One of the things I’m best known for as a writer is my ability to transport people to wild and beautiful places through my words. Nature writing comes naturally to me, because all my life, I have spent every spare moment I can outdoors, usually barefoot, always with my eyes and ears wide open, taking in the sights and sounds of all that is wild around me. And there has always been something wild around me, even when I lived in urban areas. I just had to know where to look for it.
I’m not talking only about my nature essays in Observations of an Earth Mage. I’m also talking about describing the river in On the Choptank Shores and the mountain forests in The Cabin. I’m talking about describing the canyonlands of the desert southwest in my soon-to-be-released The Storyteller’s Bracelet.
It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a nature writer or not. If you write, you write setting descriptions, and chances are, at some point in time or another, you’ll be writing about a rural setting, or a thunderstorm, or a sunset, or the night sky, which means you are a nature writer—at least, sometimes.
The most important thing you can do to enhance your nature writing skills is learn to be observant. Get up with the sun one morning. Pour yourself your morning coffee or tea, and go sit on your back deck, or front porch. Close your eyes. What do you hear? What do you smell? It’s important to close your eyes before doing this exercise because your senses will be enhanced if you don’t see what you’re hearing or smelling.
When I do this—and I do it almost every morning—I have to fight with the sound of airplanes overhead (I live right beneath the landing pattern for LAX airport) and traffic down on the 60 freeway in order to hear the song sparrows, the lesser goldfinches, and the fussy hummingbirds. This is a skill I learned several years ago: it is as important to learn what not to hear or see as what to hear and see. You have to learn to block out the noise in order to find nature.
How do I do this? Meditation, mostly. I close my eyes and focus my hearing on searching for one particular bird song—usually a song sparrow, because we have lots of them on our hill. Once I find the song sparrow’s sweet melody, I focus all my energy on that. I let all energy outside that focus go blurry so I hear the sparrow and only the sparrow. Once I’ve done this, I am able to let in the sweet melody of the lesser goldfinches, the fuss of the hummingbirds, and the confused warble of the tiny wrens that live in our oak trees.
Now that the birdsong has it’s place in my head, I open my eyes. What do I see? Once again, my focus is on nature, so I block out all that is of human design. I focus on the enormous scrub oak trees above and below my house. I scan the trees and brush for the birds I’ve been listening to, and watch as the hummingbirds battle one another for position at the hummer feeder. I scan the hill to see what is in bloom—potato bush with its intense purple blossoms, the California buckeye’s creamy white clusters of blooms, and the sunny yellow Scotch broom checker the hillside. Down below in the valley, jacaranda trees are blooming. Their soft lavender flowers make it look like there are purple clouds covering the valley. If my eyes happen to catch a house down below, I quickly shift my focus back to the oaks.
Once I’ve taken in what there is to see, I let my sense of smell take over—not hard when the California buckeye and Scotch broom are blooming, because the whole hillside smells like the inside of a perfume bottle. But there is more than the almost cloyingly sweet fragrance of the flower blossoms. Take a deep breath. Smell the Earth herself—does she smell slightly decayed, like wet leaves on the forest floor? Or sweet, like a mountain stream? Either is okay; there is no right or wrong way for the Earth to smell. The desert smells different than the ocean or the mountains.
It takes practice to learn to block out what is not nature, and undoubtedly, it’s more difficult to do this if you live in a city than in a more rural area. But if you practice this technique on a daily basis, and soon you’ll be writing those setting descriptions with an adept hand.