In 1999, at a gathering organized by The Orion Society, Barry Lopez read a poem by D.H. Lawrence. After the reading Lopez paused for effect and then stated, “D.H. Lawrence, nature writer.” Laughter ensued. This episode is mentioned in an essay in the Winter 2012 edition of the journal, ISLE, where author Bill Sherwonit wonders if he might be “The Last Nature Writer.” Sherwonit mentions the reading as the first he heard of the dissatisfaction some writers and critics have with being labeled a “nature writer.” I’m not sure Sherwonit specifically wrote his essay for ISLE, but he cites their existence as part of the evidence that the niche, or genre, or whatever it is, is not so dead. ISLE says about itself:
The existence of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment reflects the rapid growth of ecological literary criticism and environmental scholarship in related disciplines in the United States and around the world in recent years, which in turn reflects the steady increase in the production of environmental literature over the past several decades and the increased visibility of such writing in college classrooms.
ISLE is available by subscription only so I can’t point you directly to the essay, but I enjoyed the irony of having this new, splendid journal of literary nature writing in my hands while I read of its demise. I related with what Sherwonit described as his journey of discovering a writing style he loved and wanted to be a part of, in his case as a writer, in my case as a publisher. Like Sherwonit I have been smitten by the likes of writers such as Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, David James Duncan, Terry Tempest Williams, Gretel Ehrlich, Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Gary Snyder, and E.O Wilson and now deceased writers like Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegnar. One of my favorites, Stephen Trimble was among the first to put together a nature writing anthology called Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing, back in 1989. An original, dog eared copy sits on my bookshelf next to me now.
Lopez was saying that he wanted to be considered a great literary artist like Lawrence, not a mere nature writer. Critics, like those from Orion Magazine, agree that being pigeon holed as nature writing diminishes the writing and the writer. Well, sure, labels always do that and we all recoil at being described as something which over simplifies us. I notice, for instance, that I call what we are trying to publish at Torrey House as part of a “niche” and avoid the word “genre.” Genre is for romance and mysteries, I think to myself, not the literary stuff we want put out there. Surely nature writing has more heft and might and staying power. We will see.