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11 Women Who Have Changed The Way We See The Natural World

From Dorothy Wordsworth's early 19th-century journals to Carolyn Finney's interrogation of "wilderness is whiteness" — these women changed the nature writing game.

Posted on July 17, 2020, at 12:16 p.m. ET

Two hundred years ago, men chaperoned women outdoors. Women avoided using the word “I” in writing for fear of being labeled an egotist or a “scribbling dame”; many of the women who have written about the natural world did not get credit, wrote anonymously, or were maligned for being female. Things have changed in the white- and male-dominated publishing industry, though not for all of us — yet.

In my newest book, Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World, I wanted to illuminate and recenter the diverse naturalist voices of women across time. In essays that mix memoir, travelogue, and cultural critique, I walk readers through the landscapes, lives, and literature of 25 classic, new, and overlooked nature writers who kicked down "No Trespassing" signs and made new paths. I begin with the long-deceased Dorothy Wordsworth, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Gene Stratton-Porter, and end 200 years later with Camille Dungy, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Amy Liptrot. In between, we meet remarkable trailblazers. Here are 11 of them.


The Grasmere Journals by Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855)

Few landscapes are as steeped in literary history as that seen from Scafell Pike, England’s tallest mountain, and one of the world's most rapturous stages. Dorothy Wordsworth — a diarist, letter writer, mountaineer, and walker — was one of the first women to climb it and write about it. In 1818, she summited with a shepherd guide and friend. Women then had to be chaperoned by men to shield them from “reputational anxiety.” Dorothy insisted on midnight walks under the moonlight; she walked fast. She walked with her older brother, William Wordsworth, who wrote one of the most famous poems in the English language, “Daffodils.” He "borrowed" several lines in this poem from Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals. William also used her essay about climbing Scafell Pike in his book on walking in the lakes, also without crediting her, so it appeared that he did it. Would she have minded? I am not sure. But we can mind for her.

What I Have Done With Birds by Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924)

By Gspmemorial, commons.wikimedia.org, Grosset & Dunlap

Gene Stratton-Porter was a gun-toting, trouser-wearing maverick whose 28 books sold more than 50 million copies in her lifetime. She wrote internationally famous romance novels, nature studies, poetry collections, and children’s books — and 23 were made into films by Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, one of the first film production studios owned by a woman in Hollywood. Set in the Limberlost, a 13,000-acre swamp and hardwood forest in Indiana before it was harvested and drained for cultivating corn and soybeans, some of her most famous books include Freckles (1904), a coming-of-age story of love, bravery, and devotion; and A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), about a self-reliant teenager who funds her own education by collecting moths from the swamps near her home.

In What I Have Done With Birds (1907) and Moths of the Limberlost (1913), Gene's research methods and photography cut a portrait of a writer who understood the urgency of what was happening in real time to native habitats. She was the first photographer, male or female, to capture live birds in their native habitats rather than shoot, stuff, and pose them, as men had done. She used her fame to campaign against the draining of wetlands and the widespread killing of songbirds to supply feathers in women’s fanciful hats.

The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin (1868–1934)

Charles Lummis, public domain, The Modern Library Classics

Most mountains in the United States are named for European male geologists, surveyors, and military officers who measured, climbed, and claimed them. There is a rare exception in the southern Sierras of California, a mountain that stands 13,057 feet tall. It is Mount Mary Austin, named after maverick ethnographer and feminist, activist and mystic, speaker and writer Mary Hunter Austin. Austin’s debut book, The Land of Little Rain (1903), is a collection of 14 vivid and meditative essays detailing the landscape and diverse inhabitants of the Owens River Valley before it was drained of water for the city of Los Angeles — a conflict known as the California water wars made famous in the classic film Chinatown. Austin’s early defense of Spanish Americans and Native Americans and their right to their land and livelihoods set her apart from other Western writers who saw these people as impediments to “progress.”

Further reading: Earth Horizon (1932), Austin's autobiography; Beyond Borders: The Selected Essays of Mary Austin (1996).

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1907–1964)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In language anyone could understand, biologist Rachel Carson explained in her 1962 history-making bestseller Silent Spring how the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides, especially DDT, after World War II upset the delicate balance of ecosystems. Nobody really understood the links between toxicity and pesticides before Carson’s book — not the government, scientists, and certainly not the public. The chemical industry attacked her as “hysterical,” and the Department of Agriculture refused to talk to her. As protectors of future generations, mothers and homemakers did listen to her lyrical and scientifically informed books. The general public listened to her. Silent Spring is now considered one of the most important environmental books ever written. It led to the establishment of the EPA and is credited with birthing the modern environmental movement in the US.

Further reading: The Sea Around Us (1951), an extensive scientific and poetic study of the world's oceans.

Dream Work by Mary Oliver (1935–2019)

Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images, Grove Atlantic

Cape Cod is a hook-shaped apostrophe of dune beaches and marshes, tide pools and lighthouses punctuating the North Atlantic. Sculpted by waves, wind, and winter storms, this eastern outpost is the place Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mary Oliver once called home. In the weather-beaten landscape, she wrote prose and poetry and was inspired by the world around her. I spent a weekend in Provincetown walking in Oliver’s footsteps to see what inspired her. Wonder is at the heart of all her writing — a fusion of mystery, prayer, and presence. Acceptance is too. She offers comfort by blurring boundaries between ourselves and the natural world. Her work spans from 1963 to 2017, and I would recommend Dream Work (1986) and Upstream: Selected Essays (2016). She ends her famous poem “The Summer Day,” with the question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Further reading: 15 Beautiful Lines Written By Mary Oliver

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko, Penguin Random House

Storytelling is a form of mapping: It connects the self to the self, people to people, and people to places over time. Stories live on long after we do. For Indigenous people, oral storytelling roots them in landscapes over millennia — not just a couple of casual generations — and stories are far more than yarns told over a fire: They are profound narratives of identity. In her masterpiece Ceremony (1977), Leslie Marmon Silko distinguished herself as the world’s first woman Native American novelist. The book tells the story of Tayo, a white and Laguna Pueblo military veteran trying to regain his peace of mind and place while dealing with PTSD. Told in a brilliantly fractured narrative split between prose and poetry, myth and memories, past and present, Ceremony tells the story of how old ways of knowing our physical world can be healing and therapeutic.

Further reading: Storyteller (1981), a compilation of old photographs, tribal tales, poetry, and songs; Almanac of the Dead (1991), a geographical novel that revises European colonial history in America.

Dale Kakkak, Milkweed Editions

A professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Robin Wall Kimmerer is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She writes essays for nature and culture journals such as Orion; her award-winning books include Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003), which won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants (2013), which won the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. Braiding Sweetgrass begins with an invitation to the reader: “Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair.” It is a metaphor for the book's five unfolding sections in which Kimmerer shares stories of encounters with and knowledge of plants as a mother, botanist, tribal citizen, and teacher.

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy

John Martins, / Courtesy of Counterpoint Press

In 1968, Lauret Savoy moved with her family from California to Washington, DC. She told me about that pivotal time over the phone: "We arrived in time to experience the riots. That was when I, as a small child, learned about racism. I was spat upon and hated. I needed to learn who I was then. That initial learning began in a struggle to answer or come to terms with questions that started to haunt me about origins, about who I was and who we were and what the American land was."

Now a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College, Savoy has a doctorate in geology that helps her see patterns and fragments, gaps and traces in her winding search for her own history and a larger history of America. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (2015) blends memoir, history, and the landscape to uncover hidden legacies. It will create seismic shifts in readers' perspectives on race, gender, and nature.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Marzena Pogorzaly, Grove Atlantic

H is for Hawk (2014) by British writer Helen Macdonald is a masterpiece of literary nonfiction that braids memoir, literary biography, and a falconer’s diary into a beautiful example of nature writing. The book became an international bestseller and an instant classic, showered with accolades and awards. While her book is filled with one vivid and beautiful sentence after another — “Vast flocks of fieldfares netted the sky, turning it to something strangely like sixteenth-century sleeve sewn with pearls” — she also does something different in nature writing: She dares to be dark and she dares to be funny in a genre often characterized as reverential and humorless.

Further reading: Shaler's Fish (2001), Macdonald's undergraduate collection of poetry; Falcon (2006), an exploration of the history of falconry; Vesper Flights (2020), a forthcoming collection of selected essays.

Shawn Calhoun / CC BY-NC 2.0, University of North Carolina Press

Nature writing has historically been characterized by works written by white men — an idea that conveys that writing about nature and the environment has been the domain of a certain gender, class, and race. Writer, performer, and cultural geographer Carolyn Finney explores why Black Americans have been marginalized in the outdoors and the environmental movement in her important book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (2014). A mix of memoir, scholarship, and history, the book traces the environmental legacy of slavery, racial violence, and Jim Crow segregation while celebrating contributions Black Americans have made to the environment. In this vital moment of change and dialogue spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is more important than ever, and it will fracture and deepen your understanding of issues of perception, representation, and access. Who has concern for the outdoors? Who recreates in American forests and parks? Who constructs stories and media stereotypes that perpetuate the "wilderness is whiteness" idea?

Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

Stephanie Ewens, Milkweed

In Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore (2018), Elizabeth Rush strides across shorelines, gathering stories about rising sea levels transforming coastal communities. Her work does something that other superb science writing on climate change does not: It brings a poetic feeling and personal narrative to the subject. Her warm and informed presence is felt throughout Rising — a reminder that now more than ever we need the storytelling skills of nature writers to engage people and change policies given these pressing environmental times.


Timber Press

Adapted from Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World by Kathryn Aalto, with permission from the publisher, Timber Press.

Kathryn Aalto is an American landscape designer, historian, writer, and lecturer living in Exeter, England. She has master’s degrees in garden history and creative nonfiction with a particular interest in literary landscapes. Before her expat life, she taught American literature of nature and place in the Pacific Northwest. She is a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, and Garden Communicators International.

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