Nature Writing

by Svetlana Grobman, CPL Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” — Isaiah 40:4

Once again, nature’s miracles are upon us — colors are sprouting from the ground and waving at us from the trees, scents are filling the warm spring air, and we look around in awe at the creative power of nature.

The way humans perceive nature has changed over time. In biblical times, nature was perceived in two opposing ways: as wilderness, inhabited by wild beasts; and as fields and gardens, inhabited by people. Eviction from the latter was a serious punishment, the Garden of Eden comes to mind, for nothing in wild nature was congenial to man.

The Romantic movement at the end of the 18th century inverted the negative notion of wilderness. Romantics such as English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) idealized nature. They viewed it — in all its glory and cruelty — as a great teacher, preferring nature to machines, primitivism to civilization and intuition to rationality.

Later, another English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), introduced a contrary view of nature. For him, nature wasn’t benign but “red in tooth and claw.” English novelist and poet of the naturalist movement Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) stretched that sentiment even further: “Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society.”

Colonization of America brought forward a new notion. New Americans who moved from Europe, where nature was benign — the last wolf was killed in England in the 1500s — found themselves in a wilderness, surrounded by unfamiliar plants and animals. Yet they not only adapted to the new environment, they also developed a deep interest in nature.

John James Audubon (1785-1851), a French-American ornithologist and artist, painted, catalogued and described North American birds. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) explored both what we owe to nature and what it gives us. And John Muir (1838-1914), a Scottish-born naturalist and author, advocated preservation of wilderness.

By the beginning of the 20th century, with Teddy Roosevelt in his pith helmet, the preservation movement was gaining momentum. Roosevelt’s most significant contribution to his country was protecting its unique natural areas by designating them as national parks, national forests and other national preserves — more than 200 million acres in all. Now everyone had an opportunity to experience nature. And so they did, including photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams (1902 -1984), best known for his photographs of the American West.

The main concern of today’s naturalist writers is still protection of nature — mainly from the impact of humans. Sylvia Earle describes the damage we’ve done to our oceans and its consequences for our own survival in "The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One” (National Geographic, 2009).

Steve Nicholls turns to the writings of early naturalists to gain understanding of both the natural abundance of the New World when the first Europeans arrived and of how much of it was destroyed so quickly. Nicholls’ “Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery” (University of Chicago, 2009), explores the overuse and collapse of native species and gives readers new insights into how North America has changed.

No Impact Man: The Adventures of A Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2009) is New Yorker Colin Beavan’s account of living “green” for one year — no trash, no elevators, no subway, no air conditioning and no television. Both serious and entertaining, the book discusses “eco-effective” ways of living in an age of inconvenient truths.

Bill McKibben first warned of global warming’s inevitable impact 20 years ago in “"The End of Nature.” His new book “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet”(Time Books, 2010) is, nevertheless, cautiously optimistic. McKibben’s prescription for coping on our new Earth is to adopt maintenance as our mantra, to think locally not globally, and to learn to live lightly, carefully and gracefully.

A symbiotic relationship between nature and humans is analyzed in Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” (Algonquin Books, 2008). Louv points out that today’s children are increasingly disconnected from nature. Instead of hiking in the woods, children spend time watching TV or playing computer games. This, Louv says, leads to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, childhood obesity, stress, depression and anxiety.

Tired of reading about problems? Pick up “Dawn Light: Dancing With Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day” (W. W. Norton, 2009), written by author, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, and enjoy her lyrical prose studded with beautiful images.

Also, don’t miss “A Reenchanted World: The Quest for A New Kinship With Nature” by James Gibson (Metropolitan Books, 2009). This book advocates reawakening our appreciation of the living world and our kinship with other species. “Reenchantment,” Gibson believes, is essential to our commitment to preserve our planet.

Or, in the words of one “reenchanted” American:

“It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” — Theodore Roosevelt

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