by Ian M. Johnstone
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
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”
* 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”
* 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
* 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
* 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”
* 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”
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,
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
* 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
* 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.
Binyon understood enthusiastic genuineness:-
If your own heart you would know;
For the spirit born to bless
Lives but in its own excess.
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”
* To read the sense the woods impart
You must bring the throbbing heart.
* 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”
* 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.