Nature Writing’s Role in Conservation
In my previous post, Empathy for Eels, I wrote about how I was inspired to be concerned about eel conservation by the nature writing of Rachel Carson. This got me thinking. How much of a role does nature writing play in creating sympathy for conservation efforts?
As a genre, nature writing is only vaguely defined. Thoreau and Muir are usually pointed to as early exemplars. More recent nature writing seems to blend into environmental writing and science writing.
I like to think of nature, science, and environmental writing as three different things. Rachel Carson’s work provides a good basis for differentiating the three genres. As I see it, three of Rachel Carson’s four books exemplify each category.
Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, is descriptive. It follows the lives of various sea creatures. It is informed by science but it is not about science. Rather than tell of the gathering of information, the studies and their results that is the stuff of science, it quite lyrically describes the processes of nature and its life forms as if observed from what is essentially an imagined perspective: an amalgamation of all the human vantage points from which knowledge of various creatures and habitats has been accumulated. This is a classic style of nature writing.
Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, I classify as science writing. In it, she describes the scientific understanding of the oceans. She details how scientists have studied the oceans, the questions they have explored, and the knowledge they have gained.
Silent Spring is the most famous of Carson’s books and is often credited with helping to spark the environmental movement. It belongs to and perhaps helped to create the third type: environmental writing. Silent Spring’s purpose was to sound an alarm about a threat to nature—that of indiscriminate use of pesticides. Environmental writing seeks to awaken concern about the environmental threats humanity faces and encourage action.
Obviously environmental writing plays a critical role in creating concern for conservation. However, it also, through its bleak warnings, may lead to what I wrote about in an earlier blog post: ecophobia. Ecophobia may occur as a reaction to environmental warnings, especially very dire ones which cry out that humanity is destroying the planet. People may turn away from this literature and from nature activities generally if they find themselves constantly facing messages that border on hopelessness.
To me, this is where nature writing as distinct from environmental writing has an important role to play. Of course, in the 21st Century few people write about nature without bringing in some environmental warnings. But nature writing—descriptive writings about living creatures and natural processes, including human experiences of them—can excite people to appreciate nature. As with Carson’s magical tale of the eels’ migration, at its best nature writing can evoke empathy in its readers that may awaken when one hears of environmental threats to particular creatures or landscapes.
Of course, many books combine aspects of science, nature, and environmental writing. I find myself particularly fascinated by the writing that is primarily descriptive. Recently I went to the library to get a book called Salar the Salmon by Henry Williamson. Williamson was one of Rachel Carson’s favorite nature writers. He was an Englishman who lived on the seacoast and wrote about its life forms in the early 20th Century.
Williamson’s style clearly inspired Carson when she wrote Under the Sea Wind. She gave names to her creatures as Williamson did and followed them through their life cycles much as he did. Williamson named his salmon Salar and described its journey from sea to river, detailing encounters with myriad other creatures along the way. Although this genre is considered non-fiction it is largely a work of imagination, inspired by many actual observations.
And it is extremely vivid. Here Williamson writes about seals:
“She hunted usually with Jarrk the bull-seal, and when not hungry they played together for hours, hunting one another around bases of rocks and chasing each other’s tails as they swished in bubbled circles that set long ribbons of weed waving and curling and little green crabs scuttling for shelter.”
Williamson’s writing contains a bit more anthropomorphism than Carson’s, still it feels as though it truly takes one into the waters with the sea creatures. The reader feels she has been somewhere she can otherwise not go and has an understanding of life and of natural processes she could not gain without such writing.
Understanding–this may be as important as empathy in creating support for nature conservation. Rachel Carson’s biographer Linda Lear says that Carson’s goal in her writing was to “promote natural history as a way of understanding the world.” For instance, Carson wrote of the need for seashore conservation “to insure that we ourselves and generations to follow, may know what the shore is like, may read the meaning and message of this strip between land and sea.” There is so much knowledge of the world to be found in natural processes and the lives of non-human creatures.
Carson wrote of
“…a new sense of perspective on human problems. When we contemplate the immense age of earth and sea, when we get into the frame of mind where we can speak easily of ‘millions’ or ‘billions’ of years, and when we remember the short time that human life has existed on earth, we begin to see that some of the worries and tribulations that concern us are very minor. We also gain some sense of confidence that the changes and the evolution of new ways of life, are natural and on the whole desirable.”
Understanding may promote sympathy for conservation efforts. At the same time, it is surely one of the reasons for conservation of nature.
How rich is our world when we share it with creatures like the eel, the salmon, and the seal. When a writer provides us with descriptions of the life of a fish or a bird, how much more we come to know about what is real and what is possible on this blue-green earth. What brilliant insights into life we gain from observing and reading about the life of a forest, a desert, or the sea.
I think we need eels. We need salmon. We need mountain forests, river estuaries, deep sea trenches and all of their living creatures. When we learn of them we learn of ourselves, of life, of nature. When we “read the meaning,” as Carson put it, we gain an understanding we would not otherwise have of existence itself.