One thing I'm noticing a lot more often these days is when a writer is able to convey a real sense of being in nature. Thomas Mann, for example, knew how to write about nature. His short story A Man and His Dog is a long ramble through a riverside park and when you're reading it, you are there, at the park, because Mann's images and details are concrete, specific and vibrant. He doesn't just say "the dog ran through the trees;" Mann knows the names of the trees, he says which have skinny trunks and grow in thickets like canes or which tower and lean and have black, wet bark and which have thick surface roots covered with pads of green moss like cut turf. Mann knows the birds in the forest, and their calls, and the colors of their tail feathers. He knows how the forest smells in each season, the color and thickness of the mud.
All of this can be easily enough observed by an observant writer. You can just walk around outside and see what's there, right? But how do you know how to write about it? How do you get a feel for a way to translate the overwhelming reality that is the natural world into words on a page that evoke those details of nature that bring the world to life for the reader?
Well, as I've said, there's observing nature first hand and writing about it. But in order to write about it, you have to know what you're looking at. Which means that you have to educate yourself about nature. A couple of years ago, I could recognize and name maybe ten species of birds. But because Mighty Reader has a strong interest in birds and we have a shelf of birding books, I have managed to increase my knowledge about birds a little bit and I can look at a passing flock and say if they're robins or starlings or bushtits or juncos or whatever. I can tell you that towhees wander low in the forests and have a boring, repetitive call. I've also read up on trees, which continue to vex me by mostly all looking alike, but I know that a hemlock is slim and bright green and not as tall as a cedar, which has a rough red trunk frequently shredded where squirrels pull bark off in long strips and is not as tall as a spruce, which is bluegreen with limbs whose tips point upward and is not as tall as a Douglas fir, which is a plainer green than the hemlock and has dense, dark wood et cetera. I know a bit about flowers, and which grow in forests and which don't, and in what season they blossom. I also have reference books, of course, because I have a crappy memory for all of these facts.
The use of details regarding nature are many. Primarily, it adds life and variety to a scene. Instead of "She walked into the dark of the forest," you can say "She walked into the dark beneath the firs" and depending on the time of year she can kick at dropped cones and needles or see chickadees flittering in the limbs above her, hanging upside down from the cones, etc. Or she can hear the rustling of squirrels overhead, or hear the call of a barred owl, or whatever. She can climb the tree and because you'll know if the bark is rough or smooth and if the branches are well-spaced and easily climbed or sprouting like a thicket and presenting a challenge to the climber, you'll be able to tell that to the reader. "She climbed the tree" is boring, so know about the tree. If you don't know from trees, go look at some and read about them.
You can also use specific details about nature as symbols in your stories. Since symbols aren't universal (take that, CG Jung), I won't make a list here, but delicate white flowers growing out of a mound of rotting weeds could be a good symbol. Species of flowers are often associated with personality types or emotions or events; go look up "the language of flowers." The associations change with location and period, of course.
When I began writing this post, I was going to talk about how valuable it is to read the writings of naturalists like Muir or Emerson or Thoreau or Carson. I was then going to add that it's valuable to read poetry about nature, from Emily Dickenson to Seamus Heaney to whomever you like, because poetry tends to deal in the sort of specific details I'm rambling about today. Alas, that's not the post I wrote. There turns out to be too much to say about all of this. So I'll sum up: read poetry for image and detail; read natural history for facts and read nature writing for images and style; read non-fiction to broaden your knowledge and increase your range and add depth to your stories; create a detailed world, but make those details sensory and meaningful, etc. Add texture to your world. Show don't tell, and so forth.