Women nonfiction writers have long had a complex relationship with wilderness. From conceptions of “Mother Nature” in the early environmental movement to contemporary narratives of adventure and self-discovery, women have found nature, at various times, to be a reflection of themselves, an ally, a series of challenges, a place of peril, or a safe haven.
Wilderness, in other words, is not a simple thing, and the way it’s perceived depends on the one doing the perceiving, and the time and culture in which she lives. And how we tell wilderness stories ultimately determines the way we understand the world. If there’s one thing that underlies the work of many women nature writers, however, it’s a sense of interconnectedness, a dissolving of barriers between nature and culture, wild lands and home.
To get a sense of this ever-shifting territory, here’s a look at some of the books from the last half-century that have explored it. All of these have become touchstone texts for me, and they have much to teach about how to inhabit and write about the earth.
Together, these books demonstrate how wilderness is a fluid term that’s constantly being redefined, renarrated, and rethought. Certainly pines and bears, mountains and rivers can all exist outside of human culture. Yet as soon as a human writes about them, the story becomes one of interrelatedness, interconnectedness, and home.
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
Silent Spring can be seen as the book that launched the contemporary environmental movement. Looking at the effects of pesticides like DDT on human health and the health of ecosystems, Carson was one of the first writers to tell a narrative embodying the ecological tenet that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. And though the book is not overtly concerned with gender, Carson’s identity as a woman shaped it and its reception. Silent Spring brings to life the ways that natural and human worlds, ecosystems and bodies, are inevitably interwoven. The book is both a powerful culturally disruptive story and a personal, poetic one, and it explicitly questions what the author sees as the false dichotomy between nature and humans. As she writes,
The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.
Wilderness, for Carson, is not a place to conquer and vanquish, but a place of collaboration and shared identity.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)
Dillard’s wildernesses are small: the woods behind a suburban home, a neighborhood creek, a field alongside a busy road. And yet she sees in these patches of nature the workings of the universe. Her lyrical prose links historical texts, personal narrative, and vivid description:
I watch the running sheets of light raised on the creek’s surface. The sight has the appeal of the purely passive, like the racing of light under clouds on a field, the beautiful dream at the moment of being dreamed. The breeze is the merest puff, but you yourself sail headlong and breathless under the gale force of the spirit.
There’s a spiritual component to Dillard’s writing, a vision of a larger picture, a way of seeing an ecosystem not simply as a scientific fact but also as a metaphysical condition. Throughout her work, there’s a sense of interrelatedness between storyteller and subject, between Dillard and the hawks, coots, and sycamores she observes and describes.
Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991)
Like the works of Carson and Dillard, Williams’s Refuge explores the intersections of human culture and nature. At its core, the book is the story of breast cancer caused by radioactive fallout from atomic testing and the way one family deals with this cancer. The story echoes Silent Spring, demonstrating how narratives beget other narratives, how one writer sets the stage for another. At the same time, Refuge tells a story of the changing water levels and bird habitats of the Great Salt Lake. Wilderness, in Refuge, is constantly in flux, as evidenced by the opening words of the book’s prologue:
Everything about Great Salt Lake is exaggerated—the heat, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain.
At the same time, Williams sees nature as a healing force, and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge becomes a metaphor for the larger ways that all nature is a refuge:
The Bird Refuge has remained a constant. It is a landscape so familiar to me, there have been times I have felt a species long before I saw it. . . .
The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.
Throughout, Refuge offers hope that both wilderness and individuals, however damaged, can repair themselves. And there’s the sense that this healing will take place when the unnatural boundaries between the natural world and people are, themselves, healed.
Kim Barnes, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (1996)
In the Wilderness tells the story of Barnes’s childhood in the forests of Idaho. In it, nature is both a nurturing force and a metaphor for the perilous isolation and deep Pentecostal beliefs of her family. Barnes’s wilderness is at once comforting and haunting, reflecting shifts in the family and in her own perspective. In the Wilderness is a story, finally, of coming to terms with this wilderness and with her family, and it ends with Barnes eventually working her way back to make a home in the same forest where she grew up:
So it is that I have chosen to remain here, above the Idaho river whose feeding brooks once ran beneath my window, whose waters I drank from my hands. All that I am and have ever been the river has known. It is the map I follow back to understand what has shaped me.
The book is intimately concerned with what makes a home and how to make a home, ultimately, in the wilderness.
Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012)
Strayed’s runaway bestseller tells the story of the author’s escape into the California mountains to find forgiveness, to grieve for her lost mother, and to recreate herself. Wilderness, in this book, is a place for Strayed to discover who she is, why she’s here, and where she’s going. After spending months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, living in her tent, and exploring the mountains, she discovers what she was seeking all along—a sense of the mystery and sacredness of her own life:
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. . . . To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.
As with the work of many other women writers, Strayed’s wilderness is not separate and distinct from herself. Rather, the larger world and Strayed herself are interwoven and connected, one shaping the other. And while the author discovers herself on this journey, she also discovers this interconnectedness, the fact that she cannot separate herself from the world.
* Illustration by Chris Mucci