In his memoir, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane writes that “fierce landscapes… confront people with their edges. In wild places, terror and growth-towards-wholeness walk hand-in-hand” (Lane 37). It’s no surprise that traditional nature writing has had a similar story: a lone man wanders into the wilderness and returns enlightened. In his introduction to the July 2008 Summer issue of Granta,with an emphasis on “The New Nature Writing,” editor Jason Cowley, imagines this man as “bearded, badly dressed, ascetic, misanthropic. He would often be alone on some blasted moor, with a notebook in one hand and binoculars in the other, seeking meaning and purpose through a larger communion with nature: a loner and an outcast” (Cowley). Unfortunately, the key words here are man and he. In her Los Angeles Review of Books essay titled, “Towards a Wider View of ‘Nature Writing’,” Catherine Buni points out that, traditionally, nature writing has had little diversity, both in terms of how we write about nature and who is writing about nature. In it, she quotes Melissa Tuckey:
Nature writing has created this image of (an) environmentalist as a white guy who goes out into the wilderness. Not to knock what they’ve done and are doing, but there have always been culturally diverse writers and women writing about the natural world as well, bringing other ways of seeing this human-nature connection — not nature as a remote place to recreate in tranquility, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture, and identity. (Buni)
Recent books, such as Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors; the anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy; and the collection The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison Deming and Laurent Savoy, all published within the last ten years or so, are challenging this stereotype.
Not only is the who in nature writing evolving, but so, too, is the why we’re writing about nature. Nature writing, some argue, is not just about observing the natural environment; it’s about participating in it, responding to it, taking responsibility for it, and addressing broad human involvement in our diverse environments. Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, states in a 2016 interview: “I think that on the edge of the sixth great extinction, it’s absolutely necessary to interrogate what we bring to the party, right? Trying to tell stories about nature as this untouched and pristine wilderness which we can kind of look at and gaze upon in awe—I mean I think that would be a mistake now” (Mark). Macdonald and others argue that humans and nature are intertwined—that humans are, in fact, a part of nature. This new vein of nature writing that considers more of the self focuses on a stronger character-arc than a narrative-arc. Most notably in works such as Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the authors combine nature writing and memoir to create a strong character arc that hovers around a central problem intimate to the author and a resolve directly impacted by nature. In these works, the character arc is much greater—the enlightenment of the self—than the narrative arc. Some of the author’s struggles were thematically linked to nature, through themes like ‘life and death,’ or ‘beauty and the beast’. These authors seemed to reveal less about their own character and more about human characteristics than authors who were responding to a specific struggle. The authors with more specific struggles—the death of a loved one, recovery from addiction—show nature as an active participant, perhaps even a supporting character. The reader is immersed in the author’s struggle, which creates a stronger character arc. In these cases, the self and the struggle still remain separate from nature, but nature directly impacts the development of the self and, therefore, impacts the character arc.
Amy Liptrot, an emerging author from the UK, reveals a specific struggle more than a thematic struggle in The Outrun, a history of family, place, and addiction. While living in London and struggling to get established as a writer, Liptrot struggles with alcoholism before moving back to her childhood home in the secluded Orkney Islands to recover. The Outrun begins with Liptrot’s return home and follows her as she immerses herself in nature, where she reveals her self through introspective thought, researched anecdotes on addiction and nature, and personal accounts in nature. Liptrot uses interpolation and braiding to connect her personal story with addiction to her story of Orkney. This is especially apparent towards the end of the book. For instance, she brings together information on the geography of Orkney, with stories about the geography of London—contrasting what her experiences were in each. In one case, Liptrot uses the phenomenon of nature as a metaphor—Fata Morgana, a mirage on the horizon line that distorts an object until it’s unrecognizable, a common occurrence in the Orkneys—to explain the false promise of alcohol.
One reason alcohol is addictive is that it doesn’t quite work. It’s difficult to get enough of something that almost works. It temporarily gave some relief so I chased it, again and again, my Fata Morgana, and it made me feel worse. For me, alcohol had become a mirage. It wasn’t a solution but I hoped it was going to be and kept returning to it, desperately. (Liptrot 273)
Although we see much of Liptrot’s self, the account of her struggle with alcoholism feels symbiotic to her accounts of the nature and history of Orkney. Indeed, her disclosure of this specific struggle (alcoholism) is far from the narcissism that Hinch and Cocker seemed to be concerned with. In fact, there are far more research-based and personal accounts of nature than there are disclosures of her personal struggle. For instance, in the chapter titled “The Corncrake Wife,” Liptrot discusses a job in which she works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to tract the decline of the corncrake bird.
Liptrot includes personal accounts of her experience looking for the birds, and a fair amount of research-based writing in this chapter. The following passage shows how she is able to weave facts about the birds with beliefs from the local Orkneys, both of which build a strong sense of place:
In June 2011, fifty adult male corncrakes were caught on the Hebridean island of Coll, lured into nets by a taped call of what they thought was a rival male. Geolocators, weighing less than a gram, were attached to their legs on plastic rings. The following summer, some of the birds were re-caught, and their tags revealed that they had travelled all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. This seems incredible: in Scotland, corncrake are reluctant to fly at all, which is what makes them so vulnerable to farm machinery. There is even local folklore about them going ‘underground’ instead of migrating, turning into moorhens or perhaps riding on other birds’ backs. (Liptrot 131)
Throughout the chapter, there is one paragraph that shows her struggle with alcoholism:
As I drive, I try to unpick what happened: all the houses I’ve lived in, the lost jobs, the treatment centre, my aching heart. At first, I counted the days I had been sober, then the weeks. Now it’s just the months and the cravings come less frequently, but they still come. Driving home in a beautiful dawn, the only person on the road, listening to happy hardcore, I feel like the Queen of Orkney. Then, suddenly all I want is a bottle of wine and it’s a good thing the island has no twenty-four-hour off-licenses. (Liptrot 129)
By focusing the chapter on birds, she still covers very personal material, but does so with distance, so that the reader is not on the rollercoaster of recovery with the author but instead is watching from the safety of the ground. She gives us snippets of her struggle with alcoholism spoken from the voice of experience instead of taking us deep into scene.
A greater inclusion of the self in nature writing may be a way to expand a sometimes elusive genre, making it more accessible to a broader reader base—and thus, bringing greater attention to the needs of the natural environment. Kathryn Schulz says that while Cheryl Strayed’s Wild “contains almost no ecology, botany, geology, or natural history,” it connects readers to her “spiritual journey.” Strayed’s transformation by way of nature, says Schulz, gives readers hope “that their lives, too, can be redeemed.” Others, like Cocker, view this as an abomination of the genre, a presumptive self-importance that is hurting the environmental activists’ cause. Though this genre-bending may have its critics, the transformative power of nature and the transformation that takes place in a memoir are similar. In The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, which braids his mother’s dying years with his own experiences in the wilderness and the spiritual reverberations between the two, Belden Lane claims fierce landscapes help, “people discover liminal places suggesting thresholds between where they have been and where they are going” (Lane 38). These thresholds are apparent in most character-heavy works. Amy Liptrot returns to nature, her home in the Orkney Islands, to recover from alcoholism. Examination of the self remains at the core of her work, but nature is the vehicle through which the examination is made.
Robert MacFarlane says “we are living through a golden age of literature that explores relations between selfhood, landscape and ethics and addresses what (Richard) Mabey has described as the ‘growing fault line in the way we perceive and talk about nature’” (MacFarlane). Not only do we need to hear from more diverse voices, we need to hear about more diverse environments, and we need to hear how those environments shaped us. Sharing the impact land and nature has had on our personal character arc exposes the most vulnerable aspect of humans—our self—and creates empathy in the reader—not just for our character but for the land and nature. And one can hope, as seen in Kauffman and Libby’s research, that empathy may influence readers to take action to protect and conserve the land and environment.
Aurora D. Bonner is an environmentally charged writer and artist living in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. In 2018, her writing has or will appear in the Colorado Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree. In addition to other past publications, she has won first place in creative nonfiction at the 2016 Pennsylvania Writers Conference. She is currently working on a memoir and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Follow her at @aurora_bonner or aurorabonner.com.