About rethinking a genre literary hub

If there was a contest for Most Hated Genre, nature writing would certainly get top honors. Other candidate romantics, say, have their opponents, but are strongly defended by both practitioners and fans. When it comes to nature writing, no one seems to hate container and content more than nature writers themselves.

“‘Nature writing’ has become a nonsense, branded and bent from any useful existence, and I would be happy to see the erasure of the present discussion,” wrote essayist Robert Macfarlane in 2015. When David Gessner, in his book Sick of natureimagined a feast attended by his fellow nature writers, he described an in-depth dud: “As usual with this crowd, there is a whole lot listen en observe continue, not many earnings. ”

Critics, for their part, have dismissed the genre as a “solid civic form of escape,” with naturalists surrendering to a “literature of comfort” and “feeling while the agrochemicals are burning.” Naturalists and their work are portrayed in various ways, honestly and not, as misanthropic, delusional and just plain shameful. Joyce Carol Oates has included in her essay “Against Nature” the “painfully limited set of answers” of nature writing on her subject in all captions: “REVERANCE, AWE, PIETY, MYSTICAL ONENESS.”

Oates was apparently not comforted.

Adhering to nature writing as a genre has more to do with publishers than with writers. Labels can put useful lash books together, giving everyone a better chance of staying floating in a flooded market, but they can also reinforce established stereotypes, restrict those who work within a genre, and exclude those who fall outside its definition. As Oates suggested, there are innumerable ways of thinking and writing about what we call “nature,” many of them compelling. But natural writing, as defined by publishers and historical precedent, ignores anything but a few.

The nature writer genre originated in the late 1700s, in the special moment that nature, as Europeans and North American intellectuals saw it, was no longer terribly mysterious but not yet in danger. The scientific classification of species had brought some apparent order to irreversible landscapes, giving writers such as William Bartram, a botanist who traveled through the American South shortly before the Revolutionary War, not a tangle of flora and fauna, but “an infinite variety of animated scenes, unspeakably beautiful and enjoyable. “

Such “appreciative aesthetic responses to a scientific view of nature,” as the writer and physicist David Rains Wallace once described them, were products not only of their time and place, but of their culture and class. Scientific conceptions of nature are, of course, not the only possible conceptions, and as many anthropologists and linguists have pointed out, the concept of “nature” as a collection of objects, separate from but beneficial to humans, is also far-fetched. universal.

In the 19th century, many of the thinkers we now call nature writers took some exception to the genre’s original project. While Ralph Waldo Emerson famously saw human transcendence as the primary goal of the non-human world, his rebellious protégé Henry David Thoreau was more interested in other forms of life for her own sake, and more willing to muddy his literal and metaphorical teachings. get. John Muir, though notoriously repulsive to the human history of the Sierra Nevada, had unusually egalitarian ideas about other species, and even considered lizards, squirrels and mosquitoes as other inhabitants of the planet.

As I learned while researching my book Dear animals, a history of the modern conservation movement, the emergence of the science of ecology in the early 20th century made it increasingly clear that the boundaries between humans and “nature” were more linguistic and cultural than physical. Rachel Carson, citing Thoreau as one of her primary influences, further expanded the natural writing genre by linking the fate of other species to the fate of human bodies.

There are countless ways of thinking and writing about what we call “nature”, many of them compelling. But natural writing, as defined by publishers and historical precedent, ignores anything but a few.

However, each genre can only expand so far, and the limitations of natural writing are inscribed in its name. Natural writing still has the tendency to treat its subject as “an infinite variety of animated scenes,” and although the membership and approach to the genre have varied somewhat in recent years, his prize winners resemble his founders, Mostly white, mostly male, and mostly from rich countries. The poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie calls her Lone Enraptured Males.

Meanwhile, writers in all genres and disciplines struggle with the relationship between people and the rest of life, often when it comes to writing about miracle and upliftment, it is also, inevitably, about survival – the survival of all kinds, including our own . Amitav Ghosh, whose novels often follow the connections between species and habitats – humans and snakes, tigers and dolphins, land and sea – recently published The Nutmeg’s Curse, his second book-length essay on the literature, history and politics of climate change. (The first was The Great Disorderpublished in 2016.)

Science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer keeps coming back to the unstable boundaries between humans and other species, most recently in his novel Hummingbird Salamander, Margaret Atwood, a dedicated birdwatcher, wrote that the sight of red-necked crickets “getting in the undergrowth” in Northern Australia inspired her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. Historians like Dina Gilio-Whitaker, the author of As long as grass growsand Nick Estes, the author of Our history is the future, documenting the damage to indigenous cultures and all kinds through centuries of capitalism and colonialism. These and many other works recognize that humans are both observers of and participants in the network of life on earth – and that our roles, while often destructive, can also be constructive.

Today, the nature writing genre reminds me of the beat of climate change in journalism: the commitment and scope of the work have increased to the point that The label is arguably worse than useless, misrepresenting the work as narrower than it is and limiting its potential audience. The state of “nature”, like the state of the global climate, can no longer be valued from afar, and its literature can no longer be were restricted to one plank. If we have to label it, I say we call it survival writing. Or, better yet, writing.


Dear animals Michelle Nijhuis

Michelle Nijhuis’s book Dear animals is available through WW Norton & Company. Copyright © 2022.

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