While many of our favorite stories describe epic adventures in the great outdoors, nature writing—writing about nature itself—has evolved as a genre in its own right.
This unique genre can inspire curiosity and awe in both its readers and writers, especially in an age characterized by digital screens and virtual experiences.
What Is Nature Writing?
The exact definition of nature writing can be hard to pinpoint. If you ask Wikipedia, it’s “nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment.” So, pretty much anything that describes rolling hills or migrating butterflies goes, right?
Actually, most works that are considered “nature writing” today can best be classified as creative nonfiction. In Beyond Nature Writing, ecocritic and writer Michael P. Branch explains that the term “has usually been reserved for a brand of nature representation that is deemed literary, written in the speculative personal voice, and presented in the form of the nonfiction essay.”
The genre can be traced back to the 18th century, with many regarding English naturalist Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne one of the earliest examples.
Some observers have noted that we’re currently experiencing a “golden age of nature writing,” as digital fatigue and a suffering environment have piqued an interest in the natural world and all its wonders.
Examples of Nature Writing
This renaissance has produced a wave of outstanding nature-centered writings that are soon to become classics. Here are 3 examples:
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Indigenous scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer illustrates how other living creatures—from sweetgrass to salamanders—can provide us with priceless gifts and lessons in what has been acclaimed as a “Best Essay Collection of the Decade.”
Her reflections all circle back to one central argument: that in order to awaken ecological consciousness, we must “acknowledge and celebrate our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.” Kimmerer brilliant descriptions capture the beauty of our world will surely stay with you long after you’ve read the last page.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
This series of autobiographical essays draws on moments and memories from the author’s life and relationships, exploring themes of uncertainty, trust, loss, desire, and place. Solnit examines the stories we use to navigate our way through the world, from wilderness to cities.
In one anecdote, she ponders the fate of tortoises, reflecting on a memory of riding one at a zoo, while contemplating their (and our) disintegrating environment.
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
H Is for Hawk has been featured on more than 25 “Best Books of the Year” lists, including Time, NPR, and Vogue. It tells the story of how Macdonald spent 800 British pounds on a goshawk in a moment of grief after her father’s death, then tried to train it.
We see how the goshawk’s temperament mirrors the author’s state of grief, as together they “discover the pain and beauty of being alive.”
What Is the Purpose of Nature Writing?
Nature is full of inspiration, and as such, it can easily serve as a muse for writers. In nature, we might find metaphors for our own human experiences that we never considered before.
For example, in literature, rivers are often regarded as symbols of life and the passage of time: the source of rivers (small mountain streams) represents the beginnings of life, and its meeting with the ocean represents the end of life. And, like life itself, it continues to push on in an endless cycle, no matter what happens.
Thus, writing (and reading) about nature allows us space to reflect on life and the many ways it mirrors our own human experiences.
Over the last century, nature writing has also become a means of advocacy for the environment by calling attention to environmental issues and trying to inspire a greater interest in nature.
How to Practice Nature Writing
Nature writing has grown in popularity as a genre in recent years, but writing about nature in general can also be a great creative exercise, as it encourages you to observe details and put those observations into words.
You can use these tips to practice nature writing:
1. Always keep a notebook handy.
The first thing you want to do is ensure that you always have a notebook and pen handy to jot down your ideas and observations, no matter where you are.
Pocket notebooks easily fit into backpacks, handbags, and yes, even most pockets!
Don’t assume that you can just write everything down when you get home. Many subtle details and nuances can be lost, even just hours later, if you don’t record them there in the moment.
When you’re spending time in nature, don’t worry about brainstorming the most poetic way to describe the falling leaves; you can always refine your writing later.
For now, just focus on recording your own feelings and observations. Let your thoughts flow freely onto the paper, without pausing to self-edit or worry about proper spelling and punctuation.
3. Focus on sensory details.
As with nearly all types of writing, nature writing is always better when you focus on showing, not telling. This means using sensory details to describe your surroundings and experiences.
4. Make connections.
Yes, nature writing means a lot of writing about nature, but that doesn’t mean your topics of discussion are limited to the sound of the wind and birds chirping.
If you find that certain memories or thoughts come up while you’re spending time in nature, write those down too. This can help you practice building connections, which will enrich your writing and help you convey larger themes.
What about nature inspires you to write? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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