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Natural Stories: A Manifesto
Welcome to the Natural Stories newsletter, where our slogan is: Nature is story; stories are our nature.
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of society’s relationships to nature. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open struggle with their natural surroundings, a struggle that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in common ruin.
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society vis-a-vis nature. In ancient Rome we have aqueducts, lupin, and olive groves. In the Indigenous Americas we have corn, beans, and squash. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted has not done away with relationships to nature. It has but established new products, new markets, new forms of ecotourism, new conditions of oppression.
Our epoch, the epoch of climate change, possesses, however, this distinctive feature; it has simplified the antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: those who believe our wounds can be healed through traditional forms of nature writing, and those who call for more natural stories.
I’ve made just a few substitutions to the opening of the world’s most famous manifesto. It’s a lot less controversial this way, isn’t it? Whether societies have been hunter-gatherers or farmers or oil-and-plastics empires, their history has been shaped by the way they related to their natural surroundings. Whether their struggles have been class-based or hunger-based or conformity-based, behind them was a climate, a set of natural resources, and collective attitudes toward non-human species.
Behind them, also, were stories. In some formats, such as the cowboy movie, the story involved struggle, as man conquered nature. In other formats, such as the works of Henry David Thoreau, Mary Austin, or John Muir, the struggles were more subtle as people honored nature. Story-wise, this second format is hard to pull off. It’s harder to write captivating stories without explicit struggle, hostility, or individuals banding together to fight a common enemy.
We do have a common enemy, especially today: the changing climate suggests that the enemy is our own societal relationship to nature. It’s not just that we’re losing the fights—we don’t even understand how to fight. Is capitalism a tool or an enemy? Is political reform a prerequisite or a distraction? Are the bourgeoisie and proletariat opponents or allies?
To help us learn how to fight this common enemy, we could turn to stories. Stories of people in nature. Stories of people, stories of nature, stories of Muir and Thoreau, or stories of John Wayne achieving self-reliance with a solar array—but the point is that the storytelling has to be top-notch. As Jonathan Franzen has written, narrative in nature writing is often “little more than a formality, an opportunity for reflection and description.” And as Elmore Leonard advised writers, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Franzen and Leonard tell great stories.
(A digression about politics, without diminishing its importance: in too much nature writing, the only narrative tension comes from the political crusades launched to save a scrap of the wild. Surely those are political stories, involving struggles of ideas and power. They are natural in that they involve people and people are driven by story. But political stories are no more about nature—natural—than are stories about food or engineering or art. Our natural stories need to be far bigger than political stories. After all, when we tell love stories, we don’t tell only stories of the political fight for marriage equality.)
Much of today’s best writing is natural stories. For example, nature writers who have captivated me include Gary Ferguson, Terry Tempest Williams, Chris La Tray, and Mark Spragg. They are great storytellers operating in a natural world. Similarly, there are wonderful natural stories in poetry and memoir and music and film. For example, John Denver’s most successful songs are built on deep, if simple, stories about interacting with nature (“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy”).
Rather than the overthrow of governments, or the reform of universities, the point of this manifesto is that we must tell more natural stories. People love reading and telling stories of nature. If we work harder at marrying storytelling to science, to politics, to spiritualism, and to philosophy, we can simultaneously improve those fields, find ways out of our climate dilemmas, and make people happy.
That is what I will try to do in this weekly newsletter. Tell natural stories, highlight them, celebrate them, capture them, argue for them, repeat them. I hope you’ll join in. As a famous manifesto might say, let’s stimulate a social movement. Natural storylovers of all countries, unite!
This is the format I hope to use for all these missives: a story, a picture, some notes. They’ll show up in your Inbox every Tuesday at 5pm, as well as on the website and app.
Everything is factual. I’ll put endnotes here, for material that isn’t better referenced inline (as in “world’s most famous manifesto” above).
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are mine. They’re part of the story (as in a magazine), so please don’t share out of context. By the way, I don’t believe in revealing photo locations on social media, so if you want to know more about a photo, you’ll probably have to come find me in person and buy me a beer.
Thanks so much for reading!
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