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Reba Place Eco-Letter: Novels and Nature

Some thoughts on fantasy novels and the absence of nature in the stories serious people take seriously.

A stack of books.

I’ll start with a quick note: I have switched platforms from the now-defunct TinyLetter to Substack. So, we have here both a continuation and new beginning.

This one is dedicated to Greg Clark, who taught me that it’s okay to start with Tolkien.

Thanks for reading,


To Hold Communion With Other Living Things

As a kid, I loved the maps of Middle-earth included in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. They let you know that the stories contain adventure and exploration. The maps also reveal a world of diverse landscapes. There’s the pastoral calm of the Shire, the dark and dense Mirkwood, and the Misty Mountains where Bilbo finds the One Ring. But nature isn’t just in the background. The characters belong to these places. And the whole plot involves a changing landscape. The living, natural world is central to Tolkien’s work.

In an essay entitled “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien discussed his philosophy of what I’d call fantasy. Fairy stories, he argued, satisfy “certain primordial human desires.” And one of those desires is “to hold communion with other living things.”

Tolkien lamented the destructive forces of industrialization and you can see that in his writing. In The Two Towers, the Ent Treebeard says of the wizard Saruman: “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things.” John Halbrooks, English professor at the University of South Alabama, in an excellent newsletter post on Tolkien’s landscape as a living text, quotes Elrond reflecting on the loss of forest cover: “a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard.”

Tolkien pulled on older mythologies to create his world. Including nature in stories wasn’t anything new. Rather, our understanding of nature as separate from us is relatively recent. People have been telling stories of an animate world, with talking animals and shapeshifting humans, long before written history. Think of indigenous creation myths or trickster tales. It’s our modern, industrialized society that doesn’t take these things seriously.

Denying Our Foundation

“Only Civilization builds its morality by denying its foundation,” wrote fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin in her book Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences. I think she’s worth quoting at length:

By climbing up into his head and shutting out every voice but his own, “Civilized Man” has gone deaf. He can't hear the wolf calling him brother—not Master, but brother. He can't hear the earth calling him child—not Father, but son. He hears only his own words making up the world. He can't hear the animals, they have nothing to say. Children babble, and have to be taught how to climb up into their heads and shut the doors of perception. No use teaching women at all, they talk all the time, of course, but never say anything. This is the myth of Civilization, embodied in the monotheisms which assign soul to Man alone.

Our Food Still Grows In Dirt

While fantasy and science fiction writers often incorporate other lifeforms and landscapes into stories, nature tends to be absent in modern “literary fiction”, the books considered to be serious and important.

Indiana writer Scott Russel Sanders wrote about this in an essay from the early 90s entitled “Speaking a Word For Nature.” The essay, included in the collection Secrets of the Universe, gives a brief overview of nature in British and American literature, finding different depictions of the wilderness in Hardy, Melville, Bradford, Thoreau, Clemens, Faulkner, and others. But, looking at the mainstream literary scene of the 80s (Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason), Sanders found “that a deep awareness of nature has been largely excluded.”

All storytellers need to draw a line somewhere and tell about particular subjects, otherwise a story would sprawl out in a futile attempt to talk about everything. But Sanders felt like only focusing on humans left contemporary fiction feeling not just “shallow,” but “pathological” in its failure to show our dependence on the more-than-human world. “No matter how urban our experience, no matter how oblivious we may be toward nature, we are nonetheless animals, two-legged sacks of meat and blood and bone dependent on the whole living planet for our survival,” wrote Sanders. “Our out-breathings still flow through the pores of trees, our food still grows in dirt, our bodies decay.” A good novel should, according to Sanders, reveal that truth.

A Tornado In Delhi

Given that contemporary literary fiction has focused on the human world and ignored nature, it might make sense that it has also failed to address the climate crisis.

In 2016, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh considered the novel’s inability to address climate change. Ghosh had experienced the first tornado to hit Delhi in recorded history—an extreme, statistically improbable, weather event. It seemed like something he would be able to write about and use in a novel. But when he tried, it didn’t feel right. Why was this?

Ghosh proposed that it had to do with the historical development of the novel as a form of writing. As opposed to epics, which deal with big forces, novels tend to focus on everyday life. The disasters that come from the climate crisis feel unusual, uncanny, and not ordinary at all. If an author tries to include extreme weather in their writing, it feels like fantasy rather than serious fiction.

A Shift Toward Including Nature

Over the last number of years, climate fiction has become more of a thing. Some novelists are starting to expand their stories to include nature in new ways. A turning point was Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which follows a number of different humans characters and their relationship with trees.

But I think observations of LeGuin, Sanders, and Ghosh are still relevant. We have left nature out of the story for too long. How we respond to climate change and the biodiversity crisis has to do with culture and imagination. We fail to recognize our dependence on the living world. It’s hard for us to act on climate change because it feels uncanny, somewhat mythic, and we don’t quite know how to incorporate it into our life story.

Expanding Our Story

How do we tell the story of Reba Place Church? (Our website has one version.) We’d certainly acknowledge our dependence on God. In what ways do we recognize (or fail to recognize) our interdependence with all creation?

Our story has often been too small. I’m thinking here of Ric Hudgen’s reflections on the Potawatomi Trail of Death, the forced removal of native people from our region. “Ignoring the stories already living here, we ignored those who lived by those stories. Ignoring them, we removed them,” writes Ric.

This newsletter is one attempt to see how the more-than-human world fits into our story. To listen and pay attention. I am trying to learn about our place in Evanston, a city west of Lake Michigan, just north of Chicago, or what William Cronon called Nature’s Metropolis. I want to consider what the climate crisis means for us and how we can respond. I also want to think about the way the environment is related to racism, sexism, inequality, and our many other crises. I’m looking for resources to help us: scripture, eco-theology, nature writing, science journalism, and whatever else I find interesting. And I try to offer some suggestions for actions to take, because we are contributing to our story as we go and what we do now determines the future.

Any Recommendations?

Do you have a novel (of any genre) you’d recommend that does a good job of incorporating nature or climate? I’d love to hear about it!

A Few More Things

  • Last year was the hottest year on record. The World Meteorological Organization is “sounding a red alert.” In Evanston, spring arrived 15 days earlier this year.

  • For Chicagoland, spring rain means the sewers can overflow into the river and lake. You can help reduce overflow by signing up to get reminders to cut back on water use during heavy rains.

  • Want to electrify your home? Whether you rent or own, Rewiring America has a new tool to help you prioritize and plan.

  • The Evanston Public Library revealed the winners of the Blueberry Awards for “age-appropriate children’s books about the environment and climate change that don’t spread climate anxiety.”

  • Join the Evanston Environmental Justice Conversation Series Saturday, April 13, 1-3 p.m. at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center.

  • The Evanston Ecology Center Earth Day Fest is Saturday, April 20. 12-3 p.m. at Ingraham Park. “Come by for games, activities, resources, tree plantings, and volunteer opportunities!”

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