THR Web Features   /   September 23, 2015

Nature Writing Gets Personal

James McWilliams

( Cover detail from H Is for Hawk, the 2014 memoir by Helen Macdonald.)

We know a lot about Henry David Thoreau, and we should. He went to Harvard, worked in his father’s pencil factory, set up a school with his brother John, did odd jobs for Ralph Waldo Emerson, fought for John Brown, became a transcendentalist, battled tuberculosis and, most memorably, built a cabin and had deep thoughts on Walden Pond. These and other biographical details can be found and confirmed on Google. Go nuts.

But what we don’t know about Thoreau is how he actually felt about any of it. Thoreau’s writings, Walden in particular, offer the most compelling philosophical and naturalistic observations in the American canon, but the messier ingredients of inner life—suffering, exaltation, insecurity, angst, and the rest—barely register. This is not a criticism; after all, Thoreau’s private emotional existence may have been uninteresting (or even unavailable) to him. Even so, it’s worth noting that the father of American nature writing established a precedent of temperamental reserve that survived the confessional flood of the Victorian era, continued into the twentieth century, and, to a large extent, remains the norm today.

It seems safe to suggest that, throughout the history of American nature writing, lugging one’s emotional baggage into the natural world has been considered, if not bad form, inconsistent with the genre’s larger mission: to subsume “man” in the ineffable awesomeness of “nature.” “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau advised in Walden. It was in nature, after all, that the emotional angst of daily life was softened by the imperative of “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” It was in nature that the elemental purity of “eternity” rendered irrelevant the tangibly “thin current” of petty human preoccupation, a current too often infected with what Thoreau dismissed as the flotsam of modernity.

The theme of nature swallowing the individual into its majestic presence and, in turn, smothering the significance of personalized emotion, is further evident in Edward Abbey’s work, particularly Desert Solitaire. It’s pretty clear from the start that Abbey was one pissed-off cowboy—his precious Utah desert was about to become the plaything of the Army Corps of Engineers. But whenever he flirts with probing that anger he quickly permits the external landscape to cover the internal one like a security blanket. After a sarcasm-fueled screed against the corporatization of Arches National Park, he ultimately finds solace in an essential Thoreauvian position: “each rock and shrub and tree, each flower, each stem of grass, diverse and separate, vividly isolate, yet joined each to every other in a unity which generously includes me and my solitude as well.” And there you have it: oneness with nature, followed by quietude, followed by resolution. Again, this is fine. But even if, as one of my students suggested, Abbey mythologized wild nature to prevent human nature from going off the rails, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of literature his derailed fury might have generated had it been allowed to slam freely into the red rocks of the Utah desert.

It is with this prospect in mind that Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild strike me as novel—if not revolutionary—takes on an old (and very male-dominated) genre. Both books handle personal rage the way a thumb pressed to a hose handles water. They release the surging pressure in sharp, barely contained bursts, and to great effect. Both women have suffered the inner turmoil of a beloved parent’s untimely or unexpected death, a death that initiates an unraveling managed through a sort of “fear factor” interaction with nature: Strayed mourns her mother by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail; MacDonald mourns her father by training a fierce goshawk (Mable) to hunt. After situating themselves in a “wild” context, both women do what the entire history of nature writing has implicitly instructed them not to do: they bring their emotional backpacks into the landscape. Their shattered emotional selves take root. And within pages, environmental writing as we know it gets turned on its head.

Most notably, the timeless wonder of nature yields to the ephemera of personal grief. The internal landscape harbors the external one. The power of emotion rather than the grandeur of wilderness accounts for the awe. In a typical passage, Strayed writes, “As I walked, scratchy plants I couldn’t identify grazed my calves. Others I knew seemed to speak to me, saying their names to me in my mother’s voice.” In another reference to wildflowers she writes, “As I passed them, I felt the presence of my mother so acutely that I had the sensation she was there; once I even paused to look around for her before I could go on.” MacDonald, too, noting how “the narcissism of the bereaved is very great,” allows that narcissism  to privilege her sense of self over any reverence for wilderness. “When the hawk was on my fist,” she writes, “I knew who I was.” These women interact with the natural world with all the intimacy of a John Muir or Aldo Leopold, but neither cedes their full identity to nature in the exchange. To the contrary, they reclaim it, with their sadness refracting around them like buckshot. “The archeology of grief,” observes MacDonald, “is not ordered.”

None of this is to suggest that nature is incidental to the grief. Instead, each writer experiences a transition that could only have happened by dealing with something feral, even anarchic. Strayed, who acknowledges never having read Muir’s book as she hikes the territory he mapped in My First Summer in the Sierra, is so wrecked by the physicality of her quest that the effort “to bear the unbearable” initially refers to her backpack rather than her mother. But that changes. As she nears the trail’s completion, the unbearable is borne out in Strayed’s realization that her mother, although dead at forty-five, had in fact unleashed from her heart lifetimes of love. “She did. She did. She did,” writes Strayed. “She hadn’t held back a thing, not a single lick of love.” And so it goes with MacDonald and her father, a photographer whose last snap was a frozen blur taken from the ground where his body had fallen from a heart attack. Leaving the undertaker’s office, weighed down by “a great and simple sadness,” MacDonald is gripped by the memory of a heavenly scrim of spider silk over a field where she had recently flown her hawk. “It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and the wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them.” Because of her hawk, she eventually sees what she must see, and with rare clarity.

It’s tempting to run with the idea that these writers are in the process of redefining a sacred genre. Perhaps Strayed and MacDonald (and you might add in Rebecca Solnit here) represent a form of nature writing that captures the sober resolution of the anthropocene. Perhaps their trust in raw emotion is an implicit recognition that while the earth itself might be a lost cause, the human heart is not. Perhaps this idea deserves some thought. Perhaps. But for now it’s safe to acknowledge that, indeed, we know a lot about Henry David Thoreau. But we know even more about Cheryl Strayed and Helen MacDonald. And we should.