Once upon a time there was a genre called nature writing. It was thoughtful and earnest, poetic and deep. It was built on a tradition — a transcendental, antisocial, largely pastoral tradition. It grew and flourished to the point where it even earned its own little section in the bookstore, where everyone who wanted to read it knew where to find it . . . and those who were looking more broadly for something good to read wouldn’t likely stumble over it again. There it sat, isolated from those works more generally known as literature. Writers began to fear being placed there. Over time, even those who originally embraced it would come to reconsider the value of the box.
Orion has periodically suffered a similar fate, having been grouped with what are known in the industry as “niche” magazines. Never was it the intention of Orion’s founders and editors to create an environmental magazine — that is to say, a publication about a particular subject. Orion approaches nature and environmental concerns as a context. It grows out of the belief that “environment” is no more a niche interest than eating; that “nature” is just another name for everything that is. In fact, once you apply such a label to the writing that appears in this magazine, you’ve very nearly missed the point.
Thankfully, just as climate change is becoming something that you ought to be concerned about whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, nature writing too is coming unbound. Today, writing in which environment looms large pervades all publishing media, from books to magazines, newspapers to NPR commentaries, and all across the blogosphere. It takes the form of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and essays, and all sorts of genre-bending combinations of all these things. And it is increasingly hard to categorize. This evolution is due in part to a new generation of writers who are expanding the bounds of writing about nature such that it is becoming less a subgenre than a vital part of literature (no adjective required). But it’s also true that many of the luminaries are writers who never should have been put in the box in the first place, writers whose work has a much wider relevancy and deserves a much wider audience.
This is the danger of labels, and it’s why the dissolution of nature writing is a good thing. Breaking down the false construct between humans and the rest of nature will be just as necessary, if we are going to evolve a culture suited to the limits of the Earth. The good news is that these two endeavors are in fact one. A literature grounded in the natural world, as alive as the world beyond the pages —narratives that chronicle lives lived, as all are, in places — is as humbling as it is compelling. It can have a sort of Trojan horse effect, whereby the writing itself earns a place in people’s hearts and, once there, can promote the idea that nature is what makes us human, that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. The more people relish this good literature, the more they come to understand the danger we are in ecologically speaking, the better the chances that humanity will rise to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
This magazine was founded on the notion that writers and artists can precipitate change — indeed are those most likely to touch us in ways that might compel us to change. Now that environmental writing is officially out of the box, the potential of Orion is magnified a hundredfold.
Well, it still sounds rather hopeful to me. There are still the coal lobby, big oil and a hundred other forces resisting change or ignoring danger. We must still get our message heard, in places where it doesn’t naturally resonate. This requires, it seems to me, local, personal face-to-face interactions, not just reading.
“…the better the chances that humanity will rise to meet the challenges that lie ahead”
Let us hope not. Every time we’ve “risen” to meet perceived challenges, we’ve left behind a trail of unintended consequences.
Instead, humanity needs to descend into an authentic humility and leave well enough alone.
Excellent. Our failure to put our problems in their deep and universal context dooms us to short term fixes. The environmental problem is a problem of human consciousness. Solutions that bypass the need for deep transformation of the human mind, ignore the real source of our difficulties. The means to change people at depth exist. Until we commit to developing small groups to facilitate birthing a new mind, we will continue to work within the very unexamined world views and false narratives that are trapping us in repetitive cycles of failure, i.e. â€œrevolutionsâ€, â€œnew dealsâ€, â€œhopeâ€ etc.
Consciousness raising groups were the cutting edge tool that changed many womenâ€™s minds as to who they were beyond the narratives they had unconsciously bought into, and made real liberation possible for the first time. This was an example of how a process that began with four women getting together to share deeply, led to major changes in society. There are other examples. Two men sharing their problems with alcohol led to a world movement involving millions of people. Not only did these folks stop drinking, but their lives were deeply changed in almost every dimension.
Today we face a matrix of problems that have the potential to destroy us and much of the life on our planet. Maybe it is time we got together and shared with each other what we are going to do about it? The changes that need to be made are not all â€œout thereâ€. The most crucial changes necessary are in each of our hearts, minds, and lives. From there, inside us, many things become possible. New women and men could bring a whole new energy and consciousness to the tired old games of our culture.
It really is worth trying. Time is short.
I could write an article outlining some useful principles for formatting these kinds of groups, based on my fifty years of participating in and helping start trans-formative gatherings. If there is interestâ€¦
I share your hope that “the more people relish this good literature, the more they come to understand the danger we are in ecologically speaking, the better the chances that humanity will rise to meet the challenges that lie ahead.” And I agree with Mike K. that “the environmental problem is a problem of human consciousness.” And with Riversong that “a trail of unintended consequences” has accompanied humanity’s rising to meet its challenges. And with Henry McHenry Jr. that change “requires…local, personal, face-to-face interactions” in addition to reading.
I would quibble, however, with the idea that literature–or the desire to care about something larger than oneself–must be smuggled into a person’s heart. I think our capacity to care, as evidenced by the writing in this magazine, is something that is innately human yet sadly corruptible by social forces larger than our ability to control (i.e. the inertia of history, etc). So perhaps instead of using the Trojan Horse, a war metaphor after all, we talked instead about awakening what is already latent in us all: our love for one another and this Earth. We may not need “to promote the idea that nature is what makes us human”–we may simply need to be more authentically human. The literature that would arise out of such a shift? That’s what I want to read.
Mike K: Thanks; I’m interested, anyway. I’ve been looking for a way to produce an interchange between opponents locally (Charlottesville)over the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining, maybe, or local water supply. Do you have suggestions for ways to invite people into authentic dialogue? (I’m email@example.com; and I’ve been in communication about this with Madeline Cantwell at the magazine, too. Shall we collaborate?)
Speak out as if you were a million voices.
It is silence that kills the world.
St. Catherine of Siena, 1347-1380