The Problem of Nature Writing: A Response
In his New Yorker essay, ”The Problem of Nature Writing,” which also appeared in the Spark Birds book from Orion Magazine, Jonathan Franzen stated, “Sometimes I consider it a failing, a mark of writerly competition, that I’d so much rather take private joy in birds, and in nature generally than read another person’s book about them.”
Franzen addresses the many reasons why nature books sit unread on bookshelves and articles languish between the covers of unopened magazines. He does not mention the scarcity of available time, which is a limiting factor for my own reading, and I am sure others share that experience.
Nevertheless, Franzen addresses priorities, his implied question being, why read about nature when you can go see it directly? I answered that question today by traveling to Hiwassee Refuge near Birchwood, Tennessee to see the Sandhill Cranes. It was not my first trip this year and I will make one or two more before winter ends.
I write about the cranes and their natural beauty because their calls lift my spirits heavenward, and everything seems right with the world so long as wild cranes migrate south to spend the winter here in Tennessee and return to Michigan and Wisconsin to nest and make more cranes each summer. I have seen them once in those northern states, but they are an annual event here in the Chattanooga region. Yesterday, I saw approximately 1500 of them, according to official figures.
So, if you set down the device in which you are reading this edition of Cranes Eye View and drive to Hiwassee Refuge to see the cranes, or to some other natural area to view nature’s beauty, you have proved Franzen correct. My question is though, what if that was my objective? If you responded to my story in that way, please let me know in the comments section about the natural area you visited. I may want to see it too.
I could end there, but Franzen’s article is much more nuanced and complex than I have led you to believe. He also calls nature writers evangelists, saying that they hope to convert others to their cause of the natural world’s enjoyment and protection.
He gives a direct comparison to his youthful experience of bible study, in which he could not abide the endless genealogies, or the adoration of the Psalms. He said that celebration is not enough, that you must mention how it has changed your life.
The very words “ruby-crowned kinglet” are pregnant and exciting to me. I will avidly read an unadorned list of the species—black-headed grosbeak, lazuli bunting, blue-gray gnatcatcher—that a friend saw on her morning walk. To me, the list is a narrative in itself. To the unconverted reader, though, the list might as well say: Ira the son of Ikkesh of Tekoa, Abiezer of Anathoth, Mebunnai the Hushathite . . .
Those names are meaningful to Franzen and to me because they are familiar. The name Blue-gray Gnatcatcher evokes an image of a comically tiny yet adamant bird lifting off from a branch to snap up insects. If you have not seen the gnatcatcher, this link to an image, description, and videos will tell you more than my words, which leads us to Franzen’s next critique about nature writing.
Ever since the advent of color photography and sound recording, lengthy descriptions have become problematic in all genres of writing, and they’re especially problematic for the evangelizing nature writer. To describe a scene of nature well, the writer is hard-pressed to avoid terminology that’s foreign to readers who haven’t already witnessed a similar sort of scene.
Though I have combined photos with my writing for years now, Franzen convinced me to include audio and video recordings as well. I made this one with a parabolic microphone.
He also gives some cogent advice on writing techniques, and I read the article periodically to keep me, I hope, on the path of lively nature writing. The brief passages I quote here only scratch the surface of Franzen’s article. If you are a writer or reader, please give the article a thorough read.
Internet gurus advise against including links in your web page. They subscribe to the concept of “Sticky Eyeballs,” which means that you should do everything possible to keep people on your page. I believe that if you find this writing valuable, you will return.
Here is a list of some birds I saw today, with links to more information.
Bald Eagle (one immature and one adult.)
See more photos of cranes in my post from a few weeks ago:
Crane's Eye View is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.