Nature Writing Redux and Some Favorite Books: A Guest Post by Bill Sherwonit

I wondered if I could get through this month of guest posting without reference to my summertime exchange with Rich Chiappone about nature writing (and, when he got going, genre writing generally). Couldn’t do it.

I enjoyed returning to the scene of the fight (figuratively speaking) and rereading Rich’s pointed responses to my post. I envy his ability to incorporate humor into his writing, not an easy thing to do.

With my term of “monthly guest author” about to end, this is my last, best chance to use the position as something of a bully pulpit. How can I resist? So, in the spirit of better late than never, I’ll now – much belatedly – respond to some of Rich’s zingers (and maybe, if I’m lucky, re-stir the hornet’s nest).

First, Rich suggests that even I seem uncomfortable “with the sobriquet” of nature writer, despite continually calling myself one. He couldn’t be more wrong. Rich simply misinterpreted my hesitant, somewhat apologetic demeanor at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference when protesting his attack of nature writers as people who write bad stuff while preaching to their very small choir. I almost always feel hesitant and perhaps appear apologetic when voicing strong opinions in front of a big crowd. To eliminate any confusion: I love being a nature writer.

If anything, I too happily, too proudly embrace the term. If I were smarter, I would eschew the label, because it likely prompts some folks to dismiss my writing without letting the work speak for itself. I happen to define nature writing very broadly, to include the world of humans. We are, after all, a part of nature, eh? The only stories that are not nature writing, I’d suggest, are those in which nature serves as a mere backdrop for the human drama. Of course there’s a great abundance of such stories.

I do agree with Rich that much of the best nature writing – like that done by Nancy Lord, Sherry Simpson (both of whom he names) and several other talented Alaskan writers – is writing that “shake[s] off the shackles of predictability . . . takes us into territory we have never been to before: the deep, dark interior of the writer’s heart.” The best of it is usually layered, complex, richly textured, nuanced, with a surprise or two as it does take readers into unexpected and perhaps unexplored territory. But not always. There is sometimes great beauty and meaning in simplicity. And there is sometimes a need for rants and remonstrations, for calls to action.

Second, I think it’s a good thing that writers and readers and critics – especially those who do “nature writing” (whether or not they call themselves nature writers) – be critical of the genre. Critical in the sense of noticing and pointing out both its strengths and weaknesses. Like any kind of writing, it has both.

I too admire David Gessner’s essay, “Sick of Nature,” though like Nancy Lord, I read the piece a bit differently than Rich. At the very end of the essay, Gessner writes, “Of course I’m not sick of nature at all. Just sick of being boxed in, and of the genre itself being boxed too narrowly. In fact, having declared myself done with nature, I suddenly feel the itch of the contrary.”

Like Gessner, I believe in the necessity of expansive, no-holds-barred nature writing, writing that is cross-pollinated by other genres and forms. In both life and writing, I join Gessner in his plea for wildness, freedom, “the exhilaration of breaking down the Berlin Wall of genre [so is that a paradox, or what?]. A plea for amateurism, variety, danger, spontaneity and honesty in a world growing increasingly professional, specialized, safe, pre-packaged, partitioned, and phony.” And yes, you can believe in all those things, and to a large degree practice them, and still consider yourself a nature writer. Because, like Rich, I’ve taken some of Gessner’s comments without the larger context, I heartily encourage anyone interested in these notions to find “Sick of Nature.” It’s a worthwhile, provocative read.

I would also encourage people who wonder about the worthiness of nature writing to buy, borrow, or steal (well, not really the latter) This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing, by Thomas J. Lyon. The author provides an intriguing “taxonomy” of nature writing themes, considers the relationship of the genre to the American setting, and also traces nature writing’s evolution from its early beginnings through the end of the twentieth century. In his preface, Lyon notes, “The crucial point about nature writing is the awakening of perception to an ecological way of seeing. . . . the capacity to notice pattern in nature, and community, and to recognize that the patterns radiate outward to include the human observer. . . . just the turning of our attention to the natural world tends to subvert our anthropocentric heritage.”

A key point there: the best of nature writing can be a subversive and transformative force.

Rich points out that too much of what passes for nature writing is “self-absorbed drivel.” I would simply respond that much of what passes for literature, period, is drivel. It’s not so much about genre, form, or type, as the quality of writing, the story telling.

One final comment: Rich defines “literary writing” as “writing about the human condition.” Who set those terms? I think writing simply about the “human condition” is an exceedingly anthropocentric and arrogant attitude. We’re part of a marvelously grand and mysterious world, filled with all kinds of amazing stories – but we’re only part of the story, not the center of it.

Lots more can be written, discussed, and debated about this topic, but I’m done for now. I’d love to hear more from those writers who do lots of nature writing, but back away from the label. You know who you are. What are your thoughts on this matter (Nancy Lord did have some observations to share following Rich Chiappone’s posting, but maybe she and others have more to say). Surely we haven’t exhausted the subject. Or have we? Time to move on? . . .

* * *
Finally I offer up “Bill Sherwonit’s Favorite Book List.” Or, books that have inspired, informed, or otherwise influenced my own writing and, more importantly, my way of being on this Earth.

First, my Top Ten, which over time has expanded into a Top 15 and may soon expand again. In no particular order:

The Island Within, Richard Nelson. A lyrical, captivating, in-depth look at one man’s relationship with place. Shows the extraordinary to be found in the ordinary and also pulls in other cultural perspectives, particularly those of the Koyukon Athabascans, who became Nelson’s teachers while he lived with them as an anthropologist.
Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez. One of my earliest influences when I moved from geology into writing. Still considered a classic, Lopez’s book was among the first — if not the first — to take an in-depth look at the wolf and, more importantly, our species’ relationship with Canis lupus. Lopez’s work grabbed me and didn’t let go. In some important ways, I think, it changed how I think about “the other,” and our relationship other creatures. Still my favorite work by Lopez.
An Unspoken Hunger, Terry Tempest Williams. A collection of essays by one of my favorite writers. Lyrical, provocative, ambitious, risky. I also found great power in Refuge and, more recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World (see below).
Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat. This, like Lopez’s book, was an early influence as I moved into outdoors and then nature writing. It’s been heavily criticized in some quarters as fiction portrayed as nonfiction/reality. Yet Mowat captured many “truths” in his writing, while presenting new ways of looking at one of the world’s most historically maligned and persecuted animals. Delightful reading, with some wonderful humor.
Song of the DoDo, David Quammen. An incredible book by my favorite contemporary science writer. Quammen somehow weaves numerous threads — natural history, adventure travel, scientific theory, science history — into a coherent and thought-provoking whole. It’s a big book (text alone is more than 600 pp), but I never lost interest. And I learned a lot.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway. I was a big Hemingway fan in my twenties and this was — and remains — my favorite. I’m not as big a fan anymore, but this remains a spot on my A list. I’ve read it several times over the years. A “small” book with a big impact.
The Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley. Another science writer, with a much different approach than Quammen, Eiseley is No. 1 in my book, among science writers. I’d recommend just about anything by him, but this is my favorite among the books of his that I’ve read. He somehow weaves science and mysticism and pulls it off. This collection of essays includes some of my all-time favorites, including “The Judgment of the Birds” and “The Bird and the Machine.” If you’re into birds or science or human evolution or have a mystical streak, check him out.
Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, Andromeda Romano-Lax. I must admit to some bias here, because Andromeda’s a good friend, but this is still a great book, written by a local author. Andromeda is another who weaves several different threads in this wonderful travel/adventure narrative: family dynamics, adventure, science, environmental issues, literary history, and philosophy. It’s a fast, easy read that offers lots to think about.
Iron John, Robert Bly. Written by one of the leaders of the men’s mythopoetic movement of the 1980s and 1990s, this book explores contemporary masculinity by turning to a Grimm Brothers fairytale, while looking at such things as male initiation, mentoring, and mythic ideas about the “wild man.”
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer. Most Alaskans seemed to hate it. I loved this book. I think Krakauer does an incredible job reconstructing Chris McCandless’s life, particularly his final years and days, while providing insights into one young man’s quest to find himself — and ultimately die in the search. Though many have criticized Krakauer for romanticizing McCandless, I think he touches on a universal (or nearly so) experience: almost all of us, at some time in our lives, took “crazy” risks while trying to separate from family or traditions while rebelling and searching for our place in the world.
The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder. I came to Snyder late, but he’s become a hugely important influence, particularly on notions of wildness and reflections on our place in the larger world. This is one of the books I’ve underlined, highlighted, and tagged with many stickies. Each time I return to it, I gain something new.
The Abstract Wild, by Jack Turner. Another book of essays, filled with rants, pleas, explorations, reflections, and darned good writing. Beside several of the essays listed on the Contents page, I scribbled “Excellent!” or “Yes!” or both. Powerful, provocative pieces.
Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Wendell Berry. One of America’s great cultural commentators and provocateurs, Berry here takes on highly acclaimed scientist and author E.O. Wilson (another person whose work I greatly admire) and Wilson’s “scientific credo,” Consilience. Berry thoughtfully considers the roles that science and religion – or as I prefer to think, spirituality – play in our culture, while questioning (some might say dismissing) the notion of science’s superiority to other ways of knowing.
My Story as Told by Water, David James Duncan. Duncan is better known as a novelist (The River Why, The Brothers K) but I first met him as a nonfiction writer (though I have now read The River Why and highly recommend that book, too). I love Duncan’s rants, the risks he takes in his writing, his passion, his imagery and ability to tell a great story, his stimulating ideas. A most excellent collection of essays.
The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska, Sherry Simpson. Sherry has been among my favorite essayists for a long time and her newest book (released in March 2008) has some of her finest writing. A self-deprecating writer with lots of wisdom, food for thought, and great writing skills.

BILL’S HONORABLE MENTION LIST (with any of these sneaking into my top 15 list, depending on my mood or interests at a particular time)
• J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I haven’t read since college, but intend to return to some day).
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
Savages, Joe Kane
Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity, complied by Jonathan White
Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, edited by Hank Lentfer & Carolyn Servid
Holdfast, Kathleen Dean Moore
• Alaska Wilderness, Robert Marshall
Hunting for Hope, Scott Russell Sanders
The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, John Haines
Ordinary Wolves, Seth Kantner
Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash
This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing, Thomas Lyon
The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Paul Shepard
The Wild Trees, Richard Preston
The Soul’s Code, James Hillman
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men, my poetry selection, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade.

I’d also like to mention two books that I consider the best of the bunch that I read this year. LOST MOUNTAIN: A YEAR IN THE VANISHING WILDERNESS, by Eric Reece. Probably the best book I’ve read this year (though published in 2006), this is top-notch literary (and advocacy) journalism that explores the awful destructiveness of “radical strip mining” for coal in the Appalachian region, where entire mountaintops are removed to get at the coal, with devastating consequences to the landscape and the inhabitants in the region, both human and otherwise. After reading this, I am amazed that any mountaintop removal is still allowed. And I wonder how President Barack Obama can embrace the idea of “clean coal” (does he still?). What an oxymoron.

A second very powerful book I read this year was written by one of my favorite authors, already mentioned above, Terry Tempest Williams. I actually had a little trouble getting into the book, FINDING BEAUTY IN A BROKEN WORLD. But once I did, I found it to be a powerful story that weaves together the artistry involved in the creation of mosaics (which become the book’s central metaphor and theme) together with the American West’s persecuted communities of prairie dogs, her brother’s death to cancer, and the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide. I loved her observations, reflections and study of prairie dogs, but parts of the section on Rwanda had me teary eyed. Very powerful stuff, both devastating and hopeful.

So, you see, my writing – and life – is informed by many genres and forms, even fiction and poetry. And on that note, I’ll say thanks to Deb and Andromeda for the opportunity to share ideas, opinions, and questions with this community of writers. All best wishes for the season and the year ahead.

2 thoughts on “Nature Writing Redux and Some Favorite Books: A Guest Post by Bill Sherwonit”

  1. Hi Bill,
    I enjoyed all your posts this month and think your best books list makes a great reading list. A question that intrigues me is why we think of "nature writing" almost exclusively as nonfiction. (On your list I see only two works of fiction–The Old Man and the Sea and Ordinary Wolves–and one book of poetry.) I nominate the late Marjorie Cole's novel Correcting the Landscape as a best book of nature/environmental writing. It won the Bellwether Prize for socially/politically engaged fiction and is full of the natural and human environment of interior Alaska. Lesley Thomas's Flight of the Goose, a novel set in the Arctic, is another fine example. I do think we sometimes have a double-standard regarding what we think of as "literature," with fiction and poetry elevated over "fact." When I went to grad school to study creative writing (more than 20 years ago) the only tracks were fiction and poetry, and it was a long time before I realized that the same art could be–and always had been–applied to essays and other forms of nonfiction. By the way, Rich Chiappone has written a great story in which climate change plays a big role, and also has stories (in his book Water of an Undetermined Depth) with fish and raccoons; he's a nature writer!

  2. One author I found, read, and really enjoyed was a gentlemen by the name of Thomas Stuhr, and a book entitled 48 to Alaska and Back (The Journey and the journal).
    Not a resident writer of Alaska, yet captured the spirit of wilderness and adventure.

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