Activism Nature Writing

Missing people: context and honesty in nature writing

Replied to by Antonia Malchik (On the Commons)

Maybe mothers can’t write about nature in a way that excludes other humans because they don’t have days that exclude other humans, Dungy said. And beyond that, far more than that, it’s a problem rather than an asset that so many people are able to write book after book about the wonders of nature and their love for it without including hints of what is going on in human society at the time. That they don’t have the imagination to think that you can write about struggles against prejudice and injustice and rivers.

“I have grown intolerant of that. I can’t be fully interested and engaged in writing that seems to erase me. Because all of those concerns about civil rights struggles and women’s rights struggles and those kinds of things—if those don’t move forward, if they don’t get paid attention to, if they don’t get talked about, that negatively affects my ability to move forward in the world.” — Camille Dungy, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden

This is part of what I’m enjoying in Braiding Sweetgrass: her life is not separate from nature that she can ever set either aside, that her connection with nature and community are intertwined, that the way she relates to nature is dependent on her personal history and her family’s history and her people’s history. There’s no pretending nature is this pristine untouched place “untainted” by people (untouched nature is largely a myth anyway) because she recognizes how humans have played a part in the ecosystem — she even studies the indigenous practices for harvesting sweetgrass and sees indications that gathering sustainably actually keeps the population growing healthily — that human stewardship is part of the balanced ecosystem.

I used to only like nature photography that cropped out any hint of human habitation or presence, but now I appreciate photography like Laura McPhee’s, showing the relationship between humans and place. It feels more honest.

Enshrining the “purity” of nature isn’t helpful or accurate. I like that here in the northwest, I know enough to walk into a forest and recognize the signs that it’s been logged or mined — old cables still coiling out of the dirt, a lack of huge old-growth trees and a sameness to the age of the trees that are there, less species diversity, stumps with springboard notches. It’s forest, yes, but second growth, not at a successional end state like a mature old growth forest is. History is written in the trees.

In Washington, it’s hard to talk about forestry without talking about justice. Overlogging can destabilize the soil and contribute to tragedies like the Oso mudslide — who is profiting, and who does it put at risk? Logging funds local schools, making it a choice between good schools and healthy forests (this may have changed in recent years? I haven’t been tracking closely).

That doesn’t even touch on who has the rights to the land, given the tribal treaties we’re still not honoring and that the land was never ceded, but stolen. The Forest Service pays to construct the roads that corporations use to log — it’s a policy decision to subsidize logging of public lands to keep building materials plentiful and affordable. Is this the best use of public lands? Should we get more say in what happens to them?

And what about wildfires, which are becoming more and more common thanks to decades of fire suppression and climate change, but also becoming more dangerous because people are building on the fringes of the forest. Land grants associated with the railroads led to a horrible checkerboard pattern of public and private land throughout the West; people are building in the forest. Should we ask firefighters to risk their lives to save homes built in a habitat that’s meant to burn — literally some plants rely on fire for their seeds to grow — whose presence then prevents managed fires that could reduce future fire severity? Can logging help prevent fires if done appropriately?

Humans are inextricable from the landscape, and questions of justice echo through our lands and natural resources just as they do our cities. Land use decisions aren’t relegated to urban areas.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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