Sandra Neily here. We need nature writing. We need it now more than ever: need to be seduced into the natural world: need to savor what remains or take direction toward finding new landscapes and experiences. We need to manage the grief we feel when we lose a place and its wildlife—or be ready for the grief to come.
Barbara Kingsolver nails that one. “The final stages of grief. Dellarobia felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.” (From “Flight Behavior”)
My first exposure to nature writing probably came from Blueberries for Sal.
“On the other side of Blueberry Hill, Little Bear came with his mother to eat blueberries. ‘Little Bear,’ she said, ‘eat lots of berries and grow big and fat. We must store up food for the long, cold winter.’”
But the first time I was literally immersed and awed by it, was reading John Wesley Powell’s original journals of his Colorado River while I spent twenty days rafting and hiking that river. I wrapped his journal in double baggies and a waterproof bag. It still got damp: huge waves there. I read it by headlamp with my toes in wet sand.
He writes, “The little valleys above are beautiful parks; between the parks are stately pine forests, half hiding ledges of red sandstone. Mule deer and elk abound; grizzly bears, too, are abundant; and here wild cats, wolverines, and mountain lions are at home. The forest aisles are filled with the music of birds, and the parks are decked with flowers. Noisy brooks meander through them; ledges of moss-covered rocks are seen; and gleaming in the distance are the snow fields, and the mountain tops are away in the clouds.”
From his Maine cabin Bernd Heinrich gives a deep dive on ravens. He and his students lugged in carcasses and roadkill in order to get close enough to study them extensively. Bernd kept a low profile hiding in a blind he built, but he created the conditions to get close—very close— to the birds.
We are partial to Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods” yet we do feel him in almost every line because the woods enters his pores before he pours it out. (Still love it.) “The spruce and cedar on its shores, hung with gray lichens, looked at a distance like the ghosts of trees. Ducks were sailing here and there on its surface, and a solitary loon, like a more living wave — a vital spot on the lake’s surface — laughed and frolicked, and showed its straight leg, for our amusement.”
Maine can also lay claim to the brilliant and brave Rachel Carson. What must it feel like to have the entire corporate, industrial complex with its money and might come down on you? And congress, too? They all tried to destroy the fearless Carson who knew poison from her research lab to empty birds’ nests. She is credited with starting the modern environmental movement, all because birds could not hatch the next generation. She made it visible. She made it sing.
“Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? Who has placed in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons? Rachel Carson “Silent Spring”
Like good nature writers who take us there, Carson took us first into nests so we could feel small bird lives—disappearing.
Wikipedia says, “Nature writing can be defined as non-fiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment.”
Hmm. Not quite.
It seems most often (unless it’s a scientific research paper) the hand of humans—the human with its reactions and emotions— is woven (with skill) or interjected (narcissistically) into nature writing. Seems unavoidable if someone is going to share nature with us—report it out to us.
A Special Shout-Out to Ron Joseph for his new, delightful memoir, Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs, and Hermit Bill. It’s chock-full of his Maine wildlife biologist stories. My Ron interview, “A Mother Moose Won’t Stop Until She Gets You” is a Crime Writers post. Listen to his very fun Maine Calling interview, here.
What about fiction? Sometimes nature illuminates fiction. Listen to Barbara Kingsolver fuse nature and character in one sentence. It’s just a phrase, but it takes us both to the power of the butterflies and also how Dellarobia was undone at the same time.
“The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes.”
“Flight Behavior” is an amazing novel: monarch butterflies against … pretty much the world. Nature is often an important character.
Writing stories from South Berwick, ME we have Sarah Orne Jewett (born 1849). “There’s sometimes a good hearty tree growin’ right out of the bare rock, out o’ some crack that just holds the roots’, she went on to say, ‘right on the pitch o’ one o’ them bare stony hills where you can’t seem to see a wheelbarrowful o’ good earth in a place, but that tree’ll keep a green top in the driest summer. You lay your ear down to the ground an’ you’ll hear a little stream runnin’. Every such tree has got its own livin’ spring; there’s folks made to match ’em.” “The Country of the Pointed Firs”
More recently Paul Doiron’s, “Hatchet Island” makes characters of the sea, the islands, and the birds who seek refuge there even as he intends to allow no refuge for a killer. “The wind was forecast to rise later, turning onshore in the afternoon, but so far, the air remained breathless. The sea was a sheet of hammered platinum. Every stir of my paddle brought the fecund smell of the ocean into my nose and mouth. It was as if I could taste the teeming life in the depths: the phytoplankton and the zooplankton, the oyster beds, the shoals of mackerel, and the deep-diving seals. The sensory stimulation left me feeling intoxicated.”
Good accurate, nature writing woven into fiction, gives readers genuine renditions of the natural world. It lends belief-power to whatever else might be fictional on the page. If the biology is accurate and rich and powerful and even insightful, why not accept the entire story as authentic and rich and powerful—even if the plot is fiction?
We fiction authors do a lot of nature-based research, even if it only lands as a few sentences. I asked the wolf coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation to proof my first novel for canine accuracy, and I found a wolf refuge where I could sit and watch wolves close up. David Mech’s book was my wolf bible.
Here’s the passage in “Deadly Trespass” where Patton (my narrator) meets one.
I smiled because the wolf seemed to be smiling at me, its mouth at a quizzical angle. Yellow-gold eyes calmly examined my face, holding my eyes. I’d never had an animal initiate a penetrating stare with see-everything eyes. Pock, sleeping heavily on my feet, brought me happy dog faces, not a searching interview. The wolf’s fur glowed with approaching daylight, patches of tan-white hair electrifying the black bristles that fluffed his cheeks. On this animal every hair breathed. Colors vibrated toward each other as he panted. ￼
… He yawned, curling black lips to show off incisors. My chance to see—close-up—three-inch fangs that could drop a moose, nose first.
Please do share out good stuff to others! I shared this Margaret Renkl piece with neighbors who leave outside lights on all night. Now, we are planning a firefly backyard gathering. Opinion | ‘Why Do You Still Have Lightning Bugs? Ours Are All Gone.’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com) “Firefly populations have dropped alarmingly, and it’s mostly our fault. Light pollution interrupts the flash patterns that fireflies use to communicate, making it more difficult to find a mate and evade predators. Development means the loss of the leaf litter and fallen branches and high grass that make up firefly habitat. …” (Renkl is the author of the acclaimed “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in 2023. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.