Within the genre of nature writing there are many different concepts and propositions surrounding why people are so drawn to reading about some old man or woman’s galumph through the woods. The main experience when reading nature writing is being there with the author on their trek, trip, traversion, or tromp through whatever outdoor circumstance they may be in. By reading about someone else’s journey, the reader gets a sense of being there, of getting outside, away from their office or home. Reading nature writing is informative, inspirational, poetic, but most of all, it is a brilliant form of escapism.
There are many reasons a person may feel the urge to escape their current reality. A lot of the time, this yearning for escape comes at a huge cost, so the next best thing is to read about someone else’s escapist experience. One such book that offers a sense of extreme escapism is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. In this book the author, Cheryl Strayed, finds herself wanting to get away from so many situations in life that one day she finds herself planning a backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail that runs through the length of California, Oregon, and Washington. This book is filled with such vivid imagery and emotional rawness that you feel like you are right there in the middle of the High Sierras with the author. In an article by The Guardian called Is our love of nature writing bourgeois escapism? the author of the article addresses an escape of this extreme. The article goes on to say that Cheryl Strayed wrote about her “months-long trek in the American wilderness in search of what she calls ‘radical aloneness’, … in order to escape from a ‘mixed-up life’. (Poole, 2013)” As Cheryl Strayed herself used her trip as a form of escape, a reader of her book would use the story of her trip as a form of escape, themselves. In a sense, one strong theme surrounding nature writing is that of escapists reading about escapists. One form of this escapism obviously requires more effort than the other, but in many ways reading about nature inspires readers to go outside and try it for themselves.
Nature writing is a uniquely specific genre in that the readers of this type of literature usually have some sort of previous experience or desire for an experience with the great outdoors. By reading other people’s accounts of their own outdoor experiences, readers of this genre not only get a sense of being there, but also become inspired to experience it for themselves. For whatever reason, sometimes escapism, other times for a muse, people who are inspired by nature writing often crave their own outdoor adventures. Sometimes, a long trek or huge feat can become legend to its fans. One example of this can be found surrounding the story of Christopher McCandless and his decision to give away everything he owned in order to find a different way of living, outside of societies rules. He never made it out of the Alaskan wilderness he escaped to, but his story lives on thanks to Jon Krakauer’s article in the January 1993 issue of Outside Magazine and his 1997 book Into The Wild. In a more recent article in Outside Online called The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem the author explains that “The book, and a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn, helped elevate the McCandless saga to the status of modern myth. And that, in turn, has given rise to a unique and curious phenomenon in Alaska: McCandless pilgrims, inspired by his story, who are determined to see the bus for themselves. (Saverin, 2013)” By telling a story so many can relate to that takes place in a real life location, readers of books such as Wild, and Into the Wild, as well as others, are able visit these places for themselves. In the case of Chris McCandless’ story, many readers want to see if they can do what he did, but survive; while in the case of Cheryl Strayed, readers try to not only complete the full Pacific Crest Trail, but they also try to see if they can overcome their life’s hardships the way the author did by going into nature alone.
In order to gain a fondness or desire for outdoor adventures, many people take inspiration from familial or cultural traditions. Children raised with Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts in their lives, time spent at Summer Camp in the outdoors, or even children who had families whose vacations were spent next to some lake or on top of a mountain in a camper or tent are more likely to go back to this setting as adults. Perhaps they never experienced this as a child, but saw others camping with their families and wanted to know what it was like; so as adults, these people set out to make their own outdoor memories. This sort of tradition, whether cultural or familial, is a driving force to acting out one’s own traversion, and, in turn, writing about said tromp through nature. These individuals take inspiration from works such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierras, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, and even Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and seek to not only create their own adventures, but to write about it, and thus pave the way for a new nature writing tradition.
While there are many different themes and aspects to the genre of nature writing, the largest components, escapism, inspiration, and tradition, seem to work together to keep people interested enough to fuel the genre and make room for more authors. In a sense, the readers of nature writing not only pave the way for more work of this kind, but many times become the authors of the next great adventure themselves.