Writing about nature: Walk on the wild side, then stop and take a look around
Published: April 4, 2001
|Nature writing begins with a good pair of walking shoes, a notebook and keen observation|
If you want to venture into nature writing, you need only a good place to walk and a pair of nasty old shoes. If you are observant and carry a vest-pocket notebook (as Samuel Butler advised), you'll gather plenty of material no matter where you forage.
Nature--or as Thoreau called it, the "wild"--is always available, but you must seek it in the windy, warm, cold, rocky, grassy, clear or cloudy world. You have to use all of your senses for this safari. It is a mistake to imagine nature; it must be sensually apprehended. To prepare, you must clear your mind, forget your needy self, and walk with open eyes and heart.
On your first foray, allow about an hour to explore. Once you get a feel for nature walking, 10 minutes here and there can be fruitful. Go on foot, because the flora and fauna you seek live close to the earth, doing their best to avoid the wheels of Henry Ford's juggernaut. You ought, really, to stop and sit. Or lie on your back and look up.
You may hear the chilling shriek of the red-tailed hawk, brush the rough, bristly burdocks, see the frogwort splitting the cracked macadam, smell gasoline fumes and wild violets. If you are a straw chewer, you can discover how foxtail tastes.
To the students in my nature writing class at Lawrence University (Appleton, Wis.), I suggest a path across an unused railroad bridge, through the grounds of a creamery, under a bridge and onto an old German cemetery. Sometimes there are eagles on this path.
Map out your own route or, if time is an issue, concentrate on a square yard of grass or snow and record everything you see.
After you've accumulated some notes, find a spot to write, perhaps over a cup of coffee, and make a list of what you've seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched. What birds did you see--cedar waxwings in the hawthorn berries, pink-footed and ring-billed gulls? Mallards? Squirrels playing in front of an old oak tree?
If the proper names for birds, plants, stars, clouds or other elements are a problem, there are plenty of books to help you. I like Roadside Plants and Flowers by Marian Edsall and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds.
Without proper names, your writing will be vague. Still, you probably know more names than you think. You're just out of practice.
As you write your observations, something ought to stand out, even if it's a blackbird smashed flat on the road. If that worn, shiny bundle of feathers somehow captivated you, let your mind loose on it. Free associate.
What was the bird doing in the street? What was the street doing in just that spot? What are the proper locations for blackbirds? I've found that gradually, the details I list, perhaps combined with earlier observations, gather like iron filings in a pattern dictated by a powerful magnet--imagination. Let this happen. Describe the pattern as it emerges. Don't be in too great a hurry to rush to judgment, to meaning. Meaning will appear in its own good time. If the sense you make of a dead blackbird in the street turns out to be new--not your usual reaction--congratulations. Indeed, you have made contact with your subconscious, the seat of creativity.
Anyone who hopes to write about nature should become acquainted with other nature writers. We all work better with great models to guide us. Arthur Miller said that he thought Death of a Salesman was a pretty fair play until he compared it with the writing of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Chekhov. This kind of sobering experience is useful for nature writers as well.
The model I like to use is Gilbert White, who wrote The Natural History of Selborne and is a major figure in nature writing. White was an 18th-century English clergyman whose letters to fellow naturalists describe the natural history of his glebe, or land, that went with his appointment as curate.
The following episode illustrates careful observation and decent style. As has certainly been suggested here, firsthand observation is the strong suit of any natural historian. White prides himself on his careful eye, particularly in regard to swifts, swallowlike birds related to the martin. He writes:
"As I have regarded these amusive birds with no small attention, if I should advance something new and peculiar with respect to them, and different from all other birds, I might perhaps be credited; especially as my assertion is the result of many years' exact observation. The fact that I would advance is, that swifts tread, or copulate, on the wing. ... If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing around at a great height from the ground, he would see, every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud, piercing shriek. This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carrying on."
White doesn't shrink from the rawness of nature, nor its cruelty. In another passage, he describes in gory detail the brutal killing of a sparrow hawk by vengeful brood hens.
Overall, he makes an important point--that humans are natural beings. Only our habitual self-concern, looking in rather than out, leads us to forget our membership in a natural pecking order. We are the bristling beast.
Whatever your reaction to White's writing, it should be clear that the would-be nature writer has much to learn in the works of his or her predecessors.
Another way to get started, a way that demands neither walking nor reading, is simply to describe your favorite outdoor place. It's a bit like painting a landscape, but it needn't be done in the open air. For this, if you really want to chronicle the outdoors, you are perfectly free to depend upon your memory. Simply re-create your favorite spot. Here's one of mine:
"The Fox's Back rises 10 feet like the spine of a preternatural fish--lake sturgeon. It is, in Western parlance, a small park: big, open woods. The Fox's Back is something like Eden.
Hardwood, big white oak and smaller hard maple have shaded out the little brush. The white-tailed deer keep the lawn. The edges provide thumb-size blackberries in August. ... Trees six feet around, fifty feet apart. Creased, dark gray, they're like the legs of mastodons. ... Stillness, but in summer, the rackety yawp of Sandhill cranes in the marsh beyond. ... An occasional cathedral is what the arching oaks and maples suggest--or perhaps this park, this Fox's Back, is a model for all cathedrals. Perhaps nothing. This is the holy place, the essential one."
Every experienced and remembered meeting with nature offers its own wisdom and beauty. Keep your eyes open, observe closely and write from the heart. #