Writing About Nature

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The forest beckons. Photo: Ihtisham Kabir

For most of us who live in cities, walking inside a forest, climbing a hill, taking a boat ride through the countryside, or even standing in an endless open field c­an be a liberating experience evoking a myriad of emotions and feelings. When we are surrounded by nature, we can leave behind our everyday thoughts and worries and, consciously or otherwise, reconnect to the primeval umbilical cord that binds us to this earth. Some of us feel poetic, some want to explore the interconnectedness of life, others remember their childhood playing in the grass, while yet others think of ways to preserve nature for future generations. Some are lucky enough to have an epiphany or a flash of insight. For most of us, spending time in nature is a deep and profound experience that, more often than not, leaves us yearning for more.

Writers have written about their experience in nature for a long time. These writings communicate the experience as well as educate and inform the reader. Today, perhaps because of the sense of urgency created by climate change, nature writing has gained renewed importance. The genre has a new name: it is called “Environmental Writing.”

Environmental writing is one of the strongest and most original branches of American literature where it finds its roots in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as well as the writings of John Muir, John James Audubon and other pioneering conservationists.  More modern classics include Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. You may not have read these works, but chances are you have read these classic lines of environmental writing from the poet Robert Frost: “the woods are lovely, dark and deep/but I have promises to keep/and miles to go before I sleep.”

While the styles and narratives of these disparate works vary, the authors have one thing in common. They have spent a long time outdoors, in nature, contemplating, observing, following, often being challenged and facing difficulties but ultimately having an illuminating experience they want to share.

Why is time spent in the field so important? Because it takes time to observe significant details. For example, I knew that baby dragonflies (called nymphs) hatch and live underwater. But I puzzled how the adult female dragonfly lays its eggs on water until I read, in Dillard’s book, that it does so by flying so close to water that its belly skims the surface, releasing the eggs. Dillard made this discovery only after patient observation and her writing completed the connection for me. Sure enough, after the heavy rains, I observed dragonflies perform the same trick over water in a submerged road in Purbachol.

With a few notable exceptions – Jibananda Das, Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, Buddhodeb Guho – environmental writing was, until very recently, scarce in the literature of our land. This is despite the rich biodiversity and natural beauty of the region. Fortunately, along with budding naturalists, birders, explorers and mountain-climbers, a group of mostly younger environmental writers has emerged in Bangladesh today. Fortunate, because as we stand at the threshold of middle-income nationhood, it is vital that our people know about our natural treasures so they can make informed decisions on matters impacting our environment, and these writers can educate the public on this matter. After all, if you don’t know what you have, how can you save it?