Nature Writing

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Depending upon its emphases and the period and genre in which it is written, literature concerned with the natural world is variously called natural philosophy, natural history, environmental literature, and nature writing. While "natural philosophy" generally refers to prescientific meditations on the human relationship to nature and "natural history" identifies later writing that is concerned primarily with describing flora and fauna, "environmental writing" usually indicates literature with a conservationist or preservationist agenda or sensibility. The broadest term, "nature writing," includes all forms of literature whose primary concern is nature and the human relationship to it. As Thomas Lyon explains in This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing (2001), nature writing "has three main dimensions to it: natural history information, personal responses to nature, and philosophical interpretation of nature" (p. 20).


American nature writing begins with the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English adventurers who explored the New World during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Among the first written responses to the landscape of North America are the logbook and letters of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who found the new land he encountered "so enchantingly beautiful that it surpasses all others in charm and beauty as much as the light of day surpasses night" (p. 83). Another early explorer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490–c. 1560), found the landscape beautiful but also intimidating. In the account of his eight-year (1528–1536), six-thousand-mile walk across the wilderness of what is now the Gulf Coast, the American Southwest, and much of northern Mexico, Cabeza de Vaca depicts a landscape in which storms, hunger, thirst, exposure, and illness constantly threaten.

During the seventeenth century, American nature writing reflected the preoccupations of colonial settlers who had begun to make their homes in the New World. One sort of place-based writing was that practiced by John Smith (c. 1580–1631), the principal founder of the first permanent British settlement in America, who wrote hyperbolic promotional tracts depicting America as a land of inexhaustible natural wealth. Another set of literary responses to the landscape was penned by Pilgrims and Puritans, such as William Bradford (1590–1657) and John Winthrop (1588–1649), who saw in the wilderness a savage, even demonic, world in need of redemption through settlement by God's servants. The transition from the colonial to the eighteenth-century worldview is marked by Cotton Mather (1663–1728), a late Puritan who studied astronomy and physics yet wondered if comets were created by God as a place to incarcerate sinners.

Eighteenth-century American nature writing begins to show the rationalist, scientific approach common to the modern form of the genre. Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) wrote in the voluminous journals they kept during their great expedition of 1804–1806 about western American landscapes, satisfying, when published a decade or so later, readers' appetite for the sublime—a landscape aesthetic emphasizing the ennobling power of nature. Through such work the wilderness also came to be pictured as the setting for nationhood. For example, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813), in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), emphasize the beauty of nature while depicting the American environment as the proper setting for an agricultural Republic. The high point of eighteenth-century American nature writing is Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (1791), commonly known simply as Travels, by the literary botanist William Bartram (1739–1823), who combines scientific accuracy with lyrical prose and emphasizes the aesthetic and spiritual value of nature. "If we bestow but very little attention to the economy of the animal creation," writes Bartram appreciatively, "we shall find manifest examples of premeditation, perseverance, resolution, and consummate artifice" (p. 18).

The lyrical, personally engaged, observationally precise nature writing associated with modern practitioners of the form rises during the nineteenth century with such literary Romantics as William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) and Washington Irving (1783–1859) and is sharpened by the transcendentalists, a group of New England writers who placed nature at the center of their intellectual program. Paramount among environmental literary texts from this period are Nature (1836) by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). Nature provides philosophical foundations for the American valuation of nature, whereas Walden takes that philosophy into the field, showing how the intellectual and spiritual values of nature may be gleaned from minute observation made in direct contact with the land.

The early history of American nature writing thus offers a trajectory of impressions of the land—a trajectory that helps measure the hopes, fears, and values of those who visited and inhabited this land in centuries past. This history also suggests that nature's cultural function is as both a window and a mirror—a lens through which one witnesses unimaginable beauty and a world in which one sees his or her own values reflected. During the half century after the Civil War, American nature writing matured and flourished, reaching a wider audience with a new, more lyrical kind of literary natural history that eloquently combined scientific observation, personal reflection, and environmental concern.


Although the tradition of exploring the landscapes of North America and describing them in literary dispatches dates to Columbus's voyages to the New World, the nineteenth century is the great age of the American exploration narrative. Beginning with records of Lewis and Clark's transcontinental journey in the first years of the century and continuing through the work of such popular mid-century explorers as John C. Frémont (1813–1890), American readers increasingly turned their attention to the unmapped landscapes of the West. Among those who wrote about their western adventures were a new breed of scientist-adventurers exemplified by the geologist-explorers Clarence King (1842–1901) and John Wesley Powell (1834–1902). During the 1870s each man published a book that achieved popular success while also shaping the way American literature would represent the spectacular landscapes of the West.

Travel writing, science writing, and mountaineering literature converge in King's Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), a classic example of the science based heroic western exploration narrative. King was a Yale graduate and a talented young scientist when, in 1863, he joined the California Geological Survey. During this and subsequent government surveys in the West, King experienced the wilderness adventures he detailed in a series of compelling essays later published as Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Although King reported his experiences as a geologist participating in government-sponsored scientific surveys, the thematic essence of his essays is the triumph of a courageous wilderness hero over the romantic but threatening landscapes of the West. Indeed the martial metaphors that typify Victorian mountaineering literature abound in King's book, as in the following description of his successful ascent of Mount Tyndall:

But if Nature had intended to secure the summit from all assailants, she could not have planned her defences better; for the smooth granite wall which rose above the snow-slope continued, apparently, quite round the peak, and we looked in great anxiety to see if there was not one place where it might be climbed. (P. 93)

Unlike many later western American environmental writers, King did not place his main emphasis on the sublime beauty of the mountains or on the power of wilderness experience to transform the individual or on the need to protect wild places from the ravages of expanding commerce. The emphasis, rather, is upon the ability of the resourceful hero to conquer nature, thus proving his courage and thrilling his readers with dramatic details of perilous mountain adventures. As John Tallmadge observes in his essay "Western Geologists and Explorers: Clarence King and John Wesley Powell," King's narrative depends upon a plot structure that shows "affinities with chivalric romance, where the hero's character is repeatedly tested by encounters with the exotic" (p. 1174). King's ability to pass these epic wilderness tests, combined with his gift for lively prose animated by engaging narrative tension, helped to define the terms of the western wilderness narrative as a subgenre of American nature writing.

Major John Wesley Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872, Explored under the Direction of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1875) notably differs from King's work but is also an important contribution to late-nineteenth-century western landscape writing. Unlike King, Powell was largely self-taught, and while King went west with the surveys, Powell served the Union in the Civil War, losing his lower right arm at the battle of Shiloh. Upon returning to Illinois from the war, Powell worked as a science professor, field geologist, and natural history museum curator before resolving upon the great adventure of his life: to explore and describe the unknown canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Powell and his men launched their four small boats from Green River, Wyoming, on 24 May 1869. When they completed their river journey three months later, they had run some of the fiercest rapids in North America, had survived countless unforeseen hazards, had made a remarkable scientific and literary record of their adventures, and were welcomed home as national heroes.

Unlike King's Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, which is dramatically centered on the narrator's heroic accomplishments, Powell's book presents a narrator who is less egocentric—if also less colorful—and more concerned with doing his duty in the face of danger. Powell had an admirable ability to appreciate the inspiring grandeur of canyon country even as it threatened his life. During respites between deadly rapids, for example, he reflects upon the beauty of the forested valleys through which he floats:

The little valleys above are beautiful parks; between the parks are stately pine forests, half hiding ledges of red sandstone. Mule deer and elk abound; grizzly bears, too, are abundant; and here wild cats, wolverines, and mountain lions are at home. The forest aisles are filled with the music of birds, and the parks are decked with flowers. Noisy brooks meander through them; ledges of moss-covered rocks are seen; and gleaming in the distance are the snow fields, and the mountain tops are away in the clouds. (P. 146)

Powell emphasizes neither the ferocity of the land nor his ability to conquer it; instead, he offers a contemplative, appreciative description of places that were, to his readers, simply intriguing blank spots on the map.


During the later nineteenth century and early twentieth century, interest in and production of nature writing grew more rapidly than ever before. There were a number of reasons for this renaissance in literary representations of the natural world. Emerson and Thoreau had demonstrated the richness of nature as a literary resource. Then King, Powell, and other explorers led the nation's imagination westward into dramatic new landscapes. Readers were also weary of the human violence made evident by the Civil War, and they craved nature as a green world into which they might escape the disappointments of culture and the pressures of an increasingly urbanized and mechanized life. Additionally there were more readers than ever before, as American publishing, population, income, and literacy rates all grew, combining to expand the number of people who had the ability, desire, money, and time to read books. Finally, there was an important new motivation for writing about nature: the realization that under the weight of American expansion and industry, the plants, animals, and landscapes of the United States were being transformed, damaged, and—as in the case of the once numerous passenger pigeon, which was driven to extinction by the early twentieth century—even lost forever.

Among the many nature essayists working during this period were Wilson Flagg (1805–1884), Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), George Wharton James (1858–1923), Enos Mills (1870–1922), Dallas Lore Sharp (1870–1929), Bradford Torrey (1843–1912), and John Charles Van Dyke (1856–1932). None, however, was so widely read or so influential as the "two Johnnies," as their friends called them: John Burroughs (1837–1921) and John Muir (1838–1914). Burroughs was an eastern writer who built a national reputation by writing about the landscapes near his home, "Riverby," and his writing cabin, "Slabsides," on the Hudson River at West Park, ninety miles north of New York City. A prolific writer, he published nearly thirty books and was a premier literary essayist whose work appeared regularly in such major magazines as the Atlantic Monthly, Century, and Scribner's Monthly. Burroughs was not only widely read but also widely celebrated as the greatest nature writer of the age—a man whose work was taught to schoolchildren and whose fame led to friendships with the most powerful leaders of his day.

Although Burroughs's writing covers a variety of subjects in a number of landscapes, the hallmark of his approach was his ability to notice, describe, and meditate upon local landscapes—to explore the richness and beauty of the small-scale natural dramas being played out near people's homes and the scenes of their daily work. By focusing upon things he could study locally, Burroughs provided his readers a model for the sort of appreciative, local natural history they could also practice. Even in such early books as Wake-Robin (1871) and Locusts and Wild Honey (1879), Burroughs was preoccupied with nearby nature, and he was already honing his ability to help readers observe and understand the plants and animals they noticed—or might not have noticed—in their daily walks. His focus on the nearby led Burroughs to a special interest in birds, a topic much beloved by a readership then deeply interested in amateur ornithology. Although Burroughs's later work, most notably Accepting the Universe (1920), covers more expansive topics and is more philosophical, his primary literary achievement remains the detailed celebration of the local. "One's own landscape comes in time to be a sort of outlying part of himself," Burroughs once wrote; "he has sowed himself broadcast upon it, and it reflects his own moods and feelings" (p. 335).

Unlike his friend John Burroughs, John Muir was a western writer whose best-known work describes extended backcountry excursions in the wilderness of California's Sierra Nevada. Muir is known for epic adventures, such as climbing a waterfall by moonlight, riding down a mountain on an avalanche, and weathering a gale in the crown of a wind-tossed tree. More so than any other writer of his generation, Muir was the champion of wilderness. While he was richly attuned to the aesthetic and intellectual pleasures of studying nature, Muir's primary concern was not with the local but rather with the wild, and he believed in wilderness as something sacred that required protection.

John Muir, author of My First Summer in the Sierra and The Yosemite, complains about the destruction of nature in the name of capitalism.

These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

Muir, The Yosemite, pp. 196–197.

Unlike the prolific John Burroughs, Muir was slow to move beyond his voluminous field journals and into publishing books. Starting with his first book, The Mountains of California (1894), though, Muir's literary goals were clear. He wanted to combine precise descriptions of wilderness landscapes with moving personal accounts of the transformative spiritual power of those landscapes, and then he hoped to pivot from the personal to a larger argument for preservation of wilderness. Indeed Muir's literary influence and his political influence cannot be easily separated. He is rightly credited as a founder of the national park movement, as his writings helped construct the philosophical foundation upon which the parks and conservation movement was built. After helping to win national park status for Yosemite in 1890, two years later Muir became the first president of the Sierra Club, and in 1901 he published an important work of literary environmentalism called Our National Parks. Muir's lyrical appreciation of nature is most clear in the many ecstatic passages of My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), where he writes of the infinite interconnectedness of nature: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe" (p. 157). Muir's explosive environmentalist rhetoric may be found in such books as The Yosemite (1912), which he concludes with a passionate condemnation of those who wished to dam Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley:

These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man. (Pp. 196–197)

Though their topical focus and literary style were quite different, John Burroughs and John Muir defined the new literary natural history of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Both men argued that people should attend to and care for the natural world, and both wanted to inspire readers to enter the fields and forests with new enthusiasm. Both were influential writers who combined the power of lyrical language with the insights of scientific observation to make a case that the natural world should be respected as a source of insight and inspiration.


If King and Powell popularized the environmental adventure story and Burroughs and Muir gave landscape writing a more literary turn, it was the women nature writers of the period who combined science and lyricism to articulate a new ethic of concern—a literary environmental ethic that would characterize and inform American environmental writing into the twenty-first century. Indeed the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were an unprecedented heyday for women nature writers. Among the successful women working in the genre during this period are Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (1822–1907), Mary Austin (1868–1934), Florence Merriam Bailey (1863–1948), Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858–1954), Isabella Bird (1831–1904), Anna Botsford Comstock (1854–1930), Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813–1894), Elizabeth Fries Lummis (c. 1812–1877), Olive Thorne (Harriet Mann) Miller (1831–1918), Gene Stratton Porter (1863–1924), Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835–1894), and Mabel Osgood Wright (1859–1934).

While the diversity and richness of the works these writers produced make generalizations difficult, several common themes and approaches help to characterize their work. First, they tend to be intensely focused on developing and communicating a sense of place—a personal and local connection to the natural world that is hard-won through patient observation. Just as Muir is strongly associated with the Sierra, many of these women are associated with specific landscapes: Celia Thaxter with the New England seacoast, for example, and Gene Stratton Porter with the Limberlost Swamp. The conquering mentality of a writer like Clarence King is nowhere to be found here, and even so adventurous a woman as Isabella Bird manages to attain the summit of Long's Peak (wearing a skirt) without lapsing into the heroic mode. Instead, these writers are often characterized by profound humility and a fundamental insistence upon the primacy of the observed over the observer. This less egocentric connection to the local is a central theme of Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain (1903), a book that asserts the desert's sheer indifference to human interests as the source of its power. Far from existing to serve us the arid landscape, writes Austin, is "forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God" (p. 115).

Second, there is in the writing of these women a desire to combine scientific and literary modes in order to tell the full story of humanity's relationship to the natural world. The precedent for such writing among American women was set by Susan Fenimore Cooper's Rural Hours (1850), an impressive work of regional natural history that continued to be published well into the 1880s. For the first time in American history, many women were receiving education in the natural sciences, and many more were turning their attention and leisure time to the increasingly popular pursuit of amateur natural history. As they did so, they sought writers who were fluent in the natural sciences—especially ornithology—but still able to convey their insights lyrically and emotionally. While male nature writers, including Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and William J. Long (1867–1952), publicly argued in the famous "nature faker" controversy about the appropriate role of imagination in science writing, women writers of the period found graceful ways to convey accurate scientific information in powerful literary prose. Gene Stratton Porter, for example, is best known as a novelist, yet it was the combination of her scientific and imaginative gifts that allowed her to write What I Have Done with Birds (1907) and Moths of the Limberlost (1912). Anna Botsford Comstock studied both literature and zoology at Cornell University and went on successfully to combine her literary and scientific interests in such books as How to Know the Butterflies (1904) and Handbook of Nature-Study (1911).

Third, women nature writers of this period also made nature writing an advocacy tool by which they achieved remarkable successes in environmental protection. Because women had been the driving force behind the major social reform movements of the nineteenth century—abolition, woman suffrage, temperance—they were well positioned to make the argument on behalf of conservation. Florence Merriam Bailey, for example, not only wrote popular ornithological works such as Birds through an Opera Glass (1889) and A-Birding on a Bronco (1896) but also worked with the American Ornithologists' Union to protect birds from the fashion-driven excesses of the milliner's trade. Another successful literary advocate, Mabel Osgood Wright, was the author of The Friendship of Nature: A New England Chronicle of Birds and Flowers (1894) and more than twenty other books, but she also founded the Connecticut Audubon Society (1896) and did much to popularize habitat and species conservation. The scientifically informed literary natural history writing of women nature writers was thus crucial in defining an ethic of environmental concern—an ethic that would function as the engine of environmental protection throughout the twentieth century.

see alsoFarmers and Ranchers; The Land of Little Rain; Migration; My First Summer in the Sierra; Parks and Wilderness Areas; Resource Management


Primary Works

Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. 1903. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Bartram, William. Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. 1791. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Burroughs, John. A Sharp Lookout: Selected Nature Essays of John Burroughs. Edited by Frank Bergon. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Edited and translated by J. M. Cohen. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.

King, Clarence. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. 1872. Edited by Francis P. Farquhar. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. 1911. With an introduction by Gretel Ehrlich. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Muir, John. The Yosemite. 1912. With a foreword by David Brower. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988.

Powell, John Wesley. Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872, Explored under the Direction of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. 1875. Reprinted with an introduction by Wallace Stevens as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Secondary Works

Lyon, Thomas J. This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing. Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed, 2001. Though in a sense this is the second edition of Lyon's This Incomparable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (1989), not only is the title different, but the contents are radically altered—elimination of the three-hundred-page anthology of primary sources; more than tripling of the critical commentary, chronology, and bibliography.

Tallmadge, John. "Western Geologists and Explorers: Clarence King and John Wesley Powell." In American Nature Writers, vol. 2, Peter Matthiessen to Western Geologists and Explorers, edited by John Elder, pp. 1173–1187. New York: Scribners, 1996.

Michael P. Branch