Seeking nature in Denver: thoughts on nature writing in the 21st century.

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In downtown Denver last week, enveloped in civilized concrete canyons, I grew lonesome for wild places. So on a Saturday evening, I decided to go looking for nature. Not in the great out of doors, but just around the corner from the Grand Hyatt, in Barnes and Noble—perhaps the most iconic and popular of national brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Nature is not easy to find in Barnes and Noble. There were shelves full of Romance Novels, Gothic Romance Novels, Young Adult Gothic Romance Novels Thrillers, books on how to grow your business, become a happier person, travel to London or Madagascar. Automobiles, History, Biography. An astronauts guide to living on Earth. Dan Brown. Stephen King. Anne Rice.
Nature in B&NxxIt took persistent wandering, but finally, in an obscure corner of the first floor, a lone, 30-inch-wide section of a bookshelf bore the label “Nature.” It was right next to two sections of books on dogs, and one section of books on “Pets”, and around the corner from five sections of “Photography”. We won’t enumerate the “Cooking” sections.
Twenty years ago Bill McKibben warned us that the End of Nature was neigh. Here was undeniable proof that, at least, in Barnes and Noble, he was right. The featured “nature book”? “Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists, and Why it Matters Today.” Sagebrush+Rebel+July+8
I looked for familiar writers and titles: Carson’s Silent Spring. Anything by Barry Lopez. Aldo Leopold. Terry Tempest Williams. Eaarth. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Instead, the shelf was inhabited by “The Wonderful World of Nature (Disney Press), “Savage Nature”, and Nature Bible. (“Kids can head out into the woods or off to camp with a full-text International Children’s Bible® translation that helps them enjoy the wonder of God’s creation.”) There were Michael Pollan books. Several tomes on how to write about nature. An anthology or two. A few stalwarts –Barbara Kingsolver, Emerson, Thoreau, and, yes, Bill McKibben spiced the shelves. They seemed almost embarrassed by their company.
For “Nature” to be banished to the distant corner of this iconic bookseller reflects our collective disenchantment with the subject. We fret about the global economy. Syria. Hunger. The rise of Swine Flu and the return of Polio. How much dog hair is there on the sofa? And has anyone hacked into my American Express account. Nature seems remote and irrelevant..
How did we get to this point?
There is the now-dogmatic recognition that children don’t get out much anymore. Legions of books and essays address “Nature Deficit Disorder” and warn of its dire consequences. There is considerable truth to this. Students (mostly First-years) in my ES 120 class at Whitman enjoy our excursions not only because they learn about water supply, the sins of dams, and the advantages of wind turbines, but also because each foray into the out of doors provides physical, if not mental, contact with dogs, cats, sheep, goats, horses, and cattle—all of which are pet-able. Yesterday, at a visit to Upper Dry Creek Ranch – a local raiser of grass-fed beef, lamb, and goat–all 24 students flocked to the animals when they should have been listening to a talk by our hosts, ranchers Robert and Cheryl Cosner. I really should have castigated my crew, but to be honest, they needed the contact with fur more than the lecture.
This deficit of contact with Nature, and its writing, might lead to a greater demand for books, or even videos, about “Nature.” But that’s not what I found back there in the far corner of Barnes and Noble.
While we have an instinctive hunger for contact with nature, we are also highly conflicted about the inherent dangers posed by The Wild, and hyper aware that humans are at fault for the loss of too many species, and the cause of to much pain.
There is also the fear of letting one’s children play in the woods, or marshes, or tall prairie grass. It arises not so much from concern about an ambush by cougars or wolves, or even Lyme-disease-bearing deer ticks, but from fear that some passing human predator will snatch our children. From this concern, which is not truly about nature, children absorb the sense that Outside is a Dangerous Place, without understanding the true basis of concern, in much the same way that my horse knows when I am afraid or unsure, without really knowing why.
This produces, I think, a sort of approach-avoidance conundrum. Yes, nature is beautiful. But it is dangerous, too. Maybe better not to go there.
And like everyone, I am unlikely to read about subjects that cause personal emotional pain. Nothing does this better than reading about Nature’s plight. Any book or article about elephants will either remind me that they are being poached and that their lives are full of pain and suffering. Because I already know this, if I read about happy lives of elephants, I tend to think of the piece as a Pollyanna-ish and inaccurate. If I read about wolves, there are often ranchers stalking them, or the return of hunting to excessive levels. Better to stick with stories of dogs (two sections). Or sink into the storied, fictional oblivion of The Road, since we seem to be inexorably moving in that direction, or Twilight, where the threats are mythic, and wolves are, too.
As Bill McKibben observed in The End of Nature, the true Wild has vanished, as mythic now as the Twilight wolves. The planet is no longer in charge. We are.
So what to do about that destitute shelf titled “Nature”?
When I was a child, my mother took me on long “walks in the woods” where we shared a happy sense of wonder and aesthetics, and she kept me safe. We can all do this, and the more one-on-one the time spent, the more enriching the experience. Taking a whole class on a hike, or a whole boy scout troupe, or a gaggle of 20 campers is preferable to no outside time at all, but it is hard to focus everyone’s attention on just one thing, hard to avoid the siren call of the iPhone and text messages (If only frogs and dung beetles and mergansers could text!) and learn to Just Listen, and to make that a practice.
photo-2Traditional “Nature Writing”, from Aldo Leopold to Terry Tempest Williams, generally presents descriptions of lovely places and charismatic animals – which seem curiously irrelevant–or foreboding tales of loss. Drowning polar bears. Dying bees. Orcas ridden with PCBs. One student in my ES 120 class, wrestling with depression over the state of the planet and everything on it, asked to substitute something more cheerful in place of the remorseless reading list of How Awful Things Are and Will Become.
It is very hard to find readings that work. Information relevant to us, now, on the brink of the perilous 21st century. But I believe there is a future for nature and nature writing. Not to find only the cheery. But instead, to tell relevant stories about resilience and connections. Restoration” and resilience are comparatively new. Only in the last two decades have we been serious about restoring what we have torn up for two centuries. And the idea of grooming fields and forests to encourage a resilient, adaptable natural world is newer still.
The reality is that the very nature of nature has changed. To write about the old world of wild nature is nostalgic; at best only tattered remnants remain, and those are shrinking fast. It is critical to save, restore, and expand what we can of Wild Nature But to survive, Nature Writing, as well as nature, needs to adapt. This need not be the apocryphal, or even the apocalyptical era, of the End of Nature. It can be the beginning of a nature-human partnership. Perhaps a harnessed nature. Or a wild adapted to humans, rather than overwhelmed by it. A resilient, adapted nature, which may be the only nature that can survive the next millennium.
Is this a loss? In my mind, yes. But not as much in my students minds, who tend to se nature as an extension of their social selves, and a continuum rather that the frontier mindset of humans and wild, Us and Them.
What might this new, more uplifting, literature look like?
We might build it upon E.O. Wilson’s concept of Biophilia–the need for humans to connect with nature. We could express our thoughts in sustainable woodlands, and forests that are adapting, however awkwardly, to a shifting climate. We could accept, to some degree, the idea proposed by students in my Environmental Studies class that invasive species are really “neo-natives” that WE have to adapt to. (Are zebra mussels clogging your dam? We, then, just take the dam OUT, and they won’t be a problem, and then, voila, you are managing for the neo-native population…. (I think zebra mussels are telling us something that perhaps we don’t want to hear.)
This idea of writing about resilience and adapting species is not native to my own perceptions of Nature. But it is native to the coming generations. If we are to save the Nature section in Barnes and Noble from extinction, the time for action is now!

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