The Nature of Nature: The Role of the Eco in the Modern Novel

by Sam

Another month has gone by and we’re now heading towards winter. Outside, the trees have shed their leaves, the growth of nature has slowed significantly, and darkness is setting in earlier and earlier as each day passes.

This happens to be my favourite time of year. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, there are no distractions, no lawns that need to be manicured, and staying indoors is a generally accepted form of behaviour. The conditions, while not favourable for everyone, are conducive to me getting work done.

I have a predilection for darkness, for instance, because of the atmosphere it creates. Events that happen in the dark take on a greater sense of suspense, uncertainty, and fear. Some things are much more powerful in the absence of light. The problem, from a writing perspective, is that it’s deceivingly easy to forget, for instance, that midnight has fallen in your novel and therefore you can’t have something happen that does not naturally occur in a nocturnal environment. But when you can tap into that, and make it both atmospheric and authentic, you can write in a way that cannot be rectified in a diurnal setting.

Which leads me into the topic for this month’s article: how certain aspects of nature are criminally underused in novel writing.

We’ve all heard the adage that one should employ all five senses when writing. Writers are prone to describing what can be seen, heard, or felt, but it is rare that taste and smell are considered in addition. There is no adage, however, to remind people how important nature is in setting not only the scene, but also establishing location, setting mood, and even authenticating era.

For example, in August of 1995, several counties in Ireland recorded a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and for one of the few times in Irish history, people died from heat exposure because temperature of that nature is unheard of on this island. Events such as that are so rare they stay locked in the memory banks for years, but what they also do is allow us to use nature in an authentic (and genuinely terrifying, might I add) way.

The blizzard that hit New York City in December 2015, recorded as the second worst in the city’s history, brought an average of 20 inches of snow to the five boroughs, causing a mass shutdown of businesses and bringing nyc to a grinding halt. It also gave me an idea for the thriller I’m currently working on, where the enemy becomes not only humans but also nature itself.

But, I hear you riposte, what if I don’t want to set my story in a time period where it’s scorching or freezing? That’s okay. I’m not suggesting you populate your stories with natural disasters, but there are other ways of bringing nature into a story.

Conjure a post-apocalyptic setting in your mind and try to describe, out loud, what you envision it to be. Most people will see a picture of destruction, disrepair, and decimation. Our imagination has a stock image of a post-apocalyptic world because of how we’ve seen them portrayed in television over the years. I call this the Mad Max world, where nature has been eradicated and the landscape is dull, broken, and cauterised of anything resembling a natural entity. It’s this image that most people associate with post-apocalyptic worlds.

But it isn’t the one I find fascinating. That one can be seen in the Francis Lawrence film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, where ecological succession (aka natural reclamation) can be observed in the buildings and roads that have almost been completely subsumed by nature. If I ever write a post-apocalyptic novel, this is the world I will use, because it is simply true to life. In the abandoned town of Pripyat, in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, nature has not only survived a cataclysmic nuclear event, it is also thriving, which makes me think that the post-apocalyptic worlds such as Mad Max might have gotten it wrong in their depiction of life after nuclear war. Pripyat is authentic proof of that.

There are a few other genres that lend themselves to use of nature in a thematic form: fantasy, adventure, and eco-themed novels, but the mistake writers make is believing that ecology only plays a role in specific situations.

Take, for instance, Boneshaker, a modern novel by Cherie Priest, which uses an ecological event to put a fresh and daring spin on the popular zombie apocalypse genre. Set in nineteenth-century Seattle, it depicts a prodigious industrial accident that unleashes a toxic fog into the atmosphere, turning anyone who inhales it into a zombie-like creature. You might think it’s just another zombie novel, and in a sense it is, but it gives the author an avenue to come at the genre from an original standpoint.

If you’ll forgive me promoting my own work, in Dereliction of Duty, a military thriller, I contrast the scorching and wide-open deserts of Afghanistan, to the forests of North Carolina, and dilate on the difference the landscape poses for Spec Ops soldiers. You might think that’s not nature, or at least it’s only a small aspect of it, but when you have two soldiers in desert fatigues running around a forest and trying to figure out why they’ve been removed from active duty, it makes for a significant plot point and it allows me, the writer, to use the setting as a character in itself.

Any writer, writing any genre, can benefit from thinking about how nature could impact their writing. It is equally possible to make nature a great hindrance or a great help to one’s characters, and it pays to think about how our interaction with the environment changes based on where we are.

In Ireland, you cannot go five metres without seeing green (they don’t call it the Emerald Isle for nothing). Nature here is as important now as it was in the time of our forefathers. There are more farmers than bricklayers in this country – and that’s saying something. Growing up on a farm, my relationship to nature is one of awe and wonder. For inspiration, I need only look out my window, and this one of the reasons why I’m fascinated by novels that pay homage to the natural world.

On the south shore of Lake Mead, in the Mojave Desert, the bear-paw poppy grows in the summer. It is the only location in the entire United States (and one of only three in the world) where the proper constitution of soil can be found for this plant to survive and thrive. It is so rare, in fact, that it tops the list of the ten most endangered plants in the world. What makes this plant fascinating is that the soil in which it grows is the harshest and driest in existence. No other plant could survive, let alone thrive, in the same conditions.

What has this got to do with writing? Well, let’s imagine the possibilities. There are people in the world who take plants, grind them up in a mortar and pestle, and brew a liquid from them. In fact, it’s becoming more and more of a trend in the Western world since the turn of the century (it’s always been a popular pastime in the East). Imagine the possibilities you could create with an elixir made from one of the rarest plants in the world.

Something as simple as a plant can be turned into a story with a little imagination and some attention to detail. That’s why nature is a topic that has fascinated writers from all walks of life since the dawn of time. It’s the one constant in a constantly changing world. So the next time you’re thinking of doing that zombie novel, or epic fantasy tale, or military thriller, take a step back and see what way you can unlock the power of nature in your novel. For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from the great man himself, Albert Einstein:

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”.

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