culverts and drainage ditches beside the roads leaving town, you looked in the creeks that can always, always be found behind factories (because it would be a few years before you learned to worry about that water). You tried not to be too dismissive of the ubiquitous “LBJs” in the bushes outside your window. And let’s face it, Ohio’s Northern Cardinals and praying mantises are pretty awesome, period. Even a kid frustrated by Ohio’s total lack of mountains and grizzly bears can get into cardinals and praying mantises. Or was that just me?
I’m reminded of all this as I slog through another long paper/exam, which I have barely four more weeks to pull together. (The paper is on resolving conflicts of interest between human and nonhuman animals, without necessarily resorting to the “human DNA always trumps nonhuman DNA” formula.) Desperate for some kind of muse, I combed my “animal reference” shelves and spotted a book by Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. This was a fun book to read (though it suffers from occasional relapses into the dissertationese in which it apparently began), and I wondered if the author has published anything since (1999). So I googled her. Turns out she is a writer for LA Observed, and is working on a new book based on this essay, published in Believer magazine (treat yourself to “Believer” sometime) in 2006: “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in Los Angeles.” It’s posted in two parts: one and two.
I just LOVE this essay – a manifesto, really, about how nature writing can become relevant again. The suggestion that it has grown irrelevant (“marginal” is her word) may rankle many practitioners and fans, but let’s face it: (1) nature writing is mostly read by nature lovers; it preaches to the choir. And (2) while good nature writing can temporarily “transport” us out of our subway seats and doctor’s offices and favorite reading chairs, into the virgin wild backcountry, it usually does this by creating a vast gulf between a stylized and idealistic view of “nature” and our own native habitats. As Price writes:
In the past twenty-five years, the venerable American literature of nature writing has become distressingly marginal. Even my nature-loving and environmentalist friends tell me they never read it. Earnest, pious, and quite allergic to irony: none of these trademark qualities plays well in 2006. But to me, the core trouble is that nature writers have given us endless paeans to the wonders of wildness since Thoreau fled to Walden Pond, but need to tell us far more about our everyday lives in the places we actually live. Perhaps you’re not worrying about the failures of this literary genre as a serious problem. But in my own arm-waving manifesto about L.A. and America, I will proclaim that the crisis in nature writing is one of our most pressing national cultural catastrophes.
We need, Price goes on, “to rewrite entirely the stories we tell about nature…” “…(I)f there’s any one argument I could persuade you of, it’s that our foundational nature stories should see and cherish our mundane, economic, utilitarian, daily encounters with nature—so that what car you drive and how you get your water and how you build a house should be transparent acts that are as sacred as hiking to the top of Point Mugu in the northern Santa Monica Mountains and gazing out over the Pacific Ocean to watch the dolphins leap, the ducks float, and the sun set.” This is good stuff. I’m just picking a couple of gems to highlight. And it raises, for me, one of the ongoing debates about nature writing. Should it follow the old writing saw, “show, don’t tell,” trusting that readers will be moved by powerful images and stories to tread more lightly, share more fairly, preserve and protect where necessary? Or should it be downright pedantic, moralistic, or political? Either way, it needs to project a nature readers can feel connected to.
I haven’t read David Gessner’s Sick of Nature (only this excerpt), which lays out his frustrations with nature-writing. But he summarizes his key complaint in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nature“:
I was sick of the hushed voice, sick of the saintliness, sick of the easy notions of the perfectibility of man, sick of the apocalyptic robes, sick of the scolding. But most of all I was sick of the certainty that seemed to ooze out of the words. Writers certain that they knew what would happen in the world and certain that they knew how to be in that world and certain that they should tell us these things. The odd thing was that, for all their certainty, the world they described didn’t sound much at all like the world I happened to live in.
Which is pretty much Price’s point, too. (And here I’ll insert my own pet peeve: the too heavy-handed, too self-conscious presence of a nature writer who can’t resist making his or her enlightened self a feature of the scenery. Ironic that I chose to lead this whole thing off with a little autobiographical tale, eh? Do as I say, not as I do.)
What is he suggesting to replace it? I’ll quote him, and let this wrap up my too-lengthy post, for now.
First, I’m looking for a discourse with a whole lot less bunk. And a whole lot less mysticism, (which most of us, when not on drugs, don’t understand). I’d also like a kind of writing that isn’t content to chew its cud out in some far off back forty literary pasture, fenced off from real life concerns like politics. While I may not be personally ready to call myself an “environmentalist,” I am more than ready to fight for the environment. It is a sign of our over-specialized times, after all, that we have tried to put up a wall between writing that is “literary” and that which is political. As if the two things could be fenced off and still remain vital. It has gotten to such a silly point in this country that it is commonly said of writers that their activism hurts their art. The implication seems to be that people are meant to do only one thing, in the manner of the assembly line worker. For my part, I’m happy to accept the sloppy fact of what James Baldwin called “men as they are.” But I also understand that it’s time to shut up and fight. Samuel Johnson, after listening to a philosopher friend argue against “the reality of matter,” got up and kicked a chair, saying, “I refute it thusly.” I can have my qualms with environmentalism—its earnestness, its joiner-mentality, its current vogue—but these qualms need to co-exist with action. I may be occasionally turned off by the arguments of the virtuous, but they are right about one thing: fighting for nature is, in the end, a moral issue. And as with a lot of moral issues, we can tamp it down, push it away, or try to ignore it, but we know, at some level, that we are avoiding something and that that avoiding holds great peril, both psychologically and practically.