Firing Back — Ruminations on Nature Writing : Guest post by Bill Sherwonit

When Bill Sherwonit sent this to me, my first thought was — was I one of the writers who offended him? This time around, it wasn’t me, but I’m sure I’ve been guilty of making offhand remarks about various genres without realizing I could be rubbing someone the wrong way. We have so much nature in Alaska — and so much fine nature writing — that we treat that subject and genre in an overly familiar way, teasing it in a way we might tease a sibling. Or do we? Am I off-base here? Is he? Read Bill’s piece — published first on his ADN blog — and comment, if you’d like to join the fray. ~ Andromeda

Three times this summer, people – other writers – I respect have publicly fired broadsides at nature writers, either directly or in a roundabout way. Their comments have gotten me thinking about the place of nature writers, and their work, in our culture. And that thinking has led (for better or worse) to this blog post.

The first zinger was fired in Homer, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, during a panel discussion titled “Our Words: More Thoughts on the Role of Writing and Today’s Global Challenges.” Yeah, that’s a mouthful. And a BIG topic. I wish now that I’d taken notes, but I didn’t. In my recollection, various panel members discussed (among other things) the ways they weave politics or larger social and cultural issues into their stories or poems and how it is best to do that. Or whether it should be done at all in what’s considered creative writing, the stuff of literature.

Panelist Rich Chiappone seemed especially perturbed by the notion of creative writer as activist. A Kenai Peninsula resident, he writes both short stories and essays – that is, shorter forms in both fiction and nonfiction – and also teaches writing for the University of Alaska. I’ve only met Rich a few times, usually at literary events, and don’t know him very well; but I like both him and his writing. Sometimes – often? – he says things that seem intended to incite and I think it’s fair to say he likes to get a rise out of people. On this particular occasion, he happened to pick on nature writers.

Again, I’m not going to get his words exactly right (you’d think a journalist and nature writer would always be taking notes when provocative things are being said, but such is not the case), but Rich seemed to argue that politics have no place in story telling. In literature. It’s worst to explicitly tackle political issues. But even to address politics implicitly, subversively, compromises great storytelling. A writer best serves his work – and audience – by avoiding politics altogether.

Then, as an example of how politics can ruin good story telling, Rich pointed to nature writers. By being so political, he argued, nature writers marginalize themselves. They end up preaching to the choir and alienating those who believe differently than they do. They write bad stuff. No wonder hardly anyone reads them. At least that’s what I heard through my own nature-writing filter.

The more I thought about Chiappone’s criticisms, the more they bugged me. To let them pass would implicitly endorse them, or so I convinced myself. Of course that’s not necessarily so; I hear lots of things said in public forums that rub me the wrong way but which I don’t challenge. This time the criticisms hit a little too close to home. I raised my hand and then had my say “in defense of nature writers.” I agreed that much nature writing is political; but to me, almost all writing is political in one way or another. And rather than “preaching to the choir,” I suggested most of us nature writers want our stories and ideas and viewpoints to reach a large and diverse audience. That’s one reason I like writing for newspapers; with a much wider sweep than either magazines or books, they increase the chance that I’ll provide “food for thought” to people with different perspectives and experiences than my own.

I can’t remember everything else I said, because the whole experience was something of a nerve-wracking blur, standing up in front of a couple hundred people and speaking in defense of nature writing. But I have a few more things to say now. Much nature writing is not explicitly political and lots of it – perhaps too much – isn’t even implicitly political. But some of the best of it is. I think of contemporary writing by Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Michael Pyle, and David James Duncan, and, moving back farther in time, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, the list goes on and on. Are these not literary giants? And right here in Alaska, many of our best and brightest literary artists produce nature writing that is political, from past and present Alaska State Writers Richard Nelson and Nancy Lord to other talented writers such as Nick Jans, Seth Kantner, Marybeth Holleman, Eva Saulitis, Kim Heacox, and Sherry Simpson (to name several who come immediately to mind). I’m not sure how many in those lists consider themselves nature writers; sometimes I think I’m the only writer alive who still embraces the title. But what these people do, by and large, is nature writing.

Conversely, some of the world’s best literature, of any genre or form, past and present, has political elements. I didn’t mention this at the Kachemak Bay conference (because I didn’t know it then), but some of keynote speaker (a fabulous poet) Li-Young Lee’s poems are clearly political – and powerful.

In short, the inclusion of politics doesn’t make or break a piece of writing. Like anything else, it can be done well or poorly. And I would suggest that intentionally steering clear of politics is even more dangerous than taking the risk of including it in a story or essay or poem.

I will end this little rant with a quote taken from Terry Tempest Williams’ newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Talking about politics, Chinese-American artist Lily Yeh tells Williams, “By living your principles, you are political. Living your values is political.” That rings true to me. And I would ask: If writers of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry are true to their values and principles, how can they not be political in their writing.

Next stop, the Sitka Symposium, where nearly sixty people gathered in late June to consider how we citizens can shape a more enduring and sustainable culture that is more human and earth friendly. One of the guest faculty members brought to Sitka to stimulate our conversations was author, poet, educator and scholar Gary Holthaus, a man who’s been involved in both environmental and social justice issues for four decades or thereabouts. Some may recognize him as the first director of the Alaska Humanities Forum. Holthaus, I’m happy to say, has moved back to Alaska after several years away. At the symposium he raised many provocative questions. He made us squirm a bit, he challenged our thinking. Along the way he made a few pointed criticisms of nature writers, but he did so in a thoughtful and provocative way and in a setting that allowed – even encouraged – discussion of his ideas.

This time I did take some notes. And in reading them, I’m reminded that Holthaus questioned nature writers’ tendency to focus too much on beauty or aspects of the earth and its inhabitants that touch our desire for – and sense of – beauty, whether landscapes or creatures or relationships.

One of Holthaus’s premises was that humans are part of nature, as is everything that we build, invent, create – or destroy. “We need language,” he urged us, “that honors all of it.” And he suggested that “there is only one sacred place” and it encompasses the entire universe – or all of creation, if you will.

Nature writers – and others – need to broaden their outlooks, their perspectives and “find nature in the marred and scarred . . . find beauty in the ugly and demeaned.” Hardest of all to digest was his idea that we need to look upon and write about the “marred and scarred” without judgment.

In other words, we need to reshape our relationship with the entire earth. We need to see with fresh eyes and speak – or write – with a language that emphasizes reverence and respect for ALL of nature.

It was a lot to take in and absorb. Some of it I agree with, some I question, and parts I don’t understand. So Gary and I have agreed to continue the conversation here in Anchorage. It’s something I eagerly anticipate.

The most recent, and in some ways most jarring, comments about nature writing were made earlier this week, at a night of faculty readings on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, as part of UAA’s Northern Renaissance Arts & Science Series. Among the readers was Sherry Simpson, in my mind one of the nation’s best essayists and a nonfiction writer whose work (as noted above) often qualifies as nature writing. Introducing Simpson was David Stevenson, director of UAA’s Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department and the university’s new (now in its second year) low-residency MFA program. Stevenson too is a creative writer; in fact Monday he read a riveting excerpt from a novel-in-progress. He’s also a mountaineer and, as his university bio notes, he “writes often about the mountaineering experience both in fiction and nonfiction prose.” I met David last year and like him a lot; he’s smart, humble, outdoorsy, well read, and seems like a genuinely nice guy.

Here’s what David said, in part, while introducing Simpson (and again I paraphrase): Sherry’s work is often described as nature or outdoors writing. But what she’s really writing about is people.

Whoa, I thought. Did David just dismiss nature writing, or what? It’s as if writing about PEOPLE gave Sherry’s work more gravitas, made it more substantial and relevant and worthy. And I wondered how many other people in the room agreed with those sentiments.

Yeah, I wanted to shout out, she writes about people. So does everyone else in this room. What sets Sherry Simpson’s work apart from most is that she writes wonderfully well not only about the human drama, but also about the larger world and people’s place in it. She may not call herself a nature writer, but in essay after essay she looks deeply at people’s complex relationships with each other and the grander, wilder, and more mysterious world we inhabit. As I once commented about her newest book, The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska, “The essays superbly blend Simpson’s personal idiosyncrasies with larger questions about discovery, longing, imagination, and how it is that each of us finds – or seeks to find – his or her own place in the world.” In short, the essays are about people AND A LOT MORE.

And that, to me, is one of nature writing’s great appeals. In a time and culture where way too much attention is focused on celebrity and the human drama, the people who do nature writing (whether or not they call themselves “nature writers”) consider our species’ place in the larger world. Nature writing looks at the bigger picture, while often weaving together such elements as science and spirituality, magic and mystery, and stories about landscape and the other forms of life with which we share the world. And it raises questions about how we can live more decently and respectfully on the Earth, our home.

By Bill Sherwonit

3 thoughts on “Firing Back — Ruminations on Nature Writing : Guest post by Bill Sherwonit”

  1. Writing, whatever form or topic we employ, is the outward voice and politics and mind of the writer. We share it with others as an expression of ourselves towards an audience from whom we may or may not expect, or desire, a direct response.

    The nature writer, the biographer, and the romance writer, or the thriller writer all portray the world either as they see it, or as they would like to see it in some degree. While the writer of high brow, "big-brain" literature may look down on the nature writer or the sci-fi fantasy writer, all are equally expressing themselves in a manner that their audience will identify with and to some extent form or reform their opinion of the world around them.

    While some forms become commercial successes and others are relegated to the reference section of the library, all are equally valid in terms of the author's expression.

    In other words…yeah, what he said.

  2. Well said, both of you. We've talked here before about the hierarchy of genres and the rather arbitrary division of commercial and literary work, both being flush with insidious if unintended hurts.

    There's no such thing as "just" writing, in any genre. It's all tough work, and as long as the author makes every attempt to polish, refine, and incorporate editorial wisdom before chucking it out in the market, it's worthy of respect.

  3. Yikes, Bill, you heard what I said, but I didn't say what I meant very well. I think the term "nature writer" usually diminishes the work of the people it describes, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. It ought not to do so, of course, after all: what isn't "nature"? And I suppose I was playing to that marginalization when I introduced Sherry. I ought not to have done so, at least not so lightly.

    What I was trying to say about Sherry's work, you yourself say much more clearly in your penultimate paragraph.

    There's a good essay on this point of how writers are identified or labeled in the recent Atlantic by Margaret Atwood called "The Beetle and the Teacup." She concludes: "Do you identify as a woman, or as a writer? I've been asked. "A north American? A Torontoan? An environmentalist? A poet, or a novelist? " As if we were so divisible.
    "All, all," I say. And so much more besides."

    I'm sorry my language was careless that night, as I think we're on the same side of the ledger on this point.

    David Stevenson

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