Writing About Nature While We Still Can



“I studied rocks,” my friend Susan Barker likes to joke, especially when I press some inscrutable piece of contemporary poetry into her hand. In her doctoral studies, she focused on ways to get people excited about nature, and she is frustrated by all the paeans written by urban types who see a butterfly and use its flight to say their lover fluttered away from them.

I know that sort of nature writing. I have done it. So I keep quiet while she demands to know who writes for plainspoken people who care deeply about the land they farm or hike. The fancy essays that literary and intellectual journals publish are often starved of nature’s particulars, she points out. The writers are proud of themselves simply for having ventured outdoors for an afternoon.

This cuts close to home. The most I learned about the natural world as a kid was how babies are born and what you see (before you vomit) when you slice an X-ACTO knife into the hard shell of a formaldelyded grasshopper. I am proud when I venture outdoors and manage to observe something that strikes a resonant chord. But I notice, even in her emails, the difference. When Susan writes about large birds of prey navigating air currents, she mentions how eagles hold their wings flat, not in an upright V as hawks and vultures do. I just say the eagle “soars” and connect that to a mood or an emotion, weave in a few memories, add a lyrical quote or two.

Nature writer Richard Smith tackles this dichotomy in Aeon, worrying that “facts have been devalued.” Too often, he says, someone writes prettily of a few glimpses of nature, but “writing that turns aside from detail, that comes from a place of rarefied factlessness, can feel to me unmoored, and adrift.”

I pause here, wondering if some of this is a matter of temperament. Those with a scientific bent, an empirical approach to the world, are often concrete thinkers, anchored in what is before them. Abstract thinkers drift on purpose, slashing the ropes intended to moor them. They (we) are more interested in where an observation takes them than in the subspecies’s dimensions or mating habits. What poetry is present in that eagle’s wing, what philosophy, what mystery?

That said, flights of fancy are far too easy to reel out with no regard for the physical reality that inspired them. This is why I look forward to Susan’s casual emails. When she describes fields of winter wheat as green oceans, waves traveling across them in sunset’s slanted light, she knows when the wheat ripens, how it is planted, where it grows best, when the light will reach that slant as earth moves through its rotation. I am more like a toddler pointing and saying, “Pretty!”—and what I write risks being vacuous because it lacks a foundation of fact.

We have to look, sometimes far away, for examples that fuse the outside world with the inner. The Inuit, for example, use “the whats and wheres of the places they inhabit,” the names and concrete facts, as a way of mapping and thus knowing the world. The map is complex, hard for an outsider to fathom, because myriad facts—the travels of the Arctic fox, the best place to fish for sculpin, the nesting places of the eider duck whose down keeps them warm—are bound up in a network of relationship, experience, and memory. The concreteness of the world is not just diagrammed but deeply respected

Or is this just more vague romanticism? I have never met an Inuit writer. I am using other people’s quotes to make assumptions. You, the reader, have no idea what that sort of knowing and respect look like, let alone how they change the future. We can only trust anthropologist Hugh Brody that this is the Inuit “way of owning their world”—with “owning” an expression of kinship and not possession.

Certainly, the Inuit have not dried their world into separate bundles of facts whose only use is as kindling. That would be the opposite problem: not urban-naïve romanticism, but the obsessive cataloging that insists on knowing the name and coloration of every bird, photographing and journaling every sighting. Those are the nature writers so in love with the facts they have gobbled up that they forget to articulate the insight that accompanied those facts.

They are the sticklers. Smith lands squarely in their camp, in my opinion, when he raises an eyebrow at Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing that moss can teach us the lessons “of being small, of giving more than you take, of working with natural law, sticking together.” A biologist, Kimmerer descends from the storytelling Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. She knows how to build bridges between different life forms. Smith bristles at her anthropomorphism: “Is moss, though, choosing to live as it does?” (Are we?) Is it meaningful, he continues, to speak of the “generosity” of moss? When we are watching it spread and glow, softening and cooling the rock, yes, I think so. Moss asks little from the world, by way of raw materials or fussy conditions, yet it gives back a great deal. Its giving may not be conscious and intentional, but neither is “a generous helping”; we call the food generous because it is ample, a gift to us that will help us survive. For Smith, though, Kimmerer’s figure of speech feels “somewhat destabilizing.” He admits such writing can tell us more about ourselves, but when it comes to learning about nature, he seems to prefer analogy to metaphor.

And that might be the crux. Some writers use nature to understand themselves (thus risk seeming self-indulgent), while others write to teach about the natural world. Motive, as well as temperament, dictates the form.

Still, each sort of nature writing needs a balance. After deploring a loss of facts, Smith acknowledges that there is “less conflict than I had imagined between nature as external assembly of names and facts and nature as internal feeling; that the two modes of seeing or knowing could in fact marry and take place almost simultaneously.”

They could. But often, they do not, and readers are forced to choose between extremes. Researching wolves, I find zingy tales of human adventure, mystical goo about spirit animals, and dry descriptions of subspecies and their size, fur color, territory, and pack size. Only the geniuses manage to unite concrete and abstract so deftly that none of us can tear them apart. Read Annie Dillard, Robert MacFarlane, Sigurd Olson, Barry Lopez, Diane Ackerman, or others of that caliber, and you will know more about nature and more about yourself.

At the tier below, writers “pit ‘knowledge’ against lived experience, against emotional engagement,” Smith remarks. Soon the prospect of a scientist writing about nature “summons nothing in us but Linnaean binomials, mothballed drawers of beetles, airless data, the charts and graphs of dead white European men.”

Susan has no patience for that sort of writing, either. “I don’t know why people have to focus on the ‘either or,’” she says, exasperated. “Over the last couple of decades, it’s like writers are trying to outdo each other with forced or overly flowery language. Or they veer off on a cognitive side trail that hurts my brain. They use so many words that the message, if they had one, seems lost. I want words that flow over me and pull me along until I am one with the writer: ‘With air so cold, it hurts to inhale. But inhale one must. Driven by fear, as little frigid air as possible is pulled in because it burns all the way down. Either protect the lungs or join the flattened grass sprawled across the frozen prairie sod.’”

The driest nature writing of all comes in guides, she adds. “Place guides are just facts and descriptions: ‘The South Rim campground has sixty full-service RV sites, a camp store, and a pool.’ Nothing there to capture or nurture my sense of wonder. Why can’t bits like this be scattered through these guides? ‘To stand on the South Rim, at sunset, as a storm approaches, is to feel your body come alive as never before. Your skin tingles, your hair whips with abandon in the driven wind….’”

As for nature guides, “they are really just identification guides. I have purchased a wide variety, and about the only way they differ is by the number of birds, bugs, rocks, etc. All focus on facts: size, color, food choices, and a brief habitat mention or a geology map. Maybe that’s all people want, but I don’t think so. I was always looking for interesting facts that I could share with students, but I couldn’t find guides that said, ‘Think of volcanic pumice as foam on a glass of soda. Full of gas bubbles, small pieces of hardened pumice will often float in water.’ A floating rock makes people take notice!”

And taking notice matters, these days. Maybe that is why nature writers often try too hard: they see the species dying away, the ground burning, and know they need to write about it—but there is no time left to fall in love with the facts, as the leisurely Victorians did. Other nature writers are frantically cataloging to preserve knowledge before it is too late; they think the deeper meaning should be obvious. But to “own” our world in the familial sense—to care for its occupants as we would our own children—we need everything at once. Facts, meaning, practical knowledge, wonder.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.