Nature Writing: In, From and For

IMG_0090showyOrchis480The time I was to spend with the visiting students back in March started out to be a “nature writing workshop.”  In the end, something else filled the time instead, but the notion of teaching about nature writing made me take the wider view of what “nature writing” has been for me at the keyboard now for more than a dozen years at Fragments and from that, also for other audiences.

I’m still in the process of fleshing this out, but have a possible framework that may serve to help me better understand the varieties and topics of writing that I think qualify for the name.

The short of it would be to say that I write in, from and for nature.

To write IN nature would be the kind of writing that Thoreau did at Walden. Much of it was about his natural setting–the pond, the seasons, the forests and such. But ALL of his writing at Walden Pond was informed by, was colored by the fact that he was writing as an embedded resident of a natural and not a man-made community. In the same way, all of my writing is other than it would be if I did not live in a place free of hurry, of street noise, air pollution and commercial ugliness just outside my window.

To write FROM nature is to deal with intention and by name with natural communities or particular plants, animals or fungi. Natural history writing of two hundred years ago is the sparest kind of writing from nature. In our time and from my point of view, you’ll rarely read my words about a wildflower (like this Showy Orchis) or other outdoor discovery but what I find in those observations an understanding–a lesson of some sort. Much of human wisdom has been extracted FROM examples in nature, and I suppose this is the kind of nature writing that I find most satisfying.

Lastly, there is writing FOR nature. This, in a sense, is to take the first forms of nature writing above to advocate for the voiceless. This intervention on behalf of nature comes more easily if the writer possesses a deep identity with the natural world by living in a natural setting and by being familiar with the subjects on whose behalf he pleads his case.

Much environmental writing would fall into this category. It moves from what IS to what OUGHT to be. It takes the naturalist from science to ethics. Given what we know of this or that living system, is the way were are managing, exploiting or ignoring the changing state of things making it more or less likely that future well-being is being sustained? This is the kind of writing that things like neighborhood natural gas pipelines bring forward to the front of the writer’s agenda.

With all this, I am also preparing for a little talk in NY state in June, and hope to have this notion of in, from and for fleshed out. I plan to read some of my verbiage that illustrates each of these three types of nature writing. That, and a good dose of digital imagery (my “visual essays”) and a lively comments-and-questions towards the end of the hour I hope will be both entertaining, educational and uplifting. If not, I have a plane ticket home the next day so will not suffer scorn for long.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Wow. Invited to New York to speak. We are impressed. ALL of your nature writing obviously comes from your passionate love of your special place in the world. I love my spot too, although it is far more man-made than yours, enough nature is close to my window to make me feel very blessed, especially as an urbanite. I have a greenbelt right outside my front door that the town bought from the railroad years ago, and after much debate about development, voted to maintain as a greenbelt for walkers, etc. Lucky, lucky generations of residents, benefiting so much from that good choice. By the way, our town voted down, 4 to 1, a proposal to do slant oil drilling from city property, that would have brought in millions in revenue. Hooray for us!