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.