Happy Earth Day! Every year, April 22 is a day to appreciate and preserve the beauty of our world, which has not only supported life as we know it, but has also stirred our imaginations and inspired many writers throughout history. As astronomer and author Carl Sagan put it, in his book Pale Blue Dot, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life…Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”
Today, we take a look at five writers who understood this sentiment. They admired and respected the beauty of the natural world and wrote about it with elegance and reverence. Through their words they were able to not only convey the wonders of nature, but also effectively argue for the necessity of preserving it. These writers recognized, as Sagan did too, that it is “our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
“We need the tonic of wildness…we can never have enough of nature.”
Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s original hipsters, was praising nature way before it was cool. He famously lived in a cabin in the woods for two years on land owned by his friend, mentor and fellow nature-lover Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau’s time in the cabin at Walden Pond inspired him to write his classic book Walden, which reflects his views that living simply in nature and being self-reliant are vital to human growth and happiness. Published in 1854, Walden also expresses the perils of westward expansion, which at the time was becoming more and more prevalent.
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring is often credited with igniting an environmental movement, as it brought about environmental policy change and led to the creation of institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency. The book successfully argued for a ban on pesticides, as Carson’s writing was a moving and alarming portrait of what happens when poison is deliberately released into the natural world. In short, that poison eventually comes back to us. Carson conveyed this connectedness of nature and woke many people up to the urgent necessity of preserving nature.
“The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, for when the light comes, the heart of the people is always right.”
“John of the Mountains,” as he was known, was a geologist, writer, and staunch advocate for wilderness preservation in America. He lived mainly in various spots along the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and his tireless work to preserve these natural lands led to the establishment of Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and many others. He was also a co-founder of the Sierra Club, an environmentalist organization, and served as its inaugural president. In 1903, Muir toured President Theodore Roosevelt around Yosemite Valley, a trip that would prove monumental in designating Yosemite as a national park two years later. Interestingly, while Muir did write about his adventures in nature regularly, he never felt fully satisfied with language’s ability to convey the wonders of nature, lamenting, “No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to know these mountains…one day’s exposure to mountains is better that cartloads of books.” Thankfully for us, and the Earth, we do have Muir’s words of wisdom to guide us.
“The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?”
The late Mary Oliver was always able to find that splash of happiness in nature and express it to us readers. Oliver did not have a happy childhood, and always found refuge in nature and in writing. In an interview with NPR in 2012 she said, “The two things I loved from a very early age were the natural world and dead poets, [who] were my pals when I was a kid.” This love for nature extended into her adult life and her writing process, as she often found inspiration for poems by taking long, outdoor walks, though the destruction of the natural environment distressed her. In that same interview she laments, “The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone…and I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?”
W. S. MERWIN
“I don’t like using the word environment. I don’t like the word nature. I don’t like using them because they make it seems as though we’re not nature. Anything we do to the rest of the world we’re doing to ourselves.”
The late W. S. Merwin, former U.S. Poet Laureate, expressed this understanding of the inherent connectedness of the world in his writing and life. In 1977, he and his wife Paula purchased a plot of barren “wasteland” on the north shore of Maui, Hawaii and over the course of forty-plus years they planted thousands of palm trees. Today, the Merwin Conservancy is one of the most diverse and important collections of living palms in the world. Merwin’s words and environmental activism inspired our very first installation in our Meijer Gallery, Palm: All Awake in the Darkness. Visitors were encouraged to write their own poems and thoughts on papers that were then mailed to Merwin’s home in Hawaii. Merwin was grateful for these messages, and upon reading them he used them as compost for his soil. In this way, perhaps more than any other, Merwin brought words to life, using messages of hope and gratitude to help plants thrive in a literal sense.
Learn more about Earth Day here, and learn how you can help save the planet. There are so many talented authors who have written about nature in the past and are currently writing about nature today. Who are your favorite nature writers? Let us know in the comments!