In the face of some of the worst wildfires, droughts, and climate change-related devastation on record, the publishing world—including many indie and university presses—have responded with an incredible amount of nonfiction nature writing in the first half of 2017. Whether you’re looking for in-depth examinations of plants and animal species, or something more global; writing that tends toward the scientific, or essays that verge into the philosophical; you’ll find it on this list. Many of these works, in the great tradition of nature writing, are told in the first person. Others are a bit more detached. What they all share is terrific writing and fascinating insights into the natural world.
The Best Read Naturalist: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
By Ralph Waldo Emerson; Edited by Michael P. Branch and Clinton Mohs
University of Virginia Press, January 1
Kicking off this list is a collection of little-known essays by one of the greatest nature writers of all time. They reveal Emerson to be not only a master of the written word, but one of the world’s first environmentalists.
From University of Virginia Press: “As we watch him grapple with what he called the “book of nature,” a more environmentally connected thinker emerges–a “green” Emerson deeply concerned with the physical world and fascinated with the ability of science to reveal a correspondence between the order of nature and that of the mind. ”
Birds Art Life: A Year of Observationby Kyo Maclear
Scribner, January 3
If you loved H is for Hawk, then you’ll love this book. As Maclear studies the birds of her city, she learns to connect her hobby to larger ideas about art, love, and life.
From Scribner: “If Birds Art Life was sprung from Maclear’s sense of disconnection, her passions faltering under the strain of daily existence, this book is ultimately about the value of reconnection—and how the act of seeking engagement and beauty in small ways can lead us to discover our most satisfying and meaningful lives.”
The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art by Charlotte Sleigh
University of Chicago Press, March 8
A book for the coffee table that you’ll want to look at every time you sit down. It’s filled with beautiful drawings by some of the world’s most renowned natural history illustrators (including John James Audubon himself.)
From University of Chicago Press: “Gathering together a breathtaking range of nature illustrations from manuscripts, prints, drawings, and rare printed books from across the world, Sleigh brings us face to face (or face to tentacle) with images of butterflies, beetles, and spiders, of shells, fish, and coral polyps.
In her accompanying text, Sleigh traces the story of the art of natural history from the Renaissance through the great age of exploration and into the nineteenth century, offering insight into the changing connections between the natural and human worlds.”
The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack E. Davis
Liveright, March 14
This book marks the first-ever history of the Gulf, and Davis, an environmental historian, more than does the narrative justice. Reaching as far back to the Pleistocene age, Davis tells a comprehensive story that ends with a discussion of humanity’s connection to one of our most over-looked seas.
From Liveright: “Significant beyond tragic oil spills and hurricanes, the Gulf has historically been one of the world’s most bounteous marine environments, supporting human life for millennia. Davis starts from the premise that nature lies at the center of human existence, and takes readers on a compelling and, at times, wrenching journey from the Florida Keys to the Texas Rio Grande, along marshy shorelines and majestic estuarine bays, profoundly beautiful and life-giving, though fated to exploitation by esurient oil men and real-estate developers.”
Plant Love: The Scandalous Truth About the Sex Life of Plantsby Michael Allaby
Filbert Press, April 1
Like your nature writing a little steamy? Then this is your book. It’s funny, well-written, and filled with tidbits that’ll make you rethink everything you thought you knew about lovin’ in the natural world.
From Filbert: “The sexual antics of plants are far more varied than those of people, and plants have preferences and techniques for which we have no equivalent. Being rooted to the spot, many rely on pollinators for assistance—and forget birds and bees, we’re talking kangaroos, giraffes, and vampire bats. Botanical illustrations throw light on the gallery of pimps, hookers, and gigolos who may be lurking in your back garden and spice up this compendium of scurrilous botany which—be warned—may shock the worldliest of gardeners.”
Selected Writingsby John Muir; Introduction by Terry Tempest Williams
Everyman’s Library, April 4
Every naturalist worth her salt reads John Muir, and thanks to Everyman’s Library, this new collection offers some of his best work.
From Everyman’s Library: “These four full-length works—along with a selection of important essays—helped galvanize American naturalists, and led to the founding of the Sierra Club and several national parks. In these pages, written with meticulous thoroughness and an impassioned lyricism, we witness Muir’s awakening to the incredible beauty of our planet, and the honing of an eye turned as acutely toward the scientific as the spiritual.”
Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium of All the Flowers, Fruits, Herbs, Trees, Seeds, and Grasses Cited by the World’s Greatest Playwright
By Gerit Quealy, Sumie Hasegawa Collins; Forward by Helen Mirren
Harper Design, April 4
When most folks think “nature writing,” Shakespeare doesn’t necessarily come to mind. This beautiful volume shows us why we’ve been wrong to exclude him.
From Harper Design: “Botanical Shakespeare opens with a brief look at the Bard’s relationship to the plants mentioned in his works—a diversity that illuminates his knowledge of the science of botany, as well as the colloquy, revealing his unmatched skill for creating metaphorical connections and interweaving substantive philosophy. At the heart of the book are “portraits” of the over 170 flowers, fruits, grains, grasses, trees, herbs, seeds and vegetables that Shakespeare mentions in his plays and poems.”
Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown and Company, April 4
Starlings are the outcasts of the birding world. But Haupt shows us why they deserve our love in this first-hand account of raising a baby starling of her own.
From Little, Brown, and Co.: “On May 27th, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart met a flirtatious little starling in a Viennese shop who sang an improvised version of the theme from his Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Sensing a kindred spirit in the plucky young bird, Mozart bought him and took him home to be a family pet.
A seasoned birder and naturalist, Lyanda Lynn Haupt is well versed in the difficult and often strained relationships these birds have with other species and the environment. But after rescuing a baby starling of her own, Haupt found herself enchanted by the same intelligence and playful spirit that had so charmed her favorite composer.”
Raptor: A Journey through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart
University of Chicago Press, April 7
Another book for H is for Hawk fans. Lockhart’s lyrical writing enchants as much as it educates.
From University of Chicago Press: “On its surface, Raptor is a journey across the British Isles in search of fifteen species of birds of prey, but as Lockhart seeks out these elusive predators, his quest becomes so much more: an incomparably elegant elegy on the beauty of the British landscape and, through the birds, a journey toward understanding an awesome power at the heart of the natural world—a power that is majestic and frightening in its strength, but also fragile.”
Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves by Brenda Peterson
Da Capo Press, May 2
A riveting, heartwarming, and occasionally heartbreaking history of wolves in America. Be prepared to learn as much about us as our wild canine friends.
From Da Capo: “Brenda Peterson tells the 300-year history of wild wolves in America. It is also our own history, seen through our relationship with wolves. The earliest Americans revered them. Settlers zealously exterminated them. Now, scientists, writers, and ordinary citizens are fighting to bring them back to the wild. Peterson, an eloquent voice in the battle for twenty years, makes the powerful case that without wolves, not only will our whole ecology unravel, but we’ll lose much of our national soul.”
Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene
Edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt
University of Minnesota Press, May 30
This vibrant, moving, and philosophical two-sided essay collection reminds us of all the ways that human beings and the natural world are interconnected. Deborah Bird Rose’s piece on the “shimmer of life” alone makes the book worth reading.
From University of Minnesota Press: “As human-induced environmental change threatens multispecies livability, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet puts forward a bold proposal: entangled histories, situated narratives, and thick descriptions offer urgent ‘arts of living.’ Included are essays by scholars in anthropology, ecology, science studies, art, literature, and bioinformatics who posit critical and creative tools for collaborative survival in a more-than-human Anthropocene.”
Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West
By Robert Leonard Reid
Counterpoint Press, June 13
This galvanizing essay collection is as much a call to activism as a celebration of the beauty of the American West.
From Counterpoint: “In this collection, Reid distinguishes himself from many science-based nature writers, using the natural world as a springboard for speculations and musings on the numinous and the sacred, injustice, homelessness, the treatment of Native Peoples in the United States, and what pushes mountaineers to climb.”
(Also interested in fiction that deals with the natural world? Check out Amy Brady’s monthly column, “Burning Worlds,” which is dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction, or “cli-fi.”)
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JANUARY 10, 2016
“NATURE IS doing her best each moment to make us well,” Thoreau once wrote. “Do not resist her!” Since I was young, I have walked in nature whenever I can. I am far from alone. But the woods we walk in are different from Thoreau’s. I’ve heard his famous wood thrush no more than twice in a dozen years. Mostly, I hear hermit thrushes, a more common bird here. But the song of the hermit thrush is beautiful too, and every time I hear it, “Nature is in her spring” and “it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut.” Except, of course, that gates are shut, almost everywhere. And there is threat of more closure, longer border walls.
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, exposing deep layers of institutional racism, author Roxane Gay wrote for NPR: “Another day, another all-white list of recommended reading …” The New York Timessummer reading list, she continued, quoting Jason Parham, “has achieved ‘peak caucasity.’” The publishing industry is near 90 percent white.
Last year, the environmental organization Green 2.0 surveyed “191 environmental non-profits, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 leading environmental grant making foundations,” and found:
[T]he racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12 percent to 16 percent “green ceiling” that has been in place for decades. […] Confidential interviews with environmental professionals and survey data highlight alienation and “unconscious bias” as factors hampering recruitment and retention of talented people of color. […] The Result: An overwhelmingly white “Green Insiders’ Club.”
Carolyn Finney, in her 2014 book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, quotes a self-described middle-class African-American woman who explained to The New York Times her decision against a family national-parks road-trip: “Four black folks from Oakland, Calif., cruising the back roads of Montana? Are you nuts?”
If Thoreau were to compose Civil Disobedience today, would he protest this? Not from Walden, of course — nobody’s swinging DIY hammers on rustic cabins near Walden today, where houses go for as much as $9 million. What would Thoreau make of the fact that, for many Americans, taking a road trip to Yellowstone means risking physical harm — or the fact that, as Gay recently put it in a New York Times opinion piece, “The Seduction of Safety, on Campus and Beyond,” “There is a degree of safety members of certain populations will never know”?
Who can say? Sandy Stott, a former colleague who taught Thoreau to teens at Concord Academy for 20 years, says Walden can be read, in part, as a protest of the capitalist-industrial world and its casualties, at one point “turning to the narratives of the former residents of this stretch of woods, freed slaves and Irish workers, all of whom lived at distance from town.” Kathryn Schulz, in a recent essay for The New Yorker titled “Pond Scum,” argues that Walden is “the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” As for Thoreau, she writes, he was “self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.”
Regardless of one’s reading of Thoreau, what is clear, as Finney writes in Black Faces, White Spaces, is that environmental organizations and communities need to “fashion new narratives that are inclusive and reflective of our past and offer new possibilities by expressing and acknowledging the complexity of our stories and the meanings we attach to them.” How, Finney asks, do we create and celebrate stories “that embrace our complex history?”
The idea that stories improve us, much as nature does, is not news. There is now research demonstrating what we’ve known intuitively all along: that reading, and in particular reading widely — i.e., “multicultural learning experiences” — encourages creative thinking, exposes and breaks down barriers between “self” and “other” and between “nature” and “culture.” Reading makes us more empathic and more aware of others’ experiences, desires, and needs. Sometimes it inspires us to act on behalf of others, or the earth, or both. Richly diverse narratives carry “the power to provide us with tools to create a future that defies a limited imagination,” writes Finney. “When we know different, we do different.”
In his make-no-bones afterword to American Protest Literature, Howard Zinn writes:
The most obvious […] contribution to social change that literature can make is simply to inform people of something they know nothing about […].
There are other situations where we believe we know something but don’t really know it in a visceral way, don’t really know it emotionally, to the point where it moves us to action.
Published in 2007, as “the first anthology to collect and examine American literature ‘that holds the nation to its highest ideals, castigating it when it falls short and pointing the way to a better collective future,’” American Protest Literature covers serious ground. As one Bloomsbury Review put it, “We should all read American Protest Literature, for as U.S. citizens, we are all students of the democratic experiment, and social change is still needed — more than ever.” The book includes more than 120 writers, in 11 sections: The American Revolution; Native American Rights; Abolition and Antislavery; Women’s Rights and Suffragism; Socialism and Industry; Against Lynching; The Great Depression; Civil Rights and Black Liberation; Second-Wave Feminism; Gay Liberation; and The Vietnam War and Beyond. But there is no section on the environmental movement. No “nature” writer at all. Not even Thoreau.
This omission of the environmental movement and its chroniclers from a book published two years after Katrina and dedicated to the literature of American history’s most prominent social movements seems emblematic of the enduring notion that social is not related to environmental. As if people are — or more damaging still, should be — separate from nature.
Finney opens and closes Black Faces, White Spaces — a powerful and complex blend of history, memoir, and scholarship — with a deeply felt rendering of her parents, who, for 50 years, worked as caretakers of a 12-acre estate in Mamaroneck, New York, where they also raised their daughter. “Like any family,” Finney writes, “we grew stories about ourselves in that place.” Not long ago, after the Westchester Land Trust bought the estate, Finney received a copy of the celebratory letter mailed to announce the news. In it, the Land Trust thanked the estate owners but made no mention of her parents, who had dedicated their life’s work to this land they loved. In 2003, when Finney first started her research, she went to the library in search of literature representing the experiences of people of color in place. She was, she said, disappointed. Inspired by her parents, “who were high-school educated but knew a lot more about the land than a lot of people,” she got creative, tracking down “art forms, journals, newspaper articles, oral histories, and memoirs.”
After publication, Finney said that some of her former colleagues in the department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM) at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources deemed Black Faces, White Spaces “not serious enough,” “not rigorous.” Her response: “It takes rigor to write a book that’s accessible to people.”After some of her colleagues voted against her tenure, while others vigorously supported her, Finney decided to leave Berkeley, this summer accepting a position in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky. There, she said, administrators created a new position to support her approach, opting to include public engagement work in her contract.
She said that while she feels the loss of leaving her academic community at Berkeley, if she had it to do over again, she would make the same choices. “I was having this amazing year out in the world,” she explained,
and a horrible year in my department. Here I was getting invited to talk about Black Faces, White Spaces and what I was writing about was happening to me in this predominantly “white space” at Berkeley. So I rolled my personal experience into my guest lectures. It was 2015 — how could I be the only tenure-track African American in the College of Natural Resources at Berkeley? It’s not only a challenge at this institution — it’s a challenge everywhere.
At Middlebury College, Kathryn T. Morse, who is Chair of the History Department and teaches American Environmental History, among other classes, told me, “The majority of the students majoring in environmental studies are still white or privileged or both.” In listing books for her students, she said she asks herself, “How do I reach that audience that is still kind of stuck?”
Both nature writing and the wilderness movement traditionally “celebrate nature as wilderness separate from civilization, where no humans exist,” said poet Melissa Tuckey, co-founder of Split This Rock, a “national network of socially engaged poets,” and editor of the forthcoming Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology (University of Georgia Press), during an email exchange. “This way of thinking ignores the presence of non-white people in these ‘wild areas’ and creates a dichotomy between humans and nature, breaking our connection to it.” She said, “The divide in the worlds of nature writing and environmentalism is reinforced by historic divisions.”
In her book, Finney draws this landscape in full:
While Pinchot and Muir explored, articulated, and disseminated conservation and preservation ideologies, legislation was being enacted to limit both movement and accessibility for African Americans, as well as American Indians, Chinese, and other nonwhite people in the United States. This included the California Lands Claims Act of 1851, the Black Codes (1861–65), the Dawes Act (1887), and the Curtis Act (1898).
She evokes an expanded view of Muir:
While his environmental ethic included wilderness, it clearly did not include nonwhites. On his “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” in 1867 through lands that had been devastated by war, he spoke of Negroes as largely lazy and easy-going and unable to pick as much cotton as a white man.
The effect of reading the passages Finney dedicates to this history is not unlike the experience of seeing a scene in full after having had access only to the cropped snapshot, framed and hung to admire.
Finney calls up research showing “that racism plays a significant role in limiting black participation in ‘the great outdoors.’” In “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher,” published in Orion in August, J. Drew Lanham, a forest wildlife biologist and professor at the Department of Forest Resources at Clemson, describes his experience: “Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder,” he writes. “Yes, there are only two of you at the bird festival. Yes, you’re wearing a nametag and are six inches taller than he is. Yes, you will be called by his name at least half a dozen times by supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard.”
Camille T. Dungy is author of Smith Blue; Suck on the Marrow; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and a professor of English at Colorado State University. In 2009, Dungy published Black Nature, a beautiful, widely influential, and redefining anthology of African-American nature poetry. Spanning over 400 years, 180 poems by 93 poets range from Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” — “from the first book of poetry ever published by a black person living in the American colonies” — to such contemporary poets as Tara Betts, Major Jackson, and Natasha Trethewey. There are many reasons why some people have been historically marginalized in the environmental movement and in its literature, Dungy said during a phone conversation. “The most vulnerable are the least powerful, so they get the least coverage, and certainly the least precedent-changing publication.”
For some of the poets included in the book, she writes in her introduction, “there is no place in the land where one can idle inattentively or harbor romanticized views. Interactions with the natural world demand respectful, honest attention and vigilant care.” Many of the poems, she writes, “point to […] the manner in which the natural world has been used to destroy, damage, or subjugate African Americans.” In her essay “Tales from a Black Girl on Fire, or Why I Hate to Walk Outside and See Things Burning,” published in The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, Dungy, who grew up in the “semiarid hillsides of Southern California,” explores the terrain. “I was told to be cautious around anything that might ignite and people who find pleasure in starting a blaze,” she writes. “Just as I’d grown up aware of the historical dangers of being black and discovered outside, I knew to fear fire.”
“Black Nature,” she writes, “provides a crucial tool for broadening our concept of what it means to write about nature.” To help readers see nature anew, to “reconceptualize the boundaries for environmentally minded writing,” Dungy structured her anthology in 10 cycles: Just Looking; Nature, Be with Us; Dirt on Our Hands; Pests, People Too; Forsaken the Earth; Disasters, Natural and Other; Talk of the Animals. What the Land Remembers; Growing Out of The Land; Comes Always Spring.
In 2011, Lauret E. Savoy, a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College, and Alison Hawthorne Deming, a poet and essayist, published their landmark anthology The Colors of Nature, which Booklist called an “unprecedented and invaluable collection.” In an email, Savoy wrote that she’d hoped the book’s readers would recognize that nature writing “could and should explore the relationships linking culture, place, ‘race,’ and identity.” The book includes stunning work by Jamaica Kincaid, Joseph Bruchac, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nikky Finney, Kimiko Hahn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, bell hooks, David Mas Masumoto, Francisco X. Alarcón, and many others. “We were so fortunate to have superb writers of diverse backgrounds — African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, Arab American, and ‘mixed’ heritage,” Savoy said.
The Colors of Nature began during a conference called Art of the Wild on writing about nature and the environment. “I was one of a handful of people of color” at the event, Savoy said,
and one of only two African Americans in a group of more than 100 participants. I was asked there — as I am often asked — twin questions: “Why don’t African Americans care more about the environment?” and “Why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by ‘minorities’?” My responses to those inquiring met — and still meet — with disbelief. The answers are, of course, that “we” do and that there is such writing.
But to see it, we need first to recognize what Savoy calls “a segregation of ideas, how narrow the defining frames of ‘nature writing’ and ‘environment’ have been.” And yet “environmental thought, activism, and writing in the United States have old and diverse roots.” She writes:
The writings of those who escaped slavery, Frederick Douglass among them, considered how such an oppressive agricultural system also distorted relations to land, degrading both the enslaved and the soil. More than a century ago Zitkala-Sa (Lakota-Dakota) and Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute) noted the close linkages between Euro-American racism and environmental attitudes that led to the degradation of what had been Indigenous land — and they wrote about these links! W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay on the African roots of the First World War, which appeared in the May 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, is as much an environmental essay as any piece written then on the need for a national park system, which was established in 1916. Du Bois even wrote about his visits to the Grand Canyon and Acadia and his own sense of nature in the book Darkwater. But how many people know this?
In Darkwater, Du Bois also explains why African Americans at the time hesitated traveling to national parks as tourists: segregated “Jim-Crow” waiting rooms and trains were just one form of racism they’d encounter.
The segregation of ideas continues, Savoy says. “And even some who are aware of the diversity of voices today may not know of those who came before, those who are our ‘ecological ancestors,’ to use Kimberly Ruffin’s term.” I count myself among these, and must note that there are many, many writers missing here, that this essay itself is incomplete.
In addition to offering a wider frame on how we perceive “nature writing,” Savoy also hoped readers “would come to see how each of us carries history and a complex cultural legacy, the past(s) becoming present in what we think and do, in who we are. That braided strands of this land’s human history and geologic-natural history touch all of our lives, perhaps without our knowing it.” It is this belief, she said, that she set out to explore in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, a book that naturalist and Cambridge Fellow Robert Macfarlane — author of Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination; The Wild Places; The Old Ways; and Landmarks; among other titles — recommended during an email exchange two days after Trace’s November 10 release. A “U.S. west-coast bookseller” had just recommended it to him, Macfarlane wrote. “I’m presently reading it and it’s brilliant.”
In blazing, beautiful prose, unblinkingly researched and reported, Savoy explores how the country’s still unfolding history, along with ideas of “race,” have marked her and the land. She also traces, in a mosaic of journeys across a continent and time, her mixed-blood ancestry, carefully taking apart the frame at dovetail joints, curiously inspecting and turning over the smallest points of connection, omission, dislocation, and break.
She begins as a child, “a little girl in California” —
in a neighborhood with few children, my reliable companions were sky’s brilliant depth and the tactile land. […] I devised a self-theory that golden light and deep blue sky made me. Sun filled my body as it seemed to fill dry California hills, and sky flowed in my veins. Colored could only mean these things.
Savoy travels, in memory and in time, from child to adult, from the edge of the Grand Canyon at Point Sublime, to South Carolina’s Walnut Grove Plantation, to the metal barrier at Naco’s US-Mexico border crossing, to the banks of the Potomac River and an unmarked, windswept burial ground nearby. As Terry Tempest Williams commented, “I have never read a more beautiful, smart, and vulnerable accounting of how we are shaped by memory in place.”
In one passage, Savoy recalls reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac when she was a girl, 14 years old. At the time, she felt drawn to “his call for an extension of ethics to land relations,” a call that “seemed to express a sense of responsibility and reciprocity not yet embraced by this country but embedded in many Indigenous peoples’ traditions of experience — that land is fully inhabited, intimate with immediate presence.” And yet, she continued:
I couldn’t understand why, in a book so concerned with America’s past, the only reference to slavery, to human beings as property, was about ancient Greece.
What I wanted more than anything was to speak with Mr. Leopold. To ask him. I so feared that his “we” and “us” excluded me and other Americans with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, or Native America. […]
Did Aldo Leopold consider me?
As Dungy, Finney, Morse, and others have noted, it is important to acknowledge that, in the environmental justice genre, there has been more inclusivity than in the genre referred to as “nature writing” — a broader view, more books, more voices. The Environmental Justice Reader; Coal: A Poetry Anthology; At Home on This Earth: Two Centuries of U.S. Women’s Nature Writing; Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing; Earth Shattering; and Facing the Chains are just a few of the titles recommended by authors and editors in the field during recent conversations.
Finney challenges “the assumption that the best framework to understand any environmental issue or experience had by African Americans is an environmental justice framework.” Expanding the view, Finney said, also means going beyond an environmental justice response and an environmental justice or protest literature label.
I never use the word justice, not because I don’t believe in it (I do), but because there is often an assumption made that when I say “environment and race” that I must be talking about Environmental Justice. But black and brown people are not simply victims. They have been victimized, yes, but they are also creative and resilient. And they/we just may have something to offer to environmental conversations about how we all should collectively move forward.
Finney also no longer uses the term “outreach,” “as someone who’s been ‘outreached’ to,” she laughs.
Outreach implies a one-way relationship with the power being in the hands of those who initiated that relationship. I’m more interested in relationships of reciprocity where both parties have to learn and change. And sometimes this means giving up and letting go of some of our power, privilege, and comfort. What are we willing to risk?
Tuckey, who guest-edited the January 2016 edition of Poetry magazine titled “Eco Justice Poetry portfolio,” discussed the work of curating Ghost Fishing, which was inspired and informed by Dungy’s work, she said in an email exchange. “Collecting poems for the anthology,” she wrote,
I’ve learned to appreciate the role of culture in connecting us to the environment, as well as the historic way that colonization, war, white supremacy, and other forms of dispossession have robbed generations of their connection to the land; how poetry and other arts have served throughout as a form of resistance, an act of resurgence and cultural memory.
Nature writing has created this image of environmentalist as 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.
As we consider how to respond as writers to environmental disaster, disaster that asks us to reconsider old paradigms such as the division between humans and nature, we are limited if we do not make space for this history and these voices. For indigenous people and writers of color, these disasters and disruptions are not new — they are part of a wider history.
Disruptions and disasters are part of a wider history, it’s true. Yet so, too, are serenity and discovery, wonder and awe, gratitude and pleasure, the sublime — in other words, the fullness of what it means to be human on this earth. Dungy writes, “We’ve got to take this conversation out of the echo chamber and into a broader space. To bring more voices into the conversation about human interactions with the natural world, we must change the parameters of the conversation.” This is — for me, anyway — exactly what Black Nature does. In the words of Booklist’s starred review, “the poems, beginning with Lucille Clifton’s ‘the earth is a living thing,’ are ravishing.” Here is Clifton:
surely I am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
There is evidence that the landscape of writing about the environment, about nature, is slowly expanding beyond long-standing genre boundaries. Says Dungy: “When I published Black Nature, I would hear from people, ‘I never really thought about black people writing about natural world …’ But it’s been happening for 400 years. That voice has been erased and silenced.” She observes, “I also think that the last two major poetry anthologies” — The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral and The Ecopoetry Anthology — “had exponentially more writers of color than before Black Nature. Black Nature really did change who people looked for …”
John Stauffer, co-editor of American Protest Literature and professor of English and American Literature, American Studies and African American Studies, now includes readings on the environment in his class at Harvard, Culture and Belief: American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac. He recommends Thoreau, he said, “emphasizing him as the founder of modern environmentalism in the U.S.,” and Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. He assigns selections from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. “Many of my students are already going to do a final project on environmentalism, which is heartening, as the movement has drawn from protest literature of other movements, especially abolitionism, feminism, labor.” Of co-curating American Protest Literature, he said, “If I did it again, I would certainly include the environment now.”
This spring, at Middlebury College, for her Environmental Studies students, Kathryn Morse will add Finney’s and Savoy’s work to a reading list that includes W.E.B. Du Bois, Evelyn White, Jamaica Kincaid, Eddy Harris, David Mas Masumoto, Camille Dungy, and Helena Maria Viramontes, among many others. Last spring, her students hosted a screening of An American Ascent, a documentary film based on James Edwards Mills’s book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, a powerful work that tells the story of the first all-African American ascent of Mount McKinley — this summer renamed Denali (“the great one”), the name Alaskan Natives have been calling America’s highest mountain for generations. Savoy covered the name change in an essay for The Daily Beast titled “From Denali to McKinley to Denali: U.S. Place Names Tell You Who’s in Power,” writing, “to consider place-names as givens is to see a reflecting surface and not what lies beneath.”
The week of Trace’s release, Savoy remarked:
Imagine “environment” broadly — not just as surroundings; not just as the air, water, and land on which we depend, or that we pollute; not just as global warming — but as sets of circumstances, conditions, and contexts in which we live and die — in which each of us is intimately part. This definition falls short without those experiences of place that are exiled or degraded, toxic or alien or migrant or urban or indentured. […] There is no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject — yet, it seems to me, for the genre and those who call themselves “environmental writers,” there has been avoidance. The discourse has proceeded in a narrow frame, with too few voices, perspectives, and storied lives of people not of solely Euro-American descent — experiences that transcend history and point to deeply embedded conflicts in this nation.
In September, in an essay for the New Statesman called “Why We Need Nature Writing,” Robert Macfarlane declared “a remarkable turn.” Macfarlane’s most recent book, Landmarks — which, as he wrote in a recent email, “concerns the dazzling diversity of place- and nature-language across more than thirty dialects and languages of Britain and Ireland” — has been hailed as “passionate and magical,”“a sort of ‘gift’ text,”“irradiated by a profound sense of wonder.” In his essay, he wrote, “A 21st-century culture of nature has sprung up, born of anxiety and anger but passionate and progressive in its temperament, involving millions of people and spilling across forms, media and behaviours.” Macfarlane goes on to say he would love to name a hundred writers, “but lists soon get boring.” Lists of books may get boring, but the stories in them and the people who write them do not, and so the human impulse to share, often in conversation. He, too, seems unable to resist.
Last winter, during a panel, sponsored by Orion, with Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Macfarlane talked about the evolution of nature writing and listed books he loves. Books like Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and her garden essays, and Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places. “How is nature writing like pornography?” Solnit joked at one point. “You know it when you see it.” “So much that’s good that doesn’t fit the category comfortably,” she said. As Macfarlane put it in his essay, “There is no one true way of writing about nature and place. […] More voices need to be heard from ethnic-minority writers and from a wider range of identities and backgrounds.” On December 3, The New York Times announced its 10 Best Books of 2015. On the list were three writers of color, seven women.
When we talked, Finney asked,
Do you want to remain only in your own perspective? Evaluating the world only though your own perspective? It comes to relationships. How do we change relationship to place? How do we expand what we know? And how do we know what we know? We need to be willing to be uncomfortable to take a risk, reading more wildly, widely.
What does that mean? “I often read stuff that’s not on its surface looking like it has anything to do with the environment,” said Finney. “When you’re in the bookstores,” she continued, “you can go to the section that says Environment, but I say try other sections. Try Memoir, try Women, Native American, the Arts.” Pick up Ingrid Pollard, she said, the black photographer from England who created a book called Pastoral Interlude, which placed black people on the British landscape. “How different it looks with a black person there.”
Try sci-fi and sci-fi film, she said. “It opens up worlds of imagination. Elysium, for instance, or “World War Z,” a movie based on the book by Max Brooks. (“The movie didn’t capture half of what he wrote.”) One of the things Finney loved about the original book, she said, was that Brooks thanked Studs Terkel in his preface, because he uses oral histories in the book. “The book has multiple characters from all over the world in conversation with each other,” she said, “and that made me think about place, nature, environment, people from different walks of life.” Macfarlane also looks here. In an email correspondence, he wrote, “Some of the most exciting thinking about identity and landscape seems to me to be happening in science fiction and speculative fiction, which I teach in these terms: the extraterrestrial pastoral as a means of radically rethinking notions of belonging and place.”
Finney lists Zora Neale Hurston and Sally Morgan. “Morgan thought she was white Australian, then learns she’s part Aboriginal. This changes her experience of place.” Her book, an autobiography called My Place, Finney says, “opened up my mind. Most of us are complex with what we carry down — family histories and personal histories.” She lists Belonging by bell hooks, saying that hooks has returned to Kentucky, the place she is from. “Belonging isn’t a long book, but it is deep; hooks explores the meaning of belonging to a place and the privilege inherent in that.” Finney recommends American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, by Russ Rymer. “That book was about nature and place, preserving and protecting the beach, the forest and the African American history in that place.” It is about MaVynee Betsch, who, in the words of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “fought to save the world’s rain forests and the site of the Florida plantation on which her ancestors were slaves.”
Finney continues, listing A Rap on Race by James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, “arguably both brilliant people. A gay black man who was a writer and an artist, and a straight white woman who was an anthropologist.” “This book,” she said, “helped me think about difference and how we can have conversations across our differences.” She talks about Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete. “That’s why I would ask people to see more wildly. It’s there,” she says. “You just didn’t see it.”
Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong it
learned to walk without having feet …
“In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us,” Thoreau once wrote. Finney is working on a book tentatively titled Desire Lines, an architectural term, she explains, that describes the paths we create when we walk in directions we are naturally drawn to — directions we desire, rather than those circumscribed — by a sidewalk, say, or a border or a wall. Desire lines are everywhere, if you look. “Storytelling,” she says, “is democratic at heart.”
Catherine K. Buni is a writer whose work has been published by The Atlantic online, Backpacker, The Millions, The New York Times, Outside, Orion, and The Rumpus, among others.