ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
My bookcases are filled with books about nature—Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Barbara Hurd’s Walking the Wrack Line: On Tidal Shifts and What Remains, Terry Tempest Williams’s When women were birds: fifty-four variations on voice--and when I moved to Florida, after five years living just outside our nation’s capital, I gathered books about my new home, iconic books like Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades: River of Grass, and books by local writers, Susan Cerulean and Janisse Ray, writers who craft lyrical books about longleaf pines and the gulf shore, two ecosystems I now frequently wander through with my husband and long-haired dachshund. Learning about the land made me feel connected to my new home, teaching me about the uncannily pink roseate spoonbills that use their cutlery-shaped beaks to search shallow waters for crayfish and shrimp or the charismatic scrub jay, an endemic species disappearing from the Florida peninsula as we clear more and more scrubland to create citrus fields and housing developments.
In my introductory level creative nonfiction course, I teach nature writing as part of my unit on researched writing—a unit that allows students to understand the many different directions you can explore with creative nonfiction, how it doesn’t have to only be used to divulge uncomfortable truths or capture intense, turbulent lives. Many students are afraid to write about themselves, afraid that their lives don’t merit writing about; they also often feel that they are not ready to share their own stories, to dig into discomfort. But even if my students do engage excitedly in personal essay writing, I want to teach them that they can enrich and complicate personal essays by turning beyond the personal, by finding research to add texture to stories.
Nature writing, to me, feels like an accessible way to experiment with researched writing. Perhaps this is because of my affinity for the genre, or my affinity for long walks beneath the droopy, Spanish-moss festooned live oaks that cast shade over my neighborhood streets, but also, I think nature writing should be readily accessible to my students. My home city of Tallahassee is surrounded by national and state forests and the ocean is less than an hour from campus. City parks abut our campus, including a large retaining pond surrounded by a paved trail where charismatic shorebirds gather, such as wood storks and egrets, and, as I write this, a (very) lost East Siberian Wagtail—a white, black, and gray bird whose name derives from its need to constantly “wag” its long tail as it wanders back and forth across muddy banks, feeding on flies and beetles trapped in the muck. Even the campus I teach on is meticulously landscaped—red brick buildings wall off hidden courtyards that gardeners fill with pink Ti plants, spiky sago palms, groves of tangerine trees, or puffs of blue plumbago. Even if my students don’t know the names of these plants or birds, they can practice their imagery by attempting to describe them to a reader, or they can take what they know and turn to the internet, the library, gardeners, or identification guides for answers. Even if they are not experts in botany or ornithology, I hope to teach them they possess unique perspectives they can add to the genre.
To help my students enter into the nature writing conversation, one of the first things I ask them to do is to make a list of creative works they know that engage with nature. This list doesn’t have to solely include literary works; it can include anything from documentaries to podcasts to movies to paintings, and beyond. From this list, I then ask students to generate a list of tropes that they associate with these works. I define a trope as a word, image, narrative device, etc, that is used figuratively or metaphorically and so commonly that it borders on cliche. To get them started, I provide them with examples, such as the dichotomy of life and death, man vs. nature, nature as resilient, nature as healing, cycles in nature, the metaphors of the seasons: spring as rebirth, winter as death, and the list goes on—you understand, and so do my students, their markers fervently filling the board with ways they have seen nature used metaphorically everywhere from in Disney films to pamphlets about butterflies and bees to documentaries narrated by David Attenborough.
My students and I think about this list when we read and discuss any nature essay together. Almost every piece we read, and these are pieces that I have selected, pieces that I admire, engage with these tropes. J Drew Lanham’s “Forever Gone” begins by elegizing the Carolina Parakeet; in H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald heals through her interactions with a bird of prey and, more largely, her interactions with nature. Throughout our readings, my students question whether it is possible to engage in nature writing without utilizing tropes. I still don’t have the answer to this question—perhaps this is why I am always asking my students to question this idea alongside me.
My inclination is that it is possible to expel tropes from nature writing, but it is difficult and often doesn’t happen, especially within nonfiction nature writing. Subscribing to Vivian Gornick’s essaying terminology utilized in her instructional book, The Situation and the Story (which is one of the first craft texts my students and I read), if we are asking writers, in composing essays, to explore deeper meanings with their stories, is there any way to push them beyond tropes? If an essay on trees must be more than just as essay on trees, is there a way it can diverge from tropes about growth and stability?
This becomes even more complex when thinking about writing that deals with climate change as there are so many narratives inherent to climate change, such as the need to elegize mass extinction, or the dichotomy of humankind as destructive and nature as pure and good. As many of the narratives surrounding climate change seem intrinsic to the events unfolding around us, it seems impossible to move beyond tropes in writing about the ways our planet is changing. In Imagining Extinction, a book of ecocriticism that analyzes the language we use to talk about extinction, especially human-influenced extinction, Ursula Heise analyzes a climate change trope that stands out to her: our repeated need to elegize species on the verge of extinction. By looking at a range of texts, from travel writing to scientific books to photographs, Heise examines how widespread this deploying of elegy or tragedy onto animals is, focusing her analysis on David Quammen’s nonfiction book, The Song of the Dodo, wherein Quammen analyzes island extinctions. In Quammen’s characterization of the dodo bird’s extinction, Heise notes the way Quammen really leans into elegiac characterization of the bird: “Quammen translates extinction into narrative by focusing on the last of the species, whom he invites his reader to envision as female. This gender fiction allows him to portray her in the well-worn elegiac tropes of the bereaved mother and wife, as well as that of the elderly lady with health problems” (38).
After reading Heise’s work, I have noticed how frequent this portrayal is. Recently I picked up a collection of essays put out by the University of Florida Press entitled, The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature, and in an essay on invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades, I was struck by how a narrative that began by assessing the way this non-native species was changing Florida’s ecosystem pivoted into an elegy, utilizing the same tropes Heise outlines in Imagining Extinction. Issac Eger, the essayist of “Feast of Pythons,” does note that despite being categorized as invasive in the Everglades, the Burmese python is actually threatened in its native habitat (Eger 77), and it is this idea, as well as the beauty of the creature, the way its skin shimmers in the sun, and the fact that Eger holds the snake that is about to be shot, that makes Eger feel some sympathy for the creature. He writes: “She was heavy. She felt waxy and cool in my hands like she was impervious to the humidity. She was docile. Like she had given up, knew her fate, and was at peace with that. […] It crossed my mind that I should let her go” (78). Again, this snake is female, again dejected, again her fate is a byproduct of a masculine agenda--mankind who brought her to Florida and released her in the Everglades, mankind who decided that this was a mistake and she should be eliminated. In recognition of how pervasive this trope is, Heise asks us to reconsider how frequently we deploy it, writing: “Is it possible to acknowledge the realities of large-scape species extinction and yet to move beyond mourning, melancholia, and nostalgia to a more affirmative vision of our biological future? Is it possible to move beyond the story templates of elegy and tragedy and yet to express continuing concern that nonhuman species not be harmed more than strictly necessary?” (13).
Heise’s question, I believe, can be expanded beyond our need to elegize species on the verge of extinction, broadened to include all tropes we employ in nature and climate writing. (This is not a critique of Heise as Imagining Extinction is focused on how we portray extinction in literature, but rather, a recognition that what Heise writes about is more widespread.) In doing so, the question would read something like: is it possible to move beyond tropes in writing about nature, and especially, in writing about the ways our planet is being altered through human intervention?
This is critical to think about since nature writing as a genre has long faced derision for perpetuating the same narrative over and over again, for furthering the perspectives, mostly, of white, male, wealthy, and able writers who all utilize the same tropes, or who have the same perspective about what nature is, or even, what climate change is. For instance, one of the most common tropes within nature writing, especially within nonfiction nature writing, is the equation of solitude with nature. This is a trope that can be traced back to Thoreau, often considered the father of American nature writing, who uses this trope as the larger theme of Walden. This trope—man goes out into nature alone and finds wisdom in the peace, solitude, and ruggedness of nature—is one that has been employed countless times since, by writers like Aldo Leopold or Edward Abbey. And while I think there is value in Thoreau’s work or Leopold’s work (or even Abbey’s work, although this would be a longer discussion as I take deep issue with the rampant misogyny, racism, and ableism in Desert Solitaire), what nature writing needs more of is a diversion from this one narrative, and a recognition that while solitude can be found in nature, there is value in community in nature as well, especially, perhaps, for a person who is not wealthy, white, masculine, and able. As Rachel Carson said, “There are countless ways to think and write about what we call ‘nature’ many of them urgent. But nature writing, as defined by publishers and historical precedent, ignores all but a few.” Currently, I am working on a collection of essays about birds and mental illness, and through these essays, I explore the way community has helped me feel most nurtured in natural spaces. In these essays, I explore how for women there is often protection in numbers and that solitude can be dangerous. I also explore how nature helped me learn to live with and understand my illness (trope), but how this only happened through experiencing nature alongside family, friends, and my partner; community, rather than solitude allowed me to combat my stress and loneliness. When nature writers consistently prioritize solitude and devalue communal experiences in nature, they further a masculine and ableist perspective that ignores the multifaceted ways people might experience the world. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey edited out that he was living with his family so that he would appear more masculine and rugged, and in a recent book wherein a privileged, white, male writer attempts to recreate Thoreau’s famous walks, Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, the author, Ben Shattuck, bemoans even the presence of footprints on the trails he crosses—footprints that remind him that he is not the only person privileged enough to wander through New England’s forests. These tropes are tired and do nothing to expand the nature writing genre. By perpetually publishing these tropes we are not only contributing to an issue of sameness and staleness within nature writing, but we are also perpetuating a white, masculine, ableist, perspective that dominates the publishing sphere.
Most of the common tropes we utilize have these kinds of negative ramifications. For instance, the trope of elegizing dead animals is a gendered trope that is mirrored in other gendered tropes within nature writing. One of the most obvious gendered lenses that nature writing employs is the categorization of Earth as a female being and the way this informs the way we think about and talk about the natural world. This can be explicitly seen again in Edward Abbey’s work where he compares the Earth to a “golden woman,” correlating the way he desires the desert to the way he desires women, something carnal and lustful within himself. Abbey’s characterization is a more sexualized version of the common “Mother Earth” trope. In the era of the sixth extinction and climate change, we often see a different gendered characterization of our “Mother,” one, wherein she has become an overstressed, overburdened, abused woman—an older woman who has lost her power, her sexiness. We lament the way we destroy our mother, and we romanticize the beauty she once possessed. We also hold onto the belief that it is up to “Mankind” to fix her, rather than recognizing that perhaps instead, it should be up to “Man” not to abuse her. This is my perspective as a woman. Because of my gender I see the world differently than Abbey or Leopold. Because I live with mental disorders, I also see the world differently than many of these neurotypical nature writers. These unique perspectives are one way I see myself complicating nature writing tropes I might employ.
In my classroom, I teach my students that if we can’t completely avoid using tropes in nature writing, at least, we need to make ourselves aware of the tropes we are using. We need to push back against common narratives. We need to add nuance and perspective and diversity to the stories we tell. If nonfiction writing is built around myth-making and meaning making, we at least need to be dialed in to the myths that we are perpetuating.
For an example of how this is done, we can turn to Rachel Carson. In the now classic, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson begins with a fable, a fable that is elegiac in its sadness for a world that has been eliminated of greenery and blooms and birdsong. But in 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, she brought attention to pesticide use in a way that nobody prior to her was able to do. She also rejected the common trope in nature writing that nature is separate or outside of human involvement and human life. And so, while Carson might use elements of elegy or nostalgia or purity in nature, she is also adding nuance to those tropes at the same time. Since Carson’s iconic book was published, other writers have, of course, added to this conversation. One of my favorite essays to teach is Latria Graham’s “Nuisance,” wherein Graham unpacks the term “nuisance flooding,” using both her personal experience and her investigation of environmental racism in North Carolina’s floodplains. This essay shows students how necessary, important, political, and complex nature writing can be, how it can be a place for them to engage in activism and how only privileged perspectives are able to maintain a separateness from nature. Some of my favorite nature essays engage with these ideas—J Drew Lanham’s “9 rules for the Black Birdwatcher” or Leise Hook’s “The Vine and the Fish,” not only explore nature writing from interesting angles, but also use creative, non-traditional forms to do so. My hope is that even students who might not think of themselves as bird or tree people, will find something interesting in these essays, in the conversations we have around them. My hope is that students will realize that nature essays don’t have to simply be lyrical essays that wax poetic about nature, but rather, will understand that any essay can be a nature essay as the natural world and human life are intrinsically linked in interesting and horrible and beautiful ways—with natural disasters, with animal migrations, with the food we eat, with the places where we build our homes. My hope is that I can teach students that if we start to complicate or add nuance to nature writing tropes, we can make great strides in rectifying one of nature writer’s greatest faults, its sameness. My hope is that my students can become the next generation of nature writers, breathing life into the genre that many have written off.
A Recommended Reading List:
Liesel Hamilton is the co-author of Wild South Carolina (Hub City Press, 2016). She has been published in Audubon, Catapult, and The Normal School, among other publications. She is currently a PhD candidate studying creative writing and ecocriticism at Florida State University and is working on a collection of essays about birds and mental illness.