Thursday, December 07, 2006

Words

Dear Mr. Raymo, My name is Jennifer and I am currently a junior at a college in Maryland. As the semester is coming to a close, I have been asked to give a final presentation on you and some of your writing for my Nature Writing class...I am writing to you to ask about yourself as a nature writer, your experiences in teaching nature writing and other insights you have to offer. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Dear Jennifer, I am glad that your college offers a nature writing course and I am glad that you are taking it. Nature writing is a rather special genre, occupying a territory somewhere between science and the arts. The nature writer tries to inform herself with the empirical knowledge of science, then uses that knowledge to chart a course to the things most of us seek: happiness, beauty, love. I say "seek" because the journey is more important than the finding, and not every nature writer makes it safely home.

As for all writers, our instrument is words, and for the nature writer the form is most often the nonfiction essay. The essay should be clear and succinct. It should inform and please. And in the best of all circumstances, it should send a shiver of pleasure up the reader's spine.

Nature writers tend to have a holistic view of the world. That is to say, we reject dualisms of natural and supernatural, matter and spirit, body and soul. These oppositions are not so much "wrong" as simply irrelevant to the way we experience the world. Which is why we are relatively neutral in debates between the so-called "two cultures." By the same token, nature writers tend to be religious, but not theistic or militantly atheistic. Politically, in my experience, we lean to the left, as do most creative writers (your class can debate why that might be so). It goes without saying that we think of ourselves as environmentalists.

As for teaching nature writing: I'm not sure it is possible to teach writing, although many of us "do it." A teacher can help you with the mechanics of writing, and tell you what "works" and doesn't "work." A good teacher will build confidence as well as skill. Reading successful writers helps. But ultimately nothing replaces your own head-over-heels involvement with the natural world -- and a gut love of language that comes from god-knows-where.

When I was teaching nature writing we spent every class out of doors, except on days of pouring rain. Here is a photo of a sign we saw in the woods on one of our walks. Good luck.