The Greatest Nature Essay Ever

Photo: Lucy Goodhart
Photo: Lucy Goodhart

. . .would begin with an image so startling and lovely and wondrous that you would stop riffling through the rest of the mail, take your jacket off, sit down at the table, adjust your spectacles, tell the dog to lie down, tell the kids to make their own sandwiches for heavenssake, that’s why god gave you hands, and read straight through the piece, marveling that you had indeed seen or smelled or heard exactly that, but never quite articulated it that way, or seen or heard it articulated that way, and you think, man, this is why I read nature essays, to be startled and moved like that, wow.

The next two paragraphs would smoothly and gently move you into a story, seemingly a small story, a light tale, easily accessed, something personal but not self-indulgent or self-absorbed on the writer’s part, just sort of a cheerful nutty everyday story maybe starring an elk or a mink or a child, but then there would suddenly be a sharp sentence where the dagger enters your heart and the essay spins on a dime like a skater, and you are plunged into waaay deeper water, you didn’t see it coming at all, and you actually shiver, your whole body shimmers, and much later, maybe when you are in bed with someone you love and you are trying to evade his or her icy feet, you think, my god, stories do have roaring power, stories are the most crucial and necessary food, how come we never hardly say that out loud?

The next three paragraphs then walk inexorably toward a line of explosive Conclusions on the horizon like inky alps. Probably the sentences get shorter, more staccato. Terser. Blunter. Shards of sentences. But there’s no opinion or commentary, just one line fitting into another, each one making plain inarguable sense, a goat or even a senator could easily understand the sentences and their implications, and there’s no shouting, no persuasion, no eloquent pirouetting, no pronouncements and accusations, no sermons or homilies, just calm clean clear statements one after another, fitting together like people holding hands.

Then an odd paragraph, this is a most unusual and peculiar essay, for right here where you would normally expect those alpine Conclusions, some Advice, some Stern Instructions & Directions, there’s only the quiet murmur of the writer tiptoeing back to the story he or she was telling you in the second and third paragraphs. The story slips back into view gently, a little shy, holding its hat, nothing melodramatic, in fact it offers a few gnomic questions without answers, and then it gently slides away off the page and off the stage, it almost evanesces or dissolves, and it’s only later after you have read the essay three times with mounting amazement that you see quite how the writer managed the stagecraft there, but that’s the stuff of another essay for another time.

And finally the last paragraph. It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or that you actually have not voted in the past two elections despite what you told the kids and the goat. Nor is there a rimshot ending, a bang, a last twist of the dagger. Oddly, sweetly, the essay just ends with a feeling eerily like a warm hand brushed against your cheek, and you sit there, near tears, smiling, and then you stand up. Changed.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He is the author of nine books of essays, nonfiction, and “proems.” His most recent book is Mink River, winner of ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award for Editor’s Choice –Fiction (2010).


  1. Brian, Thank you for sharing. I moved with your words through each paragraph. And surprisingly at the end, I really felt as though I had been reading a truly great nature essay, almost simultaneously with your essay. I very much enjoyed the imagery.

  2. Thank you for this, brilliantly done. I feel this way when I read Annie Dillard’s essays.

  3. Who made the b/w photographic image at the head of your column? When you wrote “image” I thought you were referring to this epigraphic view, which is lovely but not forceful enough to do what your written image purported to accomplish.

  4. In other words, the greatest nature essay ever moves like a poem? Imagery and metaphor, showing and not telling, all in as tight and concise a space as possible given the form and genre?

  5. Ah yes, changed. What all us nature mystics aspire to do and how skillfully you worked the other side of the mirror, seeing us seeing you writing to us turning on a dime, change changing indeed . . . .

  6. The Greatest Comment Ever on ‘The Greatest Nature Essay Ever’ would begin with a compliment on the author’s deft use of words, words like flowing water, organic sentences sprouting one from the other like vines climbing up and over a wall and into the sunlight. The compliment would be short, just a sentence or two, complimentary of course, ending with a quiet phrase such as, ‘nicely done Brian Doyle.’

  7. Reminds me of Abbott’s Waste-land Wonderings.
    Though it must belong to conservatives, I see something fresh and new.

  8. Brian, congratulations on a finely constructed piece. I liked it to much I’m going to feature it in my December newsletter and will mention it on my blog ( With credits to Orion, of course, whose link is already on my blog. I lead outdoor writing adventures and look forward to sharing your piece with clients.

  9. I don’t know why I was led down the path that led to Portland Magazine Brian Doyle but I followed it today on the day that I needed to find it. Thank you.

  10. Very, very beautiful and inspirational.

  11. As what I expect is becoming usual, for me, when I read an essay of You: Yeah! When I read your Essays it feels like my grandmother has just offered me a magnificent bowl of fruit. There’s not a duplicate in the basket. I just heard you speak at In Praise of the Essay, and I was the one, with my daughter at my side, who was overcome with both laughter and tears, a shaken, not stirred mixture of the two. When you’d waltz our way with your emphatic delivery of your heart on that delicate platter, I got a real sense of you. And then, as soon as you were through, and not a moment later, I opened up the issue of your Portland review, and there, on the inside cover you delivered again that same heart on the same delicate platter, when you gave me “All Legs and Curiosity.” And I thought, this man has the power to make Women Burst into tears! And I did, right there at that table. And as I tried to compose myself, my daughter at my side, age 17 having visited Fordham in the Bronx not some 15 hours before, I hand the issue over to the woman at my side. She’s told me her daughter will soon be to school, but she has serious peanut allergies, and the delicacy of finding the right roommate for that situation has her beside herself, knowing there are things she can’t control.

    I think to myself, I need to talk to this guy. What and how he says it and What he writes are delivered the Very same. But, I shy a way.

    I go home and I find a Brevity Gem: the one you wrote about your children, and you being a stone. I’m filled up again, and I post it on My facebook, and one of my more sensitive man friends, who’s really a real friend, leaves a sensitive comment, and I realize then, This Man has the Power to Make Men cry too! And I decide there and then, He needs to be my mentor too. Will You?

  12. What on earth is this all about? Was ist das?

  13. A massive loss in natural disaster is afoot if you don’t stop writing essays so nobody will remember the images anyhow. So something helpful. Dreamers dream, ideas create ideologies.

  14. brian ilove u very much for a beautiful poem . i delivered the ur nature essay & i got 1’st prize thank u a lot brian

  15. Can someone tell me what a nature essay is about?
    Particularly this one

  16. Can someone tell me what a nature essay is about?
    Particularly this one

    I’m trying to answer some questions for my school assignment.

    (Eng.Comp 101)

    Thank you,
    Cliff G

  17. I just want to make sure this is the same Brian Doyle who wrote Joyas Volardores. Both beautifully written!

  18. I agree with @melvin, The Same River twice is my favorite essay of all time.

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