What Do Nature Writers Want?

Dana Phillips

in The Truth of Ecology

Published in print May 2003 | ISBN: 9780195137699
Published online September 2007 | e-ISBN: 9780199787937 | DOI:
 What Do Nature Writers Want?

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This chapter offers a sustained discussion of American “nature writing” which in the narrow sense of the term refers to a nonfiction prose essay describing its author's efforts to establish an emotional connection with the natural world, efforts which as a rule are undertaken during an excursion into the wild. That so much “nature writing” follows this pattern suggests that it is conventional rather than wholly or even partially “natural”, as some ecocritics have claimed it is, thereby implicitly contradicting their own identification of its typical features as traditional. “Nature writing” of the conventional kind can be distinguished from natural history, in which the subjective experience of the author is less important, which is less belletristic, and which is comfortable with scientific fact and theory. By contrast, “nature writing” is self-consciously literary; its authors incline to mysticism, often courting epiphany and revelation in natural settings; and they frequently display impatience with, even distaste for, scientific fact and theory, despite their indebtedness to it. Most of this chapter is devoted to close readings of “nature writing” by the contemporary authors Annie Dillard, Diane Ackerman, David Abram, Richard Nelson, and Barry Lopez. It reviews the claims ecocritics have made about their work, especially its emphasis on awareness of and contact with nature; its privileging of immediate sensory experience; its dabbling in phenomenology and transcendentalism; and its discomfort with the pitfalls of language and the plight of the individual self in a natural world seen as alien.

Keywords: awareness; contact; ecocriticism; language; natural history; nature writing; phenomenology; self; tradition; transcendentalism

Chapter.  29574 words. 

Subjects: Literature

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