Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

1 12/05

Modern British and American Nature Writing: A Survey of Selected Works, Authors, and Criticism, Late Eighteenth Century (1789)–Present This literature review focuses on modern British and American writing about natural history, or nature writing. Nature writing is the term used commonly in the secondary literature —criticism, anthologies, and genre studies—and is more or less equivalent to the term natural history writing; both terms convey a sense of the traditional role of the naturalist in documenting their surroundings in a scientific, but literary fashion. Some writers distinguish between science writing, nature writing, and science and nature writing (Johnson-Sheehan, Bogard 365). This review considers a fairly expanded definition of nature writing, to include, generally, writing that is non-fiction, takes as its subject the non-human world, excluding technology, and tends to make an effort to be impersonal and objective, or at least to appear so. But this review also considers nature writing’s many forms, including the philosophical essays of Thoreau; agricultural writing, an important sub-genre of nature writing, which concerns the technologies that humans use to draw sustenance from the land; and the subjectivity that characterizes many important nature writers, like Mark and Delia Owens, who lived in and wrote about Africa’s Kalahari desert wilderness for years, interweaving the animals’ survival struggles with their own. They write of one among many close calls “We could not backtrack with any certainty. We were lost. With less than a quart of water on board the Land Rover, we could not risk driving farther from camp [. . .] This was just the type of situation we should have avoided” (Owens 30). This type of subjective involvement in the environment being studied, and the writing about it, characterizes much of what is considered modern nature writing, and is part of the appeal to the readers—placing the readers in the context of an environment that may be remote in space and

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

2 12/05

time. Viewed in an historic context, even the earliest commonly acknowledged nature writers exhibited in their writings a personal involvement with their subject, their locale, and so this common theme of writing as inextricably linked to a place has run through nature writing in the English tradition continuously for over 200 years. Much of this writing is concerned with a few essential questions: What is nature’s character if not disturbed by humans; what does it mean for nature to be in a state of harmony, and how are human themes related to any harmony of nature; if humans are a part of nature, what is their proper role within it? (Botkin, vii, 16). This review will establish some idea of the total scope of nature writing, its historic beginnings, important authors and works, and general characteristics in terms of rhetoric and style. Modern British and American writing will be examined in more detail, not least because the Anglo-American tradition of nature writing, rich in variety, has a high degree of continuity over the past two centuries. Several genres and aspects of nature writing will be mentioned only in passing, to help place the current scholarship in perspective. Much of this review takes on the tone of an extended definition, because of the complexities in defining nature writing. What constitutes nature, and what it means to write about it, becomes very complicated. The idea of nature writing suggests something other than scientific objectivity, a more subjective type of writing, that includes elements of the naturalists reacting to their environment, rather than attempting to study it objectively. The range and volume of nature writing, as it is defined by current literary scholars, suggests that while nature writing does have some commonly-agreed-upon characteristics, it also covers a vast range of material, of various types and forms, much like its subject. Perhaps the many forms that the genre has taken can be attributed to the many forms that its subject—nature—takes.

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

3 12/05

PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SOURCES The starting points for this review are several genre studies and anthologies. These broad overviews of the field provide some perspective on the range of types of writing, and also help to place the texts into perspective—rhetorically, historically, in terms of genres and sub-genres, and in relationship to culture and society. The authors of the primary texts were often important historical figures, sometimes helping shape public opinion and policy. The genre studies serve as secondary sources, providing some insights into specific authors and works. The anthologies serve as both primary and secondary sources, providing excerpts from a range of longer works as well as historic overviews of the material and other commentary that helps put the huge volume of available material in perspective. One anthologist commented: “The field is [. . .] vast—there exists, for example, a bibliography on just one mountain range, the Adirondacks, which comes to 354 pages, and covers only material published through 1955! (It takes a 198-page supplement to continue the Adirondack coverage just ten years further, to 1965.)” (Lyon 399). The Norton Book of Nature Writing, an anthology of modern American and British nature writing, states: “Even within the bounds of language and form which we set for this collection, the terrain of nature writing is a vast and only partially mapped one” (Finch, Elder 17). OTHER LANGUAGES AND CULTURES This review focuses primarily on modern English-language works, but to place nature writing in a global context, it seems necessary to consider the literatures that cultures other than British and American have produced in response to their experience of their own local natural history. Most languages and cultures—even the most primitive—likely have some tradition of a form of nature writing. A review of the Association for the Study of Literature and the

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

4 12/05

Environment’s online bibliography of recommended reading shows authors and works from every continent, with many non-Anglophone countries represented. Finch and Elder point out that “[. . .] the recognition of valid alternative conceptions of nature in other cultures has led to a series of provocative inquiries: How does the human mind make sense of nature? How does human meaning in general derive from natural phenomena? And what, ultimately, constitutes the perennial attraction of and need for things natural in our lives?” (28). NATURAL HISTORY IN FICTION There is a rich and growing tradition of popular fiction writing that takes nature as a prominent theme, however this review will concern itself only with non-fiction in its many forms. Again, to help place the non-fiction writing in context, it is noteworthy that these popular fiction works are bringing the same natural history- and environment-oriented themes treated in non-fiction writing to the attention of a wide popular audience, including many who might not have an interest in non-fiction prose. This trend seems likely destined to, in turn, affect the nonfiction writing genres. WHY STUDY NATURE WRITING? Natural history writers and their works have exerted major influences on the ways that cultures view and relate to nature; on public policy, from the establishment of huge tracts of protected wilderness lands, to the banning of DDT, to the acceptance of some technologies (Stewart 73–74, 127, 162–163). The method of communicating information about nature can have important effects on the management of natural resources, for example communicating forest management practices to the owners of the forests (Paretti 439). In an expanded sense, the body of nature writing informs human conceptions of how to best manage nature globally, as in modern scientific ecology. In his work on modern ecological thought, Botkin describes how two

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

5 12/05

groups who shared the same goals for Tsavo National Park in Kenya—to preserve the wildlife and environment—had the opposite effect, with the best of intentions. He explains this failure in part because of what he calls a “[. . .] breakdown in myths, beliefs, and fundamental paradigms that modern technological civilization held about nature” (24). The paradigms to which Botkin refers are, in large part, based in the rhetorical, historical, and literary traditions and qualities of writing about nature. Part of Botkin’s message is that humans can no longer simply leave nature alone, and that it will somehow reach an optimal state; at this point in history, humans must intervene, and must therefore develop an understanding of what to do, not based on myths but on the way that nature actually operates. This will require, in part, a revolution in the way that nature writing represents nature, and this revolution seems to have already started, in the fields of ecocriticism and ecopoetics (Killingsworth 367). Nature writing is entering a new era of significance and popularity, both in scholarly and popular forms. In their anthology, Finch and Elder surmise that “Today, nature writing in America flourishes as never before. Nonfiction may well be the most vital form of current American literature, and a notable proportion of the best writers of nonfiction practice nature writing” (24). The vitality of the primary writings provides a wealth of opportunities for secondary studies and scholarship, to help interpret and document the genre. Nature writing is also relevant to the growth of vocational opportunities for writers, as Waddell points out that “[. . .] environmental communication has become one of the fastest-growing [professional] areas within scientific and technical communication” (Killingsworth 361). CRITERIA FOR ANALYSIS AND COMPARISON IMPORTANT AUTHORS AND WORKS The important authors and their works, to a large extent, define the genre of nature

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

6 12/05

writing. Throughout the history of this genre, milestone works and their authors have reinvented what it means to write about nature and humans’ relationship with it. These authors and their works can be analyzed, grouped, and compared in terms of taxonomy—what types of works authors typically produced—and in terms of history—when these authors were writing and how their works fit into the larger history of nature writing. Each type, or sub-genre, of nature writing is characterized by specific rhetorical devices, themes, and literary style. TAXONOMY OF THE LITERATURE A taxonomy of works helps to make sense of the larger genre of nature writing in somewhat the same way that Linnaeus’s system of taxonomy helped scientists and laymen alike make sense of the natural world. It provides general categories for grouping works and authors, shows how they are related in terms of form and other characteristics, and provides a basis for comparison. HISTORY OF THE LITERATURE Examining the history of the major works helps put the evolution of the genre into perspective. Considering the historical aspects of the early and influential works helps make sense of who the important innovators were, how other writers were influenced by them over time, and how their works influenced the larger society of scholars, scientists, and laypeople. Examining the historic aspects of works over time helps establish a sense of the trends within the genre, its evolution over time, its current state, and where it may be going. ORGANIZATION OF THE REVIEW: LITERARY PERSPECTIVES This review incorporates the discussion of authors and their works into the discussions of history and taxonomy of the genre. Nature writers and their works cannot be separated from their historic matrix, the society in which they lived and wrote, how they reacted to the natural world,

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

7 12/05

human society, the technology of their time, and what sort of works they produced; these factors partially determine how they fit into a taxonomy of the overall genre. In a special issue of Technical Communications Quarterly devoted to science and nature writing, the guest editor discusses this historic, locale-based matrix in terms of “[. . .] context, (which) becomes an active agent that shapes thought and prose.” He points to this as the central theme that unites science and nature writing, particularly for writers like Rachel Carson, who are willing “[. . .] to engage with nature in a way that personally affects them, changes them” (Johnson-Sheehan, Bogard 365). TAXONOMY: TYPES AND SUB-GENRES During its history in modern Britain and America, several sub-genres have emerged within the larger genre of nature writing. These sub-genres, or types, provide a useful framework for discussing the evolution of nature writing. In his anthology of American nature writing This Incomperable Lande, (sic) Thomas J. Lyon organizes nature writing into various sub-genres according to the balance that the works exhibit between, on one hand, describing natural history in terms of facts, and on the other hand describing the writer’s experience (4). He organizes the works along a continuum that begins with the more objective works—field guides—and at the other end of the spectrum includes works in which the author explicitly expresses his or her views on humans’ role in nature, for example John Burrough’s Accepting the Universe, in which he begins his essay “The Natural Providence,” “What unthinking people call design in nature is simply the reflection of our inevitable anthropomorphism” (Lyon, 235). While nature writing, or writing about natural history, can be divided into various times, trends, genres, and sub-genres, these divisions are fairly imprecise, as some authors write in more than one genre, and some very different and influential writers were contemporaries of

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

8 12/05

each other. The various sub-genres also span a wide range of styles, from works that attempt to be as objective as possible to works that are more philosophical and poetic. However, even the most abstract of the works that are commonly characterized as nature writing are connected to that most substantial of subjects, nature. Dividing nature writing into some broad categories, while a somewhat artificial distinction, helps provide a framework for understanding the various authors, historical periods, and relationships. This section of the review provides an overview of these sub-genres, and some examples of works and authors for each. Field Guides and Professional Papers Field guides, which are often published as series, are extremely popular resources with both scientists and amateur naturalists. Designed in small format, for portability (some guides to aquatic life are even waterproof), and used to identify some aspect of natural history, they are typically illustrated, and include concise descriptions meant to aid in identification. They may also include a taxonomic key. Modern field guides may be traced back to books like the Rev. D Landsborough’s A Popular History of British Zoophytes, or Corallines, in which the descriptions, “[. . .] while fully in the tradition of natural theology, seldom wander far from the physical nature of the zoophytes” (Schmidt xi–xiii). The first, most popular, and most well-known modern field guide series (still in print) was started in 1934 by Roger Tory Peterson. In A Guide to Field Guides, Diane Schmidt reflects that it is “[. . .] difficult to comprehend [. . .] how thoroughly revolutionary his 1934 bird book was.” Peterson was the one of the first, and certainly among the most well-known authors, to use the term “field guide,” and to combine all the features of modern field guides together in a single volume. Both his illustrations and language were innovative (xv–xvi).

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

9 12/05

Most field guide series are written for amateur naturalists, and many for young people. The foreword to Reptiles and Amphibians, one of the Golden Nature Guides, puts its purpose very simply: “So many people of all ages want to know about snakes and turtles, frogs and salamanders, that the Golden Nature Guides would be incomplete without an introduction to reptiles and amphibians” (Zim 2). Professional papers include documents such as forest management plans, which are used in making decisions about natural resource management. The rhetorical, stylistic, and structural features of these documents can have important and long-term practical consequences for natural resources management (Paretti 439). Natural History Essays The defining characteristic of the natural history essay is that, whatever method is used for presentation, the main point is to convey instruction in facts about nature, for example books such as John Muir’s Studies in the Sierra, published in 1874–1875 (Lyon 5). Muir made several significant contributions to the development of the American nature essay: he enlarged its scope to include wild-country adventures (differentiating him from his contemporary, John Burroughs); he developed the evolutionary and ecological content; and he introduced an element of militancy, which, again, differentiated him from Burroughs, who was mostly content to be an observer and nature philosopher (Lyon 60). Rachel Carson’s writing may also be classified in this category. In Silent Spring, “She followed the classical approach to rhetoric: to please and to teach. It was because of her book’s literary qualities that vast numbers of people eagerly read them. Science is the content, but art enhances its communication and multiplies the persuasiveness of both the scientific argument and the ecological philosophy that underlies it” (Waddell 103–104).

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

10 12/05

Rambles Essays in which natural history and the author’s presence are more or less equally important, as in many of John Burroughs’ works, constitute a “classic American form,” the ramble (Lyon 5). This form typically concerns intense observation of a local environment, often over an extended period of time, and the responses of the observer. Burroughs’ essays and collections were extremely popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is another example of this sub-genre. These authors typically are identified with a region, as Burroughs was identified with the Catskills. Some elements of the ramble as a sub-genre can also be seen in the writings of Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selbourne (1789) records his deep engagement with studying and writing about the natural history of a single locale for his entire life, and profoundly influenced nature writers who followed him. Experience in Nature: Solitude and Back-Country Living Essays on experience in nature often include instruction in natural history facts, but this type of essay also focuses on the writer as a protagonist—as one who exists in nature, experiences it, and responds to it, more or less to the exclusion of other social contexts. This subgenre includes the writings of the seminal Henry David Thoreau, who wrote his classic Walden in 1854. Among the few books that Thoreau considered worthy of his bookshelf was a copy of Gilbert White’s A Natural History of Selbourne. Along with Walden, Thoreau wrote a number of essays and letters, including A Natural History of Massachusetts, which begins: “Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading. I read in Audubon with a thrill of delight, when the snow covers the ground, of the magnolia, and the Florida keys, and their warm seabreezes [. . .]” (Bode 31). Thoreau was encouraged to write more natural science and less

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

11 12/05

philosophy by some of his contemporaries because of his keen powers of observation and analysis. However, he went beyond the model that had been established by White, whom he read and apparently admired, to add a dimension not previously seen in literature to the experience of nature. He was also a contemporary and short-term follower of Louis Agassiz, the influential scientist, but had no use for Agassiz’ methods, for example studying fish preserved in alcohol in preference to the fish in its native brook (Walls 10). Thoreau, and other writers like him, for example Edward Abbey, position themselves immediately and firmly in the narrative, making their struggles with, and reactions to, the natural world a primary focus in their writing. Not uncommonly, many of the nature writers also wrote about their reactions to other writers’ narratives of the natural world. Burroughs, for example, was involved in a famous “nature faker controversy” which ultimately involved even then-president (and friend of Burroughs) Theodore Roosevelt (Walker 170). Experience in Nature: Travel and Adventure Shortly after Gilbert White’s Selbourne was published in 1789, William Bartram’s Travels through North and South Carolina (1791) was published as a very early American example of the travel and adventure narrative; even to the present time, it remains one of the few important regional studies of the southeast. In an 1864 essay from the anthology A Century of Early Ecocriticism, Henry Tuckerman, who was himself a naturalist (a prominent lichenologist, to be precise) and writer, comments on Bartram’s Travels “The style is more finished than his father (John Bartram, also a naturalist and writer) could command, more fluent and glowing, but equally informed with that genuineness of feeling and directness of purpose which give the most crude writing an indefinable but actual moral charm.” This type of early literary criticism of nature writing—now characterized as ecocriticism—shows that nature writing was beginning to

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

12 12/05

be recognized as a “[. . .] discrete genre with its own criteria of literary excellence” (Mazel 20, 24). Experience in Nature: Farm Life and Agricultural Writing Within the tradition of British and American nature writing can also be placed works on agriculture, horticulture, and gardening, all activities that take place at the nexus between humans and nature. Until fairly recently, most literary scholars tended to ignore nature writing, and most scientists viewed natural history as quaint, but in Uneven Land: Nature and Agriculture in American Writing, Stephanie L. Sarver notes that “The late 80s brought a refreshed attention to environmental issues and literary study as scholars turned to nature writing—texts that had hitherto been regarded as outside of the literary canon. Many embraced Thoreau as an exemplary naturalist [. . .]”(6). Agricultural writing also includes contemporary writers such as Wendell Berry, who, like Aldo Leopold, purchased a burned-out farm and began rehabilitating it, the process of which is documented in many of his writings. As noted previously, the sense of the writing being connected with a place, or locale, is central to these writer’s narratives. Agricultural writing necessarily is connected intimately to the agriculture and culture of a specific time and place. For Berry, the locale in which he lives and farms is primary to his writing and philosophy. The more significant works often explore difficult social and ethical issues that arise from the relationship between humans and the land. Sarver goes on to establish connections between agriculture, natural history, ecology, and literature. The relationships between humans and the natural world are shaped in many ways by agriculture and related activities, so it figures prominently in our literature. Many important writers and works in natural history that are not specifically focused on agriculture are strongly influenced by agricultural themes.

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

13 12/05

Man’s Role in Nature At the farthest end of the literary spectrum from the field guides and professional papers are the analytic essays on man and nature, in which interpretation is primary and natural history facts, as well as personal experiences, are secondary. Although these works may make the same points as natural history or personal experience essays, these essays are more abstract (Lyon 7). Burrough’s Accepting the Universe is an example of this type of more philosophical essay. In this, one of his later works, he “[. . .] tries to find a balance between the scriptures he knew from his parents and those he found in Darwin and Emerson, and in the natural world from his own many years exploring it [. . .]” (Walker 48–49). HISTORY: GROUNDBREAKING WORKS AND AUTHORS “Nature writing, as a recognizable and distinct tradition in English prose, has existed for over two hundred years [. . .] Since World War II the genre has become an increasingly significant and popular one, producing some of the finest nonfiction prose of our time” (Finch, Elder 19). Various sources place the beginnings of the nature writing genre in different places and times, and with different authors and works. However, a survey of the anthologies and secondary criticism reveals some commonly agreed-upon works and authors that were clearly important to the development of nature writing. Nature writing has achieved a “[. . .] unique fullness and continuity within the AngloAmerican context.” This is because of a number of factors, including the influence of writers like Linnaeus, the English literature of naturalist theology (in which authors primarily wrote about nature in the context of it being evidence for the existence of God—His creation), the emergence of an educated leisure class with an interest in nature, and the exploration of early America

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

14 12/05

(including commissioning of naturalists by both institutions and governments to travel, map, and document new specimens) (Elder, Finch 20). Beginnings: Gilbert White: A Natural History of Selbourne Linnaeus, with his Systema Naturae (1735), created, for the first time, a framework for classifying and identifying all living things. His books went into the field with English and American amateur naturalists, as well as explorers and collectors in the second half of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. One of his readers, and the first commonly acknowledged nature writer in English, is Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selbourne (1789) influenced both Darwin and Thoreau (Finch, Elder 19). White was the pastor of the Southampton parish of Selbourne, where he lived his entire life and wrote a series of letters that were eventually published as his Natural History. White’s importance to this genre may be hinted at in the fact that the authors who followed him and used him as a model were referred to as “the Selbourne Cult.” “It was more than a scientific-literary genre modeled after White’s pioneering achievement. A constant theme of the nature essayists was the search for a lost pastoral haven, for a home in an inhospitable and threatening world” (Finch, Elder 20). In “Tales of Locale: The Natural History of Selbourne and Castle Rackrent,” Martha Adams Bohrer explains that “The ‘age of the naturalist’ in England extended from [. . .] the work of Linnaeus after 1754 until the end of the nineteenth century [. . .] This interest crossed all classes, from the [. . .] royal family [. . .] to [. . .] working-class botanical societies in provincial towns. Literary critics in the twenty-first century have lost sight of this important context so familiar to authors and readers in the nineteenth century” (393). She refers to White’s and other authors’ works as “tales of locale,” implying a deep connection between the writer and the locale in which they live. This was certainly true for White, who lived, explored,

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

15 12/05

and wrote in the same small parish (of about 700 residents) for his entire life. She refers to White’s Selbourne as a “seminal, experimental text” and says that the “[. . .] natural history and tales of locale generated a new understanding of places as natural and social environments.” She also refers to his work as “radically new thick (and systemic) descriptions of locales.” He innovated the representation of animal behavior in nature writing by modifying the more static local histories that had been produced by his predecessors (394, 416). This appraisal of White’s experimentalism and importance to the nature writing genre agrees with many other literary critics’ and anthologists’ appraisals. Bohrer credits White with several important innovations to a literary tradition that had become, by White’s time, “more antiquarian and speculative than natural historical and empirical.” White divided his history by method, with sections based on both direct field observations and textual research. The form he used for his writing also allowed him the freedom of conversational organization, but still made it clear that the content of the writing was essentially scientific (395). Selbourne takes the form of a series of letters, which were the method that most scientists used to share insights and discoveries before journals became prevalent. While the letters that make up Selbourne appear casual, they were carefully edited and revised before publication. White’s “[. . .] probing eyes and sensitive ears (generated) accurate, artful, amusing representations and (offered) convincing evidence that ‘all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined’ ” (417). This intense study of a limited locality was to be later taken up and turned into a uniquely American literary form by John Burroughs, whose “rambles” around his native mountain New England farm country contrasted sharply with the wild explorations of his contemporary, John Muir, who chose to spend many years exploring (and almost dying in) some of the wildest parts of Canada and America.

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

16 12/05

White’s pastoral themes can be traced to the ancient literary traditions exemplified in Theocritus’s Idylls and Virgil’s Eclogues. White, however, takes a more active role as naturalist than the ancients, who were more interested in a temporary escape from the “[. . .] world of cities, labor, and war” than in studying nature (Finch, Elder 21). White is interested in discovering the landscape, observing, exploring, and documenting his findings in a scientific, but also literary, manner. He was first English writer generally considered to be a nature writer in the modern sense. Darwin and the Shift in Scientific Style Among other authors and works, Darwin and his Origin of Species started a process of evolution in scientific thought beyond Linnaeus’ relatively static hierarchies. Darwin’s work stimulated a revolution in life science research; however, scientific writing shifted away from Darwin’s own fairly accessible writing style and towards “A white-coated, impersonal style (which) became the established voice of ‘objective science’.” After Darwin, nature writers who have retained and embraced the older tradition of natural history have done so as exemplifying a way to “[. . .] respond to the physical creation in ways that, while scientifically informed, are also marked by a personal voice and concern for literary values” (Finch, Elder 22). This may be a reaction against the more impersonal, objective writing style adopted by the scientific community after Darwin. The contrast between these approaches could be seen in early American science, between the objectively scientific approach of Louis Agassiz and that of his contemporary, the “literary,” but still scientific, Thoreau (Walls 1). Thoreau and Literary Science In America, Thoreau was a “crucial figure” in mid-nineteenth century America, and not only wrote some of the nature writing genre’s most influential, philosophical, and literary works,

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

17 12/05

but also anticipated its future growth into our own century. Just as White expanded on the traditions of the ancient pastoralists, Thoreau expands on White’s earlier tradition by adding a touch of “ironic awareness” to his writing that made it more appropriate to his audience and times. Thoreau also introduced the idea of protecting the environment, perhaps the earliest stirrings of a conservation movement in America, unlike White, who—although he lived through the first wave of industrialization of England—never even mentions it (Finch, Elder 22–23). “To Thoreau, knowledge—science—could only be relational, not absolute, for the preconceptions of the knower inevitably inflected the knowledge of any object. [. . .] for Thoreau the inflections became [. . .] the most significant part of the (scientific) process.” In her article “Textbooks and Texts from the Brooks: Inventing Scientific Authority in America,” Laura Dassow Walls talks about how Thoreau followed the methods of the influential scientist Louis Agassiz for a short time, then rejected them: “Thoreau would remain [. . .] a ‘naturalist’ [. . .] for all his fascination with and attention to science, Thoreau would not himself become a ‘scientist.’ He would, of course, become ‘literary’ ” (1). Aggasiz and Thoreau embodied a much older conflict between science and literature, one that predated the uncertainty of postmodernism. Walls point out that “The conflict Thoreau felt with the scientific authority of Agassiz has itself a continuous history [. . .] the view that scientific truth is a human construct and must therefore be contingent, not absolute, is not the sudden and shocking progeny of postmodernism, but has a currency continuous with the development of science itself” (21). In these terms, Walls shows how Agassiz’ modern and objective approach was discredited within his own lifetime, while Thoreau’s literary approach to natural science is gaining increased attention in our postmodern world, where objectivity is seen increasingly as difficult if not impossible, and perhaps not even desirable or useful. Modern criticism of nature writing—ecocriticism—seems to be just catching

Survey of Literature John Stewart

Modern British and American Nature Writing University of Central Florida

18 12/05

up with Thoreau. The American Tradition: Burroughs and Muir, Among Many John Burroughs and John Muir, contemporaries to each other, were guided at least in part by the heritage of Gilbert White and Selbourne. Writers such as Burroughs and Muir provide “[. . .] an alternative to ‘cold science—not by retreat into unexamined dogmatism, but by restoring to scientific inquiry some of the warmth, breadth, and piety which had been infused into it by the departed parson-naturalist (Gilbert White)’ ” (Finch, Elder 20). The environmental movement began in the second half of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the literary works of Burroughs and Muir, who both traced their literary roots back to Thoreau, although each took the tradition in very distinct and personal directions. Important political and industrial figures of the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and Harvey Firestone, were influenced by these writer’s works, as well as by personal association (Finch, Elder 23). The Dawn of Ecology: Carson, Leopold After Burroughs and Muir, writers like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, both highly trained scientists, started creating literary works that incorporated knowledge from the then-new field of scientific ecology, and to try to place the new findings on ecology within a meaningful social and ethical context—how modern man could and should try to live in a world that he has the potential to alter significantly in ways that earlier writers did not consider (Finch, Elder 24). Leopold was a graduate of the master’s program in forestry from Yale at the dawn of the twentieth century, and was schooled in Gifford Pinchot’s sustained-yield theory of environmental management (Stewart 145). He had a brilliant career in the forest service, and yet began to have doubts about the theories he had been taught, based on his personal experiences in

Survey of Literature John Stewart

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the field. In 1933 he became head of game management in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Wisconsin, where he began also to explore the surrounding countryside—the same countryside that John Muir had tramped around a century earlier. Leopold found an environment changed and degraded since the days of Muir. In 1948, A Sand County Almanac was published, an account of his work to revive a burned-out farm that he had purchased, along with the meditations engendered by a lifetime of education in scientific management, practical field experience, and insightful thought. Toward the end, he sums up: “[. . .] a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning [. . .] An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy for these situations” (Leopold 214). Leopold, like Carson, had the scientific background and practical field experience to lend his work authority, a sense of ethical commitment to the environment, and the literary ability to communicate his insights effectively to a popular audience. Current American Nature writing: Edward Abbey and Beyond Modern American nature writing encompasses a wide range of styles and authors, including poets (Wendell Berry), novelists (Peter Matthiessen), and essayists (Barry Lopez). Nature writing “[. . .] fuses literature’s attention to style, form, and the inevitable ironies of expression with a scientific concern for palpable fact [. . .] nature writing asserts both the humane value of literature and the importance to a mature individual’s relationship with the world of understanding fundamental physical and biological processes” (Finch, Elder 25). Edward Abbey embodies many of the trends and themes in current nature writing in his work. In spite of being largely ignored by the eastern literary press, the paperback version of his

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classic Desert Solitaire is in its sixteenth printing. Another example of the wide range of opinions held by various authors classified as nature writers, Abbey is difficult to define in terms of simply being a nature writer, even though his most important works are not separable from their place and time, the American southwestern desert in the last part of the twentieth century. Nor can they be separated from Abbey’s personal reactions to the environment and what he sees happening to it. Abbey says in his preface to the 1988 reprint of Desert Solitaire: “I have never looked inside a book by Muir or Burroughs and don’t intend to. The few such writers whom I wholly admire are those, like Thoreau, who went far beyond simple nature writing to become critics of society, of the state, or our modern industrial culture” (xi). With Abbey, it’s difficult to tell when he is being literal, although it seems to be seldom; he likely would have a fairly high regard for Muir’s environmental activism, if not his writing. Modern Trends: Ecocriticism, Ecocomposition, and Environmental Rhetoric Ecocriticism can be briefly defined as studying literature in a way that emphasizes environmental themes. Surveys of early ecocriticism show works dating from at least as early as 1864, so the practice of reading texts in terms of their connections to nature has a long history. More recently, the term ecocriticism was coined by William Reueckert in his 1978 essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” Reuckert’s essay was later included in Cheryl Glotfelty’s Ecocriticism Reader (1996), in which she observes that “ecologically informed criticism” had been extant at least since the 1970s (Mazel 1). So, while something that could be characterized as ecocriticism has been developing in British and American literary criticism for well over 100 years, beginning around the late 1970s it has begun to be more defined and developed as a distinct discipline within literary criticism. ASLE provides an “Introduction to Ecocriticism” page on their internet site that includes links to a variety of

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articles in journals such as the PMLA, as well as popular magazines such as The Nation, that provide extended definitions of, and different perspectives on, modern ecocriticism, and examine its importance in the current world of literature, as well as to a more popular audience. From the volume and variety of articles, one can infer that ecocriticism has attracted serious interest from a wide range of quarters in the academic and popular worlds. In his article “From Environmental Rhetoric to Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics: Finding a Place for Professional Communication,” M. Jimmie Killingsworth surveys some of the more important works in ecocriticism’s counterpart in the composition world, ecocomposition. He is particularly interested in the works and aspects of ecocomposition related to technical and professional writing, but his survey, and his observations on ecocomposition in general, echo a number of themes that been developing in British and American nature writing for over 200 years. He observes that there was a “[. . .] tendency to classify environmental concerns topically and vocationally [. . .],” which led to most writers identified with environmental rhetoric, scientific rhetoric, and technical communication to produce books that focused on specifically environmental themes. Killingsworth points out that ecocritics, in the quest to make their work “special and different,” created a “canon of privileged texts,” for example the essays of Thoreau. He characterizes this “professionalization of the environment” as leading to the idea that only certain groups—nature writers, for example—are concerned with the environment and ecology, and says that this specialization follows the trend of modernism in general (361, 362). Killingsworth shows that writers like Rachel Carson contributed to a body of literature that was primarily focused on disaster themes, and nature, as viewed in much current environmental discourse studies, is seen as “[. . .] not so much the source and setting of life, but as a problem or [. . .] disaster waiting to happen [. . .]” (363). He distinguishes between the fields

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of environmental rhetoric, ecocriticism, and environmental communication, and also shows that they all seem to have shared a focus on nature as a problem to solve. He goes on to suggest some new possibilities. Killingsworth suggests that “all writing connects to an environment” and mentions several sources that establish and explore this theme. He mentions a number of literary scholars that are developing the approach to teaching writing known as ecocomposition and finds that “For them, ecology becomes something more than a set of themes that occupy the attention of a special group of authors and texts,” in contrast to the prevalent perception of both the popular readers and most ecocritics. Criticizing the tendency of professional communications studies to focus on workplaces and global communities, he emphasizes the importance of place, or locale, in writing, continuing themes started by Gilbert White with Selbourne in the late eighteenth century. He offers some guidelines for a new pedagogy of teaching writing using the principles of ecocomposition to begin integrating nature writing—which, in the current century, seems to be synonymous with ecological and environmental awareness—into the professional writing curriculum (370). RELATIVE IMPORTANCE OF THE SOURCES The specific contributions and important points of the various books, book articles, journal articles, primary, and secondary sources are detailed in the discussions of taxonomy and history, but the following general summary helps provide some perspective on the sources in terms of the various types. The anthologies in general establish important guidelines for what authors and works are considered important, and some explanation of why they are important. The anthologies also provide historical context, organizing works in order of publication. They show how the works

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and their authors are interrelated, both in the sense of the authors’ relationships to their works, and in the sense of the authors’ influences on each other, sometimes as contemporaries, sometimes over time. They also help to establish taxonomies of nature writing, organizing the works into broad sub-genres, which helps to provide some framework for studying them (Lyon 3). The various secondary articles provide scholarly insights into the historic importance of each author and work that they examine. They provide historic details and compare the authors to other writers on the basis of similarities and differences. This sort of comparison sometimes leads to interesting connections among authors and works, and suggests directions for future research that may have been previously unsuspected. The critical articles can also provide detailed theoretical discussions and analyses of the primary sources, which help clarify why these texts are considered important. Sometimes articles are collected into anthologies of literary criticism for important authors; for example Coyote in the Maze is a collection of critical essays on Edward Abbey’s writing. In Coyote, Claire Lawrence contributes an analysis titled “Getting the Desert into a Book” that addresses the problems nature writing encounters in representation of reality in a postmodern world. She makes the point that while poststructuralists and eco-critics may seem to have little in common, the poststructuralist recognition that part of the problem in literary representation, a “[. . .] rupture in the relationship between word and object” is a problem that nature writers are very familiar with. While poststructuralists consider eco-critics as simplistic and eco-critics see poststructuralists as nihilists, there may still be some common philosophical ground between them in terms of what is real and meaningful (Quigley 150). An understanding of critical viewpoints such as this in terms of current theory and scholarship is important to any

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serious discussion of nature writing. Some articles and books are more insightful, focused, and important to understanding a specific aspect of nature writing than others. The books and articles included in this review were selected as being significant works in the field, partly because of references by scholarly associations and predominance of references in the bibliographies. For example, ASLE recommends Lyon’s text as being one of the more important anthologies of nature writing, both for his useful commentary as well as his selection of representative material. Killingsworth’s article seemed particularly significant in terms of addressing current themes, and in expanding on current thinking in ecocriticism and professional communication in a way that leads to some practical insights on raising environmental awareness in general. This raising of awareness goes back to the themes that Gilbert White explored in Selbourne, and that have been continued by authors as diverse as Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, Carson, and Abbey into our current century. PRESENT CONDITIONS IN THE FIELD Nature writing is a vital and growing area of literature and literary studies, with rich possibilities for future studies to contribute to the understanding of various aspects of nature writing, including insights into nature and writing in themselves. Ecocriticism seems to be the dominant force in current literary criticism of nature writing, and the practice of ecocomposition seems to be becoming more widespread within the practice of teaching composition in general. Current nature writers seem to be evolving their writing to be appropriate and relevant for our current century, and yet retain many of the elements that have historically characterized this genre, and in fact even celebrating them as being an antidote to some of the flaws in modern literary criticism and scholarly writing. The ideas that writing is based in a specific locale, that writing belongs to a time and place, that nature can be

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characterized in ways that allow us to make sense of it in human terms, that humans can make sense of their relation to nature, that humans can influence the state of nature through writing about it—all these ideas seem to be taken up by current nature writers, and developed in terms of our current times. With the developing science of scientific ecology and the recognition that nature writing is a valid genre, with scientific as well as literary value, nature writing could be poised to undergo another dramatic change in literary form. With digital technologies, not only the writing, but the presentation and physical form of nature writing texts could undergo a radical change. There is already a tradition within nature writing of integrating text and illustrations, either drawings, paintings, or photographs, for example the work of Peter Matthiessen with the photographer Eliot Porter (The Tree Where Man was Born/The African Experience), the various types of illustrated field guides (for example, the Golden Nature Guides and Peterson Field Guides), and the “popular natural science” articles, magazines, and books, for example The World We Live In, which was originally published as a series of articles in Life magazine in the 1950s. The field guide/popular natural science book model seems most suited to extension using the newer technologies of multimedia and presentation on screens. There are already projects underway to digitize collections of specimens and early texts and make them available over the internet. For example, at the Academy of Natural Science’s Albert M. Greenfield digital imaging center, the Academy’s entire stock of collections is being digitized for distribution over the internet. The Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry project on Prince Edward Island has created an online “field” guide that could represent a growing trend toward publishing natural history information on the internet (Schmidt, xx).

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POSSIBLE DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE STUDY The subject of nature writing offers a wide range of possibilities for future studies that would be interesting from a scholarly viewpoint, as well as practical in the sense of professional writing and literature accomplishing work in the world. The following list represents a few promising areas for specialization. • International nature writing—studies of how various languages and cultures have represented nature in literature. • British colonial writings—studies of responses to natural history by the British living in colonies in India and other locales. For example, this area of study could include literature such as surveys of Indian wildlife written in the days of the British colonies; this type of study could be characterized as belonging to the growing field of environmental history, although with a specific focus on literary aspects. • Gilbert White, Burroughs, and others writers in the genre considered writers of rambles and locale-based writing—studies of locale seem to run through the entire history of nature writing, and seem to still be important to current writers and theorists in the field of environmental rhetoric and technical and scientific writing. • Agricultural writing—studies along the lines of the literature of sustainable agriculture and appropriate technology. • Natural history information on the internet—studies of major digitizing projects, multimedia projects, and other related projects, comparing and contrasting these newer presentation methods to the older texts. INSIGHTS: WRITING NATURAL HISTORY Nature writing has a history that reaches back, in the British and American tradition, at

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least to the late eighteenth century. It has evolved into many forms over the years, and has been the chosen genre for many important writers. Common themes, for example, locale, have emerged and remained important for the genre since its beginnings. Nature writing, and the various forms it has engendered, or is related to—environmental rhetoric, ecocriticism, ecocomposition—has been, and continues to be, important to scholars and laypeople alike, as they seek the answers to the basic questions that were formed at the beginning of the discipline: What is the character of non-human nature; what is the harmony of nature; how do human themes relate to this harmony; and what is humanity’s proper role in nature? (Botkin, vii, 16). These are themes that have still not been fully explored, and future nature writers and scholars of nature writing will continue to add their insights to this area of literary studies.

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Works Cited Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1988. Albert M. Greenfield Digital Imaging Center for Collections. Acad. of Natural Sciences. 27 Jun 2005. <http://www.acnatsci.org/library/greenfield/index.html>. ASLE bibliography. Assn. for Study of Lit. and Environment. 27 Nov 2005. <http://www.asle.umn.edu/archive/biblios/biblios.html>. ASLE Introduction to Ecocriticism. Assn. for Study of Lit. and Environment. 4 Dec 2005. <http://www.asle.umn.edu/archive/intro/intro.html>. Assn. for Study of Lit. and Environment. 27 Nov 2005. <http://www.asle.umn.edu/>. Bode, Carl, ed. The Portable Thoreau. New York: Viking P, 1947. Bohrer, Martha Adams. “Tales of Locale: The Natural History of Selbourne and Castle Rackrent.” Mod. Philology 100 (2003): 393–417. Botkin, Daniel B. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Bryson, Michael A. “Nature, Narrative, and the Scientist-Writer: Rachel Carson’s and Loren Eisley’s Critique of Science.” Technical Communication Quarterly 12 (2003): 369–387. Finch, Robert, and John Elder, ed. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. New York: Norton, 1990. International Field Guides: A Web Supplement to “A Guide to Field Guides” by Diane Schmidt. 27 Aug 1999. Lib. of U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 27 Nov 2005. <http://www.library.uiuc.edu/bix/fieldguides/main.htm>. Johnson-Sheehan, Richard and Paul Bogard. “Landscape and Text: The Central Role of Context in Science and Nature Writing.” Technical Communication Quarterly 12 (2003): 365–

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368. Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. “From Environmental Rhetoric to Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics: Finding a Place for Professional Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14 (2005): 359–373. Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford UP, 1949. Lyon, Thomas J., ed. This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing. New York: Penguin, 1991. Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project: Guides. Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project. 27 Nov 2005. <http://www.macphailwoods.org/guides.html>. Matthiessen, Peter. Tigers in the Snow. New York: North Point, 2000. — and Eliot Porter. The Tree Where Man Was Born/The African Experience. New York: Dutton, 1972. Mazel, David, ed. A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2001. McGill, Kathleen. “Field Study and the Rhetoric Curriculum.” Technical Communication Quarterly 12 (2003): 285–302. National Museum of Natural History Library. Smithsonian Inst. lib. 27 Nov 2005. <http://www.sil.si.edu/libraries/nmnh-hp.htm>. Owens, Mark and Delia. Cry of the Kalahari: An American Couple’s Seven Years in Africa’s Last Great Wilderness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. Paretti, Marie C. “Managing Nature/Empowering Decision-Makers: A Case Study of Forest Management Plans.” Technical Communication Quarterly 12 (2003): 439–459. Quigley, Peter, ed. Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1998.

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Sarver, Stephanie. Uneven Land: Nature and Agriculture in American Writing. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. Schmidt, Diane. A Guide to Field Guides: Identifying the Natural History of North America. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1999. Sherman, Charles L., ed. Nature’s Wonders in Full Color. Garden City, New York: Hanover House, 1956. Stewart, Frank. A Natural History of Nature Writing. Washington, D.C.: Island, 1995. Thompson, Edward K., ed. The World We Live In. New York: Time, 1955. Waddell, Craig, ed. And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000. Walker, Charlotte Zoe, ed. Sharp Eyes: John Burroughs and American Nature Writing. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000. Walls, Laura Dassow. “Textbooks and Texts from the Brooks: Inventing Scientific Authority in America.” Amer. Quarterly 49 (1997): 1–25. Wiley, Farida A, ed. . John Burroughs’ America: Selections From the Writings of the Naturalist John Burroughs. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997. Zim, Herbert S. Reptiles and Amphibians: A Guide to Familiar American Species. New York: Golden, 1956.