Women in the Wild
You might have the impression that Nature Writing is a genre dominated by men. At least, it’s their names that often spring to mind: Henry David Thoreau, Jack London, Peter Matthiessen, Farley Mowat, Peter Wohlleben… But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a wealth of extraordinary women who have explored, in person and on paper, the planet’s deserts, forests, rivers, plants and animals.
The latest addition to the genre is Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder (Douglas & McIntyre, 2020), a memoir by Julia Zarankin, an urban birder and member of the Toronto chapter of The Feminist Bird Club, who abandoned a tenure-track position at an American university when, almost against her will, she fell in love with birding. In addition to tales of tracking warblers and cedar waxwings, Zarankin chronicles her upbringing (her parents were Russian-immigrant concert pianists), her career as a scholar of Russian literature, her divorce and a second marriage, all told in a thoughtful, irresistibly humorous and altogether charming manner.
It’s fascinating to take a look at some of Zarankin’s nature-writing forebears, such as Susan Fenimore Cooper, the American author and amateur naturalist whose Rural Hours (1850) was published anonymously (identified only as being “by a lady”) and is said to have inspired Thoreau. (And yes, she was the daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, he of Last of the Mohicans.) There’s Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, the adventurous and unconventional Dane renowned for her memoir Out of Africa (1937), and Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, early conservationist and bestselling author, whose Silent Spring (1962) inspired our modern-day environmental movement.
The classics of contemporary American nature writing include Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), by Annie Dillard, which earned the then 29-year-old housewife a Pulitzer Prize. Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo Indian storyteller, writes about aspects of nature and botany in works such as Sacred Water, Rain and Gardens in the Dunes, while more recent additions to the genre include two highly acclaimed books by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a professor of Environmental and Forest Biology: Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003) and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants (2013), which weaves together tales of ancient pecan trees, water lilies, lichens and more, combining the sacred and the scientific.
Among African American nature writers are Camille T. Dungy, a poet and the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009), and Carolyn Finney, who calls herself “storyteller, author, cultural interrogator and accidental environmentalist” and aims to “increase awareness of how privilege shapes who gets to speak to environmental issues and determine policy and action.” Finney’s contribution to American nature writing is titled Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (2014).
Must-reads for fans of nature writing are titles by the bestselling English writer, illustrator, historian and falconer Helen Macdonald, such as H is for Hawk (2014), about how she coped with her father’s death by caring for a goshawk, and her recent essay collection, Vesper Flights (2020), in which she tackles topics such as ostrich farming, mushroom hunting and migraines, all the while offering hope and comfort for our particularly challenging times.
Returning to Canada, we encounter Diana Beresford-Kroeger, botanist, biochemist and author, who writes passionately about our forests in works such as The Global Forest: Forty Ways Trees Can Save Us (Viking Penguin, 2010); Sharon Butala, who has devoted several books, including The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature (HarperCollins, 1994), to describing her beloved Saskatchewan; and Charlotte Gill, the author of Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Greystone Books, 2012), a memoir about the 20 years she spent as a tree planter, which, to quote Canadian Geographic magazine “takes readers into a world of extreme beauty, devastation, adventure and boredom.”
Indeed, the newcomer, birder Julia Zarankin, finds herself in very esteemed company.