The Future of Environmental Essay: A Discourse


David Rothenberg

Nature Writing at World's End

Nature writing has always lamented the passage of a bygone age, a yearning for a better past when we were all much closer to the world around us.

Are things any different now that such a threat seems greater and more total, with massive climate change, and even Republicans starting to agree that something should be done about global warming?

There are fine examples of three basic kinds of nature writing out there.

I.  The standard sky is falling response, or what Nik Cohn had a Russian cab driver say in The Heart of the World, his book about Broadway, “Whole world is going Helen Handbasket.”  Our genre has always been comfortable with this. The publishing industry has been divided: either doom and gloom books are the only ones that sell, or else the public is fed up with all this whining.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson in The Place You Love Is Gone:

“We admit to bias, finally.  For what we wish in intimate moments is for the world to shrink.  It would have to unfurl the other way, backward in time, until so many people would return to nothingness, not a cruelty but rather the prevention of any possible occurrence of one.  They would go back to when they were not even a hopeful sigh on a mother’s lips.  Then, so much might not be lost.  We, in our terrible greed, could keep what had made us love it even without our meaning to: home as we know it.”

Some call nature writing “writing about place” to widen it, make it bigger to encompass those who talk about the city, or wherever they are.  But is there not still this melancholy longing for some place that no longer remains.  Too much, too much….

II.  The optimistic, dreaming of finally the time for a concerted, cultural response to this crisis that brings us all in community to solve the problems together, saying that the total crisis is what finally makes it possible for us to unify and do something about what’s wrong with humanity in the world.

Bill McKibben in Deep Economy:

“It’s extremely hard to imagine a world substantially different from the one we know.  But our current economies are changing the physical world in horrifying ways.  It’s our greatest challenge—the only real question of our time—to see whether we can transform those economies enough to prevent some damage and to help us cope with what we can’t prevent.  To see if we can manage to mobilize the wealth of our communities to make the transition tolerable, even sweet, instead of tragic.”

III.  The rhapsodic, beautiful and sensual kind of nature writing that draws us out into the world, loving what is around us, as the writer dissolves into the surroundings, in lush, alluring prose.  This kind of stuff has been written in any era, and people always like it if it’s good.

Jay Griffiths, in Wild:

“It is Earth that makes the eternal precession of the stars a harlequinade, primordial carnival in the puritan black.  Earth maenad, drunk on her own juices in the sober cosmos.  Earth the vagrant minstrel, singing out her songlines to the universe.  Earth the revelry, Earth the circus, clowning around the heavens, the joker in the pack of planets, the wild card.  She was the original anarchist wit who cracked the first joke, which split the sides of the moon, and roaring with a dirty laugh fit to soil herself with good brown muck, said the first word, FUCK! again and again.  Earth the clown in boots too big walks the wild way, the curly way, on, on, in fecund riot and feral grace.”

Charles Bowden in Inferno:

“Touch, in the beginning, means smooth or rough, soft or hard, round or square, warm or cold, crumbling or solid, juicy or dry.  That is touch in the beginning. The curve of a woman’s hip.  The cold metal of a gun ready to kill.  The ooze of soft mud flowing between the fingers, the slippery ease of water endlessly escaping the grasp of the hand.  Touch defines my desert and keeps it at bay.  Touch proves the inferno is hot, and by that act, banks it fires.  Touch always assists in our suicide of meaning.  How often during the day and the night do we touch ourselves and by that act convince ourselves that we exist?  I think that is why I hate nature writing, hate it because it struggles to find something in the place, the place where I do not belong—but where else am I to go?”

Of course the standard problem is that we end up like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean III—“At World’s End” with a hundred carbon copies of himself stuck on a pile of sand at the end of the world.  We can’t move!  Everything looks the same!  The genre is dead in the desert of our culture, powerless to change a thing.

But we all know that’s not true.  The best writing will always be able to surprise and to move people.  We can’t go along with Steve Jobs, who says “reading is dead, no one reads anymore.”  Makes me want to stick my iPod in the oven and turn on the self-cleaning function.  This is a challenge to writers more than anything else.  We have got to write stuff that is good, words that truly wake people up to love nature enough to save our place in it.  The best ideas have always been best expressed in words.  We had better come up with them if we don’t want the whole world to go Helen Handbasket.


David Rothenberg




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