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Writing nature: not for dreamers

September 5, 2008 |  5:50 am


In the new Bookforum, Verlyn Klinkenborg reviews "American Earth," the 1,000-page anthology of nature writing edited by Bill McKibben.

This is literature for a cause, a cookbook for getting something done, a partial archive of the documents that shaped ecological awareness as we know it. It is also, in some sense, a philosophical and political primer, a reminder of the principles that ultimately bind the disparate, fractious environmental movement together.

Simply writing about the transcendent beauty of the natural world seems to have slipped out of fashion. In the Editor's Letter of the new issue of Granta, "The New Nature Writing," Jason Cowley writes that he was not interested in "the old nature writing ... the lyrical pastoral tradition of the romantic wanderer." There is, it seems, a sense that nature writing is activism, that something must be done. Klinkenborg notes:

... writers in every generation take a crack at finding the crystalline argument that will induce an epiphany in skeptical readers — for nothing less than an epiphany will do to persuade them to change the way they go about living. Yet every generation fails, in part because skeptical readers so seldom pick up this kind of writing or submit to its evidence.

He has a point: Few people who don't believe in global warming are likely to be drawn to an enormous anthology subtitled "Environmental Writing Since Thoreau." It's likely that Granta's "New Nature Writing" is also preaching to the converted, but it's trying not to be didactic — the pieces are formally diverse, including "the field report, the essay, the memoir, the travelogue." Start with Anthony Doerr's "Butterflies on a Wheel" to get a gist of where nature writing is headed.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of Yosemite National Park by James Gordon via Flickr