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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Urban Nature: Not An Oxymoron

I’ve been teaching nature writing for close to 30 years now, with most of the classes and workshops focused on our experience of nature in deeply urban areas, including Chicago. This is in direct contrast to how the form came to be, especially as the persistent and central theme in most nature writing has been nature as antidote to civilization—i.e., city living.

In fact, the nature essay historically has inveighed against the city, describing instead those places where man is minimally resident or absent altogether.  Though the tradition can be traced back to Plato, American nature writing found its voice with Thoreau and his lone excursions into the New England woods. 

And for the next 100 years or so, the genre continued to steer clear of dense human habitations.  John Muir had his mountains, Ed Abbey his deserts, and Sigurd Olson the stark beauty of Northern Minnesota.  Annie Dillard brought us a bit closer to home with her award-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974. 

But urban nature writing—essays and poems that capture the experience of wildness in the city—has finally found its way into the canon.  And not everyone is happy about that.  For some, this newcomer is an obnoxious invader that has jumped the fence and threatens native species. 

Those of us who welcome its arrival, however, see urban nature writing more like Coyote, the wily opportunist who follows his human hosts into their encampments and finds sustenance. And we know that Coyote must work hard for his efforts—harder than he might out in the vast emptiness, where the pickins may be greater and in full view. 

So it is with those who write about nature through the din and thrum of cities.  They grow keener eyed, sharper eared, and more grateful for the quick glimpses of blue herons, graveyard fox families, the prairie flowers along the commuter rail tracks.  They find meaning in nature with a small “N”:  tales of wild animals scurrying through their backyards; wounded geese rescued from rush hour traffic; migrating birds negotiating downtown high-rises. 

Mostly though, urban nature writers reveal the rich complexity of the nature/culture intersection, helping us to see both ourselves and nature with new eyes. If that possibility interests you, please consider joining my latest Newberry Library workshop The City in Nature: Tales from the Urban Wild that meets on Saturday, June 3.

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