The nature essay is a heterogeneous form that draws on travel narrative, philosophy, landscape description, environmental reporting, outdoor and recreational writing, natural and local history, autobiography and diary, prose fiction, and other genres. Strict boundaries cannot be drawn around the nature essay, which undergoes constant metamorphosis as it migrates through various historical and cultural contexts. The form’s aesthetic and literary dimensions are as variable as the rhetorical and political ends it can serve. Just as the word “nature” ranges in meaning to encompass many different ways of viewing and living in the world, the nature essay is not a monolithic tradition but a body of writings linked by a loose family resemblance.
Its history in English can be traced back at least as far as the 17th century to, for example, Sir William Temple’s genteel reflections upon gardens, country life, and Epicurean philosophy in “Upon the Gardens of Epicurus” (1690). Temple connected classical philosophy to the pleasures of a specifically English rusticity, returning home, “after so much ramble into ancient times and remote places,” to contemplate the excellence of English apples, peaches, and grapes.
Neither Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1788) nor The Grasmere Journals (wr. 1800–03) of Dorothy Wordsworth are, strictly speaking, books of essays: White made use of an epistolary structure, addressing his careful observations of the world around him to two other English naturalists, while Dorothy Wordsworth recorded notebook entries on the places and people of Grasmere valley.
Both, however, provided models for later writers who sought to combine precise description of a specific locale with a carefully wrought, but seemingly spontaneous, prose style.
Most nature writing since the 19th century has explored, either directly or indirectly, the supposed rift between nature and culture. The assumptions that underlie this persistent dualism are often subverted, or at least subjected to fresh examination. Some critics see the nature essay as basically oppositional, a reaction to the rise of modern industrial society and mechanistic science. Many nature writers, however, take positions in harmony with modern scientific perspectives. Key concepts derived from science that have influenced nature writing include Ökologie (ecology), introduced by the German biologist Ernst Heinrich Häckel in 1866, and “ecosystem” (an interdependent system of living organisms) coined by the British ecologist A.G.Tansley in 1935. The influence of Darwinian evolutionary biology has been enormous, and a complex intertextual relation exists between Darwin’s writings and those of W.H.Hudson, John Burroughs, and many others.
Although 19th and early 20th-century nature essayists often rejected scientific taxonomies and laboratory methods, the rise of a new natural history had an impact on thinking about nature. Canadian nature writing found an important early exponent in Catharine Parr Traill, whose botanical observations appeared in Studies of Plant Life in Canada; or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain (1885). Like other writers of the period, Traill filtered scientific writing through a late Romantic literary sensibility (plant ecology first emerged as a discipline at around this time). Closer to our own time, Aldo Leopold’s essayistic A Sand County Almanac (1949) advanced the idea of a “land ethic,” to promote the “integrity, beauty, and stability of the biotic community,” along with a conservation aesthetic, intended to heighten awareness “of the natural processes by which the land and the living things upon it have achieved their characteristic forms (evolution) and by which they maintain their existence (ecology).” Writers such as Leopold and Rachel Carson deploy (and, in some ways, revise) the authority of scientific discourses to support a position sometimes called “ecocentrism.”
The nature essay is often viewed as an essentially American genre, a tradition inspired by the 19th-century writers Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and John Muir, as well as by the enormous diversity and beauty of the American landscape itself. Although it is occasionally stigmatized as “subliterary” or as a minor genre, a substantial body of criticism and analysis has nevertheless sprung up around the nature essay. It is of central importance for understanding the relation of the self to the land, and the particular spatial configurations that shape American experience. In general American nature writing tends to combine description of particular localities with personal narratives and passages of philosophical reflection. The problem of representing the self in relation to a nonhuman natural world has occupied many nature essayists. Questions of identity, solitude, and human subjectivity repeatedly surface in American writers from Mary Austin to Gretel Ehrlich.
The American nature essay rose to new prominence during the 19th century. Thoreau’s identification of nature with “absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil” (“Walking,” 1862) set the tone for a good deal of later writing. His sense of the “wild” as a space located outside civilization, where civilization can nevertheless discover and somehow preserve itself resonates throughout American culture for the next 100 years and more. John Burroughs, who was famous in his own lifetime and the author of many books of nature essays, played a key role in bringing the Thoreauvian tradition into the 20th century. He embraced a poetics of nature writing that valued careful observation and the power of language to defamiliarize ordinary experience: “The writer’s style, the quality of mind he brings,” he wrote, “is the vase in which his commonplace impressions and incidents are made to appear so beautiful and significant” (“A Sharp Lookout,” 1886). Through both his writings and his work as an activist, John Muir had a direct impact on the political climate of his day, becoming an important voice in the conservation movement. All three of these writers, it should be noted, were energetic walkers and hikers (one of Muir’s books is titled A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, 1916), and their work has affinities with the literary excursion or “ramble.”
Interest in the form has revived since the 1970s, and some observers claim that the nature essay, particularly in the United States, has entered a new golden age, linked to the growth of ecology movements and green politics. A very selective list of contemporary American nature essayists would include Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, John McPhee, Peter Matthiessen, Wallace Stegner, David Quammen, Terry Tempest Williams, and Ann Zwinger.
American Nature Writing series, edited by John A.Murray, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 3 vols., 1994–96 (and ongoing)
Another Wilderness: New Outdoor Writing by Women edited by Susan Fox Rogers, Seattle: Seal Press, 1994
Great American Nature Writing, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950
The Norton Book of Nature Writing, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder, New York: Norton, 1990
A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon, edited by John A.Murray, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing, edited by Thomas J.Lyon, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989
Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Africa, edited by John A. Murray, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993
Bryant, Paul, “Nature Writing and the American Frontier,” in The Frontier Experience and American Literature, edited by David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Bryant, College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1989
Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995
Cason, Jacqueline Johnson, “Nature Writer as Storyteller: The Nature Essay as a Literary Genre,” CEA Critic 54, no. 1 (1991): 12–18
Farr, Moira, “The Death of Nature Writing,” Brick 47 (1993): 16–27
Fritzell, Peter A., Nature Writing and America: Essays upon a Cultural Type, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990
Keith, W.J., The Rural Tradition: A Study of the Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974; as The Rural Tradition: William Cobbett, Gilbert White and Other Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside, Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1975
Lyon, Thomas J., “The Nature Essay in the West” and “The Western Nature Essay Since 1970,” both in A Literary History of the American West, edited by Max Westbrook and James H. Maguire, Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987
Lyon, Thomas J., “Nature Writing as a Subversive Activity,” North Dakota Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1991): 6–16
MacLulich, T.D., “Reading the Land: The Wilderness Tradition in Canadian Letters,” Journal of Canadian Studies 20 (1985): 29–44
Manning, Peter J., “Reading and Writing Nature,” Review 15 (1993): 175–96
Murray, John, and others, “The Rise of Nature Writing: America’s Next Great Genre?” Manoa 4, no. 2 (1992): 73–96
Raglon, Rebecca, American Nature Writing in the Age of Ecology: Changing Perceptions, Changing Forms (dissertation), Kingston, Ontario: Queen’s University, 1989
Raglon, Rebecca, “Voicing the World: Nature Writing as a Critique of the Scientific Method,” Canadian Review of American Studies 22, no. 1 (1991): 23–32
Slovic, Scott, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992
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