Nature, environment and a sense of place in fiction


New novels, especially the pulpy best-selling ones, again will victimize countless square miles of forest this year. Though a few of these books will figuratively take away our breaths, together, subtly and literally, they will be doing just that.

While some fiction writers [and readers]––sensitive, correct on the issues––understand that our ecosystems are troubled by life-threatening imbalances, most are not accustomed to thinking of their work [or the books they read] as ecologically mindless. Yet as the bulldozer called “Progress” continues to assault the natural world, so is nature disappearing from our fictional worlds. Once so much the real stuff of the classics of American fiction, “Nature Writing” is now a separate genre with its own small niche in bookstores. Fiction seems to have abandoned itself mainly to recording the incivilities of lonely individuals living in groups.

It seems odd to me that this little piece was written in March, 1989, almost a quarter century ago––for a now defunct newsletter called Minnesota Literature. While addressed to writers, mainly of fiction, it perhaps has greater relevance to those who still read books and face the difficult task of choosing from the thousands of new ones that vie for their attention.

To literary critic Scott Russell Sanders contemporary fiction “seems barren in part because it draws such tiny, cautious circles, in part because it pretends that nothing lies behind its timid boundaries. Such fiction treats some ‘little human morality play’ as the whole of reality and never turns outward to acknowledge the ‘wilderness raging round.'” When we enter a new novel, Sanders says, we generally enter a room––a kitchen, bedroom, barroom, office––where characters talk. Absent, as much by innocent oversight as by choice, are the non-human contexts acting as forces on the events in the rooms. However “realistic” such fiction pretends to be, it is, Sanders says, “profoundly false, and therefore pathological.” (See Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1987).

When we look back at the canon of American fiction that has survived to define the sensibility of an older generation of readers in America, we think of writers whose arena was much bigger than the “little human morality play” that was so often at the center of their works. Not only did Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and Faulkner take us to woods, seas, rivers and frontiers; they, when they directed their “little human morality plays” indoors, kept windows open to the influence of the larger world outside. There nature was present as a force defining the limits and possibilities of human action.

Sanders’ complaint about the absence of nature in new fiction is in effect a complaint about our narrowing sense of “place.” Whether we live in cities or woods, nature flows through our lives like the blood in our veins and air in our lungs. There is no escaping the influence (“in-flowing”) of any flood, drought, or chemistry of the blood. So too “place” should reflect the biological––perhaps even molecular–– conditions under the influence of which human morality plays are acted out. To reduce “place” to local landscapes (and a few familiar place names) does too little justice to the power of environment. Landscape, used simply as a set to create the illusion of authenticity for social morality plays, assumes a merely decorative and sentimentally nostalgic function. As such landscape is a backdrop lacking force, is denied a say about how the play turns out. If novelists are indeed committed to holding mirrors up to nature, then they will have to look beyond the human faces that appear in them.

Ironically, the forces in our environment that shape our lives are often out of sight, offscreen; in fact, they often, and perhaps increasingly, originate in some other place or in some invisible and unnatural chemistry. The problem is how to give these forces presence, get them into the fictional world. It is not enough to try to get by with a little description now and then.

The difficult challenge writers face today has less to do with questions about structure and style addressed by so many workshops and classes than with what used to be called “content.” The real challenge is to keep learning more [real science] not only about the self but the world, natural and unnatural, and to write in such a way as to sustain what’s life-giving in our culture and environment.