As a naturalist, I love tromping about in the woods studying wildflowers, spotting wildlife, and taking in magnificent views. Nothing else in this world fills my spirit so completely. Outside, in wilderness, I feel giddy to be alive. My senses blissfully engaged, I am drunk on the world.
As a conservationist, I am in the woods to fill more than my own spirit. I am there to bring back stories of awe and beauty of the wild things others have not yet experienced, or maybe never will, but desperately need their love and protection.
As a writer, readers give my tromping about a purpose beyond my own connection and communion with the natural world. Writing allows me to make sense of nature and find patterns and connections to the bigger picture. Seeking to bring the inspiration I find outdoors onto the page gives me an extra incentive to get outside when life might otherwise get in the way.
ORIGINS OF NATURE WRITING
The nature essay has a long history as a uniquely American form of writing. Henry David Thoreau is often credited as the godfather of American nature writing. He turned his detailed notes and journals about his forays at Walden Pond into essays that changed the way people thought about the countryside. His idea “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” beautifully articulated in his essay “Walking” continues to shape conservation and environmentalism over a century later.
John Muir shared his deep love of the Sierra Mountains, or the “Range of Light,” as he called them, in essays that describe his experiences in the high wilderness. His essays engage the senses and the imagination of readers by bringing to life on the page the elemental forces as he observed them in the Sierra landscapes, trees, and wildlife. To this day, his words summon readers to the wilderness and ignite their passion to protect wild places.
I, in fact, was ignited by his words as a teenager. When I was 15, I painted, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” across my bedroom with dolphins jumping over and trees growing from the words. I have been engaged in the world as a naturalist and environmentalist ever since.
CHANGING WORLD, CHANGING WORDS
The world has changed since Muir and Thoreau’s time in the wilds. We’ve added another billion people to the planet. As human population increases, biodiversity is on the decline. The borders between human communities and wilderness are blurring.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw boundaries around a wilderness area and tell humans to stay out. This is especially true in the third world where a great majority subsist directly from the land. In these situations, keeping people out of wilderness in which they traditionally lived, may not be the best way to protect the non-human world. “The New Wild,” as the recent PBS nature series calls it, requires humans to find a way to live with nature, and to sustain ourselves without destroying nature’s sustaining power.
The modern day nature essay then, often walks along the edge of this new wild. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring began, and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge continued, an exploration into the link between human health and the deterioration of the environment. Both inspired a new flavor of environmentalism. Bill McKibben’s early book Hope, Human, and Wild, painted a picture of sustainable livelihoods around the world and led to a global movement for climate action.
EARTH’S CALL TO WRITERS
Nature writing today is still relevant, even more so, given the urgency and global scale of the challenges we are facing. We need people to fall in love with the wild again, even those they will never visit.
The grand-style used by Muir and Thoreau and newer writers like David Abram and Mary Oliver go beyond description and persuasion. They plumb the depths of language to compose nature on the page. They use word-pictures to paint its essence in the mind of the reader, and to insight awe.
Writers who are drawn to this genre have the challenge of moving and inspiring the reader, to reawaken the reader to their higher selves— the Self, or spirit, that is itself nature.
Touching the spirit and renewing the readers’ deep connection with nature moves them to act for conservation, protection, and sustainability. This is what the Earth calls nature writers to do now, more than any other moment in history.
This is the call that I hear. Will you join me?