NEW YORK — Move over, memoir writers. Make way for a genre that's as green as the grass and, in some ways, as old as the hills: nature writing.
On college campuses across the US, a growing number of students are slipping pen and notebook into backpack, making time for long, reflective walks in the great outdoors, and then recording their thoughts in a fashion more reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau than Irish author Frank McCourt. In the US, nature writing is a tradition at least as old as American transcendentalism, but a generation of students are coming to the genre anew.
Christine Utter, a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., says she liked the idea of creative writing, but remained a bit intimidated by the competitive edge she perceived in some classes.
Nature writing, she hoped, would offer "a less competitive atmosphere in which some real self-reflection was encouraged."
Students like Ms. Utter are finding they are just a stone's throw away from such courses. About 800 to 900 environmental literature classes are being offered on United States campuses - an increase of several hundred percent in about five years, according to Scott Slovick, founder of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE). Included in that count are courses that focus on creative writing as well as those that study established nature writers.
Mr. Slovick, associate professor of literature and the environment at the University of Nevada at Reno, says he founded ASLE for faculty teaching such courses in 1992. There were 54 members. Six years later, the association has more than 1,200 members.
Some instructors point out that the field is anything but new. John Elder, professor of English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., considers the publication of Thoreau's classic "Walden" in 1854 the beginning of American nature writing. He says he has long been involved in teaching nature writing classes.
But he notes that these days he's constantly being contacted by college and even high school teachers interested in adding nature writing to their course lists.
He calls such writing "a blending of science with personal life, a means of transcending merely personal concerns." Students may be opting for it, he says, because they are tired of the confessional nature of much contemporary fiction and creative writing.
The course Utter took at Dartmouth required both the study of some well-known nature writers, and keeping a journal as she learned to respond to nature. She found herself taking solitary walks in the rain, studying lightning storms as they retreated down a nearby river, and once, even gazing at an earthworm for half an hour. The course quickly became a favorite for her, a chance to experience a "kind of wonder at creation," she says.
H. Daniel Peck, professor of English and director of the new environmental studies development project at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says much of the current energy in the field is being fed by "a very strong concern for environmental issues in the culture at large, now making its way into academic studies."
He agrees that many of today's college students are restless with current approaches to literature, which have tended to become more and more theoretical. Nature writing, he says, is offering many students a means to "reconnect the study of literature to ethical and historical concerns."
Peck and Elder both see the classes they teach as very much within the tradition launched by "Walden." But Slovick points out that there is another branch of nature writing outside the Thoreau tradition. He draws attention to writers like Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya and the native American writer Leslie Silko, who have produced works of fiction also considered classics by many in the world of nature writing (see list at left).
Traditional nature-centered works from other cultures, such as Japanese haiku and Australian aboriginal writings, are also growing in popularity, adds Elder.
Many of the students taking these classes are already fascinated with the natural world. "I have always loved being in nature," says Mark Kutolowski, a junior at Dartmouth who took the same course Utter took. "I wanted to learn to see the world through the eyes of a nature writer." Brad Masi, a recent graduate of Oberlin (Ohio) College, says he took nature writing as a way "to experience my local place more, to become more aware of seasons, climates, birds."
But not all students share such desires - at least not at the outset. University of Nevada's Slovick says "the very best environmental literature" is exploratory writing that deals with "basic philosophical questions." One of the things that draws him to it is that much of the literature remains optimistic in tone, even though some of the genre's books - like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" - focus on environmental crises. "It suggests ways we can recreate our culture if we are more aware and change our lives."
As a result, Slovick's favorite kind of class is actually one full of students not particularly interested in nature. It's exciting, he says, to watch them make discoveries. Slovick treasures most the comments he hears at the end of the course, like "I never used to think about nature. I just used to get in my car and drive everywhere, but now I think about the implications of that." Or the most rewarding reaction of all: "I never used to ask questions about my life. Now I do."
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Here are some of the books considered classics in the world of nature writing. A few of the older works - such as those by Mary Austin and Aldo Leopold - were overlooked for a time, but are enjoying a return to popularity.
Henry David Thoreau (1854)
MY FIRST SUMMER IN THE SIERRA
John Muir (1869, 1911)
THE LAND OF THE LITTLE RAIN
Mary Austin (1903)
A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC
Aldo Leopold (1949)
Rachel Carson (1962)
Edward Abbey (1968)
BLESS ME, ULTIMA
Rudolfo A. Anaya (1972, novel)
PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK
Annie Dillard (1974)
Leslie Silko (1977, novel)
Barry Lopez (1980)
Terry Tempest Williams (1990)
Gary Snyder (1974, poetry)