Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fiction and Natural History

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.


  1. And of course this doesn't have to apply to nature, but to anything, right? Like toast. Or curtains. Or toothbrushes. Or spectrophotometers.

    Proust is a great teacher of specificity, in my opinion.

    And my favorite bird is the snowy owl.

  2. Exactly: spectrophotometers, even. I love the colors they turn in the fall. The ones with German optics have the prettiest leaves.

    But of course all of this detail has to serve some sort of purpose. But I allow "adding depth to scenes" as purpose; I reject the idea that every word has to "advance the story" or any such rubbish.

  3. Cyberlama has several sections about the travels of the Dalai Lama before he becomes cyberized. I've been trying to decide if they are worth keeping. I'm trying to make them advance the story, but right now they are just "fun little sections."

  4. Yeah, I used to think everything had to directly support the story, but now I think about the narrative, which is the container for the story, and I think you can put things into the narrative that ignore the very existence of the story, that are there to create a beautiful framework for the story but aren't part of the story per se. The way some painters put interesting things in the background of their paintings that have nothing to do with the alleged subject of the painting.

    Although to be honest, I was mostly thinking when I wrote this that better control of nature writing allows us to use images of nature to present the story itself, and the more we know about nature (or, as you point out, anything at all), the more we can vary how we talk about the story, the more rich a presentation of it we can give to the reader.

    Also, I've seen some really brilliant nature writing lately in the novels I've been reading and I think we could all probably do better than we're doing when we write about nature and the way to do that is to read good nature writing and to know personally about natural history. And stuff.

  5. Well, you know I love me some Nature. See the icon. My favorite nature writer isn't one of the "greats" -- most folks have never even heard of him. American naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote mostly in the 1940s/50s/60s and he even won a Pulitzer for his "seasons across America" four-book series. He should be better known, because he was absolutely brilliant at conveying at entire sense of place -- landscape, geology, plants, animals, insects -- and how people related to it. He did so in a companionable fashion and he does make you feel as if you are along for the walk.

    I do love fiction that can do the same thing -- make me feel as if I'm along for the ride, especially when it comes to the natural world.

    Oh, and hey, I like the insistent call of the Spotted Towhees around here! They amuse me. Pretty bird, too.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  6. Alex, I was hoping you'd mention Teale. You've blogged about him so I'm curious, especially as my interest in nature writing grows. You should really read Mann's A Man and His Dog. It's pretty.

    I like towhees fine and they are a pretty bird, but they do have a dull little song. But then, so do I, so why do I complain?

    Julia, thanks for reading!

  7. Sadly, Edwin Way Teale's many books are mostly out of print, though you can find them reasonably priced at sites like abebooks. I discovered his work at a Friends of the Library booksale. The Pulitzer prize series consists of North With the Spring, Journey Into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter.

    My favorite, though, which IS still in print, is Northern Farm (though sadly, unlike his other books, without photos), which details the natural world and his interactions with it on a farm in northern Connecticut. Teale died in 1980 at a ripe old age, and he and his wife donated the farm to the Connecticut Audubon Society. I'd love to make a pilgrimage someday.

    I haven't read Mann in decades but remember enjoying his work, so thanks for the recommendation.

    I'll bet Mr. Towhee's song doesn't sound dull to Ms. Towhee!


  8. I realize that I should probably blame you all for the fact that I had a dream I was hired to build robotic spy birds to record political conversations in hotel rooms last night. And, yes, I do plan to turn that into a story.

  9. Alex, thanks for more details about Teale! I am sure Mr Towhee thinks his own song quite fine.

    Davin, you're welcome! I want to read that story.

  10. Scott, my love for including nature in my writing seems to have first come from Annie Dillard. She's incredible, and an excellent one to read for nature and philosophy and symbols. I think she is who really opened my eyes to what nature can do for a story even though she doesn't write much fiction.

    I love specifics in writing - I think they are what really bring a piece alive to me, and what also help me trust a writer and a story.


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