19th Century Green Writing: Teaching the Art of Fascination

A lover of plots, action, drama, passion, tension, mystery, deception, climax, conflict and resolution, might have trouble with Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain. Much of Green Writing has very little interest in what is expected of the most basic novel. But if we are to judge Austin’s book by the measuring stick of the novel, we would be entirely missing the essence of the genre, which aims to teach a whole new way of looking at the world around us. What then, we might ask, holds our interest in this book? What moves us?

Austin’s style is a formally anti-progressive style, in the tradition of contemporary and earlier Green Writers such as John Burroughs, Emerson, and Thoreau. In an anti-progressive style, there can also be no narrative progress. These writers were downright sick and tired of “progress” in all its forms; they were sick of efficiency, of the never-ending search for the next frontier, of the silly belief that the history of man was one of gradual advancement, that everything was moving forward to some great, more-perfect evolution of man (as many gleaned from Darwin). Green writers were sick of trains, steam boats, coal, tanning, power lines, and Speed, that popular God whose worship would flower into the awful cult of Futurism, a cult beheaded by the realization of its own desires: war; progress; efficiency. Future-oriented narrative, plot-oriented writing, the obligatory exposition, rising action, denouement, and resolution, which pull the reader along in anticipation of the next page are not sufficient to convey the values of a Green Writer. Slow down, dear reader, slow down. Don’t worry about what is on the next page; instead, enjoy what is on this one.

Rather than plot, the Green writer prefers observation-driven writing. Austin, for example, examines very closely the world around her, her local environment, and she analyzes those everyday details that the casual observer would quickly relegate to the realm of the mundane. Her sentence structure is similar to Burroughs’ in its directness and simplicity; she is not trying to dazzle or confuse, she merely presents what she sees. Her vocabulary only verges into the esoteric out of necessity: she needs Latin binomial nomenclature to differentiate all the different species of flora and fauna she discusses. She presents a close, detail-oriented analysis of generally overlooked topics in a very accessible manner, giving us readers matter-of-fact wisdom in the trappings of humble diction and syntax.

The name Austin gives to her role as a nature-observer is the “true idler” (Land of Little Rain, 12), which is a name that has similar connotations to what Burroughs calls the “Sharp Lookout” (Signs and Seasons, Ch.1), the “keen-eyed observer” (“Art of Seeing Things,” 146), or what Thoreau called the “saunterer” (“Walking”, 592-3), all of which derives from Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” (“Nature”, 6). These names all share in common the idea of slowing down, looking, closely observing, and waiting. By means of this waiting and watching, we as waiters and watchers might obtain a sort of transcendental enlightenment (as with Thoreau and Emerson), or at least a certain level of wisdom (as with Burroughs and Austin).

I would argue that there is a very definite connotive shift between Emerson’s and Thoreau’s idea of the “saunterer” or the “transparent eyeball” and Austin’s and Burroughs’ “idler” and “sharpshooter.” The former pair attaches a very religious and moral set of implications to the role of the nature-observer, that the nature-observer has the potential to become a sort of wiseman, prophet, or achieve some sort of union with God that is beyond what Austin and Burroughs are willing to admit. Following in the tradition of realism, and moving away from the moralizing/sermonizing force of Thoreau and Emerson, Austin and Burroughs are content simply to observe, and through observation achieve a more muted, toned-down sense of wisdom. They are less likely to make a statement about the world or nature of man and more likely to simply record the observation, allowing the reader to make his/her own extrapolations—though often, they too cannot resist the temptation to take an observation and apply a more universal metaphor to it. Take the following quotes for example:

As the weather grew hot, her position became very trying. It was no longer a question of keeping the eggs warm, but of keeping them from roasting. The sun had no mercy on her, and she fairly panted in the middle of the day. In such an emergency the male robin has been known to perch above the sitting female and shade her with his outstretched wings. But in this case there was no perch for the male bird, had he been disposed to make a sunshade of himself. I thought to lend a hand in this direction myself, and so stuck a leafy twig beside the nest.
(S&S, 73-74.)

The quick increase of suns at the end of spring sometimes overtakes birds in their nesting and effects a reversal of the ordinary manner of incubation. It becomes necessary to keep eggs cool rather than warm. One hot, stifling spring in the Little Antelope I had occasion to pass and repass frequently the nest of a pair of meadowlarks, located unhappily in the shelter of a very slender weed. I never caught them sitting except near night, but at midday they stood, or drooped above it, half fainting with pitifully parted bills, between their treasure and the sun. Sometimes both of them together with wings spread and half lifted continued a spot of shade in a temperature that constrained me at last in a fellow feeling to spare them a bit of canvas for permanent shelter.
(LoLR, 7-8.)

We see in the above paragraphs Burroughs and Austin observing the same phenomenon of birds keeping their eggs cool in a hot environment. Both authors have the same impulse to give the birds some sort of parasol to ease their plight. But note that these paragraphs avoid any moralizing statement. Rather than mention something about the relationship between mother and child, the natural, self-sacrificing altruism of mother bird to baby egg, the intimate relationship that is built during this crucial period of incubation as an edifying metaphor for human relationships or for the world at large, Austin and Burroughs are content to simply make the observation. Observation perseveres for observation’s sake; the metaphor that is extrapolated from it is left for the reader to put together on his own. This is not to say that the extrapolation is unimportant, merely that it is left to the reader to apply the analogy to his or her own circumstances:

Man can have but one interest in nature, namely, to see himself reflected or interpreted there, and we quickly neglect both poet and philosopher who fail to satisfy, in some measure, this feeling. (S&S, 37.)

Nature remains the engine of metaphor for these later Green Writers, but they refrain from the antebellum tendency to do the moralizing for the reader. We have moved into the realm of realism, where the goal is to depict objective reality in a clear, literal fashion. What we glean from the observations (and we most certainly are supposed to glean all sorts of various connections and comparisons from these observations) is entirely up to us as readers.

It is important to note that, following the trend of realism, Burroughs and Austin also describe the unpleasant sides of nature. Austin spends a fair share of her pages describing the unfriendliness of the desert, the death that haunts it, its pitilessness. Nature is described not in the terms of the sublime, as it so often is in Emerson and Thoreau, but as it is: thorns, vultures, death and all. This is the post-Melvillian understanding of Nature, that Nature, beautiful though she may be, is not simply a place of butterflies, sunshine, and transcendentalism. The Melvillian perspective is much more akin to the Puritan relationship with Nature, and takes into account that Nature is full of all sorts of dangerous things; that if you go out into nature, all the time looking for some sort of sublime experience with God, you may just get your leg bitten off. Burroughs and Austin have thus shifted to an unidealized relationship with nature, a very respectful one. The “dark side” of nature is faithfully portrayed, and presented as further metaphorical inspiration.

While we as readers have an experience that is one of quiet pleasure, of slow marvel at another ecosystem likely different from our own, we are not meant to want to go to the place described. Austin and Burroughs are not writing a travel guide; their primary concern is not enticing tourism to their neck of the woods. There is no mention of monuments, or specific “must-see” natural phenomena as in Bryant’s Picturesque America; indeed, a tour guide interpretation of these works would be completely contradictory to the anti-progressive outlook. Rather, these essays aim to teach how one without any training (for surely, Austin’s and Burroughs’ writing is relegated to the realm of the naturalist rather than that of the scientist) can, by spending time and careful examination, find such wonders in his or her own backyard. Their message is much more profound than the travel guide, which simply states “come here and look at this!” Austin and Burroughs are saying that there are all sorts of natural phenomena to be studied, that there is fascinating stuff happening all over the world all the time, and if Austin can find it in the middle of the desert, and Burroughs can find it in the Hudson Valley, then surely we as readers can find it wherever we may be. The Progressivist travels to Paris in order to have a fascinating experience; the Green Writer recognizes that wherever you go, there you are, that “one has only to stay at home and watch the process pass” (S&S, 3).

Ultimately, that’s the brilliance of late-nineteenth century Green Writing: it teaches us how to become fascinated with where we are, how to become satisfied with what we have. It is trying to bring about a whole new way of life. Stop looking for plot. A plot is a destination, and a destination implies a purpose, and a future-oriented world view; not everything needs to be viewed in terms of progression; not all who wander are lost. By becoming fascinated with where you are, there are all sorts of wonderful things to be learned. Lewis Mumford notes the outcome of regionalism:

With local history as a starting point the student is drawn into a whole host of relationships that lead him out into the world at large: the whaling ships that used to cast anchor at Poughkeepsie and other river towns will carry him to the South Seas; the discovery of the Hudson will take him back to the Crusades; one begins to follow the threads of local history, local manners, local industry, local peoples, one finds that they lead in every direction. And that is the proper method. (“The Value of Local History”, 25.)

The Green Writer is thus saying by example, by the explanation of his or her observational processes, the following to his reader: “This is my place, and here is how I love it. You too can find a similar love for your place, wherever that may be. And as you love your backyard, soon you shall love also your neighborhood, your city, your country, indeed, soon you’ll find that you possess a love for and responsibility to the whole world.” They are conveying a sense of pride in regionalism; they are demonstrating a non-narrative way of life. Austin and Burroughs are not just teaching the art of observation, they are teaching the art of fascination.


Austin, Mary H. The Land of Little Rain. The Modern Library classics. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Burroughs, John, and Jeff Walker, ed. Signs & Seasons. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Mumford, Lewis, & Marranca, Bonnie, ed. “The Value of Local History,” A Hudson Valley Reader. Woodstock, N.Y: Overlook Press, 1995.

Thoreau, Henry D, & Carl Bode. The Portable Thoreau. Viking portable library. New York: Viking Press, 1964.

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