Sick of nature
September 21, 2007, 7:25 am
Filed under: Nature writing

WaldenIn a flattering post that takes up the ideas I went into here, Back40 draws our attention to Sick of nature, an essay on nature writing and its problems by the author David Gessner (his website) in which he lets off considerable, amusing and thought provoking steam about his craft/calling/curse/whatever

I AM SICK of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean. It’s been almost four years now, four years of sitting quietly in my study and sipping tea and contemplating the migratory patterns of the semipalmated plover. Four years of writing essays praised as “quiet” by quiet magazines. Four years of having neighborhood children ask their fathers why the man down the street comes to the post office dressed in his pajamas (“Doesn’t he work, Daddy?”) or having those same fathers wonder why, when the man actually does dress, he dons the eccentric costume of an English bird watcher, David Gessnercomplete with binoculars. And finally, four years of being constrained by the gentle straightjacket of the nature-writing genre; that is, four years of writing about the world without being able to use the earthier names for excrement (while talking a lot of scat).

Worse still, it’s been four years of living within a literary form that, for all its wonder and beauty, can be a little like going to Sunday School. A strange Sunday School where I alternate between sitting in the pews (reading nature) and standing at the pulpit (writing nature). And not only do I preach from my pulpit, I preach to the converted. After all, who reads nature books?

Gessner goes on to discuss Thoreau‘s Walden and Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire (which should have been a bigger influence on Mapping Mars than it was) with an insightful eye and a great turn of phrase, before concluding thus:

The best writing in this genre is not really “nature writing” anyway but human writing that just happens to take place in nature. And the reason we are still talking about “Walden” 150 years later is as much for the personal story as the pastoral one: a single human being, wrestling mightily with himself, trying to figure out how best to live during his brief time on earth, and, not least of all, a human being who has the nerve, talent, and raw ambition to put that wrestling match on display on the printed page. The human spilling over into the wild, the wild informing the human; the two always intermingling. There’s something to celebrate.

Meanwhile at Back40 our host, who works the land for a living, talks about the local and global.

Though I am in fact rooted in particular land, fully engaged in a specific place, it is global in Oliver’s sense. I have long seen it this way too. It isn’t only the carbon but also the nitrates, synthesized in electrical storms and that falls in rain, and other minerals that fall from the dusty skies, carried across the Pacific from China on high altitude wind currents, as well as the things I put on that land – everything from Dutch grass seeds to British cattle genes via New Zealand. Even the weeds are immigrants from every continent – as am I.

I prize a vision of natural systems that explicitly acknowledges all of this in dynamic relationship. To truly see it you need to somehow split your focus to include the micro and macro, the very far and the very near, the past, present and future, all at once. It’s hard to do, but worth the effort I think.

That last bit is my point exactly.

Picture of Walden Pond plaque from Mary Ellen Goodwin, picture of David Gessner from his site, all rights presumably reserved.

1 Comment so far
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David Gessner has a post up today at our blog, not quite as fiery as the Globe Piece but definitely a great read. Hope you’ll take a moment to read it!


Comment by Jessica Bennett

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