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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nature Writing No More

Air Date: Week of

As the end of the millennium approaches, author Dianne Dumanoski (doo-muhn-OW-skee) wonders whether nature writing can exist in this human-dominated planet.


CURWOOD: Our contact with the natural world in exotic places often comes through nature writing, the kind you find in magazines with exquisite photography. Writer Dianne Dumanoski recently had her afternoon interrupted by a phone call, and the ensuing conversation got her thinking about the nature of nature writing at the end of the millennium.

DUMANOSKI: It was the editor of one of those glossy environmental magazines that are a feast for the eye. Would I do another piece for them? Perhaps some nature writing? I paused to collect my thoughts. The truth is, I'm not sure I know what nature is any more, and I have serious doubts about whether it is possible to carry on the nature writing tradition at the end of the 20th century. In the journal Science, leading ecologists delivered the news that no ecosystem on Earth is free from pervasive human influence. Can you do nature writing on a human-dominated planet?
When Rachel Carson confronted this question, she found she couldn't continue nature writing. And she wrote Silent Spring. I decided to spare the editor the big question. Instead, I pitched my notion for an essay about Snake Pond, a tiny Massachusetts kettle hole that is, in countless ways, not Thoreau's Walden. That's why I thought it seemed the perfect subject for an essay to inaugurate a new genre: post-nature writing.
As a journalist I had visited many places of spectacular beauty. The Borneo rainforest, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the incomparable coral reefs of Palau. Snake Pond is humble and unassuming by comparison. Although the snakes are still in residence, it is not a place for anyone chasing Edens. I have spent hours by the water gazing at the houses that stretch along one half of the pond's shoreline, and at the red maple, water willow, and New England asters that claim the rest. In the summer dark, the sound of trucks grinding up the grade on Route 2 competes with the whippoorwills.
Like the men and women we marry, and only later learn to love in a true and honest way, Snake Pond falls far short of the romantic ideal, the nature we celebrated in the wilderness tradition and nature writing. So does this only half-wild kettle hole inhabited by humans as well as herons qualify as nature? Since the Enlightenment, western thought has suffered from a profound schizophrenia, which divided the world into sacred nature and the profane lands of human habitation. Our philosophical tradition doesn't give us a name for places like Snake Pond. This middle ground where we share life and create the future. No, Snake Pond wasn't what the magazine editor had in mind. But I'm not dissuaded. On a planet spinning unsteadily under pervasive human influence, the middle ground is all we've got.

CURWOOD: Commentator Dianne Dumanowski is co-author of Our Stolen Future.



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