HER KIND: Deborah A. Miranda ends her poem “Old Territory. New Maps” with this entreaty to a former lover: “. . . Help me/ translate loss the way this land does—/flood, earthquake, landslide—/terrible, and alive.” What are your natural worlds? In what ways do you and your work connect to the natural world?
Simha Evan Stubblefield: i’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s The Living, which is set in Puget Sound and the islands around Washington state in the 1800s. i’ve never read a book by Dillard and am stunned by her ability to create such in-depth images about a time she didn’t inhabit. beyond that she creates poetic images of the landscape:
“The fatal, glittering peaks in every direction brewed storms that jumped canyons and blew through their clothes. Mountains’ black ramparts shone as mighty blocks between which soiled glaciers bore down. Dirty snowfields sank into melt pools whose water tasted like nails.” (57)
unlike Deborah A. Miranda’s poem in which the characters match and become the landscape, Dillard sets up nature as a beautiful nemesis that often wins its battle with man. Dillard is writing mostly about Washington’s landscape versus the white settlers–in Washington (if you’ve never been there) nature is much, much bigger than man. there are curtains of trees. and just looking at the mountains begets intimidation.
i’ve found myself more consciously trying to allow nature to give more to the setting that my own characters inhabit in Charleston, SC. it’s not that i’m not a nature-thinking writer, there’s always some tree that finds it’s way into my narrative, but including nature as a conscious choice is not something i often do. i am including nature as a reflection of characters who are closer to nature themselves and thus, in my book, closer to their “natural selves.” the ocean, for instance, serves as a metaphor for hope and freedom for these characters two generations removed from slavery.
i guess i’m following Miranda’s route more so than Dillard’s, though Dillard’s poetry is certainly an influence. i think for a lot of writers and poets, nature finds its quiet way into our work.
Rachel Heston-Davis: So much of what you’ve said resonates with my own experience of writing the natural world into my work.
And yes, I, too, have noticed that authors use nature in one of two basic ways: as a metaphor for the character’s journey or self or as an antagonistic obstacle. Nature as obstacle can make for a great read! I tend to be drawn more towards nature as metaphor.
One of my favorite examples is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Early in the novel, the narrator recalls a journey with his father across the drought-stricken Midwest of the 1890s to find the grave of his estranged grandfather. The land is painted as desolate, dry and hopeless, mirroring his father’s hopeless quest to somehow right a relationship that has irrevocably ended. The word “fruitless” comes to mind. But once they’ve found the site, and his father has done what penance he can by tidying the grave and saying a prayer, an amazing change comes over the landscape:
“…A full moon [was] rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were a palpable current of light passing back and forth. . . . We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time . . . My father said, ‘I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.’ ”
That utilization of the great outdoors as a place for personal growth is the idea I gravitate toward most naturally in my own work. A great many of my characters end up searching for their true selves, or trying to become, as you aptly put it, “closer to their natural selves.” I turn to nature as the vehicle for this discovery because I feel this pull too—this intangible promise that if we connect to the natural world, we will find something more basic and elemental in ourselves, and our own personhood will make more sense to us.
That may be why I’m drawn to natural places that feel wild and deserted—the woods, the aging barn on my family property, the fields that surround my husband’s childhood home, full of broken fence posts and renegade blackberry patches. These locations seem to offer the space and quiet needed to get your bearings about yourself.
I create similar spaces for my characters. My major work-in-progress, a young adult fantasy novel called Flynn, features a young woman who discovers her family history in an expansive landscape of parched, barren mountains, and rolling grass plains. The openness and intensity of this place appeals to me, as well as the sheer extravagance of such a landscape.
Another germ of an idea that I’m drafting involves a woman who returns to the forests of her girlhood in an attempt to recapture the person she was before her parents were killed.
I believe there’s some basic instinct that wants to connect our sense of self to our sense of place. Maybe that’s why the natural world is often the most compelling part of a good piece of writing.
SES: let me start off by saying, “fruitless” is a great word to describe the landscape you include from Robinson’s Gilead. it plays, as i’m sure you can see, a double entendre, the land unable to bear fruit, sort of like a barren woman and the character’s inability to heal, to grow. that the full moon has worked its way into this landscape and gives healing is clearly not a mistake. forgive me, i’m always sort of analyzing, but i think the section from Gilead that you include here is a perfect sort of metaphor of how nature is within and without us and how we as writers can work nature as a metaphor into the emotional lives of our characters.
life itself for me, in any case, works as metaphor on myriad levels: our health, our illnesses become metaphors for emotions we carry. our habits become metaphors for things we believe, hold onto, resent, love, etc. nature, it seems to me, is just another way of reflecting how we see ourselves and understand our world. i think this is true outside of the literary world we’re talking about; i believe it’s also how we see the literal, concrete world that we inhabit. it’s how we see ourselves.
i don’t know that i’m necessarily compelled by the natural world. compelled is not the word i would use. don’t get me wrong, i love creatures (birds and coyotes and bobcats, bears, et al) and trees, fields of corn or tomatoes, water. but i think i include nature in my pieces in the same way that a play or a film includes background, because it says things that i actually cannot put into words: the emotional life of a character or the emotional life of a whole town, a metaphor for the unspoken, and on.
in a piece that i started years ago, but never quite finished because the story changed and then changed again, i have a character walking home down a dark road in a small town. he’s an old man who’s refused to get a car, though his family has tried to make him get one, but he likes being in nature:
“For all the years that he had been coming to Cherishtown to cook he had learned how to take his time walking home. This depended naturally on a lot of other things, but all things being what they were, he seldom rushed. It was firstly, pointless, and secondly, you missed out on things when you did: the night-air smell, the stars (though he only ever could find that Orion’s Belt), the quiet. That may be, in fact, why he still did not to this day have that car.”
reading that section again, i realize that character is wise and innocent at the same time. just like nature.
and as i think about it, my very first story which i started writing when i was the innocent age of eight, was a kind of Simha-version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. after that, somewhere, somehow nature tended to set the scene. i write about small towns, eras in which few people have cars, eras in which technology was, well, horribly primitive. i have characters who are in love with nature, characters who abuse nature, and those who are completely indifferent to it. i think nature always offers some reflection, some metaphor of how they view themselves, others, and/or the world in which they inhabit.
my own experiences in nature are pretty sizable. i did a lot of camping as a kid. a lot for a little black girl who grew up in Los Angeles. we went to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, Death Valley, Washington state, Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, Canada, etc. trees and land are the way i see the world. even in a home there should be some symbol of nature.
that said, i’m far more compelled by the unknown than i am by nature, per se. though, even that’s tricky to say, isn’t it? underneath it all, nature is the mystery.
RHD: I like that you brought up the word “mystery.” The natural world is kind of a mystery to our society, because in truth, most of us don’t have much interaction with it. At the same time, a person in today’s fast-paced world can sometimes feel disconnected from her inner self, as if her own personhood is a bit of a mystery to her. Is it too much of a stretch to see a connection there—that authors use nature as a metaphor for the emotional life because these two elements are both something of a riddle to modern man?
Do people seek nature hoping to unlock answers about ourselves? I think for some this might be true. Perhaps authors and artists tap into that hope on a conscious level more than other people. You’ve got the classic example of Thoreau who went to nature to reconnect with his writing in a profound way. Outside the writing world, you have people like Georgia O’Keefe, whose era of New Mexico paintings was inextricably tied to her pursuit of an independent personal life.
Then there are modern writers who understand that connection whether they themselves ever seek to live in the wild or not. For some reason, my mind keeps going to the young adult novel Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. Although it’s a short book written for a younger audience, I consider it to be an exemplary piece on nature as a metaphor for internal growth. It’s the story of a young native woman named Karana whose tribe lives on a small island off the coast of California. The tribe sails away, and she is accidentally left behind at age 12. Karana lives in the wild—fending for herself, taming the animals, and coming to know the island—until she’s in her early 30s.
Karana’s mystery is the same mystery that confronts all teenagers: who am I? How do I exist independently of the people who raised me? This is represented through Karana’s struggle to use the island’s natural resources with the same skill and savvy as the adults in her tribe. It’s a process of trial and error, and she does some things differently than they did. As her confidence in living off the land increases, she develops into a grown woman. As she understands the island better, she comes to understand her place in the world. And, just as every teen’s years of struggle and isolation end in joining the adult world, so Karana’s isolation on the island becomes too great, driving her to follow her tribe to California.
Getting away from nature-as-metaphor for a moment, I’ve always been fascinated with different authors’ abilities to paint a setting so vividly that you actually want to be there. This is a more concrete use of nature—as an appealing factor to make readers enjoy your work—but it takes an equal amount of forethought and mastery of description. It’s quite a job to represent the truth of a natural landscape to someone who hasn’t been there. Not to mention readers who have visited your natural places, and will compare your descriptions with their own first-hand knowledge.
Last summer/fall I rough-drafted a novel about a girl who experiences small-town life for the first time during the autumn season. Having grown up in small towns, and seen many autumns, I mistakenly assumed that I could easily represent a midwestern fall from memory alone. This exercise ended with me realizing how foolish that was, and commencing a notebook of “Observations About Fall,” which lived in my pocket through every walk from September to Thanksgiving.
SES: my buddhist leanings would have me say, we and nature are the same. no different. scientifically, we are made of the same things. we and many animals can get the same illnesses. i heard the other day that dolphins can get diabetes—who knew?—and dogs, ptsd. when we don’t understand ourselves, the natural world seems farther away. the more we learn about who we are, like Karana, the more we understand the natural world.
i think about the people who don’t feel at home in nature, even just a little bit of nature, and i worry for us. i worry how far we are from our true selves and how long the way is back. there are reports these days of people now defacing rocks in national parks. heart breaking. if nature is not sacred, and clearly it isn’t sacred enough, what is?
you talk about Thoreau and O’Keefe, about artists consciously seeking out nature, which brought up a couple points for me. first, i have to say i disagree that it’s just artists who consciously seek out nature. i think those are the people we celebrate doing it, however. there’s something very appealing and romantic (not to mention metaphorical) about an artist going into nature to rediscover herself. and we may need to witness someone as the person that steps into the unknown, into the natural world, into themselves. but i think that many people find resilience in consciously connecting with the natural world, people who will never pick up a pen or a brush: surfers, farmers, park rangers, firemen/women, holy women and holy men to name a few.
i know a group of women, many of whom are not artists, who do sacred ceremony in july in new mexico every year in the heat and the rain. off the grid. no phones. no toilets. no showers. just them and the land. they would never do that work in an auditorium or a backyard. there’s something to being on the land and connecting with themselves, each other, and the unknown in that way that gives back to them.
i truly believe we all have to find our way back to nature however we can, whether it’s in Central Park or with a pet guinea pig. or heaven forbid, going to the zoo.
as a writer i hope that i can, even a little bit, impart some sense of the sacred, through the actions and emotions of my characters, through a true reflection of how ineffable, unexplainable, and at the same time, profound and beautiful nature can be, how it can and does affect us, always.
my second point, or thought, is that at some point in the not-too-distant past the the idea of going back to nature was . . . well, there was no such thing. people were in nature. people walked on dirt roads. people swam in lakes and rivers. people killed and ate their food. i want to say this remained true probably some time before the industrial revolution’s peak. and for some cultures and peoples even today the world that has been made normal is what is foreign to them, cars and planes and trains, oh my.
it also occurs to me that in some ways the idea of returning to nature is very much a construct. from it came the need for national parks and the idea of camping, but also on a more negative end, a need to conquer (i’m thinking of european men here) women, indigenous people, and symbols of nature: lions, antelope, tigers, buffalo; the land itself needed to be conquered and torn up. (clearly some of the reason Thoreau was a naturalist is because of a reaction to the industrial revolution.)
i would be intrigued to know how we looked at the world once the industrial age was in its infancy versus how we look at it now. what did writers who were literally connected to the natural world focus on versus what modern writers focus on today?
now that i’ve gone on that tangent . . .
one of the things you mentioned that really stuck with me was about having to relearn what a midwestern fall was. this was very poignant to me for some reason. it is always intriguing to me how we can pass through a landscape without really seeing it. i moved down to southern California a few years ago and was living with my folks in the house i grew up in. they live near the mountains. i took a lot of walks. i realized there were birds that live here i had never seen before. i had to come to a new understanding of where i grew up, which opened up the possibility, of course, of writing about it.
John Dufresne mentions in one of my favorite writing guides The Lie That Tells a Truth, that in order to write about something you really have to study it. he says this about Queen Anne’s Lace: “How could I have looked at the flowers all my life and not seen what was there?” i think this is true particularly of the things we think we know–often things in nature. i don’t write things down in a notebook the way you do. maybe i should, but i do find myself looking and listening to birds, being surprised by cactus flowers or occasionally the actions of my dog. i start beaming at these things like a kid. just pleased that this thing i hadn’t fully gotten to know is also taking up space on the planet with me.
RHD: It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, to purposely sit down and make a comparison of what writing was like (at least in America), what it focused on, just pre and just post Industrial Revolution. Now you have given me something to do this summer between teaching gigs! Especially since I have a complete set of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, volumes A-E, sitting on my desk.
Off the top of my head, I can think of so many writers in this country’s infancy who recorded what their daily life was like. These people lived so close to nature that, like you said, the idea of going “back” to nature did not make sense yet. We get a feel for the natural world even through average things like their diaries, because it was so close to them. Yet at the same time, I imagine that writers took the natural world a bit more for granted in those days. When I sit down to write a scene where a character is, for instance, in a modern kitchen, I don’t go into great detail describing the fridge or how the stove burners work. It’s so universally understood by American readers that many details get glossed over. I really wonder if that same phenomenon happens with the natural world for those who are living and writing in it. I must sit down this summer and make a comparison—now you’ve got me so curious!
The intentional noticing you spoke of—yes! How important that is. When I read your story of finding new animals in the environment you’d grown up in, it really hit home for me how many assumptions we make regarding how well we know our environment. I think one of the best ways to combat this is to explore a landscape with someone who is completely unfamiliar with it.
I remember in high school, I became friends with a girl who had just moved to southern Illinois from the state of New York. She had lived in the New York countryside, but the climate and foliage and wildlife were different enough that coming to Illinois still felt like a huge discovery to her. I remember the first time she heard locusts. We were out walking on a summer night, and their grating, almost devilish song started up in some of the trees. She got an expression like aliens might be landing, and said, “What is that crazy noise?” Her reaction startled me, because locusts had literally been the soundtrack to every summer of my life (this is still the case, by the way, which is one reason I could never move to New York). I realized for the first time how bizarre and almost creepy they sound.
Another time, she was at my house for dinner during a thunderstorm. Afterwards, I drove her home. I came in to chat with her mom for a moment. She was floored by the strength of the wind and thunder and lightning. I was trying not to smile, as it had been a storm that Midwesterners would consider pretty average. No straight-line winds, even!
Those are two things I might not have thought to write about in much detail if I was describing the Midwest. Now I know. I wonder how many other things were strange to her that I simply forgot about? I will have to ask her when I see her next, if she even still remembers. It’s been about twelve years now.
On another note, I think you are entirely right that many people make valiant efforts to connect with nature and an artist’s effort is usually the most visible. It actually encourages me to hear so many stories of other people wanting to get plugged in to nature. (Oh dear . . . should I be using a modern electrical metaphor in this manner, or is it too ironic?) Your story of the women who get back to nature in New Mexico sounds, frankly, fascinating. Have you ever heard any of them describe the experience? I’d be interested to know what they feel they gain from it. Sometimes the more extreme measures give the best rewards. This is a principle I find to be true about most things in life.
The college I attended, a small, Free Methodist liberal arts school called Greenville College, has a ten-day hiking/wilderness trip each summer called Walkabout. It’s open to all students, though student leaders like resident assistants are required to go. The idea is that being in the unpredictability of the wild, along with the removal of modern comfort, teaches students things about themselves and about teamwork that they simply could not learn from a classroom experience. Years ago, I spoke with one of the directors of Walkabout, and he believes people can even learn things about their own bodies that they don’t know in the comfort of modern life—for instance, how much food you truly need per day, and how far you can push yourself in physical endurance.
I wonder what sort of impact a trip like that would have on a writer’s material? Obviously, if one wanted to write about a protagonist stranded in a wild landscape, a walkabout or wilderness adventure could be helpful. But I wonder if the act of noticing a strange and unpredictable environment can even help us be better writers to the stories that don’t involve nature. It certainly increases one’s power of observation, at least. Maybe such experiences could even inspire story and setting ideas we hadn’t thought of before.
Rachel Heston-Davis has been writing since she was old enough to spell. Literature and stories have always been her passion, a passion that led her to seek a degree in English from Greenville College and an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. By day, she writes for a newspaper and teaches college freshman how to put a research paper together. By night, she writes fiction and graphic novels with a particular love for young adult fiction.
Simha Evan Stubblefield is a third generation Angeleno, an English instructor, a student of meditation, and a consummate eavesdropper, who blames her love of story on threads of unfinished family gossip. Shaped by the writer’s formula–quiet, imaginative, introverted child turns to books instead of people–she has always found story a form of both mystery and solace. She writes to uncover the inexpressible connection between history, ancestors, and the deep roots of African-American culture. In previous lives she’s worked with youth, studied journalism, and written billboard and radio ads. These days, she’s at work on her first novel, a book about love. Her work has so far appeared in Sequioa, Transfer, Woman, Ohana Anthology, and Reader’s Break Anthology.