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America's single greatest claim to literary pre-eminence may lie in its writings about the natural world. Writers in every corner of the globe have always told stories of relationships among people, or among peoples and their gods. But Americans came to full literary consciousness while much of their land was yet to be deforested, drained, cleared, developed. It is the fraught relationship between man and nature that suffuses many of the best American novels, poems, and stories—and that many of the most eloquent and impassioned American essays take as their central subject.
The voices showcased here gave rise to movements. Out walking in the wilderness, birthing a million backpackers who would follow, Henry David Thoreau was the proto- environmentalist. And John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club (a forefather of modern NGOs), drew upon his ecstatic grammar of the wild to issue an urgent call that would inspire and be echoed by a million analogous groups around the world. America collided with nature, and it was these writers and thinkers who let out the yelp. But if some of these voices expressed apprehension and prodded readers to action, others comforted and supplied the balm. Annie Dillard offered a wry perspective on the planet’s profligacy, Sarah Orne Jewett contemplated—albeit a bit tremulously—the great chain of decay and rebirth, and John Burroughs (the single most popular nature writer in America for many decades) articulated his serene conviction that Charles Darwin could help us to see the divine underfoot.
At present, we find ourselves facing ecological damage that even these writers, so keenly attuned to the topic, could not have anticipated: the earth has become what one group of scientists has called the “anthroposphere,” its physics, chemistry, and biology now driven by our habits and desires. The reformist energy unleashed by the metaphors and images of our great green writers, which accomplished so much for so long, has mostly dwindled away. If we are to confront these new perils, and the endless consumption and carelessness that advance them, we need strong new writing about our responsibilities to one another, and about the possibilities that yet remain for delight in the natural world. We need the next metaphor. And if our history is a reliable guide, it will surely come.
Walking (June 1862)
by Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist, philosopher, and author of such classics as Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” contributed a number of writings to The Atlantic in its early years. The month after his death from tuberculosis, in May 1862, the magazine published “Walking,” one of his most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.
River Driftwood (October 1881)
by Sarah Orne Jewett
In 1881, Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett (who would later go on to write the classic novel The Country of the Pointed Firs) was moved by a journey along a local river to thoughtful musing on the ruthlessness of nature and the interconnectedness of living things.
The American Forests (August 1897)
by John Muir
Years after westward-moving settlers had felled and burned much of the country's woodland, the crusading naturalist John Muir urged Americans to safeguard the forests that remained. Spurred in part by Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt launched a major conservation program, creating the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and preserving millions of acres of American wilderness.
The Divine Soil (April 1908)
by John Burroughs
John Burroughs, a popular nature writer whose circle of friends included Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt, argued in 1908 that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution should be viewed not as an insult to the dignity of humanity but as evidence of the divine in nature.
The Sound of Trees (August 1915)
by Robert Frost
Though Frost's first submission to The Atlantic was rejected, he went on to become a regular contributor, ultimately publishing thirty-one of his poems in the magazine. This poem, like much of his verse, paid homage to the natural world while teasing out hidden, sometimes darker, meanings.
The Force That Drives the Flower (November 1973)
by Annie Dillard
In the summer of 1973, observing an especially fertile growing season outside her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the poet and essayist Annie Dillard waxed philosophical about the life cycle and the universal impulse to grow and reproduce. Her essay collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published the following year to widespread acclaim, earning her a Pulitzer Prize.