The seed for the idea for this post was planted over a month ago, but it wasn’t until the semester ended that I felt I could dedicate the necessary time to bring it to fruition. During my last semester of college, I was able to take a really interesting course called Nature Writing. The class was unlike any other I had previously taken, and it focused on environmental literature, as well as analyzing narratives with a nature lens. In addition to this we were also given opportunities to write critically and creatively using the natural world as a vehicle for our work. It was a really insightful class, and in it I read several things I might not have ordinarily picked up. It also reinvigorated my desire to read more of these narratives outside the classroom; something that I hadn’t really felt compelled to do in a long time outside of a few specific books.
After taking a required, high-stress botany class for my associates’ degree, I had become soured a bit on any book that bore any tinge of being too “scientific.” I still don’t have any love for overly technical textbooks, but the experience I had in Nature Writing was far from negative. Instead of reading through thick science books that felt inscrutable, we were reading first-person, experiential accounts of nature. From Thoreau to Michael Pollan, we read a variety of accounts that allowed me to feel connected to the work. I have always been a “story” person. If something is told as a story, be it history, or English, or art, then it is that much easier for me to relate to the subject and become engaged. It brought me back to my days before college, when drawing and observing plants formed a big part of what I did as part of my botanical study. Where taking a walk along the wooded path behind my house and stopping to observe the trees, the animals, was just as important.
For me personally, nature is “out there.” It isn’t in a windowless science lab where the closest a student ever gets to a living plant is a specimen in a petri dish. To interact with nature, it is necessary to get out and experience it and observe it. To breathe in the oxygen produced by the trees all around us and dig in the dirt. And the best kind of narratives allow you to do just that. Arguably, there has never been a better time to get reacquainted with nature. One of the few positive things to come out of this pandemic is that it has encouraged more people to explore their own backyards. Kids, home from school for months at a time, perhaps for the first time in their lives, took their books and laptops outside. Families began turning their homes into mini homesteads. People started gardens and built chicken coops. All of these things have caused a definite cultural shift toward reconnecting with nature, and books that celebrate that are becoming widely-read bestsellers.
One book in particular that I really enjoyed from my nature writing course was Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. His better known book is The Botany of Desire, but I really enjoyed Second Nature because of the almost essay-like chapters that touch on a variety of aspects of nature writing and can be read really in any order. There is a nice mixture of environmentally slanted sections, as well as plenty that deal more with the personal and historically anecdotal. The section on the history and symbolism of the rose through the ages I found particularly interesting, since Pollan unearths so much of what it has come to mean for people as an emblem of enduring love, but also uncovers how much of that symbolism is socially constructed. Pollan’s book is also interesting reading from an ecological perspective, because he comes down firmly in the middle between more radical environmentalism and conservation, and advancement and human innovation. Pollan’s wilderness philosophy is to superimpose the concept of the garden on the larger world: creating a harmony between serving nature as well as people’s interests. Though Pollan’s work is largely nonfiction in its scope, it provides an interesting philosophy to compare and hold up against other more fictional works for scrutiny. And the idea of the garden and what it represents is not limited to the realm of naturalist writers. One of the most famous stories to show how active engagement with gardens and growing things, especially for children, is something to encourage, is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
In the well-known tale, sickly and sullen Mary Lennox after the death of her parents leaves India to live with her Uncle Craven at Misselthwaite Manor. While there, she discovers a door to a secret garden that has laid hidden since the death of her uncle’s late wife. Mary then makes it her mission to bring it back to life, and by doing so, restores vitality to herself and everyone around her. On the surface The Secret Garden seems like a simple children’s story, but it is much more than that. The garden is not so much just a “bit of earth” but what it represents in the larger picture. Burnett’s garden isn’t magical per se, and it is through Mary’s active interaction with the garden that the transformations are brought about, something that I don’t really feel the most recent film adaption did a very good of showing, opting instead for a technicolor, CGI-saturated look that misses the mark. The garden helps Mary nurture empathy and responsibility. Instead of it being a ready-made playground it was something that Mary had to work at in order to achieve results. Pollan I think would find a lot in Burnett’s story to agree with. In many ways, the missteps made by the recent film adaption I think miss many of the values that fiction of previous centuries tried so hard to cultivate. Industry and taking pride in one’s work for the pure joy of it, not for commercial or capitalistic gain, was something that was the brick and mortar of the middle-class in the Victorian era. This was partially born out of, and also a reaction to, the Industrial Revolution. The world was changing and changing fast, and with this came greater efforts to make life more “efficient.” Goods that had once taken hours of labor could now be made much more quickly, flooding the marketplace with goods that could be sold at lower prices. But this came at a cost. The agrarian lifestyle that so many people had lived by for generations was altered, and instead of working based on nature’s rhythms they were now harnessed to the clock. Hard work was becoming more about making profit for the few and taking home little pay. Many people resented this, and longed for the days where they were their own masters, able to provide for themselves and make a living off the land. This lead to the romanticization of the old-time pastoral lifestyle, which compared to the smoke-choked cities full of factories, no doubt looked like a forgotten dream in comparison. It was out of this time of turmoil that many of the great nature writers were born. Thoreau published Walden; or, Life in the Woods in 1845, and is viewed by many as the instigator of the American nature writing genre. It was books like these that began to make people see nature, and its value, in a different light. And these changing attitudes, the uniting of the desire to encourage industry and education, as well as reverence and appreciation of nature, are exemplified in the life of Emily Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson is best known as a poet, but many don’t know that she was quite the amateur naturalist as well. This shouldn’t be too surprising though since nature and her connection to it figures so heavily in her written work. In Mary McDowell’s Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, it is easy to see how much Dickinson drew on inspiration from the world around her. Beautifully neat illustrations, many of them done by Emily herself, pepper the volume, showcasing her artistic ability as well as her observant eye. This attention to detail is also evident in her poems, which are likewise expertly crafted. Nature imagery floods her poetry such as in this poem:
For every Bird a Nest-
Wherefore in timid quest
Some little Wren goes seeking round-
Wherefore when boughs are free-
Households in every tree-
Pilgrim be found?
Perhaps a home too high-
The little Wren desires-
Perhaps of twigs so fine-
Of twine e’en superfine,
Her pride aspires-
The Lark is not ashamed
To build upon the ground
Her modest house-
Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?
Emily Dickinson uses the extended metaphors of the Lark and the Wren as vehicles to explore class divisions, as well as how human ascribe human constructs of what is “good” or “beautiful” on nature.
Though Emily Dickinson was a retiring sort, this did not stop her roaming the beautiful countryside that surrounded her childhood home of Amherst. On these excursions, she no doubt found many sources of inspiration from the local flora and fauna. While exploring these haunts, she came across many kinds of flowers which she dutifully collected and then documented upon her return by pressing them into a blank book and labeling them with Latin their names. This passion for botany was one that was common among her friends as well. It was usual enough for her to write letters to her friends discussing this flower or that. Flower preservation and study was seen as a “decorous” scientific practice which many believed made it particularly suitable for ladies. But it also shows how much the natural world was instilled into daily life in Emily’s time. The Victorian era after all, gave us The Language of Flowers, a guide to the meanings that various flowers symbolized. Flowers had the ability to declare your love, or to dampen it, to convey everything from felicitations to condolences. Naturalism was knitted into the very fabric of life.
In many ways, perhaps it would serve us well to accord some of this same prominence to the nature that surrounds us in our own lives. There is beauty to be found everywhere if only we take the time to look. Maybe we are coming up on that time now at last. And hopefully, this article may inspire you to do some exploration of your own!