Natural Observers: Susan Fenimore Cooper, Mary Hunter Austin, and Nan Shepherd

By Karen Wills

Nature writing reaches my heart. It does that through poetic, detailed description of an outdoor setting. In the last months I’ve read three wonderful books by women nature writers. Let’s consider them from earliest to most recent.

Susan Fenimore Cooper,cooper James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter, founded an orphanage in Cooperstown, New York, a town established by her grandfather. She made a success of the enterprise in every way. In 1887 she also wrote Rural Hours, nature writing that covered a year in Cooperstown season by season. Much of it appeared as journal entries recorded after walks that ranged over the countryside. Both writer and artist, she also made watercolors of birds, coopers birdflowers, animals, and the lake near the town that drew her to its shores over and over. Her writing was accurate and poetic.  “Spring has a delicate pencil; no single tree, shrub, plant, or weed, is left untouched by her, but Autumn delights rather in the breadth and grandeur of her labors, she is careless of details. Spring works lovingly-Autumn, proudly, magnificently.”

Already sorry for the damage caused by the post Civil War increase in America’s population, she also conveyed a warning familiar to modern conservationists. “The rapid consumption of the large pine timber among us should be enough to teach a lesson of prudence and economy on the subject.”

Mary Hunter Austin wrote a collection of nature essays, The Land of Little Rain, in 1903. mary austinShe focused on the Mojave Desert including Death Valley. She considered Nature as an entity with a beneficial connection to Native peoples and recent arrivals alike. She mixed small matters of opinion in with the big themes.  “This is the gilia the children call ‘evening snow’ and it is no use trying to improve on children’s names for wildflowers.” She is poetic. “The origin of mountain streams is like the origin of tears, patent to the understanding but mysterious to the sense.”

Finally, there’s Nan Shepherd who wrote her best-known work, The Living Mountain, with a mountaineer’s authenticity. nan shephardHer setting is the Cairngorm Mountains of Northern Scotland. Writing in 1944, she shared her belief in nature’s grand unity. “The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird—all are one.”

Each of these writers had a poetic respect and thorough knowledge of her most favored area of the natural world. We are the richer that each shared her love of nature with us.

https://karenwills.com

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