The Workings Of Nature: Naturalist Writing And Making Sense Of The World
"In every generation and among every nation, there are a few individuals with the desire to study the workings of nature; if they did not exist, those nations would perish."
-- Al-Jahiz, The Book of Animals
In 185 AD, Chinese astronomers recorded a supernova. Among more detached details of its appearance, there is this: "It was like a large bamboo mat. It displayed the five colors, both pleasing and otherwise."
The attempt to ground the unknown within the familiar — and the editorial aside of "otherwise" — cuts to the heart of naturalist writing. Nearly 2000 years later, Carl Sagan did the same in Cosmos, condensing astronomy to its component parts: facts and wonder.
We've been curious about the natural world since before recorded time; the history of naturalism is human history. By the ninth century, al-Jahiz's multi-volume History of Animals combined zoological folklore with scientific observation, including theories of natural selection. In the early 20th century, Sioux author Zitkala-Ša wrote landscapes intertwined with the personal, which became a model for the form. In 1962, Rachel Carson's ecological manifesto Silent Spring was a deciding factor in banning DDT.
We love reading about nature for the same reason naturalists love being ankle-deep in marshes: Nature provides enough order to soothe and enough entropy to surprise.
The best naturalist writing delivers both a secondhand thrill of obsession and a jolt of protectiveness for what's been discovered. Some of it reveals as much about the author as the surroundings. (Carl Linnaeus' 1811 Tour of Lapland manuscript cuts off a paragraph about wedding customs mid-sentence, picking up again with a breathless catalog of marsh plants.) And naturalists themselves are shaped by the lure of landscapes on the page. Robert MacFarlane's Landmarks explores the British countryside using others' writing as an interior map that challenges him to approach familiar places in new ways.
We love reading about nature for the same reason naturalists love being ankle-deep in marshes: Nature provides enough order to soothe and enough entropy to surprise. It's also why so many involve a person in the landscape; understanding our place in the world is as important as understanding the world itself. We read the work of naturalists to capture that sense of discovery made familiar. They present worlds we've never seen, and make us care as if they were our own backyards.
Not every naturalist sets out to be an activist; this is a literary tradition as much as a scientific one. But there are threads that connect naturalist literature, across continents and centuries. It's driven by an environmental curiosity that integrates the scientific and the spiritual; facts inspire wonder, rather than quench it. And every piece of naturalist literature, from al-Jahiz to today, makes a case for preserving the world it sees.
Some naturalists actually do try to encompass the world entire. In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf follows Alexander Humboldt's expeditions in Latin America and European royal courts, painting a portrait of a man whose hunger for knowledge — and constant pontificating about it — bordered on caricature. Humboldt's legacy is the 'web of life' his work conveyed to a lay audience. That interconnectedness made him an early conservationist; by 1800 he was noting adverse effects "when forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by European planters, with an imprudent precipitation."
But he wasn't the first to catalog the systems of life. A century before Humboldt, German-born naturalist Maria Sybilla Merian was in Surinam, recording her life's passion: butterflies, moths, and insects. Chrysalis, Kim Todd's biography of this amateur scientist who established the idea of a life cycle, aims for a sly impression of Merian, down to the subject matter: "Insects," Todd explains, "generally gave off a whiff of vice." Merian's engravings made life cycles palpable for a public who still believed rotten meat spontaneously transformed into flies; it was impressive enough to change assumptions about the natural world (though Merian's credit waned as male scientists began absorbing her work into their own).
To write about the world around us is to write about people, whether cataloging the unknown or coming to terms with one's backyard. This is the dynamic at the heart of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which carries a touch of the hymnal (and a grim streak that has a grandmother in Merian's engraving of a tarantula devouring a bird), and Barbara Hurd's Stirring the Mud, a love letter swamps, bogs, and "the damp edges of what is most commonly praised." And few naturalists write themselves into their landscapes quite so drily as M. Krishnan. The essays in Of Birds and Birdsong carry a sense of magical realism; always scientifically rigorous (his bird descriptions are those of a man looking for a particular friend in a crowd of thousands), Krishnan writes himself as a resigned meddler in avian affairs; he could try to be invisible among nature's bounty, but then who'd train his pigeons?
Of course, some writers have to fight to be seen on the landscape at all. Enter The Colors of Nature, an anthology of nature writing by people of color edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy, providing deeply personal connections to — or disconnects from — nature. Jamaica Kincaid's "In History" considers naturalism in the aftermath of colonialism, asking a crucial question for naturalism in a global context: "What should history mean to someone who looks like me?" And Joseph Bruchac's travel diary is pragmatism shot through with hope; "Our old words keep returning to the land."
For others, the internal landscape and that hope for the natural world must be rediscovered in tandem. In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer tackles everything from sustainable agriculture to pond scum as a reflection of her Potawatomi heritage, which carries a stewardship "which could not be taken by history: the knowing that we belonged to the land." That sense of connection, or the loss of it, is the spine of the book: mucking out a pond is a microcosm, agriculture becomes rumination on symbiosis, and mast fruiting of pecan trees parallels human and plant communities.
It's a book absorbed with the unfolding of the world to observant eyes — that sense of discovery that draws us in. Happily for armchair naturalists, mysteries of the natural world never stop unfolding; but increasingly, a sense of impending doom accompanies the delight of knowledge. Kimmerer mentions a language between trees as something awaiting more specific study; it arrives later this year in Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. A no-nonsense writing style — he came, he studied, here's how to date a forest via its weevil population — frames a deeply conservationist argument: Trees harbor not only ecosystems, but feelings, vocabulary, and etiquette. Hidden Life is designed to be an arboreal Silent Spring.
For some places, however, no revelations are yet possible; the world being studied is simply too mysterious to be yet wholly understood. With meditative prose, 1986's Arctic Dreams chronicled Barry Lopez's expeditions in an ecosystem so punishing half an animal population can die every winter, and so otherworldly animal fat is preserved on bones after a century. "Something eerie ties us to the world of animals," he says, and it's both a warning and a promise. In The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Deep, Philip Hoare's marine obsession is similarly dreamlike; for him, what we know about whales and how they make us feel is deeply linked. After all, our 'discovery' of them is still in its first blush. Sperm whales were first filmed in 1984; "We knew what the world looked like before we knew what the whale looked like." The only absolute conclusion in his book is a stern one: Humanity's damaging effects on nature and its fascination with the unknown has been devastating; if we're going to keep whales long enough to know them, that fascination will have to take a more protective turn.
To write about the world around us is to write about people, whether cataloging the unknown or coming to terms with one's backyard. These narratives are crucial, especially now — stories of the worth of nature, even just as a mirror of ourselves, build a narrative in which nature's something worth saving. It's imperfect; making nature an object rather than a subject prevents us from seeing ourselves as part of natural patterns of cause and effect. But in The Colors of Nature, Aileen Suzara pins it down: "The landscape is a narrative, not a narrator, because it has no human voice." The human voice that looked at the dark and saw a dying star is heard 2000 years later. If we're going to have another 2000 years, there's no time like the present to start listening.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.