As the name suggests, Nature Writing is usually nonfiction prose about, you guessed it, nature. Mostly based on the facts about the workings of plants and animals, Nature Writing can provide an interesting new look at not only scenery description and understanding in prose, but in all kinds of writing. I don’t know about you, but when I try to paint a scene in a novel by explaining how the pine needles smell in the forest, or how this-and-that flower blooms only at night, I really have no clue what I’m talking about. I might as well be describing the mechanics behind a particle accelerator: And there was a big whoosh, and the whoosh smelled like chemicals, and looked like lasers, and the atoms somehow sped up. Yeah. Not that brilliant.
In its most distinct form, Nature Writing creates characters out of non-human subjects such as the landscape itself, the animals that roam over the landscape, or even just the atmospheric changes we see every day in the sky. A mountain becomes an old man with a permanent stoop and a gravelly voice. A snail becomes an explorer, moving deliberately over each leaf and stone, as seen in Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens. While there are human characters in Nature Writing, the purpose is to give a knowledgeable, often scientific focus to the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants. Knowing the types of flowers and trees present in Kew Gardens—knowing how to make them come alive—must have taken Virginia Woolf some thought, and perhaps some study. Her vivid, colorful close-up of garden life could have been a boring lecture about watching the grass grow or petals wilt in the sunlight. She gave the plants their own narratives, something most of us probably can’t pull-off.
Giving intelligence to matter is another type of expression in Nature Writing. For example, “fog drifted over the open moors as if it wished to bring the sea closer onto land,” gives the fog an intelligence that fog probably doesn’t have. The fog doesn’t know what it’s doing, but in this sentence it becomes a character with an ambition and purpose. Nature and matter are not only acted upon, but can act upon their own desires, which brings in a whole new set of potential points of view. Richard Mabey writes in his article for The Guardian, “It’s a recognition of the appropriate, and therefore intelligent, behavior of matter, and that landscapes have ‘memories’ embedded in their structure that influence their present environs, their future destinies—and the humans that pass through them.”
As humans, we seem to give life and voice to inanimate objects pretty easily (i.e. any story or movie involving a haunted house and talking objects). But when it comes to understanding nature on a deeper level, we become a bit stumped. What, a peanut is a legume, not a nut?! There are even arguments as to whether it makes sense to constrict the mysteries of nature in our limited human language, however creatively we might try. Is it better to just say, “There was a bird in the nest and it called out over the fields as I walked toward the tool shed” without trying to understand the bird’s song, why it sings, what it’s pitches mean, and what the bird is feeling? Is it too over-our-heads to latch a human-level of comprehension to the complexities of our natural surroundings?
In my opinion, if we didn’t try to understand nature and attempt to bring it closer to us (some would call this anthropomorphism) we would be missing so much of our current repertoire of literary classics: Walden by Henry David Thoreau, The Old Man and the Sea by Hemmingway, After the Quake by Haruki Murakami, as well as hundreds of others. Charles Darwin was a staunch Nature Writer. If he hadn’t given such focus to animals and plants, would we have the theory of evolution? Nature Writing requires not only a philosophical and imaginative understanding of flora, fauna, and matter, but a scientific understanding as well.
As a writer, there have been times when my lack of knowledge (and lack of imagination) about different natural materials totally ruined my confidence in a specific scene. I suggest, as a challenge to yourself, to read up on Nature Writing and begin incorporating its elements into your writing. When you can bring everything to life in your work—houseflies and tumbleweeds non-exempt—why wouldn’t you?
Marika Von Zellen has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Cornell College (no, not the one in Ithaca). She’s had poetry and fiction published in Open Field, Temporary Infinity, and the anthology Rock & Roll Saved My Soul. In the summer of 2012, she attended Grin City Collective Artist Residency in Iowa. Besides writing, she enjoys playing piano, theoretical physics, traveling, ghost-hunting, the Cuban Revolution, climbing trees, 3rd Wave Feminism, and good Czech beer. She’s also a [wannabe] scholar of Lewis Carroll.