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On Nature Writing

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

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Nature writing, whether poetry, novel, or non-fiction, is a brand of writing that people adore or abhor. Historically, it's a recent category making an appearance in the mid-late 1800's as the focal point of works of literature. Earliest writings (Sumarian, Egyptian, Greek) revolve mostly around histories, lists, and philosophies. Later written works relate fables and tales of gods and goddesses (many of whom governed nature). David Rains Wallace wrote in the NYT (7/22/1984) "...nature generally was seen in only two dimensions. It was a backdrop to a historical cosmos, or a veneer over a religious one."

From A Walk in the Woods to On Walden Pond and My Side of the Mountain, readers today have a plethora of work that reflects humankind's connection into nature beyond its use as a backdrop or a veneer. Some authors regularly use nature as more than scenery . Gary Paulson's coming of age novels regularly introduce young and teen readers to wild areas and his work bridges young people to wilderness no matter where they live.

Since the mid 19th Century we've seen expanding interest in nature as a character of it's own, from plants that come to life, like Little Shop of Horrors, to stories in which the main character grapples with nature to such an extent that the natural environment takes on many of the classic distinctions of primary characters, such as Moby Dick. Readers are given extensive descriptions and can see the natural landscape, often from several perspectives, and nature becomes memorable. Who could ever forget the living jungle in Mowgli or the barrow-downs of Lord of the Rings? Nature is capricious, has foibles, and in some way through the telling of the story, changes or grows.

This kind of writing, especially in fiction and poetry, is rife with pitfalls, especially overly sentimental writing that falls too easily into cliche. Staying true to the tenant that main characters should not only be memorable but should be involved in the plot, climax, and denouement of the story, environments can become poignant parts of books to which readers become attached.

There is a growing use of this in works reflecting climate change and dystopian environments, so much that it has become a genre called CliFi. The Road (McCarthy), Atwood's The Year of the Flood, Hunger Games (Collins), and Flight Behavior (Kingsolver) are all memorable in their use of the natural world as a significant part of the story; not just the plot, but taking on character-role status. These books remain notable because they do not romanticize nature as perfect (even before the storm), and allow readers to come to know the natural world of the story apart from other characters.

Writers have much liberty, even in the tight market of today's publishing world. Works of non-fiction, like The Sixth Extinction by Kolbert or many works by Jared Diamond and E.O. Wilson bring us to the edge of our seats, engage our brains on multiple levels, and keep us in the story by using nature as a character. By working stories (fictional or not) outside of traditional parameters, writers are keeping readers engaged with such important issues as stewardship, reclamation, and forward thinking solutions to our global environmental problems.

Whether your story is about a hero's journey or the end of the world, nature is and can be a compelling character in your story.

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