The Problem with Nature Writing

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Nature writing is a prestigious genre graced with such legendary practitioners as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unfortunately, the genre is no longer that popular. For The Believer, nature writer Jenny Price shows what the sprawling Los Angeles Metropolitan Area reveals about the genre’s failure to connect with modern readers, and how we can rethink our relationship with nature.

People frequently ask Price, “Is there nature in L.A.?” Many outsiders incorrectly claim that L.A. has no history, beauty, depth, culture, or pedestrians. Their inability to recognize nature in the city stems from the same core problem that plagues Price’s genre: the idea that nature is something separate from, or untouched by, humanity. “To define nature as the wild things apart from cities,” Price writes, “is one of the great fantastic American stories.”

And it’s one of the great fantastic American denials. On Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills in the Bel Air area, in the Santa Monica Mountain foothills, the TV producer Aaron Spelling has built what’s widely publicized as the starship of Hollywood homes—a 56,550-square-foot French limestone mansion with 123 rooms, with two rooms for wrapping gifts and a rose garden on top of one of four garages. Here are two generally ignored facts about Spelling’s famous homestead. First, it is a house of nature: Spelling built it, has maintained it, and stocks it with fantastic quantities of oil, stone, metals, dirt, water, and wood (a likely forest’s worth of wrapping paper, to begin with). And second, there are very few maples on Mapleton Drive. Maybe maples grew here in abundance once, and maybe not. Either way, the street enjoys the idea of maple trees, which conjures a bucolic refuge above the smog, noise, and torrential activity of the megalopolis below. Call it maple mojo. Smaller manses of nature line the rest of Mapleton Drive as well as the neighboring streets Parkwood, Greendale, Brooklawn, Beverly Glen. No parks, no woods, no dales, no brooks, no glens. Just the mojo of wild nature.

Mapleton Drive showcases the denial intrinsic to the great American nature story. To say there’s no nature in cities is a convenient way of seeing if I like being a nature lover and environmentalist but don’t want to give up any of my stuff. We cherish nature as an idea of wildness while losing track of the real nature in our very houses. We flee to wild nature as a haven from high-tech industrial urban life, but refuse to see that we madly use and transform wild nature to sustain the exact life from which we seek retreat. We make sacred our encounters with wild nature but thereby desacralize all other encounters. Or in other words, if we cannot clearly understand cities and our lives within them unless we keep track of our connections to nature, still there may be some basic things we prefer not to see and understand.

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