A primer: What is nature literature?

This brief, light treatment of possibilities for the LDS nature writer is excerpted from my unpublished paper “Why Joseph Went to the Woods: Rootstock for LDS Literary Nature Writers,” presented at the 2008 Association for Mormon Letters Annual Conference.   This paper arose out of blog posts at A Motley Vision and Times and Seasons.

Perhaps one reason LDS writers haven’t ventured far into the field of nature writing is because they’re not sure what it is or does and whether or not writing it fulfills covenants they’ve made to help build the kingdom of God.   Furthermore, in my experience, many in the LDS population don’t know how to interpret the anger, misanthropy, or sorrow that crops up in traditional nature writing, especially when the high rhetoric expressing such emotions threatens LDS lifestyles and beliefs.   Important, call-to-action terms like €œstewardship, € a word that many if not most LDS accept as an essential component of concepts like €œservice € and €œrighteous dominion, € prove uncomfortably mercurial when applied to environmental issues.   Writing nature literature might qualify as exercising €œgood stewardship, € and thus as an act of building the kingdom, but what kind of writing qualifies as nature writing and what aspects of building the kingdom might it accomplish?    

In an essay posing definitions for literary science and nature writing, author Barry Lopez states that,

€œAmong the salient and generally agreed upon characteristics of [nature writing] today are: 1) an assumption that €˜landscape’ €”every element and nuance of the physical world, from a snowstorm passing through, to line and shadow in a woody draw, to the whinny of a horse €”is integral, not incidental to the story; 2) a thematic focus on the relationship of human culture to place or, more generally, of culture to nature; and 3) a heightened sensitivity to issues of justice and spirituality. €  

Lopez points out that many stories not commonly considered nature writing cast the natural world in key roles in tales of good versus evil.   He notes that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is such a story, emanating formidable seagoing narrative energy as it does.   Furthermore, the sea is the domain of one of the story’s main characters €”an awesome white whale.     Examples of such €œsort of € nature literature abound.   Weaving elements of nature writing into the plot of an otherwise non-nature narrative is a common way to explore mankind’s place and purpose in the creation.   This kind of €œnature writing, € with its archetypal themes and tensions, lies well within reach of LDS writers writing for an audience that includes LDS readers as well as readers who are not LDS.  

Regarding Lopez’s third category of nature writing that contains a €œheightened sensitivity to issues of justice and spirituality, € many Mormons grow up steeped in such literature.   Both the Old Testament  and New Testament chronicle events staged in the wilderness as well as draw upon images from nature to make moral points.   The story of the Garden of Eden and that of the plagues Moses calls down upon the Egyptians to free the Children of Israel from bondage, along with their exodus to the Promised Land, are among those that focus the relationship of culture to place and explore matters of heightened spirituality and social justice.  

In the New Testament, Christ’s effect upon the physical world, ranging from calming the sea to multiplying fishes and loaves, demonstrates nature’s integral roles in scriptural narrative intent and is considered an important manifestation of his spiritual gifts.   Furthermore, like Joseph Smith’s first petition to God, two of Christ’s critical prayers occur in nature-rich settings, one in the olive groves of the Garden of Gethsemane and one on a mountainside. In Mormonism’s home book of scripture, The Book of Mormon, God and wilderness offer the Nephites the €œPromised Land € they require to build toward spiritual and cultural aspirations that the big city of Jerusalem had repressed.  

Lopez provides examples of modern writers whose work integrates elements of this category.   €œIn Cather and Steinbeck, € he says,

and more recently in Peter Matthiessen, Gary Snyder and
Wendell Berry, we find the same pursuit of a just relationship
with the divine in a particularized landscape and, again,
themes of social justice. The approach also often assumes
that the physical landscape is not ownable, that it may be
numinous, and that these landscapes and all they include,
from weather to color to basalt boulders, exist in the same
moral universe with the human.

For those who prefer modern writing more markedly €œspiritual, € Lopez notes that Catholic poet, author, and social activist Thomas Merton, €œmore than any other contemporary prose writer, maintained the tradition of spirituality in American writing now thought to be integral to nature writing. €    In February 2008 at  a writer’s workshop in Bluff, Utah, Terry Tempest Williams stressed a similar point, saying that there’s a €œspiritual quality € to the work of nature writing.   In general, spirituality of one degree or another is an expected feature of writing focused on the natural world.        

For the logically inclined, an interesting development in nature writing is the advent of lyrical science writing €”poetry, prose poems, fiction, and essays €”that shapes its themes upon historical and current scientific knowledge.   This kind of writing anchors itself in scientific discovery and terminology while relying on metaphor and other traditional tropes and figures of speech to strike insight.   Sci-poems commonly bear titles like €œSeismicity of the Eastern Snake River Plain Region € (Timothy Doyle) and €œEphemerides of a Minor Planet € (Jessica Goodfellow). Essays with titles like, €œTrace Elements € (Jeff Porter) and €œV.E.C.T.O.R.L.O.S.S. Project € (Michael Branch) demonstrate how scientific discoveries meet personal voice, at once bringing science down to earth and elevating nature writing above the bi-polar tradition of sorrowful lament and wildly celebratory poetry and prose popular twenty-five years ago.

Certainly, aspiring LDS nature writers have many reasons to rejoice.   Nature writing has acquired greater narrative diversity, with many avenues that are kingdom-building friendly.   New forms in the genre allow for the development of Mormon spiritual themes; in fact, any and all of the narrative pathways opening up rely for their effectiveness upon various manifestations of spirituality.   Nature writing cannot be said to be this rhetorical creature or that one, but rather many creatures differing in habits but bearing striking resemblances.

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4 thoughts on “A primer: What is nature literature?”

  1. Patricia ,
    I feel Nature writing must be Godless. Otherwise Nature lack it’s own power, it lacks it’s own spiritual force, taken from it is it’s own physicality. The power of it’s wind..must be it’s own. The weight of it’s rocks…must be it’s own.
    These things, can not be passed onto a God’s power. To see/write of Nature, one must truly be a first hand witness. That he… beyond any “vision”…has seen this God..and has touch it .

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  2. Bob, recently I was reading the comments to Field Notes at Times and Seasons (linked above) and I ran into yours saying you thought it nice that I (and greenfrog, who had been adding his own field notes to the comments section) had “kept God out of [our] nature writing.”

    I replied, “… my belief suffuses my writing, just at such a high frequency some ears might not be able to detect it.”

    I think you object to “the moral of the story is…” type of nature narrative. Maybe you feel it gets in the way because you prefer to draw your own conclusions. I think that’s perfectly fine, you’ll find plenty of hands-on, no obvious Almighty-chaperone-standing-between-the-narrator-or-reader-and-the-objects-of-his/her-affections stories here.

    But lots of people see nature through vividly God-colored glasses (3-D?) and desire with a desire as deep as the trenches of the sea writing done in God-colored ink, and I think that’s fine, too. All things testify of Him.

    Expect to find that species of nature writing here, too.

    And of course, there are many kinds of writing focused on nature, probably even some directly ascribing the beauty and power of nature to God which you’d find acceptable.

    Let’s allow people their language and the individual stances they take toward nature. There’s biological diversity, right? It’s important to the health and future of the planet. Spiritual diversity is likewise vital to the health and future of this planet.

    Have a little faith. 😉

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  3. “Let’s allow people their language and the individual stances they take toward nature.” I am all for that. But (?) you seem to want to limit Nature writing to an art form, or poetry. Is there a place for a Rachel Carson in your Nature writings?
    But the question of the post(?): Can a Mormon writer use Biology and Physics, and not God or poetry as a backdrop to his writing?
    Sorry about the thread jack. (I mostly read Nature writings for the poetry of them).

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  4. But (?) you seem to want to limit Nature writing to an art form or poetry…

    Limit? Because that appears to be how I write? Hasty pudding of a conclusion. I thought you were a meatloaf man!

    Is there a place for a Rachel Carson in your Nature writings?

    In my writings? Probably not. I ain’t no Rachel Carson (and glad of it).

    But guests might turn up who have Carson-esque rhetorical ticks.

    But the question of the post(?): Can a Mormon writer use Biology and Physics, and not God or poetry as a backdrop to his writing?

    Absolutely, as long as it makes for a good story. We’re just getting started here, Bob. I’m open. Let’s see what happens.

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