An urban denizen beseeches nature writers to focus on cities for a change
A plea to nature writers: Come write about Los Angeles. To all the young aspiring Thoreaus out there: Head to this megalopolis in droves, as if to Mecca. Chicago is also good. New York. Pittsburgh. Atlanta. Reno. Providence. Houston. Indianapolis.
Why does the venerable American literary genre of nature writing continue to ignore cities? Sure, a few wonderful writers are traveling the mean streets: very recently, Michael Pollan has rooted urgently through our supermarkets and kitchens. But when I browse the state-of-the-genre bible, the 2002 Norton anthology of nature writing, I can find only two essays — out of the 83 written after 1960 — that explore people’s connections to nature in the places where most of us live.
It is long past time for Thoreau to get on the bus. In the 1960s and ’70s, this literature provided vital nourishment to the environmental movement, and especially to the drive for wilderness preservation. But environmentalists have moved forward, to devote increasing energy to sustainable resource use, livable cities, and environmental justice — and to emphasize the connections between preserving the wilds in some places and living in nature well in others.
Nature writing generally has not moved on. It has remained, on the whole, a refuge for personal meditations on the soul-saving power of wildness in our modern urban lives. As a consequence, nature writing has lost its essential relevance as well as much of its audience, and environmentalism has lost its muse. Here in L.A., I’ve taken my own informal opinion survey, which is far from scientific. I just ask colleagues, friends, and family what they think of nature writing. When the most passionate environmental activists I know say “yeechh” and the college students say “huh?” then I suspect we have a problem.
So what would a literature of nature look like that roots around seriously in cities — and that does justice to environmentalists’ wildly proliferating progressive efforts to figure out how to live in nature?
I think that the literature should tell stories that ask at least five questions.
One, what and where are the wild things? Thoreauvians have been good at asking this question, which is an indispensable one. What is this wondrous and insanely complex earth we inhabit, and how exactly does it work?
Two, how do people use nature as resources? Consider, as a close-at-hand example, my coconut hair conditioner, manufactured in a factory in southeast L.A. with coconuts from … well, where? How (and where in the world) do people grow, ship, transform, buy, and sell the coconuts that keep my hair shiny? And how sustainably? We need natural histories of iMacs, bicycles, refrigerators, baseball caps, paper, Slinkys, Pringles, Manolo Blahniks, and, it goes without saying, Fords and Toyotas.
Three, how do people transform the landscapes they live in, and how does the nature — the particular climate, ecology, geology, vegetation, and wildlife — act back? In L.A., if you load nitrogen oxides into the air, the area’s climate and topography famously combine to deliver up heavy smog. When you introduce Chihuahuas to the mountains that L.A. is built into, the native coyotes will treat the dogs as snack food. How do we transform airsheds, manage rivers, pave, build, plant, manage fires, keep pets, and create lawns, parks, and gardens? And how could we do it all better?
The fourth question, and the one that nature writing has ignored most completely: How do different people encounter nature differently? And especially, who benefits and who suffers the worst consequences as we turn coconuts into hair conditioner and transform airsheds? I live on Venice Beach, one of the safest places to breathe in L.A. County. The most toxic air blows through southeast L.A., where the predominantly low-income, mostly Latino residents live near and work in L.A.’s abundant factories. These neighborhoods are also remarkably poor in green park space. How equitably — not just sustainably — do we inhabit nature?
And the fifth question: How do people imagine and understand nature? In L.A., perhaps the single most enduring myth about the city is that this semiarid spot on earth is a desert. It’s not, but ideas can be powerful: whenever it rains here, most of us promptly seem to forget that it might happen again. And ideas have real consequences: L.A. could actually supply the better part of its water through local supplies, but Angelenos tend to believe that we have to import most of it. Of course, perhaps the most consequential way of imagining nature is the popular American delusion, which nature writers have encouraged, that nature is where cities are not.
With these five questions, nature writers can tell stories that urge us to see and reimagine our crucially abundant connections to nature in cities: the nature stories that could be told about any one house in L.A. could marshal a small nouveau-Thoreauvian army. Nature scribes should exploit the considerable imaginative power of literature to show how the quality and equality of life in any city depends in great measure on how people use, change, and understand nature.
Above all, a vital body of nature writing should track the connections between cities and wildness, and between the nature we turn into streets and cars and the nature we leave alone. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” runs Thoreau’s cherished line. And certainly, to inhabit nature sustainably requires a whole lot of wildness, both within cities and without. But the reverse is also true. In the city is the preservation of wildness — since how we use and move nature around in L.A. and other global centers of population and economic power now largely determines the fate and health of ecosystems everywhere, from L.A. to my friend’s farm in Missouri to the Indonesian rainforests to the most inaccessible ice fields of Antarctica.
So come write about Los Angeles. Because to figure out how to inhabit nature in L.A. equitably and sustainably is to figure out how to build the cities we want and to preserve the wilderness we need. Write about Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, London, Athens, Nairobi, Beijing — because in the city, you could say, is now the preservation, as well as the great power, of nature writing.
Get Grist in your inbox