JULY 18, 2019

What’s Nature Writing?

Virtually all nature writing has to do with humans’ perception of nature. Our perceptions of nature might differ depending on our interests, our previous experiences in nature (or lack of), our ethnic backgrounds, favorite topics, spiritual concerns, and where we live.

For those who are most interested in nature as beauty (aesthetics), we could read some of the great nature poets – Wordsworth, Whitman, Mary Oliver quickly come to mind, but there are long lists including a favorite of my own, ancient Chinese poetry. Others might prefer to ‘see’ nature from a scientific perspective. Naturalists are interested in, among many other things, exploring nature for the sake of identification, understanding, and seeking solutions to problems that exist in the natural world.

We can find ethical answers in nature writing as well. Aldo Leopold offered us the “Land Ethic,” a plea from an ecologist to include the ‘land’ in our systems of ethical behavior. Spiritual concerns have been a part of our understanding of this relationship for as long as humans have been able to connect language to the world around them. We might begin a more modern look at spirituality found in nature writing with Emerson, who celebrated the idea of transcendental experience, but really spirituality could be traced back through the lineages of all people on earth through time.

No matter what the varying perceptions might be, nature writing is consistently, I think, what John Tallmadge, a contemporary environmental writer and advocate for locally focused teaching, called “a window into nature” because it offers us a process of appreciation in which we first experience nature, take down observations, learn more about our local ecosystems, and then express that in writing. A great contemporary work of creative non-fiction that offers us exactly this dynamic synthesis of humans’ perception of nature is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a native American writer who is also a professor of botany, as well as a professional storyteller. She weaves together seamlessly – as her subtitle lists – indigenous wisdom, understanding of plants, and the ancient art of storytelling, a very rare and highly inspiring testament to the deep give-and-take connection among all things human and natural, which she terms fittingly ‘reciprocity.’

For those of us who would like to participate in nature writing, it might be important to first realize that we will always have a deep and long heritage of the craft to draw from – in a way, we are all born as nature writers because we all have the capacity to observe and articulate natural phenomenon. But the nature writer is also invited to find his or her own personal perspective on this relationship, for all voices are likewise unique and will draw from personal experience. Participating in this long-standing tradition with our unique voice is one more way to see the process of nature writing.

Ready to give nature writing a try? Our Urban Nature Appreciation and Mary Oliver and the Art of Observation in Nature are the perfect way to start your journey into the world of observing and journaling about nature.