The Dos and Don'ts of Nature Writing


In addition to the challenges of craft and conducting research, nature writing comes with an extra level of difficulty because of its ethical considerations. When I started writing about nature, I was worried that I might unwittingly replecate some trope or technique that was unethical or undermined my intentions for the piece.

 

To this end I enthusiastically read Greg Garrard's Ecocriticism, looking for the eco-equivalent of the Bechdel Test, and while I found some guidance, it wasn't the straightforward guide I was hoping for. After long thought and reading many books and essays, I've come up with a cut-and-dry list of dos and don'ts when writing about nature.

 

I prefer the term "just representation" for the project I have undertaken. I like the play on the idea of representative democracy because both representative democracy and nature writers share features in common: a part represents the whole and a single voice speaks for many. When I write about wild animals, for instance, I am in a sense speaking for them within the pages of a book and advocating on their behalf, in the same way that my congressman speaks for me and advocates for me within Congress. What appears on the page should not be confused with living creatures in the wild of course, no more so than I should be confused with my congressman.

 

There are unjust forms of democratic representation (what political scientists call illiberal democracy), and just forms of representation, and so too are there both just and unjust forms of representation within nature writing.

 

Nature writers benefit as students of science not simply for the understanding and facts that can help achieve the ideal writing that is “perceptually accurate, poetically evocative, and scientifically precise” (Clark 10) but also because science can act as a bridge between one’s values and actions. If you value a landscape, it is scientific data that show you what threatens it and how to protect it. 

As another example, consider how some writers argue that “happy endings” undermine the cultural work a novel or nature book attempts to perform. After all, doesn’t such a resolution suggest to readers that the issue has been resolved, and thus that there is no need for readers to act?


Possibly, but according to this article from Science Communication, researchers examining how climate change is presented in the media have discovered something very interesting: that while alarmist, fearful representations of climate change “have much potential for attracting people’s attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement” (O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole 355).

 

This is because appeals to fear produce unwanted psychological reactions in the audience. If the threat is perceived to be uncontrollable, individuals mitigate their fear via denial and apathy, which then become “barriers to meaningful engagement” (364). In other words, the researchers discovered that when media stories about climate change did not include ways in which the problem could be solved, individuals were likely to reject the facts.

 

One can infer from this finding that in order to perform cultural work, i.e. get readers meaningfully involved in their issue, novelists and nature writers must present solutions to the problem they present. Rather than mollifying readers, it provides them with a model for action and hope that success is possible. Fear or outrage alone in insufficient.

 

The following list of dos and don'ts is an attempt to use emperical evidence to translate my values into actions when writing.

Do Don't


Wilderness Representations

 

Understand this paradox: that nature is in some ways culturally constructed and yet also actually exists. Therefore, your writing about nature is always a particular and partial representation, rather than unmediated truth

 

Don’t assume that you or anyone else can presented an authentic, unmediated wilderness via writing, photography, documentaries, et cetera

 

Explore both our working and aesthetic relationships with the land.

 

Don’t focus solely on the aesthetic qualities of landscapes or our aesthetic relationship with nature

 

Discuss the many relationships different people have with land/nature: emotional, mental, spiritual, cultural, historic, physical, economic, and political

 

Don’t commit the pathetic fallacy, which is to ascribe or project human emotions (particularly your own) onto natural landscapes

Even when a landscape looks primeval, investigate its history of human activity

 

Don’t assume or imply that a landscape without people is authentic wild nature, unaffected by human activity

 

Be comfortable with the paradox of urban ecology

 

Don't assume or imply that nature does not exist in cities or other developed areas

 

The presence of people in wilderness does not make it less authentic.

 

It is the ethical nature of human activity that effects the authenticity of a wilderness. Unethical activities are destructive. A hiking trail is ethical, an interstate highway is not.

 

Don’t assume or imply that authentic nature or wilderness is not present simply because the human hand is evident in a place

When depicting a place, explore the present, the future, and the past, examining both the good and the bad in each era

 

Don’t present a journey into wilderness as a journey into an idealized past when everything was pristine and uncorrupted

 

Describe the predictably unpredictable quality of nature. While the natural world may seem chaotic at times, and during a short periods may truly be unpredictable, underlying this are patterns.

 

Don’t represent wilderness as a place of chaos, discord, lawlessness, or irrationality

 

Similarly, cities/civilization should not be presented as a stable, enduring counterpoint to the chaos of nature

 

Describe how the many parts of an ecosystem are in tension and competition with one another, which is the engine of natural selection

Don’t represent wilderness as a place of harmony & balance

 

Similarly, nature should not be presented as a stable, enduring counterpoint to the disruptive energy of human change

 

 

The Human Relationship with Nature

 

Promote the virtue of megalopsuche, a combination of proper pride in human cleverness and resourcefulness with reasonable acceptance of humanity’s place in a world we can neither predict nor control

 

Never suggest the Earth, animals, plants and so forth exist to serve human needs and desires. Man does not have dominion over the earth. 

Ditto megalopsuche

Don’t represent human accomplishment & culture as a consequence of struggle against nature -- we did not wrest civilization from the wild

 

Talk about the necessity of respecting the rights of animals and landscapes, and how such respect depends upon a new definition of the word stewardship.

 

Stewardship should be thought of as defense of nature’s rights, since animals, mountains, et cetera cannot vote or sue in court

 

Don’t talk separately about stewardship and rights because stewardship alone implies conservation for the benefit of human rights alone, and ignores the rights of nature

 

Point out hardship and human suffering from the elements when and where it occurs

Don’t idealize rural life in a way that obscures the realities of labor, poverty, and hardship in rural communities

 

Explore the myriad causes of environmental problems, which, like most political issues, involve the clash of competing & contradictory rights

 

Don’t blame environmental problems on single sources such as the scientific revolution, Christianity, capitalism, et cetera

 

Such simplistic causes have simplistic solutions: pantheism, mysticism, socialism, et cetera

 

Be comfortable with the contraditory aspects of the scientific revolution: while it made possible the industrial production that threatens the environment, it also provides us with a deeper, truer knowledge and appreciation for the natural world than ever possible before.

 

Don’t reject the spirit and values of the Enlightenment

  -  Science and capitalism have not conspired to mechanize nature and deny it is alive

  -  Reason is not mastery over nature

  -  Irrationalism will not save the environment

 

 

Narrative Patterns

 

Emperical evidence has shown that people reject media stories about climate change when they do not contain solutions to the problem. (see above)

 

Therefore, focus also on the positives, the successes, the victories, the times when we made the right choices, and when the advocates for nature and wilderness won politically and culturally.

 

How are circumstances better today than they were decades or a century ago?

When has nature been saved from destruction and extinction?

 

  1) Don’t write eulogies.

  2) Avoid focusing solely on the

       negative: threats to nature, its

       destruction, loss, and death.

   3) Avoid sky-is-falling hysteria &

        pronouncements of apocalypse

 

Attempt to create an experience for the reader as if they are entering the wilderness themselves and going on their own journey

 

What is it like to experience this place, particularly for the first time?

 

Don’t take the reader on a slog through your own hike, paddle, et cetera. Trudging through someone else's trek is tedious

Be interested in nature and explore it for its own sake.

 

Do so by combining the scientific with the poetic and the narrative (see above)

 

Don’t write a story where nature is simply a setting or a place of reflection on the character’s predicaments.

 

Doing so leads to these cliches: 

  1)  an unmediated encounter with nature or wilderness rescues the protagonist from a corrupt modern world 

  2)  a character retreats from the city to the country, solves their problems, and returns home 

  3)  a character "wanders the wilderness" like the Israelites before a triumphant return

 

 

Animal Representations

 

Discuss animals as being deserving of moral concern because they, like us, experience physical and emotional suffering, which makes their treatment a moral issue

 

Don’t perpetuate the dualistic separation of humans and animals, wherein only humans have souls and animals are simply biological machines

Discuss the ethical and unethical treatment of animals

 

Do not use animals as moral fables -- in other words, do not use representations of animals to enforce or support social norms while avoiding animals themselves as subjects of moral concern

 

Write stories that explore human's complex and often contradictory relationship with animals. After all, some we love, some we hate, and some we eat.

Avoid writing stories where the protagonist battles a vicious, killer animal

 

Examples include the movies Jaws, Orca, Lake Placid, Anaconda, Congo, Arachnophobia, and many many more

 

Engage in anthropomorphism based upon sound science.

 

Similarities between related species, like humans and gorillas, reflect a shared evolutionary origin. Anthropomorphism, rather than a naïve fallacy to be strictly avoided, is actually a logical starting point to accurately investigate animal behavior.

Culture and behavior have evolutionary origins, and so anthropomorphism is solid science provided it is “mature” and “animal centric.”

 

Don’t engage in anthropomorphism where human-like qualities are ascribed to animals without scientific basis 

 

Also, don't maintain the wall René Descartes built between humans animals—the wall separating those with souls from biological stimulus-response machines

Attempt to understand animals from the inside out, based upon an animal’s umwelt, a German term for the environment as perceived by the animal. This isn’t easy of course, especially when the animal in question has a primary sense other than sight (our primary sense).

 

Don't make assumptions -- do the research

 

Gender Representations

 

Use gender-neutral language when refering to nature

 

Don’t feminize nature. Nature and the Earth are not women. Such representations depend upon and reinforce female stereotypes and female essentialism

 

 

Native People

 

Respect Native Americans and other indigenous people by allowing them to speak for themselves

If you aren’t Native American, you cannot claim to speak for them or accurately reflect their views

  - Too often the differences of America’s 500+ Indian nations are ignored -- not all Indians hold identical views and are they are not a single, homogenous culture

 

Ditto

Don’t appropriate native / indigenous cultures under the banner of environmental activism—this is most often done by presenting them as more in touch with nature than the dominant culture

 

 

Avoiding False Dichotomies & Dualisms

 

The Truth

The False Dichotomy

While living indoors certainly means we live in an age of un-enlightenment, cut off from the lessons learned by living outside, this does not lead necessarily to callus destruction of the environment

 

Modern people are disassociated from nature and thus destroy it, while native people were connected to nature and thus cherished it

Humans and animals exist along a continuum, and animals too have forms of culture, reason, emotion, & self-awareness

 

Humans are separate and distinct from animals because of our capacity for reason, emotion, culture and self-awareness

 

·        What is inside our skulls is the same stuff that makes up the rest of the universe

 

 

·        Humans are separate and distinct from the rest of the cosmos because we possess an immortal soul

The universe creates earths and earths create people, it is their nature to do so, and so we are as much a part of the Earth as an apple is a part of an apple tree

 

Because our immortal souls are our true selves, humans are alien beings in this universe, walking around in our bodies like they are spacesuits, while our true existence lies in heaven

 

 

The Nature Writer as Activist

 

As Rachel Carson showed, one job of the nature writer is to take a problem known to scientists and make it a widely perceived social & political problem.  Why? Because environmental problems are the outcome of an interaction between ecological knowledge and its cultural articulation.

 

Point out how environmental problems are intertwined with social problems such as lack of housing, clean water, poverty, et cetera – the degradation of the environment and the degradation of people are linked

 

Maintain a distinction between scientific problems and ecological problems that arise out of our dealings with nature, with which we want to change and free ourselves from

 

Be an advocate for the rights of animals, people, and the biome as a whole