I’ve always felt the call of the wild, that deep magnetic draw to be outside. The feeling stuck with me even after bad times, days when Mother Nature let me know she held all the cards. Like when I lost my footing while backpacking and tumbled down an embankment, or when a Tarantula Hawk sting sent me to the hospital. I learned long ago that nature is the perfect antagonist, and she’s ready to strike without warning.
Sometimes in fiction nature plays the part of the accomplice to the antagonist, a component in their egomaniacal plan. Villains often unwisely believe they can master nature’s fury. Nature can give our protagonists the chance to brave something bigger, stronger, and infinitely more complicated than they are. Nature can become the protagonist’s best friend at unlikely moments, the river that allows the hero to escape, while whisking away the bad guys in a flurry of rapids. Nature can be the catalyst for a protagonist’s inner/outer development, the mountain they must climb, or the storm they must survive, in order to achieve their end goals.
Regardless of how you plan to use nature in your plot, this post will remind everyone that quality nature writing in either nonfiction or fictional landscapes takes on new dimensions when created with care. This is a subset of setting craft well worth learning. Not to mention a subset that holds a revered list of charter members. I’ve picked four, but they are by no means definitive, they are just writers who have influenced me.
Jean Craighead George: Many writers have authors from their childhood we credit with changing us. Jean is one of mine, best known for her Newbery winner, Julie of the Wolves, but my favorite is My Side of The Mountain. I wanted to be her character Sam, a boy who spends a year living alone in the mountains. I wanted a home in a hollowed out tree and a bird of prey for a best friend. So did millions of other kids. Including my own, who debate Sam’s many choices as if they are talking about a neighborhood boy and not a character in a book. Jean’s love of nature led her to write hundreds of books, and won her posthumously the US Department of the Interior’s 2013 Conservation Hero Award. If you missed reading Jean as a kid, it’s time to discover her. Maybe let her books work some nature magic on your own kids. Learn more about Jean Craighead George’s life and work at: http://www.jeancraigheadgeorge.com/
Jack London: London’s home (and grave site) in the Valley of the Moon is just over the hill from me. It’s a place my guests always ask to visit, and why shouldn’t they? London, who wrote the book this blog shamelessly adopts as title, remains a best selling author nearly one hundred years after his death. Few writers grasp the role of wild nature in a story the way that London did. He did this by utilizing his journalistic skills of observation, with an impressive list of travel destinations. London often pits characters against nature; the struggle is personal, raw, and sometimes dark. Although it’s been at least ten years since I read Martin Eden, the ending stays with me. London finishes the book in a caldron of pain and pressure; he punches the reader in the gut until the horrible fateful moment when nature wins. Learn more about Jack London’s life and work at: http://www.jacklondonpark.com/
John Muir: Often called the father of the American conservation movement, Muir founded the Sierra Club. Muir drank in nature, he needed it to sustain himself, but lucky for us he could also translate that emotion into prose. His words lift off the page, they fuse into towering granite walls, and streams flashing with swift-moving fish. It’s hard not to love Muir. He always allows himself to be vulnerable and small, yet he’s never lost or cut adrift in the huge landscapes he writes about. Plus, Muir’s dedication to preserving wild spaces is unprecedented. After spending just three days with Muir in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt returned to Washington to push forth on sweeping US protection policies, safeguarding over a hundred million acres of wilderness for future generations to enjoy. Learn more about John Muir’s life and work at: http://www.nps.gov/jomu/index.htm
Henry David Thoreau: Walden! To say the name is to fill the mind with nature. It’s a book with the simple premises, one man will live alone in nature, making it his companion, his teacher, his muse. The book is at its heart practical, but also so much more. For Thoreau the journey is not in miles, but in spiritual evolution, he wanted to learn to live without regrets. Published in 1854, Walden‘s messages of self-reliance and purposeful living are still relevant in a modern society. Learn more about Henry Thoreau’s life and work at: http://www.thoreausociety.org/
I had trouble choosing my four authors; I considered at least a dozen others, all worthy of study. Twain, Hemingway, Whitman, Edward Abbey for his Desert Solitude. Or Rachel Carson who’s seminal book Silent Spring launched the American ecology movement in the 1960s. Because Carson is dear to me, I’ll include a link for those interested in her life and work: http://www.rachelcarson.org/
I’ll like to think everyone who reads this post will develop a case of wanderlust, and they will be packing up and taking to the wild in droves. If not, at least seek out a few of these gifted nature authors and give them a try. And if you do, please do yourself a favor, take my old friends for a nice long walk in the woods first.
Next up from Robin???