Reading, Writing, and Thinking of Nature

1 June 2020
By Lena Stein
stream in forest

Over the past few weeks, the editors at the Miscellany have been looking outwards to think about our relationships as readers and writers to nature writing. During the season in which we’d have the occasional outdoor class, study on the much-missed Bald Spot, and enjoy the ever green-growing Arb in spare moment, global attention to both a pandemic and stories such as those of Ahmaud Arbery as well as Chris Cooper remind us that access to the outdoors and the natural world is rarely equitable. Though some of us have access to walking trails or parks during social distancing, the global health crisis of coronavirus has in many ways evidenced the systemic white supremacism that influences the organization of our cities as well as the disparity that makes the simple act of leaving home more dangerous for some of us than others.

From a very different perspective, though, the beginning of this spring term, virtual communication, and limited travel had many of us thinking about a somewhat distant “tingling long-lost sense of pleasure” provided by the beautiful yet treacherous peaks of the Alps in Frankenstein and the feelings of roaming through the red grasses and sunflowers in Willa Cather’s midwestern My Ántonia.

Felipe Jimenez ’21, lamented not being able to spend this spring term out of doors, but described the nature writing he has been reading in Professor Constance Walker’s English Romantic Poetry class as having “this really magical way of making you realize just how special the world we live in is — not that you didn’t know before, but certain writers are able to really put some of the indescribable essence of the natural world into words.”

“Edward Abbey has a great quote in his book ‘Desert Solitaire’ that I love: ‘Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear — the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break…. I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.’ This feeling of the eternity of the earth isn’t new, but when I read this quote I felt it really move me. Especially in the context of these times, it’s a thought that while frightening is also comforting in its own way,” said Felipe. 

Professor Peter Balaam spoke of a different, more anthropocentric reading of nature writing: “I’ve been teaching Methods this term, using on my syllabus some of the same primary sources that other versions of this course in our department use,” (namely, James Joyce’s “The Dead”) “so I’ve been really struck by depictions not of faraway places or of natural phenomena full of grandeur and sublimity but instead of the perpetual encounter of the human mind with Earthly phenomena or ‘nature.’ ‘Snow was general,’ you know? ‘All over Ireland’ and ‘The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander…’ Nature as a kind of perpetual babble in a language that bears to the mind of the human observer a whole vocabulary of human meanings, concerns, and values.”

On an even smaller scale, Professor Michael Kowalewski pointed us to a conversation between friends spread apart by the pandemic but who continue to remind each other of the nature and their neighbors right outside their doors. The closest neighbors, in this instance, are the robin “singing at peak ferocity,” “the orange-crowned and butter-butt warblers,” and “the full-throated melodious roar of a vibrant dawn chorus” despite the threat of “cacophony of combusting carbon.”

In their words, nature can be a respite and a relief, but it is also a reminder of our human selves and our neighbors. Writes author and sound recordist Hank Lentfer, “it is no silence.”

On our reading list: “A Small Needful Fact”, “The Peace of Wild Things”