Nature, the Pastoral and the Wild

Nature, the Pastoral and the Wild

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One of the things I’ve been working on for the last year, ever since Helen MacDonald took the top of my head off with H is for Hawk, is trying to figure out why there’s been this vibrant resurgence of nature writing in the UK, but not here.

I came out of the US nature writing wave of the 1980s-1990s — I was the grad school factotum for the first two years of the Art of the Wild writer’s workshop at Squaw Valley, and that group of writers — Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Gretel Erhlich, Ted Hoagland, Louis Owens, Jim Welch, Barry Lopez and so many others — it was that group who encouraged me, and took me in the summer I was ready to give up at the University of Utah. Terry Tempest Williams was an early champion of my novel, and helped enormously when I was looking for an agent and a publisher. That was my core community.

And yet, when I left academic life, and then after I moved to Livingston and Patrick died, I lost sight of the nature writing community. I was alternatively working on a straight novel about the world of my childhood, a mystery novel, and this memoir-thing I’ve been wrestling with through three incarnations now? four? I was no longer thinking of myself as a “nature” writer. If I took the mantle of any category it was probably food writer — via this blog and my years as the cookbook editor at Bookslut.

And then Helen Macdonald took the top of my head off with H is for Hawk. Even though it made me INSANE at times, because as Macdonald told me herself in an email interview, the book is about anthropomorphism as much as it’s about grief or about falconry — something no American reviewer seems to have figured out. Which made me a little crazy, but in a good way. In the way that makes you walk around the house waving the book at your partner and talking out loud until you figure out just what it is that you so love, and what is making you so crazy. It was the first book in years that had done that to me.

And that’s when I noticed that the air had entirely gone out of the US nature writing scene. Where had they all gone? The old guard are still there but where are the new interesting nature writers? Where is the nature book that we’re all talking about the way we’re talking about Lidia Yuknavich or Eula Biss or Roxane Gay? I’ve been asking for a year — asking every writer I know who is nature adjacent, and while everyone has a writer they know or love, a newer writer on the scene, those writers are scattered across a number of genres: memoir, war literature, farming, even food writing. But “nature writing”? It seems to have stalled out …

I think there are a couple of things going on — much of the vitality on the UK side seems to be coming from writers who are interested in exploring the nature without being hung up on wilderness — they’re writing about life on sheep farms or tracing a river from sea to source or exploring the adventures available to them in a Welsh estuary.

Meanwhile, in the US, writing about the natural world seems to have become caught in a net of argument over the Anthropocene. Does it exist or is it a term made up by nefarious forces who want to erode what little wild nature we have? Do we “believe” in the anthropocene? Part of this problem is the way that the neo-liberal right wing of the green movement, led by the Nature Conservancy, has camped out on the term anthropocene as a justification for their movement to privatize wild nature and manage it according to free-market profit principles. Another part of the problem is that there is still a rear guard of the old eco-warrior class who not only reject the anthropocene as a term, but who reject postmodernism. And then, there’s the romantic appeal of wilderness, the dream of lighting out for the territories, and a certain horror of domestication that has always driven those who seek to live their lives in wild places.

Most Americans who are drawn to wilderness experience are not fleeing a pastoral or agricultural way of life, but are fleeing suburban and urban ways of life. Hence, the community tends to pose pastoral and agricultural ways of life as in opposition to, or a threat to wilderness (absolutely true for industrial agriculture, not so much for small-scale).  And so, they have no fluency in the domestic relationships that characterize non-industrial agricultural life, which is also a way of life that is nearly gone. Farming as it was done prior to WW2 was a deeply relational way of being — you were in relation not only with your family members with whom you worked, but with the animals and the land that you worked. Now, sometimes those relationships were brutal — hence the speed with which people fled that difficult life, but when done right, agriculture can be, as writers from Virgil to Wendell Berry have described, a way of deeply knowing a place and its inhabitants. I’d argue this is part of the allure for young people, many of whom are using all their creativity to find ways to make a living growing good clean food.

And might also be why much of the most vibrant writing about the material world right now is about food, food systems, and returning to small-scale farming as a way of finding a creative livelihood.

And so, I think it’s time that those of us for whom wildness, wild nature and wild places are crucial to lay down our anti-pastoralist arms. We should not stop fighting against the true damage being done by industrial practices applied to agriculture, especially livestock agriculture, but we should rather, begin looking to those new pastoralists who are looking to restore agricultural practices, their community relations, and relationships between people and their food. There are lessons to be learned here, bridges to be built — for I think that what we have in common is bigger than what we don’t.

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