When people learn that I’m a nature writer, there’s a natural assumption that what I spend most of my time doing is writing about nature.
While it would not be unkind or even inaccurate to characterize my work this way, it’s really not how I visualize my efforts as a practitioner. When I examine the essence of what I’m about as a writer, I see myself writing less about nature and more from it. In essence, rather than being my subject, nature is the source that animates my writing.
What follows are tips about how to make this approach work for you, regardless of whether you aspire to become a nature writer. This micro-lesson is for any writers, poets included, with a deep appreciation of the natural world who want that appreciation to be reflected in the written word.
1. Get beyond narrative.
We can’t help but understand human life in terms of story, but the same tropes don’t apply to the more-than-human world. Early on, my PhD mentor, the Scottish poet/nature writer Kathleen Jamie, kept urging me to “resist the hegemony of story.” She had me post a flyer above my keyboard dictating, “NAE NARRATIVE!” This is especially important when attempting to evoke elements of the animal kingdom. If you’re trying to describe the behavior of a squirrel in your back yard and you find yourself making a story of it, start over, lest your text begins to resemble a Disney-channel rerun.
2. Learn to amble.
Oh, that I had a dollar for every hiker to have passed me on a trail! I can always tell when cardio-hikers are coming up from behind: before I can hear them huffing I hear the alarm calls of birds and other wildlife they’ve inadvertently frightened. Writing from nature calls for a more benevolent approach, one where the practitioner slows down, attunes the senses, and makes a concentrated effort not to scare away the critters. If you’re a goal-oriented type who can’t imagine hiking without an objective, try to cover half as much ground while observing twice as much.
3. Master haiku rule #1.
No, it’s not about the prosody. The main premise of haiku, rather, is that its composition should happen in nature. I call this writing “in situ,” and it’s not as easy as it sounds. Start out simple, keeping contemporaneous field notes in a small notebook. If it helps to sit in a beach chair, carry a beach chair. The goal here is to come home with field notes that reek of the forest. Or maybe just a good haiku.
4. Get over Imposter Syndrome.
Here’s a funny story that’s absolutely true: I used to be a citizen scientist with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. Even after five years as a member of my particular hawk-watch team, I was still something of a rookie among colleagues who had already earned ten or twenty-year service pins. One day, up on Hawk Hill, we spotted an osprey migrating south with a fish in its grasp, as if toting its lunch box. Jesting, a colleague called out, “Somebody get an ID on that fish!” Having logged thousands of scuba dives at that point, I recognized the fish to be a flounder, and reported it as such. I was stunned that my colleagues thought that this was such an amazing identification. After all, it was only a flounder.
5. Allow your mind to ramble.
When you free yourself of the burden of writing about nature, you may find yourself musing about any number of personal concerns when writing from nature. Give your writing the freedom to wander. The more you get into these modes of writing, the more you’ll understand that it’s all connected. As John Muir once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Interested in learning more? Join me for Writing Nature, starting Wednesday, January 8.
John Seibert Farnsworth, author of Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez, is Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Sciences, Emeritus, at Santa Clara University. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, an interdisciplinary MLA from Stanford, and a PhD from the University of Stirling, in Scotland. His forthcoming book, Nature Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field, will be released by Cornell University Press this spring. Hugo House will sponsor its inaugural reading on March 18.