Here in Australia we haven’t had the same long and respected legacy. Charlotte Wood commented on this lack in 2004 when she talked to Mark Tredinnick about A Place on Earth, his anthology of essays by Australian and North American writers. One contributor, Tasmanian writer Peter Hay, bristled at the term “nature writing” as “a ghettoising term: one used by literary gatekeepers to box writers and writing as ‘minor’.”
Happily, things are changing. The Nature Conservancy Australia is seeking entries for its sixth biennial Writing Prize, on the theme of “place”. Judges are critic Geordie Williamson and Miles Franklin winner Tara June Winch. The winner will get $7500 and there’s an additional prize of a two-week residency at Life at Springfield in the NSW Southern Highlands.
There are various reasons why nature writing is rapidly becoming a far more popular and respected genre in Australia. One is the recent experience of pandemic lockdowns. As the Nature Conservancy points out, many Australians used their restricted time to escape outside to connect with local landscapes, seeking respite and meaning.
Another reason is a growing awareness of the vital significance of country to Indigenous peoples, many of whom are sharing their knowledge and opinions in new books and essays. It really seems as if nature writing has no boundaries.
A third reason is a sad one: we are all too aware of how man has encroached on nature with threats of mass extinction and the devastation of climate change. In his later years, Lopez adopted an increasingly urgent tone. “We’re living in emergency times,” he told The Guardian in 2019. But he retained his faith in humanity and saw a solution in the wisdom of the elders in traditional societies: “You have to face the fact they have been right for tens of thousands of years.”
So should nature writing become elegiac, doom-ridden or preachy? Should we condemn lyrical celebrations of the natural world as mere Pollyanna visions, ignoring the man-made dangers? It seems not. The best nature writing in all its diversity, whether magnificent or humble in its scope, gets to grips with the hard-to-define premise at its heart: why the natural world matters so much to human beings.
Again, I turn to Lopez for guidance. At the end of a piece on a walk he took into the Northern Territory desert and his meeting with the Warlpiri people of the region, he wrote: “We have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter … It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost.”
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