Once upon a time there was a genre called nature writing. It was thoughtful and earnest, poetic and deep. It was built on a tradition — a transcendental, antisocial, largely pastoral tradition. It grew and flourished to the point where it even earned its own little section in the bookstore, where everyone who wanted to read it knew where to find it . . . and those who were looking more broadly for something good to read wouldn’t likely stumble over it again. There it sat, isolated from those works more generally known as literature. Writers began to fear being placed there. Over time, even those who originally embraced it would come to reconsider the value of the box.
Orion has periodically suffered a similar fate, having been grouped with what are known in the industry as “niche” magazines. Never was it the intention of Orion’s founders and editors to create an environmental magazine — that is to say, a publication about a particular subject. Orion approaches nature and environmental concerns as a context. It grows out of the belief that “environment” is no more a niche interest than eating; that “nature” is just another name for everything that is. In fact, once you apply such a label to the writing that appears in this magazine, you’ve very nearly missed the point.
Thankfully, just as climate change is becoming something that you ought to be concerned about whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, nature writing too is coming unbound. Today, writing in which environment looms large pervades all publishing media, from books to magazines, newspapers to NPR commentaries, and all across the blogosphere. It takes the form of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and essays, and all sorts of genre-bending combinations of all these things. And it is increasingly hard to categorize. This evolution is due in part to a new generation of writers who are expanding the bounds of writing about nature such that it is becoming less a subgenre than a vital part of literature (no adjective required). But it’s also true that many of the luminaries are writers who never should have been put in the box in the first place, writers whose work has a much wider relevancy and deserves a much wider audience.
This is the danger of labels, and it’s why the dissolution of nature writing is a good thing. Breaking down the false construct between humans and the rest of nature will be just as necessary, if we are going to evolve a culture suited to the limits of the Earth. The good news is that these two endeavors are in fact one. A literature grounded in the natural world, as alive as the world beyond the pages —narratives that chronicle lives lived, as all are, in places — is as humbling as it is compelling. It can have a sort of Trojan horse effect, whereby the writing itself earns a place in people’s hearts and, once there, can promote the idea that nature is what makes us human, that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. The more people relish this good literature, the more they come to understand the danger we are in ecologically speaking, the better the chances that humanity will rise to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
This magazine was founded on the notion that writers and artists can precipitate change — indeed are those most likely to touch us in ways that might compel us to change. Now that environmental writing is officially out of the box, the potential of Orion is magnified a hundredfold.