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Balancing the human and non-human in nature writing

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Nope, no humans here...

Nope, no humans here…

I recently read a blog post called ‘Ruminations on Nature Writing‘ that got me thinking. The blog’s author is at a reading by Sherry Simpson, who is being introduced by a man called David Stevenson. In his introduction Stevenson comments that although Simpson is often described as a nature writer, what she is really writing about is people. To which the blog’s author reacts:

Whoa, I thought. Did David just dismiss nature writing, or what? It’s as if writing about PEOPLE gave Sherry’s work more gravitas, made it more substantial and relevant and worthy.

It got me thinking about the balance that nature writers have to strike between the human (the narrator included) and the non-human. It also got me wondering whether I too am guilty of prioritising the human over nature.

This in turn got me puzzling about whether the question of prioritising the human over nature even makes sense. I recently read Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral by Charles Siebert. It’s a nice little meditation on the urban/nature divide and at one point Siebert says:

To me, we and machines are, despite our divergent authorship, essentially the same, are both uniquely ordered, ephemeral arrangements of atoms, brief stays against the universe’s prevailing disorder. I can’t see a machines now without seeing something of ourselves… I can’t see this room or its furnishings; can’t see the whole lighted array of rooms around me… I can’t see the streets that bind these buildings, or parked cars, or the bent metal trash contained on the corner of Washington and Lincoln, or even our trash – the plastic bags snagged in the upper tree branches, and the tangled gleams of unraveled cassette tape in the newly refilled parkway’s promenade grass – as anything but what they all are: extensions of us, and therefore, of nature; pieces of the earth taken up and pressed against our variously shaped dies to form the parts that suit our briefly passing purposes.

I’m not quite able to convince myself that a car is nature (or, indeed, that cars and humans are essentially the same). But I do find myself fretting over the question – what exactly is nature?

Still, there is a separate entity, I know as ‘me’ and when it comes to my writing, I’m constantly trying to balance that ‘me’ with everything else out there – human, non-human, machine, or ‘nature’. What makes nature writing creative nonfiction, as opposed to plain old nonfiction, is the presence of the narrator. The writer isn’t simply reporting everything they’ve seen in the field. They’re also telling us how they feel about what they saw – how it relates to their inner life, outer life and past. But this lays open the possibility of nature simply becoming a lose framework across which to drape the writer’s own story. An example of this kind of writing has come under my radar a few times now – Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I haven’t read the book (though I’m increasingly tempted to), but Jim Hinch’s review in the LA Review of Books brought it to my attention.

As Jim Hinch relates it, the book is about Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a trail that stretches from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Strayed is 26 and she undertakes the hike as a way to come to terms with her mother’s death and various other personal demons. Wild has been incredibly popular and a #1 New York Times bestseller. It has also been hailed as a saviour of American nature writing. Hinch argues, however, that Wild is in fact a step towards the genre’s extinction. The best nature writing, Hinch argues:

…looks away from the human narrator and seeks ultimately to lose the writerly self in a natural world both incomprehensible by, and often hostile to, human perception.

Strayed’s book is not about the landscape she walks through, but about herself. The setting is simply a means to an end.

As I said, I haven’t read Strayed’s book, so I can’t really comment on what the book does or doesn’t do. But I think Hinch’s review is interesting because it points to the danger at the other end of the scale. If Strayed’s book focuses too much on the writer, the kind of writing Hinch thinks will save the nature writing genre (if it, in fact, does need saving!) might go too far the other way. Later on in the article, Hinch says:

Of course humanity is not imprinted on everything, and human stories are not the only stories, or even the defining stories of the natural order.

I have to disagree with Hinch, however – there are very few landscapes not imprinted with human stories. By taking Hinch’s view, there is a danger that those stories get overlooked and a mythical wilderness is created in the overlooked space. Perhaps one of the most frequently cited examples of this is the Scottish Highlands. To write about the Highlands as an empty wilderness is to ignore the hundreds of years of human habitation and influence on the landscape – and the brutality of the clearances. This makes me very cautious, in my own writing, about overlooking the human. But perhaps focusing too much on the ways in which humans have influenced a place risks overlooking the place as it exists now, risks failing to see it on its own terms. There is also a risk of overlooking those other stories that Hinch mentions – but then, what exactly are those stories and how do we tell them? In the end, my writing will always be my story.

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Author: Naomi Racz

I am a nature writer, with a particular interest in urban nature. I also write about social media and work in communications with an NGO.

14 thoughts on “Balancing the human and non-human in nature writing

  1. Great and enjoyable post! Roger Deakin used to say that wilderness exists in micro-landscapes which may lurk within human reach but are never encountered/seen.

    • Thanks! That’s an interesting definition – I think I need to think about it a bit to wrap my head around it! I definitely need to read some Deakin.

      • Naomi,

        In Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places there’s an account of a conversation between Rob and Roger Deakin. Rob is in search of wilderness (the untouched) and feels it must be on the edges of things, places far from cities/humanity. Roger tells him that in an urban wood a wilderness-in-waiting is present. Wild things define the wilderness for Roger not how close a human settlement is. Rob returns to the start point of his quest (a wood not unlike one described in Robert Frost’s poem ‘Birches’) and thinks that Roger could be right.

        I’m lucky in that close by to me is a place called Hilbre Island. If I walk (the dangerous way) from Red Rocks to Hilbre I’ll reach a spot halfway where even if I leave a footprint or an artefact the sea will take it away. It overpowers any intervention! The action of wind and water changes this place incrementally as channels and ripples evolve, move, migrate. This place is neither land nor sea; it is liminal. Importantly as a human I cannot survive here for more than four hours; in winter that four hours is very uncomfortable due to the exposure/ windchill even on a mild day. In the mist just being a mile from the conurbation of Hoylake it is possible to get utterly disoriented.

        I would tend to take an integrative view of nature. We are part of nature (with worryingly destructive urges) and we are made of the same stuff as wilderness. Maybe that’s why we feel a need to return to it!

      • I love that phrase ‘wilderness-in-waiting’. Sometimes it is about looking and being open to your surroundings. Even in a city there is wildness if we only pay attention.

        That sounds like an amazing place. My local nature patch is a park – so its fairly difficult to overlook the human. But that space also belongs to nature and to the birds, plants and trees that inhabit it. Just today I was walking through the park and I was treated to a beautiful, private performance by a Robin – it felt like a wild moment, right in the middle of a city.

        I’m just fascinating by the question of what exactly nature is. I think that complexity is what I love about urban nature in particular. I suppose, like you, I take quite a broad view of nature and I think humans are an important part of nature (for all our destructiveness).

      • Naomi,

        I spent a long time yesterday as I was driving around North Wales on my appointments thinking about this conversation! Thanks for getting it going.

        A good part of my mumblings to myself was about which authors from my collection of books can be a ‘nature’ writer. Do I include Emily Bronte? Chatwin? Sebald? Solnit?

        My own preference is call the plethora of books that explore the human place within nature as the ‘naturalistic turn’. Essentially the discussion of human journey has moved from Inside (the house/the home/ the urban/ the institution) to the Outside. The human story is diverse but still has common threads; a journey with varying amounts of jeopardy from cradle to grave, being the lover or loved, being wandering/settled, included/ excluded, living in peace or war. We are maybe looking to the Outside for the answer to all those existential questions that interest us. Maybe the modernist writers ( Joyce/ Beckett/ Flann O’Brien ) didn’t disclose the answers in ways we can readily understand.

        Writing encourages us to explore words, what they mean and how we can weave them together to communicate our feelings. It’s the way that we use language that creates the meaning. So if we language things in terms of difference we will make nature a thing that is ‘other’.

        Anthropologists (Tylor I think) tend to see nature as things that grow and culture as things that are made. Humans are so culturally adept that in a sense we have constructed an alter-nature that tries to hold the non-human and to some extent Time at bay.

        We are all made of stars!

      • Sorry for the slow reply – like you I’ve been pulled into the gravitational field of the work-iverse! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the conversation on here – thank you for all your insightful comments!

        I think I tend to take a very broad view of what exactly counts as nature writing – I tend to call most things I read these days ‘nature writing’ – and I do think a lot of what they have in common is, as you say, an ‘Outward’ looking perspective. Emily Bronte is an interesting example – Wuthering Heights is one of my absolute favourite books (one of few I’d give 5/5 to) – and one of the reasons I love it so much is the strong sense of place and of the moors as something vital. Wuthering Heights is a book that moved between the Inside world of the home and the Outside world of the moors – and the way that the characters relate to and interact with those places says a lot about them and also about wider human experiences. I’m sure it’s been written about extensively before – but an essay on the Inside/Outside worlds in Wuthering Heights would be very interesting!

        I read an interesting essay yesterday about Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Summa Technologiae’ – http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-art-of-conjecturing/ Lem compared technological evolution to biological evolution and believed that technological evolution would one day not only diverge from but also improve upon biological evolution. If technology can ‘grow’ then perhaps one day we’ll consider it a part of nature. Also, where does Tylor’s division put ‘the culture of nature’?

        Thanks again for all the thought provoking comments!

      • Tylor might see “the culture of nature” as a survival of animistic narratives particularly if that nature is anthropomorphised.

        The Stanislaw Lem article was very good but I’ll need a re-read to get the full benefit. However the image it created of Emily Bronte responding to the living seas of Solaris may stick in my imagination for some time!

        I found some quick online links to Bronte space/place:

        https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/engl-594-fall2013/2013/10/09/brontes-abstract-space/

        http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/publications/peer-english/4/5%20Jane%20Mansfield%20-%20Nostalgia%20for%20Places.pdf

        The essay is a good idea!

      • Thanks for the links, I’ll definitely keep that essay idea in mind!

  2. Hi Naomi – interesting post! I recognize the tension you note: if we focus too much on the human influence, we risk failing to see it on its own terms. On the other hand, how can we ever describe or see landscapes without bringing something human to it? I.e. if “pure” nature is ever even possible still, there’s also us & our perspective – and again, that balance between seeing nature for what it is on the one, and its meaning for us as humans.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Astrid

    • Thanks – it is definitely a complex issue. I dislike writing that tries to get away from the human and ‘escape’ into nature (although to be fair, I think I’m guilty of trying to ‘escape’ the city sometimes). For one, it doesn’t really make sense since, as you point out, we can’t really see a landscape without bring the human in to it. What’s more, it precludes anyone else from enjoying the wilderness that is sought. And it assumes that the landscape is even a wilderness, in the sense of being devoid of human influence. I do wonder though if that is a uniquely British (and probably Dutch, for that matter) problem – since there really isn’t anywhere in Britain that humans haven’t inhabited at some point – even if it’s just a hermit hundreds of years ago, it’s still another layer on the landscape! I think in the end, as a writer, it is just about holding that tension and complexity together, rather than having a definitive answer. It is part of what makes writing about nature and place so endlessly fascinating, after all!

  3. Thought-provoking, that – thanks Naomi.

    I think I tend to agree with Plethi’s closing gambit and Siebert too. Can’t help but think that a writing that needs to balance human and non-human has set a particular stand – that is, that the human can only ever be tangentially associated with ‘nature’ or ‘wild’. It sort of reinforces the dichotomy that has humans somehow apart from nature, unless some kind of ‘push’, that an (unconscious or conscious) integration, is made with the wild.

    Just my thoughts on it though. I have no idea whether what I write fits these ideals. But I like to think it does.

    Best,
    Kieron

    • Thanks – I definitely think that humans are a part of nature and an important at that. Have you read ‘At The Water’s Edge’ by John LIster-Kaye? I wrote a rather scathing review of it here: https://blacktoprain.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/at-the-waters-edge/ I think that’s a pretty good example of the kind of writing I’m trying not to do. At one point, he’s standing on top of a hill and can’t see any humans around and saying how great it is to be able to get away from other humans and that perhaps the best thing for the planet would be for us to disappear (I’m wildly paraphrasing/possibly misremembering) – and I just think that’s kind of a sad view to take of ones species. Yes, humans have wrecked havoc on the environment. But we’ve also written some amazingly beautiful books/poetry/music about nature – we are the story tellers, the ones capable of expressing how we feel about our surroundings.

      I suppose I’m just concerned that taking that view of humans and nature, somehow risks overlooking the non-human. But I could be completely wrong – sometimes I use my blog just to air my thoughts and try to figure these things out!

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