Nature Writing: History, Craft, and Practice

This course is an introduction to the poetics and politics of nature writing. The goals of the course are for students to: 1) read many different kinds of nature writing 2) think about these works critically 3) write their own nonfiction prose about the natural world and have that work read and critiqued 4) develop a naturalist’s observational skills 5) understand that nature writing is inherently a form of political action, a way of participating in public discourse about the environment.


1. Students read and analyze writing across a range of genres whose express purpose is to describe and inspire love of the natural world. Through these readings, students will become familiar with the dominant ways in which American literature (narrative, non-fiction, and poetry) has represented the natural environment—not only wilderness, but also pastoral farm & ranch land, suburban, and even urban landscapes.


2. As we read works by nature writers, we’ll explore some of the aesthetic, ethical, ideological, and philosophical issues inherent in writing about the natural world, with particular attention paid to the relationship between landscape and identity. We’ll be looking at questions of style and form, content and perception. How are human relationships to natural landscapes and animals mediated through literature? Why is so much nature writing tied to autobiography? What lies at the intersection of nature and culture?


3. In addition to reading and thinking critically about nature writing, students practice composing nonfiction nature pieces and experiment with different techniques, processes, styles, methods, genres, voices, audiences, et cetera.


4. In addition to writing, students learn to see what is around them in new ways. Class is often spent outdoors where students experience the natural world, reflect consciously about their perceptons, and learn to write as they perceive, not as they know.


5. Lastly, the course explores how nature writing is an important form of public, political action. Students examine how environmental writers make effective arguments with different kinds of evidence and for different purposes. They examine the rhetoric of political speech and environmental journalism and see how nature writing can be a bridge between academia and activism. To participate in public discourse about the environment, students cultivate different writing skills appropriate to particular aims, desires, contexts and issues—writing a persuasive op-ed, a political speech, imagining an environmental utopia, constructing an unambiguous policy brief, composing poetry that brings people to tears, or a speech that rouses an audience to protest. These are all forms of writing that intervene in the world.


   1)  a "write in the rain" journal & waterproof pen
   2)  Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way

         of Seeing the World Around You  by Clare Walker Leslie
   3)  Everglades: River of Grass  by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas
   4)  Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek  by Annie Dillard
   5)  a nature book of the student's choice, to be determined

        during the third week of class


Nature Journal

You will purchase 1) a small pocket-sized notebook, and 2) a larger 8x11 or similar blank notebook where you will jot ideas for stories & essays, record observations of the natural world, sketch drawings of plants & animals, map trails, write down GPS coordinates, et cetera. You may not just use your phone or a MS Word document. Why? Because the delete key is too easy, to tempting, and too permanent. This notebook will be your quarry from which you mine material as you write.


We will reference Clare Walker Leslie’s book on keeping a naturalist’s journal as a guide to creating our own notebooks, however your notebook will be entirely your own creation. Everything we do during the semester will be fodder for this notebook. If you already keep a naturalist’s journal and want to use it during this class, that’s great—there is no need to start a new one.


Autobiography of Your Relationship with Nature

For this assignment, write a 6-8 page autobiography chronicling your relationship and interaction with the natural world. Think of this as an opportunity to explore your past, present, and future connection with the outdoors & non-human animals and to take inventory of yourself. The style may be informal, somewhere between a journal entry and an essay. I’m looking simply for honesty and critical thinking. Among the topics you should explore are:

  • What & when was your first experience with a wild place? A wild animal?
  • What & when was your first experience with a non-wild animal?
  • What was your most memorable and/or influential moment outdoors?
  • Have you been camping, hiking, kayaking, et cetera?
  • Have you done a self-supported backpacking or paddling trip (away from sources of power & water)?
  • What is your place in the world?
  • What place draws up home for you?
  • What landscape makes you feel most comfortable: mountains, sea, forests, plains, (et cetera)?
  • When was a time you loved nature? Destroyed nature?
  • Do you care about any environmental issues? Which ones? Why? (be as specific as possible)
  • What environmental concerns are most pressing in your local community?
  • When did your environmental conscious awaken? What triggered it?
  • Do you have any environmental heroes?
  • Have you studied any of the natural sciences in college?
  • Have you volunteered or worked in any capacity that benefited animals or the environment?
  • Do you hunt? Have you ever killed an animal? Could you kill an animal? Would you if given the chance?
  • Have you ever encountered a dying animal? What happened?
  • Did your parents attempt to instill in you any values or attitudes toward the natural world?

            Tip: Before beginning the first draft, brainstorm answers to the

            questions above.


Examination of the Nature Writing Landscape

The purpose of this assignment is to have you investigate and consciously examine what nature writing you have read, why you have read these works, how you find new works to read, and which works you want to read.

Step 1: Print the list of nature writing books on Blackboard and highlight the books you have read.

Step 2: Add books to the list. The list I have created is purposefully incomplete. Add 15-20 books (novels, novellas, short story collections, essay collections, memoirs, et cetera) to existing categories or create a new category and suggest 15-20 books for it.

Step 3: Create a “to do list” of 20-25 books you have not read but believe you should in order to be well versed in nature writing, or perhaps those books you believe everyone should read as part of their education about our biological inheritance and humanity’s role in the world.


Nature Writers do Research

After the immersion exercise, it’s time to do research on a related topic. Literary journalists do research, but so do all other nature writers


Critical Essay

Nature writers are often viewed as intellectually homogeneous by people who are not nature writers. It is important to recognize the wide variety of opinions within environmentalism. While it is impossible to create an unassailable definition of “ecocriticism,” (there are a half-dozen debatable terms in that definition, but never mind that for now) we can at least agree that it represents a way of reading texts informed in some way by our material being in/of the natural world. Your task in this assignment is to offer an ecocritical reading of either a pre-1950 essay from Nature Writing, or a section from Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. We will talk in detail, well before this essay is due, about how one might go about reading and writing ecocritically, and you will receive a number of sample topics to work from in developing your own topic.


Original Nature Essay or Story

a piece of nature writing, targeted toward a specific publication (such as Orion or This could be a memoir; an exploration of place; a focused examination of an issue, concept, or object; or some other example of non-academic nature writing. Concepts one could choose from: a essay which personalizes an environmental issue / an experience of a place

Alternative Assignments

Editing an Anthology of Nature Writing

Compiling and editing an anthology of nature essays can be an opportunity to discover new writers and explore one’s personal aesthetics and politics. For this assignment, search literary journals, collections, and databases and read as many nature essays or stories as you can. Which essays and stories grab you and hold your imagination? Which inspire or excite you? Which stay with you long after you finish reading them? Which flawlessly marry the natural world and human drama? Which use language to create an incredible experience of the natural world? Choose 12 such essays & stories to become your anthology.


After you have identified 12 essays and/or stories, you will actually assemble a physical book by following these steps:

  1. Create a cover page
  2. Create a table of contents page—remember to think carefully about the order of the stories
  3. Write an introduction. All anthologies open with an introductory essay by the editor and yours will be no different. Write an essay of 2-3 pages that explains how the essays & stories you have selected reflect your aesthetic sensibility, or are united by a common thread, et cetera.
  4. Print the cover page, table of contents, introduction, and all 12 stories
  5. Bind them into a book (if you are crafty, you can do this yourself, otherwise Office Depot and similar stores offer this service for a few dollars—it’s not expensive)


Annotated Bibliography

For this assignment, create an annotated bibliography around the work of a single author known for nature writing (ex: Barry Lopez, John McFee, et cetera) or an assemblage of books by different authors united by a common concept—global warming, pollution, rivers, lakes, whales, land mammals, migratory birds, et cetera. Once you have chosen an author or concept, find and read at least seven books and as many reviews or critical essays you can find. For each story and critical work, write a 200-300 word summary of the story/essay and then provide brief commentary about the story/essay—your thoughts about it, what ideas it triggered, what you might steal as a writer, or in other words, what is your takeaway? The paper should be formatted according to MLA guidelines for an annotated bibliography.

Course Calendar


Week 1 – Class Intro / Your Relationship with Nature

     class introduction & syllabus review
     why write about nature?
     your personal connection to nature
     beginning of semester self-assessment


Week 2 – The History of American Nature Writing

     role of wilderness in American consciousness, history, & culture
     the frontier, rebirth, Great Plains, the West
     America’s national parks
     Thoreau, Emerson, romanticism, transcendentalism
     discussion of assigned readings


Week 3 The Landscape of Contemporary Nature Writing

     Silent Spring and the rebirth of nature writing
     ecological crises: acid rain, ozone hole, extinction, global warming
     contradictory Christian beliefs: stewardship vs. dominion
     non-fiction vs. fiction
     discussion of assigned readings
     due: 4 proposals for a nature essay



Week 4 Keeping a Journal /Immersion in Nature

     examination of other writer’s nature journals
     how to set up your own journal
     immersion experience
     discussion of assigned readings


Week 5 – Defamiliarization & Synesthesia

     writing as we perceive, not as we know
     discussion of assigned readings



Week 6 – Human interaction with Nature

     hunting, logging, trail blazing, farming, animal husbandry
     discussion of assigned readings
     due:  first draft of original nature essay


Week 7 – Phenomenology of Place

  • place attachment theory: Buell
  • discussion of assigned readings



Week 8 –Public Discourse

     the role of research in nature writing
     introduction to academic vs. public discourse
     how to research a local issue: government reports & journalism
     discussion of assigned readings
     due:  second draft of original nature essay


Week 9 – Academic Discourse

     the nature of scientific/academic publishing
     comparison of an academic journal article to a popular press article
     non-scientific academic nature writing: ecocriticism
     discussion of assigned readings



Week 10

     lecture/discussion:  how to conduct a workshop

     mock workshop
     workshop of students 1, 2


Week 11

     workshop of students 3, 4, 5

     workshop of students 6, 7


Week 12

     workshop of students 8, 9, 10
     workshop of students 11, 12


Week 13

    workshop of students 13, 14, 15

    workshop of students 16, 17, 18


Week 14  Publishing Your Work

     publishing short pieces in literary journals
     due:  Response to a Classic Nature Work


Week 15 Conclusion

     end of semester self-assessment
     instructor evaluations


Week 16

     exam week—no class!
     due:  Final Portfolio