Gatherings Home Page Ice Home Page Join the Mailing List Contact the Editor Archives

by Ian M. Johnstone

What follows is a collection of quotes - precepts and examples - about nature writing which I have gathered over some years. At the end, there is a list of some books of, and about, Australian nature writing.

First some examples of writing about nature’s reliably revolving repetition, including the water cycle:-
* The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapour to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal: and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man. (RW Emerson “Nature” 1836)

* The waters of the globe are forever seeking the repose of a dead level, but when they attain it, if they ever do, the world will be dead. Behold, what a career they have in their circuit from the sea to the clouds and back to the earth in the ministering rains, and then to the sea again through the streams and rivers! This circuit of the waters drives and sustains all the vital machinery of the globe (John Burroughs “Accepting the Universe” 1920 p101)

* See that lake high up in the mountains. It is a calm, restful, windless day. The lake shares that calm: it is silent, it is still. Yet – it is like a giant resting. It is energy asleep. (p192) Though constant in amount, it (water) is in continual motion, passing in a ceaseless cycle from earth to ocean and ocean to air and air to earth. Its existence is necessary to all living things and its even flow the prime factor in relation to their comfort and their quantity. (John Stewart Collis “The Vision of Glory” Penguin 1975 p249-50)

* As soil is the material substrate of life, so water is its essence. In a real sense, water is life….The movement of water is continuous and repetitive – precipitating out of the air, falling, ponding, soaking through the soil, flowing, taken up by plants, transpired, evaporated and returned to the atmosphere – without beginning or end. (William J. Lines “A Long Walk in the Australian Bush” Uni NSW Press 1998 p62).

* The very existence of a hydrological cycle is a consequence of water’s unique ability to exist in more than one physical state – solid, liquid or gas – under the2 conditions that prevail at the surface of the planet…The hydrological cycle emphasizes the dynamic nature of the Earth’s environment: it is constantly repeating and renewing itself….Water is the lubricant for biogeochemical cycling….There is little exaggeration in saying that it is water, in the end, that makes the world go round. (Philip Ball “H2O, A Biography of Water” Phoenix 2000 p26-27).


What then are the basic elements of good nature writing? It seems to me that the following are some of the desirable characteristics:
1. Genuine engagement. There must be a genuine engagement with the subject. The writer must be an accurate observer and authentic appreciator of nature. This is achievable only by long experience and warm enthusiasm. Some writers have commented on how habitually remote from nature most of us are.

* To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. (R.W. Emerson “Nature” 1836).

* Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature? She flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside. Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth. (H.D. Thoreau “Walden” Chapter 9, “The Ponds” final sentences. 1854)

* Most people are on the world, not in it – have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them – undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate. (John Muir, Journal 16 July 1890)

* Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it: to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. (Aldo Leopold “A Sand County Almanac 1949 Ballantine Book p261).

* The fact is that in almost every area of our public culture we are disengaging from nature, rendering it as a plaything, a scene from the Picturesque or a horror film – always as an object. In reserves across the country interpretation boards tell us what we ought to be looking at, what it means and how we ought to respond. In conservation itself, the word “nature” with all its ambivalence and protean richness, has been abandoned in favour of the dispassionate “biodiversity” with its solemn species tallies and “endangerment indices”. In literature, a tradition of celebrating our dwelling in nature, a lineage that stretched from Gilbert White’s Selborne and Hardy’s novels, to Ted Hughes’ poetry and J.A. Baker’s indescribable The Peregrine, has been replaced by a vapid and repetitive strain of guidebooks and pop science volumes whose overriding message is that we already know all those “innermost secrets”. (Richard Mabey “Nature’s voyeurs” The Guardian 15 March 2003).

The world appears fresh and new to most of us first thing in the morning, but few can sustain that feeling for long. Constant repetition brings with it unappreciative acceptance. Deprivation, loss, hardship, and uncertainty about basic things, like where the next meal is coming from, all tend to heighten and intensify the extent to which we value the ordinary everyday and commonplace activities of living. So fasting or dieting renew our awareness of food, and improve our appetite. Our enjoyment of music would similarly improve if we were exposed to it as infrequently as once every six months. R.W. Emerson wrote:-
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (“Nature” 1836).

Very similarly Henry W. Longfellow observed:-
If spring came but once a century instead of once a year, or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change. (quoted by Norman Vincent Peale in his anthology “Joy and Enthusiasm” 1984 p153).

John Cowper Powys suggested a lack of culture as another factor conducive to insensitivity to natural beauty:-
The less cultured you are the more you require from Nature before you can be roused to reciprocity. Uncultured people require blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring mountains, astonishing waterfalls, masses of gorgeous flowers, portentous signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a response. (“The Meaning of Culture” 1930 p176).

In spite of this general attitude of indifference to nature and being blasé about the rewards it has for our peace of mind, most of us have known contented moments from a feeling of being fully and wholesomely at home in natural surroundings. Here is a small sample of writers remarking on this feeling:

* The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows…. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. (R.W. Emerson “Nature” 1836)

* I will take another walk to the Cliff, another row on the river, another skate on the meadow, be out in the first snow, and associate with the winter birds. Here I am at home. In the bare and bleached crust of the earth I recognize my friend. (H.D. Thoreau, Journal 1 November 1858)

* The home itself must arouse a desire to make a home of the universe. Nothing is so beautiful as a light in a cottage window, except the light of the stars; and when we feel the beauty of the cottage light, we know that it is of the same nature as the beauty of the stars; and our desire is to be sure that the stars are the lights of home with the same spirit of home behind them. (A. Clutton-Brock “Essays on Life” 1925 “Home” p5)

* Whether a man shall live his old life or a new one, in a universe of death or of life, cut off and alien or affiliated and at home, in a state of servitude or of genuine freedom – to the Romantic poet, all depends on his mind as it engages with the world in the act of perceiving. (M.H. Abrams “Natural Supernaturalism – Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature” 1971 p375).


Kakadu Man

I feel it with my body,
with my blood.
Feeling all these trees,
all this country.
When this wind blow you can feel it.
Same for country…..
You can feel it.
You can look,
But feeling..….
That make you.

(by Bill Neidjie, Stephen Davis, and Allan Fox).

* By attending to detail, by learning to see things as they are, we learn to dissolve our selves into the landscape, to become inhabitants of a shared world which exists in its own right, apart from our use of it, one to which we owe a silent respect, and an allegiance. (James Bradley reviewing Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams” The Australian’s Review of Books March 2001).

* I go out there to get in touch with the land, to get in touch with myself. When you go out there, you don’t get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what’s important. You come home to yourself. (Peter Dombrovskis quoted by Carol Altmann, The Weekend Australian Magazine 23-24 August 2003 p12).

* At the heart of education is education of the heart. (Anon.)

G.K. Chesterton posed the question “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” (“Orthodoxy” 1908 Fontana Books p10) My answer is to love it. The lover is surprised and delighted endlessly by the loved one, but is at the same time comfortably familiar and at ease. It is a dynamic relationship oscillating between amazement and acceptance, excitement and contentment, ecstasy and equanimity. That’s love, and that’s much how we should relate to our natural surroundings as well. Our deepest longings are for intimacy, mutual understanding in relationships, and a feeling of being at home in our surroundings. This involves knowing them – physically, geographically, historically and so on – appreciating them and caring for them. This all takes time.

Nature writing must be genuine and natural. Faked facts or feelings are easily detected and rejected.

Laurence Binyon understood enthusiastic genuineness:-
Overbrim and overflow,
If your own heart you would know;
For the spirit born to bless
Lives but in its own excess.
(A Song)

Similarly, Llewellyn Powys observed:-
A writer’s work should be a direct expression or flowering of his own life. It should be as close to his personal life as marrow to bone. It should be an unstudied, a radiant and random reflection of his deepest thoughts and his deepest feelings. (quoted by R.G. Howarth “Literary Particles”, “Lover of Life” Angus & Robertson 1946 p146).

The real problem, however, is not phony nature writing but the clinically detached scientific tone, as if anything else is subjective, trivial and worthless. The gulf between the sciences and the arts, to which C.P. Snow drew attention in his “The Two Cultures” in 1956, and which is still with us, can be bridged by good nature writing. Writing styles reflect, of course, the fashions of the times. It used to be commonplace for natural history books to include appreciation or some other appropriate or natural response. For example Charles Darwin wrote on 29 February 1832:

Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist, who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. (‘The Voyage of the Beagle’)

2. Fact and Feeling. There should be a nice balance and blend of fact and feeling; of observations of the details of the landscape and living things, and emotions and human responses. We enjoy oscillating between reality and romance, much as Australians move quickly between the wickets of seriousness and humour. We like the contrast of getting things done during the day, and then watching actors on TV create a fiction world to provide us with respite from our daily drudgery. We somehow find the fanciful is fulfilling, and it prepares us for another round in the bout of work. Similarly, good nature writing mixes science with imagination, and reality with romance. Some writers have commented on this.

* All the facts in natural history, taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren, like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life. (R.W. Emerson “Nature” 1836.)

* To read the sense the woods impart
You must bring the throbbing heart.
(R.W. Emerson)

* It is not so much what the writer tells us that makes literature, as the way he tells it; or rather, it is the degree in which he imparts to it some rare personal quality or charm that is the gift of his own spirit, something which cannot be detached from the work itself, and which is as inherent as the sheen of a bird’s plumage, as the texture of a flower’s petal. There is this analogy in nature. The hive bee does not get honey from the flowers; honey is a product of the bee. What she gets from the flowers is mainly sweet water or nectar; this she puts through a process of her own, and to it adds a minute drop of her own secretion, formic acid. It is her special contribution that converts the nectar into honey….. Thoreau does not interpret nature, but nature interprets him. The new thing disclosed in bird and flower is simply a new sensibility to these objects in the beholder. (John Burroughs “Literary Values and other papers” 1904 “Style and the Man” p62)

* Unless you can write about Nature with feeling, with real love, with more or less hearty affiliation and comradeship with her, it is of no use. Your words will not stick. They will awaken no response in the reader. (John Burroughs, Journal, 1 March 1899)

* Singular that we should have outgrown anthropomorphism so as to deny personality to the separate forces of nature, but ascribe it to nature as a whole. (John Burroughs, “The Light of Day” 1900 p206).

* The seeming significance of nature’s appearances, their unchanging strangeness to the senses, and the thrilling response which they awaken in the mind of man…If we could only write near enough to the facts, and yet with no pedestrian calm, but ardently, we might transfer the glamour of reality direct upon our pages. (Robert Louis Stevenson “Henry David Thoreau” May 1880)

* No non-poetic account of reality can be complete. (John Myhill quoted by John D. Barrow in “Impossibility” 1998 p215)

* Why always coast on the surface and never open the interior of Nature, not by science, which is surface still, but by poetry? (R.W. Emerson “Lectures and Biographical Sketches 1904 p134)

Of course the scientific method excludes the subjective attribution of human feelings and motives to non-human living things. Nature writing however is not pure science. Nature writing has humanity and imagination added. As someone pointed out, we are more anthropomorphic than we know, or can know. Somehow we must humanize nature in order to naturalise ourselves. We turn to nature to find our naturalness and to corroborate and legitimize our very existence – as we go into our battle for survival in the world alone.

continued from left column...

It is only really poetic feelings that enable us to recognize variety in nature as a reflection of our own versatility and vitality.

There is a world of difference between a book of maps and travel writers like Freya Stark, Jonathan Raban and Patrick Leigh Fermor. There is a similar contrast between natural history books on the one hand and nature writers on the other.

All good nature writing reveals something about nature and something about the writer. The proportion can vary from writer to writer and from sentence to sentence. For example, Richard Nelson’s appreciation is implicit in every densely packed descriptive sentence in his marvelous “The Island Within” (1989).

3. Images and Metaphors. There should be plenty of appropriate imagery, figures of speech and enlightening comparisons. A metaphor is a sort of sixth sense. It can be a condensed hunch, an intensifier of feeling, a dash of humour, an imaginative leap and much more. A metaphor expands and extends our existing senses and our understanding. It is a mental probe, not unlike all those pieces of medical technology equipment which can reach inside bodies where unaided eyes cannot see. It is language on stilts with a periscope. Emerson wrote of someone he met, that he could see that person’s parents “move to the windows of his eyes”. Somehow this extends our understanding of inherited characteristics. Noone could fail to understand what this metaphor conveys.

R.W. Emerson pointed out that:-
“The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation”. (“Nature” 1836)

Nietzche asked “What is truth? A mobile army of metaphors”. This rolls out to “What keeps us sane and adaptable? An ever changing mental pantry of apt analogies which needs constant replenishment.” For example it is worth thinking of some of the metaphors we use for nature itself:-
(i) The balance of nature – competing forces are reconciled by a process of counterbalance.
(ii) The biotic pyramid.
(iii) The web – of complex interdependencies.
(iv) Biogeochemical cycling – the recycling of nutrients through the water cycle.
(v) Evolution – the survival of the fittest after a struggle.
(vi) Gaia – our earth is one mighty living organism

This is obviously a big and fascinating topic. Lawrence Buell calls them Master Metaphors in his magisterial book “The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture” (1995 p281). Thoreau himself was aware of the uses and abuses of metaphors. He was wary of unquestioned traditional metaphors. “The wisest man preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafters, not even a cobweb, against the heavens. It is clear sky”. (“Sunday” in “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” 1849).

A small sample of some imagery will help:-
* The hare has a weakness for following a beaten track, and in that respect resembles slightly some especially orthodox divine. (Donald Macdonald “A Day in the Bush” in “Gum Boughs and Wattle Bloom” 1887 p193)

* To deep ecology the world is seen not as a pyramid with humans on top, but as a web. We humans are but one strand in that web and as we destroy other strands, we destroy ourselves after thousands of years of Judeo- Christian conditioning, we have inherited shallow, fictitious selves, disconnected from nature. Unaware of its dependency on the tree on which it grows, we are like a leaf imagining some benefit from the logging of the tree. (John Seed, Paper presented to Australian Psychological Societies’ 28th annual conference, Gold Coast, Queensland, 2 Oct 1994).

* Gouldian finches are so colourful “they looked as though they had rolled in a rainbow” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2-3 August 2003, article by James Woodford p5)

* When the rains return the frogs reappear, find the nearest water and begin the breeding cycle. The photographed specimen was found in sawdust in June 2003. This was a couple of weeks after drought breaking rain. Either this frog didn’t respond to the rain or thinks that another drought is on the way. We hope that this amphibian’s forecasting abilities are not accurate (Warren Sheather on the Burrowing Frog on his website – Google – Yallaroo, then “a View from Yallaroo”. He was ABC Gardener of the Year in 2001). “We consider our native insects just as important as other more visible Australian wildlife and try to provide plants that have flowers attractive to native insects rather than their larger and more aggressive exotic cousins. Kunzeas, Baeckeas and Bursarias are some of the native genera that have small, nectar-filled flowers that attract large numbers of native insects. Honeybees appear to consider it beneath their dignity to visit these small flowers. (Warren Sheather on Buzz Pollination).

* Ashley Hay, author of “Gum”, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival May 2003, in answer to a question, said that the large leaves of some juvenile eucalypts put her in mind of a child wearing hand-me-downs.

4. The Familiar Revitalised. There should be a tone of fresh curiosity and keenness for the topic, revealing the writer’s general attitude, and making the mundane and familiar seem freshly discovered and new.

* Nature is not benevolent; with ruthless indifference she makes all things serve their purpose. (Lao-Tsu “The Way of Virtue” c550BC).

* In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. (Aristotle 384- 322BC “On the Parts of Animals”).

* When Nature ceases to be supernatural to a man, what will he do then? (H.D. Thoreau “Journal” 2 November 1843).

* This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used. (H.D. Thoreau quoted by Edward Waldo Emerson in “Henry Thoreau” 1917, reprinted 1968 p19).

* Barbara Kingsolver wrote of H.D. Thoreau “What a life it must have been, to seize time for this much wonder. If only we could recover faith in a seed – and in all the other complicated marvels that can’t fit into a sound bite. Then we humans might truly know the glory of knowing our place.” (“The Forest in the Seeds” in “High Tide at Tucson” 1995 p242).

* If by patience, if by watching I can secure one new ray of light – can feel myself elevated for an instant upon Pisgah – the world which was dead prose to me become living & divine – shall I not watch ever – shall I not be a watchman henceforth? …To devote your life to the discovery of the divinity in Nature or to the eating of oysters would they not be attended with different results? (H.D. Thoreau “Journal” 7 September 1851).

* At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.
(H.D. Thoreau “Walden” 1854, “Spring”).

* There is in my nature, methinks, a singular yearning toward all wildness. I know of no redeeming qualities in myself but a sincere love for some things, and when I am reproved I fall back on this ground. (H.D. Thoreau “Sunday” in “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers 1849 Signet Classic p55).

* What unthinking people call design in nature is simply the reflection of our inevitable anthropomorphism. Whatever they can use, they think was designed for that purpose – the air to breathe, the water to drink, the soil to plant. It is as if they thought the notch in the mountains was made for the road to pass over, or the bays and harbor for the use of cities and shipping. (John Burroughs “The Natural Providence” in “Accepting the Universe” 1920 p90).

* A human being is part of a whole called by us the “Universe” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. (Albert Einstein quoted by A.J.A. Nelson “My Life as I remember it” University of New England 1996 p235).

* It is easy to specify the individual objects in these grand scenes; but it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind. (Charles Darwin in Brazil).

* What culture ought to do for us is to sweep away that crust of quotidian familiarity which blinds us to the thrilling magic of life, and bathe us afresh in the luminous pools of being. (John Cowper Powys “The Meaning of Culture” 1929 p195).

* Wendell Berry once argued that without a “fascination” with the wonder of the natural world “the energy needed for its preservation will never be developed”. (Bill McKibben “The End of Nature” 1990 p194).

5. Humility and Respect There should be, in the end, a tone of humility and respect; a recognition of nature’s vastness and our inability to control natural forces. Good nature writing reminds us of our limitations; what we can change, what we can’t, andthe necessity for wisdom to know the difference. Nature writing should recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.

We humans are extraordinarily arrogant. We are proud beyond measure of our conscious intelligence and its corollary – a self-conscious awareness of being conscious. But animals with their instinctive intelligence are in many ways more alert and observant, more active and responsive to changes in their surroundings, than we are. We can’t pick up many scents the way animals can. We sometimes have trouble finding the butcher in a shopping arcade, let alone habitually finding, hunting and killing enough meat to live on. Plants respond to sun and shade, water and small temperature changes in a way we cannot. We need plants to tell us it is spring; they don’t need us to tell them. We should be admiring, not scorning, the alertness skills of animals and plants. Nature writing helps us to do just this.

We could learn from the example of other living things to allow ourselves the rapture, the exhilaration, and the wholesome excitement that is to be had in the simple experience of being fully alive. Richard Jefferies wrote in 1879:

The joy in life of these animals – indeed, of almost all animals and birds in freedom – is very great. You may see it in every motion: in the lyssom bound of the hare, the playful leap of the rabbit, the song that the lark and the finch must sing; the soft, loving coo of the dove in the hawthorn; the blackbird ruffling out his feathers on a rail. The sense of living – the consciousness of seeing and feeling – is manifestly intense in them all, and is in itself an exquisite pleasure. (“Wildlife in a Southern County” Chapter 1.)

Writers have expressed similar ideas about humility and respect in a variety of ways:

* The world is enigmatical – everything said, and everything known or done – must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand anything rightly. (R.W. Emerson “Emerson – A Modern Anthology” ed. Alfred Kazin & Daniel Aaron 1958 p20 and p2124).

* One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit – a loving and susceptible heart ….. Our good fortune is not that there are or may be special providences and dispensations, as our fathers believed, by which we may escape this or that evil, but our good fortune is that we have our part and lot in the total scheme of things, that we share in the slow optimistic tendency of the universe, that we have life and health and wholeness on the same terms as the trees, the flowers, the grass, the animals have, and pay the same price for our well being, in struggle and effort, that they pay. That is our good fortune. (John Burroughs “Leaf and Tendril” 1908 p241-245).

* Man’s only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy his place – a much humbler place than we have been taught to think – in the order of creation. But the change of mind I am talking about involves not just a change of knowledge, but also a change of attitude toward our essential ignorance, a change in our bearing in the face of mystery. The principle of ecology, if we will take it to heart, should keep us aware that our lives depend on other lives and upon processes and energies in an interlocking system that, though we can destroy it, we can neither fully understand nor fully control. And our great dangerousness is that, locked in our selfish and myopic economics, we have been willing to change or destroy far beyond our power to understand. We are not humble enough or reverent enough. (Wendell Berry “Think Little” in “A Continuous Harmony” 1972 p84-5).

* Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received. (Richard Nelson “The Island Within” 1989 Preface pxii).

* When you see the world as part of yourself, you will take care of it. When you see yourself as part of the world, you will be taken care of. (Anon.)

* We need to change the way we do things, the extent to which we’ll put ourselves before the wellbeing of the sea, what we’ll take, what noxious garbage we’ll dump, what we’ll do on land that affects the sea around us. Along with such a difficult change of attitude it’s important that we set places aside to simply be themselves. Places we can go to with self-imposed limits or simply not go to at all if need be ….. But the idea has to find its way into the communal mind. People need to take it to heart and accept that the sea needs some respite from those of us on the fringe of the island. We need to revive our childhood awe of the sea, a respect that acknowledges our dependence upon it. (Tim Winton “Good Weekend Magazine” 8 November 1997).

* I regard the forest as a heritage given to us by nature, not for spoil or to devastate, but to be wisely used, reverently honoured and carefully maintained. I regard the forests as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care during a small space of time, to be surrendered to posterity again as an unimpaired property with increased riches and augmented blessings, to pass as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation. (Ferdinand von Mueller “Forest Culture” p27, 52 – quoted by Tim Bonyhady “The Colonial Earth” 2000 p257-8).

6. Our responsibility. There should be an acceptance, implicit or explicit, of what we owe to nature. Our enjoyment of nature brings with it a mortgage debt of responsibility not to destroy, degrade or pollute it needlessly or excessively. We must live so as to deserve the world we have, it is so full of whatever we need to live fully, so we should reciprocate its bounty with our gratitude and respect. Our attitude to nature is vital. Emerson observed that “To a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical” (“Nature” 1836). He also wrote that “The views of nature held by any people determine all their institutions” (English Traits, 1856 Chapter 4).

Similarly Senator Al Gore has written “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization” (“Earth in the Balance – Forging a New Common Purpose”, Earthscan Publications 1992 p269). David Quammen wrote “Almost nothing bears more crucially upon the future of this planet that the seemingly simple matter of human attitudes toward nature. (“The Flight of the Iguana – A Sidelong View of Science and Nature”, Simon and Schuster 1988, Introduction p xi).

7. Conclusion. Good nature writing is comparatively rare. When we do find it however it can be powerful and persuasive. It helps us achieve a harmony and unity with our natural surroundings and that feeling of being truly at home and at one with oneself. This alone makes it a vital form of expression.


Its tortured look reminds us of a bonsai written large,
Its uniform of cream-green-grey could teach us camouflage.
In its trunk there’s signs of struggle, as if distorted by some pain,
Like legs bent down to lift a weight, it’s strong to take the strain.
It twists and casts dead branches, it compromises and survives,
Rugged beauty’s forced upon it, and we see in it, our lives.

Ian M. Johnstone

Back to Top of Page