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taxonomy of nature writing

January 19, 2009

Thomas J. Lyon, This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (Hougthon Mifflin, 1989). Lyon edits this anthology of American Nature writing and offers in his introduction an attempt to provide some critical perspective on the genre. You will notice that it pre-dates the emergence of ‘eco-criticism’ (coming later in the 1990s). In that sense, in dealing with ‘nature writing’ (with Thoreau at the center) and its contexts in literary history, and in providing a taxonomy or categorization of the different types of nature writing, Lyon’s perspective may well be viewed by ecocritics today as quaint. (In fact, I believe the anthology is out of print). However, Lyon makes an important point, I think, in emphasizing the following:

Nature writing itself, in any case, would not rest easily in any static system, prizing as it does vitality and variety, the virtues of its subject. The categories offered here are meant simply to show the breadth of the spectrum and to help indicate some of the special powers each type within the genre may possess. (7)

He emphasizes further that this virtue of dynamic ‘system’ is an ecological perspective that he sees in nature writing: the ‘wakening of perception to an ecological way of seeing’ that leads, ultimately to an ethical implication: “the turning of our attention to the natural world tends to subvert our anthropocentric heritage.” (xv)

So Lyon’s ‘nature writing’ is not as quaint as we might suppose. In any case, here are his categories. He defines the ‘literature of nature’ as having three central dimensions: “natural history information, personal responses to nature, philosophical interpretation of nature. He then offers this spectrum of writing about nature (focusing on, as we are in this course, nonfiction or expository writing–primarily essays–on experiences in nature):

  • field guides and professional papers (ex: Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to Western Birds)
  • natural history essays (ex: John Muir)
  • rambles (ex: Dillard, Pilgrim)
  • solitude and back-country living (ex: Thoreau, Walden)
  • travel and adventure (ex Lopez, Arctic Dreams)
  • farm life (ex: Wendell Berry)
  • man’s role in nature (ex: John Burroughs)

Of course, to complicate this taxonomy–but also perhaps to prove Lyon’s point–we could put Thoreau (possibly Dillard as well) into any of these categories.

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