The Nature of Naturalists

By Ray Greenblatt

Nature writing was a literary genre in England while America was still colonizing. The public could read best sellers like Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653) and Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789). The best nature writing can be enjoyed for its fresh views of the flora and fauna of a certain environment as well as its stylistic uniqueness. Instead of dry scientific talk, it is important to keep a human being, no matter how tangentially, in the frame.

The following essay writers, for the most part, stay in the areas where they have grown up. They know the vicinity well, observing closely and originally. I have also thought that the titles of nature writing were especially intriguing—Signs and Seasons, Land of Lingering Snow, Gift from the Sea, Outermost House, Sea Room.

So many reviewers have focused on the most popular nature writers like Annie Dillard, Edward Hoagland, Wendell Berry or Edwin Way Teale. Frankly, they are not my favorites. Robert Frost first mentioned “the road less traveled by.” In a roughly chronological order, I hope to lead you down some nature paths that to me are more unique in subject matter and writing style.


Although I earlier stated that I wanted to offer some unusual naturalists, we must commence with Thoreau. Although he was not aware of it during his short lifetime(1817-1862)—and wouldn’t accept it if he knew—he became the Dean of American nature writers. His style is superb: fresh imagery and insight into the biota, reference to many religions and philosophies, and remarkable control of a variety of sentence structure. Just these few traits alone mark him off as a consummate prose stylist.

He said that he traveled to faraway places by his armchair, but in truth he had left the Boston area to visit New York City, Cape Cod, Maine, Canada, and was in Minnesota when stricken for the final time with tuberculosis. In his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he and his brother John did indeed raft those rivers. Copies of that book, however, were stacked in tall piles in his family house, unsold. I, however, like this book as much as Walden for its richer prose and the journey he makes having a variety of adventures.

Here from the chapter “Thursday” is an example of direct narrative cleared of much imagery: “This was the limit of our voyage, for a few hours more in the rain would have taken us to the last of the locks, and our boat was too heavy to be dragged aroundthe long and numerous rapids which would occur. On foot, however, we continued up along the bank, feeling our way with a stick through the showery and foggy day, and climbing over the slippery logs in our path with as much pleasure and buoyancy as in brightest sunshine; scenting the fragrance of the pines and the wet clay under our feet, and cheered by the tones of invisible waterfalls; with visions of toadstools, and wandering frogs, and festoons of moss hanging from the spruce trees, and thrushes flitting silent under the leaves; our road still holding together through that wettest of weather, like faith, while we confidently followed its lead . We managed to keep our thoughts dry, however, and only our clothes were wet. It was altogether a cloudy and drizzling day, with occasional brightenings in the mist, when the trill of the tree sparrow seemed to be ushering in sunny hours.”


 No, not Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame nor William Burroughs of drug infamy. John Burroughs (1837-1921) was the successor to Thoreau’s mantel of foremost American naturalist.  Burroughs knew Walt Whitman and wrote the first authoritative biography of him, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867). For a while Burroughs lived in Washington on a farm were he recounted that he could hit the White House if he tossed a stone. He eventually moved back to his roots in the Hudson River Valley, where he developed an apple orchard for subsistence. In that time he wrote twenty-five volumes of delightful nature essays, all readable, lucid, and educational to all.

In the chapter “River View,” Burroughs examines the sounds of ice shifting on the Hudson River on a momentarily thawing day mid-winter: “A cannonade indeed! As the morning advanced, out of the sunshine came peal upon peal of soft mimic thunder; occasionally becoming regular crash, as if all the ice batteries were discharged at once. As noon approached, the sound grew to one continuous mellow roar, which lessened and became more intermittent as the day waned, until about sundown it was nearly hushed. Then, as the chill of night came on, the conditionswere reversed, and the ice began to thunderunder the effects of contraction . . .

This expansive force of the sun upon the ice is sometimes enormous. I have seen the ice explode with a loud noise and a great commotion in the water, and a huge crack shoot like a thunderbolt from shore to shore. This icy uproar is like thunder, because it seems to proceed from something in swift motion; you cannot locate it; it is everywhere and yet nowhere. There is something strange and phantom-like about it. To the eye all is still and rigid, but to the ear all is in swift motion.”


In 1942 in the book New England: Indian Summer (1865-1915), U. S. literary historian, Van Wyck Brooks, is conversational, amiable and very informative: “Bradford Torrey edited Thoreau’s journals; and Frank Bolles made a famous journey up the Concord River with his fellow-Cantabrigian, William Brewster, whose Concord home was called ‘October Farm.’” (p. 338) Thus we meet a triumvirate of Harvard men who greatly influenced nature writing.

Torrey wrote nature essays for The Atlantic Monthly, wandering from Maine to Florida. He said that compiling Thoreau’s journals took years off his life but was well worth it.  Many naturalists put great emphasis on birds in their habitat because of their many appealing qualities. Birds offer variety of colors, shapes, movements, songs; their very delicacy coupled with endurance causes wonder in humans.  Torrey knows birds well and has many adventures with them.

From the chapter “In the White Mountains”: “She scrambled out and limped away, repeating her innocent but hackneyed ruse. This time I was resolved not to be baffled. The nest was there, and I would find it. So down on my knees I got, and scrutinized the whole place most carefully. But though I had marked the precise spot, there was no sign of a nest. I was about giving over the search ignominiously, when I decried a slight opening between the overhanging roof of the bank and a layer of earth which some roots held in place close under it. Into this slit I inserted my fingers, and there, entirely out of sight, was the nest full of eggs. No man could ever have found it, had the bird been brave and wise enough to keep her seat. However, I had before noticed that the snow-bird, while often extremely clever in choosing a building site, is seldom very skillful in keeping a secret.”


After college Bolles remained to be a secretary at Harvard. His essay, “Night Alone on Lake Chocorua,” became popular to readers. He also explored Canada’s Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. In his successful book,” Land of the Lingering Snow,” he wanders through northern New England. Despite such a promising early life, Frank Bolles died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-eight (1856-1894).

Here in the chapter “Chocorua” Bolles is climbing the majestic Mt. Chocorua in the White Mountain range and pauses with his companions: “Upon the mighty shoulders thus formed rested the sharp horn of Chocorua, three thousand feet above the slender valley at its feet. We were so near to this mountain wall that it seemed to cover half the western sky. The haze concealed all its details of rough forest and stained precipice, leaving it a blue barrier crowding its jagged outlines into a golden sky. Through this sky, toward the edge of the lofty horn, the red sun was drifting and sinking. It did not seem far away, but so near that it might strike upon that menacing ledge of rock, and fall shattered down, forever down, into an endless abyss on the farther side.”


What made Frank Bolles and William Brewster famous during their lifetime was their famous canoeing trip on the Concord River, part of the same journey Thoreau had made forty years before.  Willam Brewster wrote ornithological articles for science journals. Afterwards, Brewster lived on his “October Farm,” keeping only journals. He died in 1919, but no effort was made to collect and publish these writings, which were much more personal and revealing, until 1937!

I’m especially fond of crows. To me they are a bunch of guys in black raincoats hanging out with cigarettes jutting from their beaks. Their interactions are quite familial. They can be taught to speak words; they seem to laugh at their own in-jokes. Crows and ravens referred to historically in literature—more recently by writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Barry Lopez—are legion. William Brewster writes a fascinating diary entry marked “Resident Crows with Peculiar Calls” (p. 246):

“Our locally-resident crows seemed disinclined to intermingle with alien ones invading their haunts on such occasions but instead busied themselves with their own affairs, in accustomed ways. That most if not all of them remain in Concord throughout the year is open to little doubt. Such, at least, is certainly the case with one particular bird whose unvarying and characteristic ‘caw-car-e-e’ (very strongly emphasized on the second syllable) has been heard at every season, for now a half a dozen or more years, in the neighborhood of our farm and at Ball’s Hill. Both localities have been frequented still longer, if less constantly, by another crow whose habitual, if not only, utterance (I have heard him give no other) is a deep-toned ‘oh-ah’ not unlike that of a barred owl and having acoustic qualities which render the sound extremely difficult to locate as regards distance and direction. Often I have thought its author far away when he was close at hand—or vice versa.


Richard Jefferies, like some authors we have met before him, lived a short life (1848-1887), dying of tuberculosis. However, into that short passage he crammed so much living with his large family and writing over twenty books, both novels and essay collections. He was British, growing up on a farm where his love of nature flourished. Although he gained considerable fame in his lifetime for his writings, his adult life was mostly a struggle with poverty. Yet it did not curtail his creativity. In a collection of essays made many years after his death, Jefferies pays homage to Gilbert White in the chapter “White of Selborne.” Ironically, we can interpret how this passage could refer to Jefferies himself:

“Here we branch off into abstruse scientific questions, and see how different minds may trace out the bearing of the same fact. The old naturalist at Selborne simply records it in language that could not be better chosen, highly delighted evidently, and taking a deep interest in it for its own sake. In the same manner anyone who has a taste for out-of-door observations may study natural history without any previous scientific learning. There is not the slightest need to know the Latin names of the birds in order to watch them, or of the flowers in order to gather them . . . You may find in Mr. White’s book a number of facts that will give plenty of occasions for exercising ingenuity. He will do more; he will suggest to you the way to make original notes—the spirit in which to look at nature.  Part of his success was owing to his coming to the field with a mind unoccupied. He was not full of evolution when he walked out, or variation, or degeneration.  He did not look for microbes everywhere. His mind was free and his eyes open.”


Eden Phillpotts (is there a more British name?) is one of those long-lived authors (1862-1960). In his career he wrote—as hard as it is to believe—over two hundred books. They were primarily novels based in Phillpotts’ home of Dartmoor, that rugged land in the southwest of England. This rare book of nature essays, My Devon Year, among all his fiction, focuses in the chapter titled “Harmony in Gold” on not only what grows in his part of the country but who grew there:

“At Hayes Barton a great spirit first saw the light and Walter Ralegh opened his new-born eyes on Devon. Prime hero of an age of heroes, the quintessence of that glorious, unrestful time was he; and the work that he did, with its harvest of knightly deeds and philosophic thoughts, and its ill portion of cruel death at a coward king’s hand—these are all part of the whole. Into the texture of Nature’s triumph are also woven man’s enduring work and worthiness; and a sunset glow of gratitude may linger over each right human harvest, even as the October sun gilds these huge plains and gratefully warms their perfection of achievement. The hedgerow and the fallow, the orchard and the grey tower set in yellow frame of pollarded elms, the distantcity and the smoke above ocean—all speak of man.”


Henry Beston presented a dashing appearance, ramrod tall and lean with a clipped mustache. He, like Hemingway in Italy, entered World War One as an ambulance driver but for the French. After the war and loving nature, he built a cabin, like Thoreau at Walden, on Cape Cod to observe the seasons. How many naturalists use the sea as a major theme, but Beston had a style that made his book a classic. Long after he married and moved to Maine to farm did this structure stand until a storm in 1978 swept it away. In the chapter “The Headlong Wave” Beston discusses the eternal sounds of the surf:

“The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primal wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.  I have heard them all, and of the three elemental voices, that of ocean is the most awesome, beautiful, and varied. For it is a mistake to talk of the monotone of ocean or of the monotonous nature of its sound.  The sea has many voices. Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea. And not only is the great sound varied in the manner of its making, it is also constantly changing its tempo, its pitch, its accent, and its rhythm, being now loud and thundering, now almost placid, now furious, now grave and solemn-slow, now a simple measure, now a rhythm monstrous with a sense of purpose and elemental will.”


It might be easy to dismiss this book as perhaps a potboiler because it has continued to be so popular from the day it was published. Presently it has sold three million copies and been translated into forty-five languages. But I find the writing understated yet wondrous. Anne (19060-2001) wrote other books but they were not nearly as successful. She flew around the world with her famous husband Charles and lived around the world.  Her exposure to the sea was from winters in Florida, living on the Maine coast, on an island off France, and in Hawaii.

Right from the opening of “Gift from the Sea” she relates directly to the overworked, tired contemporary person, regardless of gender, and the necessity to take a vacation and relax. She writes in “The Beach”: “And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense—no—but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps achanneled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut.”

I think the most compelling chapter is Anne’s conclusion to her adventures along the shore. From the chapter “The Beach at My Back”: “When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle. We find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth.

The waves echo behind me. Patience-Faith-Openness, is what the sea has to teach. Simplicity-Solitude-Intermittency . . . But there are other beaches to explore. There are more shells to find. This is only a beginning.”


From her twenties on, May Sarton was known as a poet with twelve books to her credit and a novelist with over twenty books, among the most popular, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Then nearing fifty she wrote the first in a series of collected journals, the genre which would cap her popularity and keep her fulfilled till her death. Sarton’s kind of “nature” is often interior.  Here is a spectrum of her entries.

This is her feeling about losing a pet (p.18): “In some ways the death of an animal is worse than the death of a person. I wonder why. Partly it is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal, and also there is total dependency. I kept thinking as I drove home, this is all inside me, this grief, and I can’t explain it, nor do I want to, to anyone.”

About the house she lives in (p. 10): “If there is one irresistible piece of magic here among many others, it is the slightly curving path down to the sea that begins in flagstones on the lawn, cuts through two huge junipers, and proceeds, winding its way down to Surf Point, through the wood lilies in June, to tall grasses in summer, the goldenrod and asters in September, leading the eye on, creating the atmosphere of a fairy tale, something open yet mysterious that every single person who comes here is led to explore.”

Finally, the worth of a journal itself (p. 79): “If a journal is to have any value either for the writer or any potential reader, the writer must be able to be objective about what he experiences on the pulse. For the whole point of a journal is this seizing of events on the wing. Yet the substance will come not from the narration but from the examination of experience, and an attempt, at least, to reduce it to essence.”


Although Barry Lopez was born and raised in New York, he quickly took to nature. In his approach to nature, he also developed a unique style that bridges fiction and non-fiction and even holds poetic elements. “Crow and Weasel,” “Lessons from the Wolverine,” “Light Action in the Caribbean,” “Of Wolves and Men,” “Arctic Dreams.”  Would you know that the first three titles were fiction, the last two, nonfiction? For his unique style and his contributions to preserving the wilds, Lopez has received a variety of awards: The National Book Award, John Burroughs Medal, PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Award, Fellowship of the Explorers Club—to name just a few.

In the chapter titled “Dawn,” a woman experiences the sensual freedom of water: “The water lifted her up and when she spread her legs let her down.  She closed her eyes and let the water break around her nose and lifted, against her breasts, arched her back, the current against her hips, opened her legs and sank down. She imagined herself among salmon (against her, opened her legs and sank down), swimming gently among salmon (lifting, sank down), until the light seemed much brighter, birds quieter, and she was wide-eyed, afraid of being seen, that the privacy of her morning had broken like an eggshell, and she came out on the bank.

She sat down on the bank in the print dress, the sunlight prickling with the coolness of the river over her and feeling the movement of air over the rock. She dried her eyes with the hem of the dress and saw in the island of hair between her legs suspended—she was overcome with tenderness—two small bits of alder leaf, bright green.”


Adam Nicolson belongs to a famous family of British writers. His grandparents were Harold Nicolson and Victoria Sackville-West, an intimate friend of Virginia Woolf. They owned Sissinghurst Castle, unique for its extensive gardens of mostly white flowers. Their son Nigel, Adam’s father, in 1937 bought a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides where Adam spent his summers. Eventually his father gave the island to him. In the following passage from Chapter 16, Adam observes how generations keep a tradition alive:

“He made the gift a real one, allowing me freedom from the moment the deed was signed. A connection remained.  I told him once that buying the Shiants was the best thing he had ever done and I could see that the words moved him, more I think because I had said them than because he believed it. The Shiants have been a conduit between us for years, a way of talking about something we both loved without ever having to say that we did. He wrote to me once at school about ‘a cloud of midges hanging around your head on a still evening you-know-where’—and I can still remember the feeling that enveloped me then of an almost overwhelming sense of connectedness and significance, of this deep intimacy which a common affection for you-know-where could provide. Nothing else was quite so free or rich. That is the feeling which has fuelled the writing of this book and which I want to give Tom: not the islands but our shared attachment to them.” 

In conclusion, I have come to see that travel writing and nature writing are close companions in many ways. The stress, however, in travel writing is a broader sweep; after all, the travel writer encounters at least another country, if not more than one. The nature writer often stalks boundaries he has known his entire life. He gets to know the minutest uniquenesses right under his nose; we too must bend with him and peer closely to appreciate those things.