How I admire those writers who are also naturalists, or at least have a very specific knowledge of the flora and fauna that surrounds us.
I write about nature often and love the natural world deeply, but my knowledge is limited. In fact, my ignorance of all that surrounds me—the names of plants, the identity of bird calls, the life cycles of this and that—is profound. I am not even a gardener. (After paying someone to landscape my yard I find myself surrounded by a host of plants I have no names for.)
I once wrote a bit of verse, mocking myself as a “lover of nature.” It went like this:
I have thought myself a lover
rejoicing in the boom and crackle
from inside my house,
the silent exultation
flinging itself against the glass,
the tangle of forest
from an asphalt path,
a whale breaching
on a T-shirt.
Then I stepped into the thrust and decay
of an ancient wood,
home of bear and beetle
and a thousand nameless birds,
and found myself craving
house and window,
How is it possible, then, to write about the natural world that I so consistently turn to for my stories when, in truth, I prefer the comforts of my neighborhood streets or a well-groomed trail over close-up encounters with the real thing?
A one-word answer . . . books.
It isn’t that I don’t leave the city and go into the natural world. I do. Often. But paddling my kayak around a suburban lake doesn’t teach me the names of the wading birds I encounter. And hiking through a state park doesn’t leave me with a specific memory of which flowers I saw blooming in exactly what season.
But if I combine my real passion for the outdoors, however timidly approached, with the information I glean from those whose knowledge is more specific than mine, I can write as though I, too, am an expert about the natural world.
When I return to my work on Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel set in the wilderness of northern Minnesota, I will, no doubt, once more go to that north country to renew my love of and feel for that fascinating land. But I will also return to the books I’ve found to inform my descriptions of all my characters are encountering, books that I keep on my shelf to describe birds, plants, insects, reptiles, mammals, spoor and tracks.
Two books have been especially useful for Blue-Eyed Wolf: Gunflint by Justine Kerfoot and The Singing Wilderness by that master of the north woods, Sigurd F. Olson. Both are laid out by season, so I can easily check to see which birds would be around, which flowers would be blooming in whatever month I’m writing about.
Is it cheating to transfer knowledge from one book to another almost without its passing through my brain? It sometimes feels that way. And yet many of my novels have required research into topics as various as brown bears in Alaska and the experience of combat in Vietnam. If I were to limit my stories to what I already know they would be stunted.
I suppose the reason research about the natural world feels different than gathering information about being a grunt in Vietnam is that I have never wanted to know what it was like to be a grunt in Vietnam. I gather the information only in service of its story. But I have always wished the natural world information lived inside my head. And so I am embarrassed by what I do not know again and again.
When I open a book, however, to discover that the bird singing so lyrically in my character’s world might be the white-throated sparrow, I am enormously grateful to those who do know.
And always grateful when I sit down to write that I am not limited to the contents of my own brain!