Nature Writing as a Part of Urban Life

Our definition of nature is changing to fit a more urban life, the author argues, and the genre of nature writing will adapt with it.

| March 14, 2014

  • Nature writing as a genre will change as our ideas of nature evolve along with our sprawling urban habitat.
    Photo by Fotolia/mvi690
  • “The Urban Bestiary,” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, blends science, myth, story, and memoir to encourage us to be active participants in the world of our wild neighbors.
    Cover courtesy Little, Brown and Company

As our urban sprawl expands and encounters with wildlife become a more regular occurrence, The Urban Bestiary (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) encourages us to be active participants in the world of our wild neighbors, and explorers of our own wilder edges. Lyanda Lynn Haupt, naturalist and author of Crow Planet, ask fascinating new questions: Whose "home" is this new landscape, not entirely urban or wild, and what difference will it make to us humans living our daily lives? This excerpt from "A New Nature, a New Bestiary" wonders what future generations of nature writers will have to reflect upon.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Urban Bestiary.

Like many urban chicken keepers, I find that a good part of me longs for a rural existence. I never meant to live in a city. I always imagined growing my family and garden on a remote expanse of rural land at the end of a tree-lined dirt road. I would keep a cow, write nature books, send my daughter to some hippie Waldorf school, make goat cheese, bake bread. Mornings, I would watch the deer gather at the edge of our meadow; evenings, I would be on the lookout for rangy-limbed coyotes disappearing into the woods. Instead, I took a job with an urban environmental organization and married a man who works in global health for the University of Washington, and we’re raising our daughter in a Seattle neighborhood, where we will be for the foreseeable future. And as much as a corner of my mind still dreams of a farmy, rural life at the forest’s edge, I realize more each day that modern times have thrown us into a curious paradox: For those who love nature and hope to conserve wild places, urban homes are in many ways the most appropriate places to live.

City dwellers often cite the cultural advantages of urban life. Cities are where the people are. They are where we gather to live, raise our families, build our schools and libraries, make music, produce theater. If cities are places where we incite one another to heightened material desires and rampant consumerism, where we are blinded to the needs, rhythms, and even existence of nature, they are also places that invite collaboration in the highest arts and the richest community endeavors. But there is also an unexpectedly profound ecological element to the human density that characterizes urban sites. Cities, ill-planned messes as they might currently be, are the places that the bulk of us will have to live if earthly life — both human and wild — is going to have any chance of flourishing. As inviting as the notion of a rural existence might be for many of us, the remaining open spaces in our country and beyond simply cannot accommodate a modern back‑to‑the-land movement, no matter how well intentioned. Well-planned urban density is the most ecologically promising mode of human habitation, allowing our homes to cluster, to be built alongside and on top of one another. This clustering encourages a sharing of resources, tools, energy, ingenuity, transport, and pavement that keep humans in one walkable/bikeable/busable place instead of sprawling out and further fragmenting the open spaces, wetlands, and woodlands that support wild creatures and systems. No matter how much I might yearn for a sweet Jersey cow on the back forty (and at this point, I’d settle for a pair of dwarf Nigerian goats on a shy half acre), I have come to realize that the most ecological life I can live begins with a new understanding of my urban home.

We are in the midst of a vital thrust toward urban and earthen sustainability, changes in food practices, and conservation imperatives. We inhabit what I call a new nature, where the romantic vision of nature as separate from human activity must be replaced by the realistic sense that all of nature, no matter how remote, is affected by what we do and how we live. But at the same time, while enthusiasm and good intentions run high, as urban dwellers, we find ourselves unmoored — bereft of the folklore; naturalist practices; knowledge of local creatures, plants, and soil that were a necessity of life just a couple of generations ago. In this decade, for the first time in the history of the earth, more humans live in urban places than rural. Simultaneously, there is more popular interest in nature, wildlife, conservation, and natural living than there has ever been. As a new urban culture emerges, we are seeking to reclaim, and in many ways create anew, a body of knowledge that ties us to the natural world and that engages all dimensions of human knowing — intellectual, spiritual, philosophical, and deeply practical — informing a connection to the natural world that is creative, intelligent, earthy, wild, and beautiful.

This unfolding vision of a new urban ecology has everything to do with rethinking nature more broadly. The concept of a new nature solidified for me while I was reading a recent essay by Jason Cowley, editor of the Cambridge-based journal Granta, about the changing face of nature writing. Gone are the days when “man” — typically a bearded, poorly dressed, lone semi-misanthrope in the shape of a Thoreau, or an Emerson, or a Muir — wanders into the woods in search of meaning and purpose through a romantic communing with nature. Nature was, in the history of the genre, a kind of cipher against which the writer/thinker could, through his own longings, desires, studies, and raptures, create a meaningful sense of self. The perceived inauthenticity of conventional society was renounced for something real, true, and — always — separate from the everyday life in town that the writer left behind. New nature writing, Cowley argues, is different. The “lyrical pastoral tradition of the romantic wanderer” and even the descriptive natural history essay are being replaced by first-person narratives in which the writer places herself, along with nature, in a vital, urgent, and highly practical exploration of the human place in an ecological world. Humans are not observers of an untouched beauty; we are present, involved, touched and touching, in a journey of reconnection between daily life and wilder earth.



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