How to write about nature?
Here I am, in the middle of so much nature. This is the kind of place where conversations among friends frequently halt mid-sentence because it’s necessary to interject a remark about the beauty around us. “Wow” is an overused word here. So are “spectacular” and “awesome.” The intense beauty we witness often causes palpable pain, i.e., it’s so beautiful it hurts. This “nature” effect prompts my desire to dissect its parts, discover the formula and gain some sort of understanding of its power.
I’m aware, also, that there are people for whom nature’s effect is merely a tentative or vague pleasantness. These people are as bewildered by my exuberance for the physical world as I am about their lack of it (“my idea of camping is the Motel 6”). My daughter, for example, now says after having visited me here, that the skyline of Manhattan does for her what the landscape of Western Wyoming does for me. To each her own.
But back to dissecting the nature of nature. Here’s my problem: in attempting to describe the effect of this deeply natural place, what observations could I possibly muster that haven’t already been described by nature writers more eloquent than I? I’ve been pondering this question and have come to the conclusion that I can only give it my best shot, and take an assist from those whose words resonate best with me.
I am simply seduced by nature. In its midst, my eyes widen to take it all in; my throat tightens because there’s something I want to express, but can’t; my chest expands with a fullness that may be excitement. Full, but at the same time, speechless. It’s a feeling worth experiencing again and again. In the Tetons, I am in a “cathedral of nature,” surrounded by the spectacular—a feast of breathless and restorative beauty. I share the beliefs of the mid-19th century transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and his followers:
“If you want to know God first hand, the way to do that is not to enter a cathedral, not to open a book, but to go to the mountain top. And on the mountain top, there you will see God as God truly is in the world.”*
There’s this awesome landscape in Grand Teton National Park: the distinctively craggy young mountain range, of course, but also, wide swaths of flat valley loaded with two-tone shades of sagebrush and dotted with tress. A pristine and preserved area of land. The Snake River (which has been running ferociously after the winter’s record snowpack), cuts through the valley and travels on for a thousand miles, and there are lakes upon lakes—some of which I’ll never see because they are so high up in the mountains. I’m rather proud of all the wildflowers I can name when I hike. My favorites, Indian Paintbrush (pictured in the masthead above) and Scarlet Gilia; prolific Buckwheat, Sticky Geranium, delicate Lupine and Larkspur, bright Buttercup—so plentiful they overflow the senses and fill guide books.
Light is very important here: the way it casts shadows over the rolling hills and how it affects the clouds that drift over from the Idaho side of the Teton range. At sunset (the sun falls on the other side of the mountains, in Idaho), the clouds over here turn soft pink or blaze orange. Wispy pink clouds on a baby blue sky …
The full moon shines so brightly that it’s customary for lodge employees to do a six-mile midnight hike up (way up) to Inspiration Point and back. I prefer to stay on the ground, where the moon works better than a flashlight.
This is what nature does—has always done—for me:
- It helps me see a universe that is bigger than my own
- It diminishes my problems
- It soothes and comforts
- It inspires wonder and delight, literally taking my breath away
- It substitutes for sex
Terry Tempest Williams is a a contemporary nature writer whose eloquence doesn’t need to resort to bullet points:
“We see the great peaks mirrored in water. Stillness, fullness, renewal. Reflection leads us to restoration.”
For those of us with minds that crave rejuvenation or healing, I encourage finding some nature to wallow in. It’s awe-inspiring (in the truest sense of the word) and restorative. And if you don’t believe me, heed environmentalist and writer Rachel Carson:
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
My cathedral is majestic—built of clouds, mountains, rivers, lakes, animals and glorious vistas. It’s where I gain perspective, peace, strength. Amen.
My soundtrack today: “Amaze Me” by Girlyman
*This quote appears in Episode One of Ken Burns’ “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea.” I believe historian William Cronan is quoting Emerson.