Nature writing is about the environment, the care and respect of the land, living with beings that share the land with us and the spiritual aspects of existing in a living universe.
The natural history genre written in English has a long history in North America. From the late 1600s and early 1700s to the present day, written works celebrating the land have found a ready audience. The lush abundance of the American continents and the wise management of land by indigenous Americans enthralled the European newcomers. Even if at the time the Europeans didn’t understand the wisdom, knowledge and sacrifice if took to keep a land abundant and healthy.
In This Incomparable Land, Thomas J. Lyon categorizes the genre into a wide range of themes and styles:
- field guides and professional papers
- natural history essays
- escape: from cities and towns, solitude and back country living
- travel and adventure
- farm life
- humanity’s role in the environment (see Land Ethics and Sustainable Living)
- and I add fiction
Nature writing is how we can express not just what we see or hear, but how we feel. How we feel about events, the weather, our mood, and so on. What we write doesn’t have to be thousands of words, sometimes a few sentences are enough.
These themes are not neat. An field guide can have elements of the personal experience of the writer. A essay on land ethics can contain a ramble. A theme can have elements of other themes within it.
The Natural History Essay
With the exception of field guides and professional papers, nature writing is most often published in the form of the personal natural history essay. Henry David Thoreau is considered the originator of the form. The essay often consists of natural history information and personal and philosophical ideas in response to the natural world.
The ramble ian essay in which the author goes on a walk, usually close-to-home, and writes about the pleasures of being outdoors, the feel of place, and closely observes the happenings of plants and animals.
Essays of Experience
In this type of essays the writer shares their experience walking, building, living in a place. An example is Thoreau building his cabin in Walden, or Henry Beston beachcombing in The Outermost House.
Travel and Adventure
These essays focus on the excitement of danger, novelty of the new, and discovery of new places. Imagine if you stayed in a camp deep in a rainforest, and you wrote about it.
Working a farm, being outdoors, caring for land, plants, and animals has its’ own beauty. As a person works with the land a deep satisfaction and affection for the land can be developed and shared through writing.
Humanity’s Role in the Land
This topic takes up the topics of land ethics, philosophy, religion, economics, and human relations to our world and each other. How are we to live on planet Earth? The genre often issues challenges and calls to environmental activism, like in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Not just nonfiction but fiction too has focused on the land and the wider universe. The land herself, is often a character in a story and shapes people and events.
The Elements of Nature Writing
The genre is distinguished by descriptive passages, interwoven with scientific facts. There is an art to reading scientific articles and elegantly incorporating the information into an essay. It is very pleasing when it is done well.This writing form is called creative nonfiction.
Descriptive passages describe time and place and what is experienced by the senses. In reading a natural history essay, the reader has a sense of actually being there. Of being able to see, smell and feel the place in their mind’s eye.
The Nature Journal
The nature journal is an important piece of equipment for the writer. The nature journal often serves as a place to record thoughts, feelings and facts. A journal can provide a rich source material for further work. From the journal, full-blown essays, articles, op-ed pieces and stories are written.
Nature Writing Journal Prompts
- Write a field guide page. Choose a plant or animal and draw them using arrows to point out important identification marks. Are there differences between male and female? Juvenile and adult?
- Write and experience essay. Have you built a outbuilding or layed out a garden? What was the experience like of being outdoors? Was the shine shining? Were your hands freezing cold?
- Write a ramble. Take a walk in a familiar place, close to home or work. Try to describe that place using the four of the five senses of sight, sound, feel and smell. Be careful of tasting.
- Write of an escape from city or suburbs. Have you visited rural or remote areas lately? How was it different from the built up artificial environments of city and suburbs.I could write about driving fast along deserted country roads and the sense of freedom I felt.
- Or do you live in rural or remote areas. What does it feel like to visit city and towns?
- Write of travel and adventure. Have you climbed mountains or hiked backcountry trails. I could write of my adventure of climbing Hawk Mountain or walking along a stream in the Smoky Mountains. If you haven’t had adventure maybe its time to go on one.
- Farm Life has its own rhythms. I grew up going to my grandparents farms and market gardens. I feed chickens and hogs. I loved the smell of new hay. I loved being outdoors. Share your farm experiences.
- Land Ethics essays help to clarify who you think you are and your responsibility to the land. I write about land ethics often on this blog. Who do you think you are?
See my booklet Nature Journal Prompts (pdf)for more inspiration.
More on Nature Writing
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