Monday, August 22, 2011

Nature Writing: A Hornet's Nest

Last weekend bald-faced hornets—those large black hornets with the white spots and stripes—kept buzzing past me each time I tried to relax on our deck. I eventually found their nest hanging from the far end of the second story eve. I grabbed the trusty can of wasp and hornet spray from the garage, aimed it at the target hanging fifteen feet above my head, and soaked the nest. With a long pole I then knocked the gray, funnel-shaped nest to the ground where it broke open. After checking to make sure no hornets remained to attack me, I picked up a piece of the nest.

I was, once again, amazed at the architecture of nature. What had appeared from a distance to be a tough compound to raise young hornets to maturity—was a bluff. The nest walls, looking similar to paper mache, consisted of fine layer upon fine layer of a feather-light soft, paper-like substance—a fluff of almost nothingness that easily disintegrated as I handled it, which the hornets make themselves by chewing on tiny slivers of wood. Inside the fragile outer shell, stood a sturdy core of tubular hexagon cells where the young were raised, lined in perfect rows in a perfect grid. We humans would need an engineering degree to achieve the same. Like ashes from a campfire, bits and pieces of the nest drifted and disappeared across the yard in the breeze.

I enjoy the small miracles of nature that surround us. I love reading nature writing. I love the science, the research. And I love writing about nature.

But in recent years views on “nature writing” have become a small hornet’s nest of its own, of sorts, as academics and others urge writers to move beyond writing about the simple beauty of nature and into environmental journalism, advocacy, and activism.

Columnist Chris Boning wrote this about nature writers in an article titled Emerson Draws Yawns:

The type of writing to which I refer is that of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold and others like them—those individuals to whom the death of a passenger pigeon, a thousand-mile walk or a life lived deliberately was intimately important, and those writers who could expound at length about the beauty of a single wildflower or a forest of redwoods. Those kinds of writers are dying out because that kind of writing doesn’t sell.

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates once referred to nature writing as a "painfully limited set of responses: reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness."

I don’t possess the knowledge base and standing to debate old-school nature writing and modern environmental journalism with university professors and famous authors, but I do know what I like: When I take a close look at the natural world I am moved to express my thoughts and feelings about what I find. And, likewise, I want to read the same from others.

One of my favorite books on nature writing is a series of essays by Annie Dillard titled Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

What I like about Dillard’s writing is how she carries the smallest encounter into the broad realm of life, such as this passage from her essay Living Like Weasels after her encounter with a weasel:

Could two live that way? Could two live under the wild rose, and explore by the pond, so that the smooth mind of each is as everywhere present to the other, and as received and as unchallenged, as falling snow?

We could, you know. We can live anyway we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. 

One of my favorite poets is Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner, Mary Oliver. Here is her poem, August, from her National Book Award winner, New and Selected Poems:


When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

There are several books for those interested in nature writing. Here are two from my bookshelf that have been helpful:

Writing Naturally by David Petersen
The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook by John Murray.

These books provide guidance for nature writers from writing journals, essays and poetry, to the craft of figurative language and storytelling.

As the hornets continue their cycle and return to build new nests in the spring, and as the blur of disagreements and politics between nature writing and environmental journalism continue, I believe these simple words of John Muir get to the heart of this topic:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. ---John Muir


Jennifer Rova said...

I had never thought much about nature writing. Your post is intriguing. I will make an effort to learn more about it and try it. Thanks!

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Living in beautiful north Idaho has often inspired me to write poems about nature. Your post is helpful to me, and others pursuing this genre.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I've also heard wonderful things about the nature writing of Diane Ackerman. I will put some of these books on my fall reading list to encourage me to get out and enjoy nature before the snow flies once again...and maybe even after it does!

Anonymous said...

"My ripped arms" is great prose? Then America has lost it.