Why Write About Nature?

This past weekend I drove to Charlottesville, Virginia to speak at a reading sponsored by the Southern Environmental Law Center, a group responsible for some of the best and most important conservation work being done in the South. I like to think of SELC as the legal voice for Southern land and animals.
They had my friend Janisse Ray and me up in celebration of their Philip Reed Award, which we both have won in the past. They asked us to talk about nature writing, to speak to why we write about nature.

I told the audience how for me the question is not why I write about nature, but why I write mostly about this piece of the natural world, the piedmont of the Carolinas. I explained how one particular assignment had shifted my literary attention.

In 1999 I received the dream call for a nature writer. An editor at National Geographic books was on the line and said they were working on a big picture book called HEART OF A NATION. I’d been recommended as one of the 12 essayists to write about some place dear to my own nature writer’s heart. The editor offered a hefty fee and said I could write about any place I loved in the country. They sweetened the pot by saying they’d pay my way to spend some time in the place I selected. Of course I said yes then and there, and after that was settled, the editor gave me a week to make up my mind what piece of the American landscape I would write about.

Anywhere in America! Where would I go? What would I say? I loved Wyoming’s Big Horns and Washington State’s Olympic Mountains out west. I knew the Everglades intimately and had lived on Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore. Maybe I could use National Geographic’s dime and revisit them. Then it hit me: Why not write about my own neighborhood, a river called The Pacolet, the watershed my drinking water was drawn from, the place where my uncle had worked in cotton mills, and though I had been a kayaker for 20 years, a stream I’d never dropped a boat in?

“The Pacolet River?” the editor asked when I called a week later to accept the offer and report my essay topic. “Where the heck is the Pacolet River?”

To their credit the editors encouraged me and helped me shape what was at that time one of the first essays I’d written about my home ground.  “From the Pacific coast to the Brooks Range, from Yosemite to the Pacolet,” announced the advertising packet for HEART OF A NATION sent to tens of thousands of potential buyers a year later.

So the folks in Charlottesville got to hear how as a Southern nature writer I’m now most interested in speaking for the places that have become sanctuary through neglect, abandonment, or abuse. In other words, as a writer I’m interested in the Old South made New South-abandoned rice fields, old canals, piedmont quarries, collapsed mountain house sites deep in recovering forest, Girl Scout camps once set aside for recreation, local rivers like the Pacolet many think too fouled (or mundane) to celebrate or even to paddle.

What engages my imagination in these places is that somehow scraps of Southern wildness-a salt marsh on Ossabaw Island, a mountain cove in the Smokies, or Forty Rock Rock Heritage Preserve in the piedmont of South Carolina-that have survived 200 years of farming, industrial logging, and the building of our cities and the suburbs. They still can engage my imagination as clearly as Ansel Adam’s Half Dome or Thoreau’s Maine Woods or Terry Tempest William’s canyon lands.

I walk into these true preserves and I encounter plants and creatures there that don’t seem affected by the I-85 corridor sprawl closing in around them. There are still rare stands of big trees, tiny wild gingers like the dwarf-flowered heartleaf found only in two piedmont counties. There are muskrats, black rat snakes, anoles, slimy salamanders, leopard frogs and Fowler’s toads living their lives untroubled (or so it seems on the surface) by the sprawl and spread of our suburban and urban comfort zones.

Before I started writing about the ground under my feet I used to think I needed the deep wildness of the far West for fulfillment. I still travel, but now I go to those powerful places as a brief visitor, not so much a pilgrim. The South is my home ground. I write about what I know-but I also know how little remains of the glory that once was.

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