Theme Essay by Theresa Williams
How Do You Write Honestly About Nature?
One summer about five years ago, I went into my back field to practice my photography skills. I live on twelve acres, ten of which grow wild with milkweed, briars, and thistle. Summers, the land hums with insects. I pointed the camera at a cooperative mantis. As I was focusing, the insect suddenly turned and looked at me. And I realized that nature doesn’t exist solely for my purposes, that the world is alive and has its own ways.
• • •
Sometime later, from some deep place, I heard the woods beating.
In this line from James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, the narrator, Ed Gentry, is describing an owl’s nocturnal visit to his tent, pitched in the wild Georgia woods.
The line is ambiguous. The “place” might be deep in the woods, deep in the brain, deep in the chest, deep in the gut, or somewhere else entirely. It’s for each reader to decide. What’s clear is that nature isn’t merely a background against which human lives take place. Nature shapes the characters, often in surprising ways.
In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman wrote:
Urge and urge and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world.
Deliverance isn’t about the procreant urge. It’s heavy on death. There’s plenty of killing and maiming, as when a rapist is shot by Lewis Medlock’s arrow:
The shot man was still standing. He wouldn’t concentrate in my vision; I couldn’t believe him. He was like a film over the scene, gray and vague, with the force gone out of him; I was amazed at how he did everything. He touched the arrow experimentally, and I could tell that it was set in him as solidly as his breastbone. It was in him tight and unwobbling, come out front and back.
With the force gone out of him. Dickey isn’t depicting the death of a rapist but death itself—perhaps the process of dying. And in doing so, he gives us a premonition of our own deaths.
• • •
Two things I remember from childhood:
(1) My very first book: My Little Golden Book About God. I spent many hours reading it and looking at the illustrations, especially one of a little girl bending to peer through blades of grass, where she sees ladybugs, a grasshopper, and an ant:
Bend down to touch the smallest flower. Watch the busy ant tugging at his load. See the flash of jewels on the insect’s back.
(2) My grandmother pouring hot bacon grease into the holes of sugar ants.
My Little Golden Book About God said nothing about the darker aspects of nature. It said nothing of ants’ roles as scavengers, predators, or nuisances. Its intent wasn’t to scare children with what might be considered unsavory or violent aspects of our world. But children, at least on some level, realize these darker aspects anyway.
Children know that ants, moles, mice, roaches, boll weevils, and snakes are killed because they are destructive. Children know that there are some animals we eat. Children see roadkill; sometimes the roadkill is their pet. I had a friend who flattened frogs beneath his bicycle tires. I killed ants with a magnifying glass, shoved bugs into doodlebug holes, watched them being pulled under to certain death.
On the first page of My Little Golden Book About God, an owl sits on a tree limb, a rabbit below. It’s a happy, utopian picture. But owls eat rabbits. As a child, I knew this, too.
• • •
When I moved with my parents from a three-acre farm to a neighborhood with hedges and lawns, my mother got rid of the chickens. We bought our meat in packages. I spent more time indoors watching the color TV, less time with the ants, the doodlebugs, and my shadow, stretching long over the earth in the evening.
Our lives were easier in suburbia, though not better, which reminds me of a joke John (Fire) Lame Deer, a Native American medicine man, said that Indians used to tell on the reservation:
Question: What’s Cultural Deprivation?
Answer: Being an upper-middle-class white kid living in a suburban home with a color TV.
• • •
There’s an absence of soul in Dickey’s suburbia. Those who have traded their relationship with nature for the perks of civilization inspire a sense of loss in Ed Gentry:
The women were almost all secretaries and file clerks, young and semi-young and middle-aged, and their hair styles, piled and shellacked and swirled and horned, and almost every one stiff, filled me with desolation. I kept looking for a decent ass and spotted one in a beige skirt, but when the girl turned her barren, gum-chewing face toward me, it was all over.
In their hairstyles, the women have vestiges of wild, the hair “swirled and horned.” But it’s all for show, and their vacant expressions impart a sense of doom.
• • •
My favorite birds are vultures, so I love the poem “Vulture” by Robinson Jeffers. A vulture appears in the sky, causing the narrator, who's resting on a hillside, to contemplate death. But, the poem suggests, to be eaten by a vulture wouldn’t be an awful thing; it would mark a beautiful transformation:
To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes— What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.
Jeffers puts us on the opposite end of the food chain. And, indeed, humans may be eaten by lions, tigers, and bears—and by dogs, fish, bacteria, or worms. It’s no more unnatural for a vulture to eat a human than for a human to eat a cow or an ear of corn.
How awesome, Jeffers is saying, to become a vulture’s fuel. Then to wheel the skies, see through its wild eyes.
• • •
In Deliverance, Ed undergoes a stunning transformation, a mystical one:
All night the owl kept coming back to hunt from the top of the tent. I not only saw his feet when he came to us; I imagined what he was doing while he was gone, floating through the trees, seeing everything. I hunted with him as well as I could, there in my weightlessness. The woods burned in my head.
In the course of the night, Ed’s old self dies, and he is reborn with a firmer connection to nature. Like the narrator in “Vulture,” he sees through a wild thing’s eyes.
• • •
It’s not only animals that have a life force, not only the mantis, the vulture, and the owl. Rivers do, too. And when the river overtakes Ed in Deliverance, there’s nothing he can do but become part of it:
I turned over and over. I rolled, I tried to crawl along the flying bottom. Nothing worked. I was dead. I felt myself fading out into the unbelievable violence and brutality of the river, joining it. This is not such a bad way to go, I thought; maybe I’m already there.
Wendell Berry, poet and naturalist, writes similarly of a river in his essay “The Rise”:
It is serenely and silently not subject—to us or to anything else except the other natural forces that are also beyond our control. And it is apt to stand for and represent to us all in nature and in the universe that is not subject. That is its horror. We can make use of it. We can ride on its back in boats. But it won’t stop to let us get on and off. It is not a passenger train. And if we make a mistake, or risk ourselves too far to it, why then it will suffer a little wrinkle on its surface, and go on as before.
Not subject. The words make me shiver. Since I was small, I’ve thought about death nearly every day. I have wondered when and how I will die. I have anticipated the deaths of those I love with a sense of puzzled dread. I have thought of those I have lost. I have written about death. I have seen death in photographs and news stories and thought, So there you are again. Still, it always comes as a shock. Not that we die, but that it is so easy to die. And that after we die the world goes on exactly as it has before.
There could be circumstances, Berry writes in “The Rise,” “in which my life would count for nothing, absolutely nothing.”
A far cry from what we see in the final pages of my childhood Golden Book:
Close your eyes and sleep tight
For tomorrow will be bright—
All is well, dear child.
• • •
My Little Golden Book About God says that God made everything and is in everything, offering comfort and structure, a sense that all is right, that the world unfolds as it should. Tomorrow will be bright.
Deliverance says we are not so far from our primordial beginnings as our urbane lives may make it seem, that our sojourns from civilization may be dangerous, but, by God, while we are on them, we’re alive. Proximity to death gives life its meaning.
If you write about nature, you need a point of reference. The reference point might be simply that you know you don’t have one. That’s fine, as long as you understand that nature writing isn’t just recording what you see, hear, and feel. It’s about your relationship with nature. It’s about your consciousness in conflict or in tune with the greater world.
However debatable the premise of My Little Golden Book About God or Deliverance, each is true to its viewpoint.
When I first went into the field to photograph nature, I did so without a point of reference. I thought that nature existed to serve whatever I needed it to be. My encounter with the mantis changed that. The photograph I took that day takes my breath away, not because it’s a great photograph—it isn’t—but because it takes me back to my original awareness.
The mantis is either “praying” or “preying.” It has become the perfect symbol of what nature is to me—a place of refuge and a place of danger. For me, now, to write honestly about nature is to capture its beauty and brutality, both.
- Deliverance by James Dickey (Houghton Mifflin, 1970).
- My Little Golden Book About God by Jean Werner Watson (Simon & Schuster and Writers and Artists Guild, 1956).
- "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, Poetry Foundation website.
- Lame Deer, Seeker Of Visions by John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes (Simon & Schuster, 1972).
- The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Three, 1938-1962, edited by Tim Hunt (Stanford University Press, 1991).
- Recollected Essays, 1965-1980 by Wendell Berry (North Point Press, 1981).
- "Mantis" © Theresa Williams; used by permission.
- "Barred Owl" © Denis-Carl Robidoux; Creative Commons license.
- "Vultures" © P.W. Fenton; Creative Commons license.
"The stories I wrote about my experience with depression were not just for myself but also for others who might need them. I knew then that this is why we must be fearless about sharing our experiences." — "Lawrence's Apples"