In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, we who write about our love for nature are accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against the grim reality. What is the point of taking joy in forests and meadows that we have already doomed by our greed and folly? How can we go on fiddling about the wonders and beauty of our beloved planet when it is burning all around us?
Is nature writing a retreat from activism or a weapon against climate change?
British nature lovers and writers are particularly anguished about the utility of their pursuits in these darkest of times; In Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too late? Mark Cocker worries about nature writing in the context of species loss and land degradation: “The danger is that it is a compensatory, nostalgic and internalized re-creation of what was once our birthright and is no more… without the underlying biodiversity, these responses will be like the light from a dead star: they will persist for a while, maybe even decades, but they will travel onwards into the darkness that will eventually consume them.”
When I read such catastrophic forecasts I sink into a kind of will-paralyzing dread. Actually doing something on behalf of nature, however, always gives me a spark of hope. So, in recent years, I have written and lobbied on behalf of our beloved planet by dividing my work time down the middle, allocating half my week to nature writing and the other half to environmental activism.
Last winter, lighting my little candle against the encroaching darkness eventually burned me right out: too many committee meetings, too many town halls to sit through and legislators to lobby; on the writing side, there were letters to editors, administration of three activist Facebook pages (@CCLDetroitMetroNorth, @BUCGreensanctuary, @annisvpratt), and exhaustive research for articles in the European magazine where I am a columnist. That is why, when May came around, I decided to restore my soul at my Betsie River cabin in Northern Michigan
I lolled on the banks observing fishes swim by, observed the intricacies of damselfly courtship, listened to what the eddies had to say to each other, puzzled over warbler repetoires and the mysterious projects of bank beavers. As always, my soul was restored by nature’s intricate beauty: there were patterns in mushroom gills, chickadees’ wings stuttering overhead, and the startling green when black moss resurrects itself after rain.
I always like to read a book at my my favorite spot, down on the dock with the river chortling by.
Robert Marfarlane, who is considered one of the best nature writers in England today, focusses on the sounds of locally used words for landscape attributes. In Landmarks he talks of creating “a work of words” that embed the particulars of nature, de-desecrating” them from mere objects, its rather than thous.
Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.” Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.”
In his collection of essays about British nature writers Macfarlane gives examples from Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain about the Scottish Cairngorms:
• The “coil over coil’ of a golden eagle’s ascent on a thermal,” “the minute scarlet cups of lichen,”
• The sound of moving water: “The slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate.”
Shepherd considers the mountains “’not of myself, but in myself,’” (italics mine). As Macfarlane puts it, she finds in landscape an “inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.” “Shepherd is a fierce see-er,” he concludes, “and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”
“Mysticism! I told you so,” we can hear our nature writing skeptics exclaim: “Mysticism has nothing to do with science, it’s pure escapism!” I feel quite the opposite: it seems to me that the mind/matter interaction fostered by close nature observation makes a reader environmentally “woke.” Clearly, a few definitions are in order:
• Empiricism assumes that our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world, then proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment. For nature writers it involves attention to the minute particulars of nature and an intellectual understanding of their interaction in material processes.
• Mysticism understands nature as suffused with divine spirit. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 Gospels purged by the early Christian church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While institutional Christianity declared the human soul existentially flawed and the natural world the enemy of the spirit, this kind of nature mysticism nonetheless persisted in the human heart.
• Immanentism: The belief that the natural world is pervaded with divinity. Like Transcendentalism, immanentism understands divinity as simultaneously present in and extending beyond materiality. It should not be confused with super-naturalism, which locates divinity entirely outside of nature, or with pantheism, which takes nature as all that there is.
Full disclosure: I am a flaming nature mystic.
The nature writers Macfarlane describes bring their readers into tune with their joyous syntheses of empiricism, mysticism, and immanentism by embedding the touch, feel, sound, and sight of natural phenomena into words.
To Pippa Marland, for example, contemporary nature writing is a call to rather than a retreat from environmental activism: “I’d like to believe that the current interest in nature writing is more than just a reflection of commodified nature finding a niche in consumer culture, or a nostalgic fad that mourns the loss of landscapes and wildlife while turning its back on the nature that still remains. The UK has been part of a global movement towards environmentalism in recent months, participating in a great upsurge in support for the natural world. Even if not all the readers of nature writing are activists, I do feel that there is a certain ‘environmentally-woke’ zeitgeist emerging, in the sense that people are beginning to notice and cherish nature in a significant way, and this ‘noticing’ may ultimately translate into political and environmental action.”
For a stunning example of how nature writing leads to environmental activism, a single book for children had a significant impact on last summer’s climate march.
Two years ago, Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris, was published as a deliberate act of linguistic anti-desecration.
A new edition of a standard British classroom reference work, The Oxford Junior Dictionary, had dropped forty words about nature – otter, acorn, bramble, and dandelion, heron, newt and willow among them. Their space was needed for words from modern technology like cut-and-paste, blog, and bullet-point. I had been following Morris on Twitter; her paintings of natural beings like wrens and otters against gold wash backgrounds fascinated me.
Then my Twitter feed filled with news of classrooms where the book had been assigned; all over the UK, children were rushing into the countryside and “re-sacralizing” nature in their own drawings, poems, and stories.
By the end of the summer the book had become a best seller, and the tremendous reaction to The Lost Words phenomenon culminated in a program at the Proms (a hugely popular London concert series), a video shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and CDs of songs inspired by Macfarlane’s poems and spells. The book contributed to the thousands of marchers participating in the September 20 Climate Strikes, bringing new energy and hope to the succor of our ailing planet.
And it was children, many of them “environmentally woke” by a single piece of nature writing, who led them.