In honor of Earth Day, here’s a thought-provoking piece on why—in the year 2006—nature writing needs a reality check.
It’s called “13 Ways of Seeing Nature in LA” and the author is Jenny Price, a nature writer based in Los Angeles, a fact that often inspires disbelief among her friends. In fact, she argues, LA is the best place to tackle the sort of stories about the earth that she feels need to be told.
In the past twenty-five years, the venerable American literature of nature writing has become distressingly marginal. . . the core trouble is that nature writers have given us endless paeans to the wonders of wildness since Thoreau fled to Walden Pond, but need to tell us far more about our everyday lives in the places we actually live.
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Price argues for stories that are closer to the reality of the urbanized world we live in, which is intricately connected to nature in little-recognized ways. These include what she calls “mango body whip stories”–tales that trace the many-layered connections between a popular LA product like mango body whip and a constellation of people and natural resources far from the stores in which it is sold (farmworkers, pesticides, oil, etc.).
Mango body whip stories, in other words, look for and follow the nature we use, and watch it move in and out of the city, to track specifically how we transform natural resources into the mountains of stuff with which we literally build cities and sustain our urban lives.
I’d argue, though, that we’re further along than Price thinks—that people are hungry for more complex, citified stories about nature. Sightline’s book Stuff is one example, a slim volume published in 1996 that traces the “secret lives” of products such as computers and and shoes—and is still flying off our bookshelves after 10 years. I’m heartened by the success of magazines like Grist, which recently explored the relationship between poverty and the environment; and of an increasing number of news stories that connect the dots on nature, the environment, cities, globalization, poverty, food.
But Price’s point is well-taken. I love her call to action.
if there’s any one argument I could persuade you of, it’s that our foundational nature stories should see and cherish our mundane, economic, utilitarian, daily encounters with nature—so that what car you drive and how you get your water and how you build a house should be transparent acts that are as sacred as hiking to the top of Point Mugu in the northern Santa Monica Mountains and gazing out over the Pacific Ocean to watch the dolphins leap, the ducks float, and the sun set.