Criticism: LDS Literary Nature Writing, or the Lack Thereof

Literary nature writing has a strained reputation among LDS audiences, with some reason. It’s hard to forget that Ed Abbey, the crusty padre of nature writing, gave us the infamous Mormon character Bishop Love in The Monkey Wrench Gang, setting up Love’s vision of unlimited development of the West as being not only representative of Mormon attitudes about wilderness but also as natural enemy to environmentalist interests in the American Southwest.

I attended a reading Cactus Ed gave at BYU back in the early 80s, held in the Wilkinsen Center, I think. In an act of sympathetic anarchy, someone in the mostly Mormon audience slipped him a six-pack of German import beer. Abbey mingled with the reading attendees, all the while clutching his brown paper bag beneath his arm.

I saw him again in the late 80s at the University of Arizona, where he was on the faculty. As he drifted down the hall, a strange expression of serenity on his face, I heard other students also watching ask each other, “Well, do you think Ol’ Ed’s gonna to make it to class today?” Ed Abbey died March 14th, 1989, at the age of 62, reportedly following four days of esophageal hemorrhaging. A probable contributing factor to his untimely death: years of hard living. Of course, hard living was a trademark of his prose, and his famous name is associated with a brand of environmentalism linked with misanthropy.

Terry Tempest Williams is perhaps the best known Mormon contemporary writer focusing on environmental concerns. Like Abbey her writing about the Southwest region has received national acclaim. Yet her seeming ambivalence toward LDS culture and toward her own multi-generation Mormon upbringing has caused some LDS to class her as a non-Mormon writer, with some even considering her to be anti-Mormon. A few individuals feel so strongly that Williams’s prose attacks the church that they took steps to block her readings at BYU.

Two years ago I attended a writing workshop taught by literary nature writer and NPR commentator, Mary Sojourner. With great emotion, she told how during one of her readings a woman in the audience shouted, “The only way this world has a chance is if human beings are wiped out!” Mary seemed to be in agreement with the overwrought audience member’s sentiment.

LDS don’t know how to interpret the ambivalence, misanthropy, or sorrow that crops up in traditional literary nature writing, especially when the high rhetoric expressing such emotions threatens LDS lifestyles and beliefs. Well I have good news: there’s a new kind of literary nature writing emerging, one that depends more on educating rather than blaming, illuminating rather than lamenting; one, I believe, that Mormon audiences may embrace with enthusiasm.

This new kind of literary nature writing may be summed up by the vision statement of Isotope, a literary nature and science journal out of Utah State University. In Isotope’s earlier incarnation as Petroglyph, works of either sorrowful lament or the wildly, sometimes irrationally celebratory type once found outlet. When Petroglyph changed name to Isotope, it received an ideological makeover as well. Perhaps realizing the old bipolar personality of nature writing limited the prospects for influence and appreciation, Isotope sought a broader way: it expanded its original traditonal nature writing mission by inviting science and a better-natured rationality to the table.

Admittedly, one unfortunate effect of such a merger could be the degrading of science into pop-science, but in this humble reader and writer’s opinion, the vision statement of Isotope and the work of writers like Ellen Meloy (The Anthropology of Turquoise) and Craig Childs (The Secret Knowledge of Water) bring a new grace and, darn it, friendliness to nature writing, freeing up the narrative for development into something more fertile and attractive to LDS.

Perhaps it’s time for LDS writers of environmental persuasion to begin developing the literary nature writing tradition within their culture. One thing for sure: Mormons are way underrepresented in the literary eco-writing world. I see no compelling reason for that vacancy.

8 thoughts on “Criticism: LDS Literary Nature Writing, or the Lack Thereof”

  1. Excellent post, Patricia.

    I certainly look forward to seeing what Isotope is able to do. Thanks for bring out attention to this lack (one of many) in the world of Mormon letters.

    I admit that I have yet to read Terry Tempest Williams for the reasons you describe above. Not that I think she should be denied opportunities to read her work in front of a Mormon audience. Or that I have concerns that her work would be a negative influence on my writing (or testimony). It’s more that her relationship with the LDS Church puts her in a lower priority place on my reading list. Brian Evenson occupies the same space.

    So far only Neil Labute has made it into the’actively-reading’ stage of the list.

    Of course, my favorite piece of LDS nature writing so far is the work that gave this blog its name . 

    Posted by William Morris

  2. Good post. I wonder if there’s something in Mormonism’s views about “intelligences” and “spiritual creation” that might inform Mormon nature literature.

    I’m currently reading Michael Pollan’s _Botany of Desire_, and can’t help but read the collective intelligence he attributes to plants–some of which, if you look at them in the way Pollan suggests, have gotten us to do their bidding as much as they ours–in a kind of spiritual way. 

    Posted by Jeremy

  3. Jeremy–cool comment! Thanks for mentioning Botany of Desire.  I’m going to look it up. I’m a firm believer in the intelligence of plants, especially after a personal experience. I grow heirloom tomatoes from seeds. I start them inside and then on warm spring days set them out on my south-facing front porch. When the seedlings emerge, empty seed casings sometimes stick to the “eye leaves ” as I call them, perhaps pinching a leaf’s tip. One day I went out to admire my seedlings only to notice movement in the flat. One of the heirloom seedlings was flapping its eye leaves up and down, as if dancing! I could hardly believe my eyes. I called my husband and children out to witness this and we all watched in wonder as the tomato seedling flapped its little green wings. At last we figured out it was trying to rid itself of a seed casing that was pinching the end of one leaf. My kids wanted to pull the casing off, but I said no, let it get the casing off itself or we might hurt the delicate little leaf, and eventually the seedling did succeed in ridding itself of the casing. I love my heirloom tomatoes and many other green things, but this experience ramped up my level of appreciation sharply.

    Whenever my children suffer from unpleasant images sticking in their heads (after seeing something gross on TV for instance–hard to avoid it all), I say, “Remember that time we saw the little tomato plant dance?” and their faces light up and their minds ease and we all cuddle and talk about it again. There was a deep spirituality at work in the relationship my children developed with that plant in watching it, one capable of soothing troubled minds.

    I understand what you’re saying about plants “getting us to do their bidding.” Craig Childs makes a similar comment about water in his book, The Secret Knowledge of Water. Now some people would say that it’s God’s intelligence at work here via the creation, plants being inanimate and having no free will, but I see no reason to believe that God didn’t grant plants and other non-human creatures intelligence and autonomy. It is perhaps to our discredit that we haven’t been conscious enough to perceive green and other non-human intelligences right under our noses all these millenia.

    I think that when it comes to the natural world around us, Mormonism’s views of “intelligences” and “spiritual creation” are deep wells that remain largely untapped. I have so many things to say about all of this that I can hardly stop myself now. But I better.

    Jeremy, thanks for your comment!

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  4. William, I can’t help but wonder …

    Does TTW’s reputation affect your level of interest in nature writing in general or just hers? In other words, does her reputation as a doubter, if that’s what she is (sometimes it doesn’t matter what you really are when your reputation precedes you) make you dubious of nature writing in general? Or are you just waiting for the right  nature writing to come along? (“A Motley Vision” being taken for granted.)


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. Patricia:
    I was intrigued that in your post the term “nature writing” was apparently synonymous with other phrases you employ: “writ[ing] focusing on environmental concerns,” “writ[ing] of environmental persuasion,” “eco-writing.”

    Is nature writing necessarily an expression of movement environmentalism of one form or another (more or less misanthropic, irrational, pessimistic, etc.)? Or would literary writing about the natural world, but not from an “environmentalist” point of view, qualify as nature writing? Could writing about the natural world—say from the point of view of a rancher or miner who truly loves and is inspired by nature, but who has deep reservations about so-called environmentalism—qualify as respectable “nature writing?”

    What about someone who writes about nature from the point of view of religious commitments that lead him to both love and respect the natural world—and abhor a great deal of movement environmentalism? I suppose I am just trying to imagine Mormon nature writing that is first and foremost distinctively Mormon.  

    Posted by S P Bailey

  6. S P Bailey,

    I wonder what a Mormon nature writing that is first and foremost distinctively Mormon would look like, too. Some say LDS don’t have much in the way of nature writing because many LDS regard the Earth as a sort of rest stop on the way to the next world, not a destination in and of itself, so we need not trouble ourselves too much about it (let’s just hope that the restrooms are clean). And of course, some (LDS, but not exclusively) consider the devil to be the god of this world, so investing too much interest in it may be as dangerous as inspecting the devil too closely. Certainly at times in history we humans have spoken of nature as being out to get us. Is it any surprise, then, that some humans now speak of us as being out to get nature?

    It’s entirely possible that imagining Mormon nature writing may require Mormons to re-imagine this world, their place and purpose in it.

    As to your comments regarding my using terms like “nature writing”, “writing focusing on environmental concerns,” writing of “environmental persuasion ” interchangeably, perhaps I did paint with too broad a stroke, rather like using the words red, terra cotta red, crimson, and ruby red all to mean red. Partly, that’s me trying to write my first 500-700 word post and keep it interesting. However, my point in the post is that new writers are emerging in all categories of nature writing, including “movement environmentalism,” where the rhetoric is human-friendly. Think Crocodile Hunter. I’m trying to suggest that the old misanthropic model, while interesting, characteristic, and being, perhaps, behovely of a certain historical point in the enviromental dialogue, may be on its way out as people find better language to say what’s on their minds.

    Now, people who abhor movement environmentalism may be merely reducing all environmentalism to the cliched misanthropic, irrational, pessimistic model it is sometimes convenient to accept as being representative of the whole. Maybe at times we have even been less than charitable in emphasizing the negative qualities of a particular writer, having become distracted by such tones in his or her writing. It is my experience that when a person accepts and reacts to a cliched view of ideas, people, or places it means they have a cliched image of themselves they’re working from. While many kinds of nature writing don’t resonate for me and I don’t write in those styles myself, I don’t abhor them either (at least, not most of them); the dialogue has to start somewhere, and hopefully not with a shouting match where all parties, feeling threatened, end up more deeply entrenched, the language between them reduced to lobbing grenades at each other, blasting the landscape around them to smithereens in the process. Because one possible conclusion we may draw from such a scenario is that the difference between such opposing parties is merely the difference between sneetches with stars on thars and sneetches without stars.

    One more point: I think that the goal of developing a distinctly Mormon nature writing is a worthy one, yet I also believe it’s important for Mormons to develop nature rhetoric that non-Mormon nature enthusiasts may also find engaging, something, say, that works out of archetype rather than Mormon culture-based vocabulary and metaphors. Why? Because Mormons are as capable of seeing themselves in archetypal rhetoric and metaphors as are non-Mormons, but many non-Mormons will struggle with our cultural reference points. It’s a question of community. So maybe Mormons actually need at least two kinds of nature writers: one that works within the culturally recognizable markers of Mormonsism to engage Mormon audiences and one that works with more widely recognized archetypes to enter into dialogue with the rest of the nature-loving world. Group hug! 

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  7. I’m not sure if this would be considered nature writing, but it seems right in line with S P Bailey’s comment. Anyway, has anyone here read Roping the Wind  by Lyman Hafen? It’s sort of a rebuttal of movement environmentalists, at least on one particular point: whether cattle grazing in the desert Southwest was responsible for the decline in population of an endangered desert tortoise species.

    Hafen’s message, as I would put it, is that the ranchers understand the land (and have a long-term concern for it) on their own level just as well as the environmentalists do on theirs, so there’s a bit of irony in the antagonistic situation between the two groups.

    It’s not an even-handed book: Hafen is writing from the ranchers’ point of view, and pokes fun at movement environmentalism from time to time. But whether you agree with him or not, I think his book might be something like what Patricia’s looking for: an example of attitudes that some actual Mormons (rather than cliched fictional ones) have towards the wilderness.  

    Posted by Matthew E.M.

  8. I haven’t read Roping the Wind , but I’ll put it on my to read list, along with Botony of Desire.

    What I’m wondering is why Mormons don’t have more of a nature literature than they do and whether or not it’s possible to develop one. I’m wondering if developing a lit of nature will require LDS to re-imagine the nature of Earth and their purposes in being here. Or is nature and developing a nature lit so incidental to elements of the Mormon tradition, cultural or gospel, that it simply isn’t a very high priority? In other words, it isn’t considered to be the sort of lit than can build the kingdom.

    What I’m wondering if is the cliche of traditional misanthropic, antagonistic movement environmentalism has turned Mormons off to all nature writing and to re-imagining their place in the world, since there seems to exist so little LDS nature writing that explores new ground in nature writing.

    And I’m also wondering if the new sort of nature writing that’s emerging, the kind that weds science with lyricism to form a new, rationally attractive body of nature writing of all kinds, might offer LDS a way to enter the dialogue more comfortably, if indeed discomfort with the traditional rhetoric is an issue. This new sort of nature lit grants ranchers, miners, park rangers, movement environmentists, second home owners on national park boundries, and many, many others a chance to develop a more satisfying rhetoric, although it is also progressive in nature. That is, it is on the search for a better way and it understands that better language about nature and humans is part of that search. I don’t see why Mormons couldn’t participate in that search and in that dialogue.


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s