You Okay with Nature Writing?

DH Lawrence, Nature Writer?

In 1999, at a gathering organized by The Orion Society, Barry Lopez read a poem by D.H. Lawrence.  After the reading Lopez paused for effect and then stated, “D.H. Lawrence, nature writer.”  Laughter ensued.  This episode is mentioned in an essay in the Winter 2012 edition of the journal, ISLE,  where author Bill Sherwonit wonders if he might be “The Last Nature Writer.”  Sherwonit mentions the reading as the first he heard of the dissatisfaction some writers and critics have with being labeled a “nature writer.” I’m not sure Sherwonit specifically wrote his essay for ISLE, but he cites their existence as part of the evidence that the niche, or genre, or whatever it is, is not so dead.  ISLE says about itself:

The existence of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment reflects the rapid growth of ecological literary criticism and environmental scholarship in related disciplines in the United States and around the world in recent years, which in turn reflects the steady increase in the production of environmental literature over the past several decades and the increased visibility of such writing in college classrooms.

ISLE is available by subscription only so I can’t point you directly to the essay, but I enjoyed the irony of having this new, splendid journal of literary nature writing in my hands while I read of its demise.  I related with what Sherwonit described as his journey of discovering a writing style he loved and wanted to be a part of, in his case as a writer, in my case as a publisher.  Like Sherwonit I have been smitten by the likes of writers such as Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, David James Duncan, Terry Tempest Williams, Gretel Ehrlich, Edward Hoagland,  Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Gary Snyder, and E.O Wilson and now deceased writers like Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegnar.  One of my favorites, Stephen Trimble was among the first to put together a nature writing anthology called Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing, back in 1989.  An original, dog eared copy sits on my bookshelf next to me now.

Lopez was saying that he wanted to be considered a great literary artist like Lawrence, not a mere nature writer.  Critics, like those from Orion Magazine, agree that being pigeon holed as nature writing diminishes the writing and the writer.  Well, sure, labels always do that and we all recoil at being described as something which over simplifies us.  I notice, for instance, that I call what we are trying to publish at Torrey House as part of a “niche” and avoid the word “genre.”  Genre is for romance and mysteries, I think to myself, not the literary stuff we want put out there.  Surely nature writing has more heft and might and staying power.  We will see.

About Torrey House Press

Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature.   We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. By building and engaging community in the conversation of conservation, we make our contribution to, as Wallace Stegner hoped for, a “society to match the scenery." THP books are distributed by Consortium Books Sales and Distribution, a subsidiary of Ingram Content Group.
This entry was posted in Environment, Literature and the Environment, Nature Writing, Publishing. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to You Okay with Nature Writing?

  1. Libbie H. says:

    “Lopez seemed to be saying that he wanted to be considered a great literary artist like Lawrence, not a mere nature writer.”

    I don’t see how one could fail to consider somebody like Annie Dillard (for just one example) both a great literary artist and also a “mere” nature writer. I mean, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the Pulitzer, for corn’s sake, and it’s wall-to-wall raptures over nature. Seems like there’s plenty of room to be both a nature writer and a literary badass with awards and credentials and respect and the whole nine yards.

    Personally, I’d be happy to be thought of as a “nature writer.” I’d be overjoyed to be thought of at all at this point. And there are few things so important to me as nature, as sharing my respect for it and inspiring others to be enthusiastic about it, too. There are far worse obscurities than “nature writer.” (“Unpublished writer,” for instance.)

    I just got home from a camping and hiking trip in the Methow Valley…this blog post was the first thing I saw on my return to civilization, after two days of intense immersion in some of the most inspiring and humbling scenery the Northwest has to offer, which is saying a lot. The whole time I was there, my head was busy trying to fit words together which would accurately communicate the things I was seeing and feeling. What a glorious challenge. What an accomplishment it would be, if I could make one person love the place, even from afar. I’d far rather write about mountains and valley and mule deer with their antlers just beginning to bud in velvet than another dull literary classic about middle-class angst or a tragic family saga set in some exotic culture or other. Seen it. Yawn. Methow Valley wins. Nature writing wins. Count me in with the little guys. I’m cool hanging with Annie Dillard and Wallace Stegner.

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