Our World, Ourselves

As wilderness disappears, what happens to nature writing?

First, there was light—sparking, forking human consciousness. Then, an itch. Bears in Chauvet Cave, Japan’s Jōmon owls, a twenty-foot stone Kalahari python slithering from 68,000 BCE. We’ve always story-told the more-than-human universe. Even now. “Archaeologists dig up clues . . .” writes Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal, “and piece them together into a saga.”

I am on the hunt for a new environmental saga. The roots of Nature’s epic start in early time, but let’s begin at the trunk—Thoreau through John Muir, Mary Austin, branches of Ed Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez, leafing out into Luis Alberto Urrea, Lauret Savoy, Drew Lanham. It’s reductive, but that’s what story does—condense the galactically unknowable into narrative.

When I was younger and guiding backpackers in West Texas, the shop where I lectured about bear safety and patched tents sported a library—knot-tying tomes, backcountry triage, and an 1854 memoir by a self-styled, pond-dwelling hermit who spied on loons. Though a mid-list author when alive, Henry David Thoreau occupies the top shelf of nature writing now. In Walden, he focused on small lives, cataloging in detail, for instance, partridges. “All intelligence seems reflected in them,” he wrote (emphasis mine). “They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience.” A radical idea for what Descartes and Kant would have seen as a winged automaton.

I am on the hunt for a new environmental saga. The roots of Nature’s epic start in early time, but let’s begin at the trunk.

Thoreau journaled of witnessed lives and whistling trains, their tracks cutting apart forests, prefiguring Rachel Carson’s DDT exposé. “I wish to speak a word for Nature,” he wrote in Walking. “There are enough champions of civilization.”

But let me ask first—“Nature”?

Some humans claim the Everglades, the Sierras. My intestines scream the West Texas Caprock Canyons. Prickly pears, crimson cliffs, prairie dogs, the Texas state bison herd—storms and rainbows stretching rim to rim, my hiccupping tears. But I also, today, behold a chipped desk harboring tree flesh, minerals cored from mountains, plastic juiced from ancient ferns. They’re here too. And me. Each person contains 30 trillion human cells . . . and 39 trillion alien ones. In I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong writes, “Every one of us is a zoo in our own right—a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.”

But Thoreau looked to the loons. He also sought “Indian wisdom,” a romantic reduction of Native Americans that culminated in 1971’s “Crying Indian” anti-littering PSA (starring a Sicilian-American). It fetishizes, dehumanizes. As for finding partridge wisdom in nature—Cherokee historian Sonny Ledford said about John Muir, “We just did it. And we didn’t glorify this one man.”

A Scottish immigrant born in 1838, Muir was a preacher’s kid who punctured his cornea with an awl while working at a carriage parts shop (the same day: a total solar eclipse) and then went to the outdoors, where he could see. He took Walden’s spirit west, swayed in firs, worshipped California’s Cathedral Peak, prayed on how to save the dying. By 1900, the population of bison had fallen from 30 million ungulates to forty. Florida egrets were slaughtered, county warden Guy Bradley shot while protecting them. Sun-blocking passenger pigeons winked out in 1914.

In My First Summer in the Sierra, Muir scribed Cathedral Peak, which showed “curious workmanship,” a “roof,” “gable,” “joints.” He waxed biblical about the Sierras: “Everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons.” Writing for The Atlantic in 1897, he declared, “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God.”

Muir elevated the more-than-human world, tapping the language of his (F)ather, sanctifying the slaughtered. His DNA remains strong. Muir calved the Sierra Club, spawned national parks, guided Teddy Roosevelt. In his name are a college, twenty-one elementary schools, a mountain, a glacier, and a minor planet.

As a hiker, he was sometimes surprisingly fixated on cleanliness. Muir scoffed at Native Americans as “dirty.” In A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, he sneeringly compared “the wigwams of savages to the clumsy but clean log castle of the thrifty pioneer.”

I wager Muir believed in the lie of human/nature’s split. He forgot or dismissed that for hundreds or thousands of years, Yosemite was “Ahwahnee.” His progeny, the National Park Service, erased villages from the canyon. As scholar Sara Spurgeon has said, “Wildernesses were not unpeopled but rather de-peopled.”

Muir’s contemporary Mary Austin also cobbled nature’s story, but saw ourselves entwined, bodily, with its narrative. Hers is a kind of “Cinderella” retelling where the carriage becomes a cactus. Austin’s bookwormy father died when she was ten, and her stormy mother insisted Austin marry young. She wed a deadbeat, birthed a daughter differently abled at a time when eviler terms were used. She divorced, roamed the desert, single-parenting. She scribbled coyotes, rabbits, buzzards, herself, and other Homo sapiens, all equally lyrical, all equally alive.

“We have fallen on a very careless usage,” she wrote, channeling Thoreau, “speaking of wild creatures as if they were bound by some such limitation as hampers clockwork.”

Additionally, we humans speak of ourselves as outside “Nature,” despite all the sex, warring, resource hoarding, tailbones, 99 percent chimpanzee DNA. We lust to pass on genes as animals have for eons, and we care for our young. We eat living things that become us, and our intestines harbor ecosystems. We hiccup because our diaphragms believe we will one day return to the sea.

In the early 1900s, there was an explosion of outdoor adventure novels like The Virginian and The Grizzly King, a reaction against Victorian “overcivilized” men. Many ecocritics point out these tales’ patriarchy party line. Mei Mei Evans wrote, “Most often in these narratives, Nature is encountered (and subsequently conquered) by a (white) male figure, who then wrests from the confrontation an instatement or reinstatement of his hegemonic identity.”

Even today, white guys conquer mountains. Visit a Barnes & Noble “Nature Writing” shelf and gander at personalities like Bear Grylls. “Nature” becomes a battlefield where one must blood sport. (Once, when I was guiding, I encountered a man wearing a katana and karate headband on New Mexico’s Hermit Peak.)

Has anyone fostered environmental machismo more than Edward Abbey? Along with his action-drenched, monkey-wrenching novels, Desert Solitaire sells at national parks everywhere. In it, Abbey chases snakes, rafts a raging river, and searches for a heat-stroked body, but never once changes a diaper. His wife and newborn shared his trailer, but he erased them. Cactus Ed couldn’t be domesticated!

And Abbey devolved. In One Life at a Time, Please, published the year before his death in 1989, he wrote, “It might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-generically impoverished people.” Maybe it’s not fair to quote the worst thing someone has written, but I can’t unread it.

Abbey guzzled beer, littered cans, carved steaks, sired five children. As Outside’s Heather Hansman wrote, “He says people are the problem, without acknowledging that he, in fact, is a person.”

If Nature is Eden, what of where we actually live? Let me be clear: there is no “out there.” There is only the universe(s). Cathedral Peak is not heaven, but rain, wind, light, metal, and countless past lives compacted into time itself. Our bodies and all our garbage will become layers of this mountain.

Annie Dillard won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for spying on muskrats in a suburb. Nature can be horrible and horribly funny. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard lyricized, “I have seen the mantis’s abdomen dribbling out eggs in wet bubbles like tapioca pudding glued to a thorn.” In a more famous passage, she beheld a frog deflate, lifeforce drained by a vampiric water bug. It’s the “everyday nature” that ecocritic Scott Hess has argued for. It’s not exotic; it’s backyard.

Any separation, after all, is iffy. Food isn’t us until we eat it. Then, after we do what all animals do, it’s not us again. Pine trees release pinene into the air (hence the reek), which a study published by the National Institutes of Health found antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even antitumor. There are something like fifty trees on “my” property. My pines pollinate my neighbor’s trees, vice versa. Their breaths heal our lungs.

Barry Lopez may not have known about pinene when he released 1986’s Arctic Dreams, but he saw how corporeal landscape could be. He eyed the world’s wounds. It’s not that humans (primarily white and Western) are “destroying” Eden; it’s that we’re causing harm, the way one does to a body.

Arctic Dreams is an extensive examination of human–nature relationships. The Arctic is a stand-in for the world and our sometimes (dis)connection. Lopez’s question: How can landscape be so spellbinding and yet so deadly in violent force? He found it “a forgiving benediction of light, and a darkness so dunning it precipitated madness.” The book untangled that paradox, how dreams and nightmares shape our experience with land. How do we co-create the world?

Let me be clear: there is no “out there.” There is only the universe(s).

Lopez knew wounds. It wasn’t until late in his life that he revealed a horrific history of childhood rape. Like many before him, he found healing in deserts, the Arctic, oceans. I, too, experienced rape as a child, and I came to the desert young, leaping upon rocks, fording ancient, dusty rivers. As Austin would agree (and Abbey too), deserts offer capacious, harsh land whose nights are shockingly unheralded. Have you ever lain awake at night in Palo Duro Canyon, felt the heat escape from your skin and chase the sun? Watched as stars snow, wink out behind protective monoliths; attended to coyote choruses between songs of nothingness, the shocking clarity of your body healing? It’s not out there. Believe me.

Moving into the 2000s and beyond, another shift takes place, another configuration. “Adaptive radiation”: to survive, species firework into mesmerizing new forms, like the mass variety of mammals mushrooming beyond the Chicxulub crater, reconquering oceans, taking flight, navigating darkness with sound. As the sixth mass extinction steamrolls and climate cancer metastasizes, eco-writing, too, needs (r)evolution.

I doubt many consider Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway nature writing, but we should. Retracing an ill-fated Arizona border crossing, Urrea excavates the science of heatstroke, how landscape affects our molecules. “In the desert,” he writes, “we are all illegal aliens.” Urrea’s imagination swims in the blood and the air, profiling the group’s history, geography, and biology; tapping environmental lyricism, hip-hop, and Border Patrol character studies; narrating the physical hardships and ghost stories of a land that has claimed many lives (and claims many more before book’s end).

Lauret Savoy is a similar chronicler. “As an Earth historian,” she writes in her ASLE Award–winning Trace, “I once sought the relics of deep time.” But then she turned inward: “I decided to try to trace family, and myself, from storied places.” America’s land doesn’t reject her, but how to explain her feelings of disconnect?

Branch out

Recommendations from Clinton Crockett Peters


Mary Austin

The Land of Little Rain

Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams

Laurent Savoy

Trace

Luis Alberto urrea

The Devil’s Highway

“My skin, my eyes, my hair,” she writes, “recall the blood of three continents”: Africa, Europe, North America. Savoy finds unheralded history in her excavation, much like a landscape’s bloody past—massacred Cheyenne villages, decapitated heads stolen to the Smithsonian. There is slippage from landscape to self, to the story of bodies that make and are broken by others, flesh woven with dirt. “The slaughter wasn’t mentioned in my schoolbooks. Neither was the muddied water sweeping earth to the horizon, nor the shadows I tried to follow.”

Savoy tours a South Carolina plantation home, the grounds swept beautiful, celebrating colonial dress and musket volleys, overlooking whips and 120 anonymous graves. The tour guide mum on the slave count, the bodies lie buried still—a different kind of deep time, an alternate saga.

This brings me to J. Drew Lanham. An ornithologist by training (friendliest man by nature), in The Home Place he chronicles the longleaf pines and gopher tortoises of his family’s South Carolina homestead, including chickens and his father’s homemade sewage system in the narrative because humans are landscape too. We are not separate, not even in outer space, where we bring along our microorganism colonies.

Wild turkeys crossed the Lanham fields. Rattlesnakes eyed ankles, peregrines kidnapped songbirds. It was dangerous, sweet, home.

Lanham writes, “Nature is on the move, too, migrating, storing, and dying.” His writing helps thaw “Nature” frozen in loops, the Circle of Life farce. For as we evolved, so too goes everything. Chimpanzees are cousins, not ancestral. The Appalachians have worn away, risen, obliterated, resurrected. Equatorial Pangea was a desert. We are not unique except that we think we are; perhaps even this isn’t true.

In the chapter “Birding While Black,” Lanham discusses birding in “one of the whitest places in the state” and encountering Confederate flags and honking trucks, white guys tailgating on backroads. Notice Lanham’s serpentine evocation as he tries to comprehend the encounter, one of many: “Their looks bored through the windshield and wrapped themselves around my throat.”

Then why go back? Lanham wrote, “There is power in the shared pursuit of feathered things.” There is also therapy and belonging, as Lopez and Austin knew. Savoy writes, “The American land preceded hate.” It is legacy, us.

Lopez believed that wild animals “pull at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ethical involvement, of ancestry.” It’s only when we look at other creatures and try to imagine their stories that we can imagine our own.

About the Author

Clinton Crockett Peters

Clinton Crockett Peters is an assistant professor of creative writing at Berry College, the world’s largest college (27,000 acres). He is the author of Pandora’s Garden (2018), a finalist for the ASLE Book Award, and Mountain Madness (2021), both from the University of Georgia Press.

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