Nature has been calling to writers for centuries, first as a compelling mystery with spiritual overtones, and later as the subject of scientific investigation and study. But nature writing as we know it today – that is a body of literature that incorporates both factual data and an author’s personal responses to and reflections on the natural world – is a relatively recent phenomenon. The reason is simple. Until human beings made the conscious choice to set themselves apart, to create whole communities in which they sought to control everything about their environment, from the kinds and numbers of plants and animals to the temperature of the air, there was no sense of separation; no need to be reminded that we are not masters of our world, but just one of the many interconnected and interdependent filaments in an immensely complex web of life.
Today, however, we not only need to be reminded, but our very survival may depend upon acknowledging our dependence and working to forge a new and mutually supportive relationship with the planet. It is this sense of urgency and reawakening that makes the work of nature writers so compelling and popular.
Unlike their 19th century predecessors, who were mostly amateur natural historians, today’s nature writers draw on a diverse range of backgrounds including physics, psychology, microbiology, journalism, mathematics, zoology, Native American studies, geology and history. As a result, they’ve been known to expound on everything from the magnificence of grizzly bears to the crystalline structure of snowflakes. They ask difficult questions about habitat loss, pollution and human waste, and write hilarious accounts of their own bumbling exploits in the wild.
Nature writing can take several forms, including reported pieces, profiles, and interviews, but by far the most compelling is the first-person essay. Nature authors have claimed the personal essay as their own and transformed it into a vehicle for personal growth and discovery. Some of its better-known practitioners include David Quammen, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Diane Ackerman, Edward Hoagland, Edward Abbey, and Wendell Berry.
The wonderful thing about the personal nature essay is that, unlike its academic counterpart, it allows and indeed encourages the individual voice to emerge and gives the writer permission to ramble and play. This is not to say that a personal essayist can wander aimlessly, but as Scott Russell Sanders, himself an accomplished nature writer with 14 books to his name says, “The writing of an essay is like finding one’s way through a forest without being quite sure what game you are chasing, what landmark you are seeking. You sniff down one path until some heady smell tugs you in a new direction, and then off you go, dodging and circling, lured on by the songs of unfamiliar birds, puzzled by the tracks of strange beasts, leaping from stone to stone across rivers, barking up one tree after another.”
Part of the fun of reading personal essays that deal with nature comes from being able to makes these leaps with the writer, to explore the unexpected and come away enriched and intrigued. A good nature essay includes the following characteristics:
- It looks out on, explores, and offers personal observations about the natural world.
- It is personable, allowing the author’s unique personality and writing style to come through.
- It is multi-disciplinary, combining objective facts with literature’s love of words.
- It is singular, offering individual and personal ways of seeing and being in the world.
But how, you may be wondering, can nature writing fit into your work as a freelancer? Though nature pieces will probably never be your bread and butter, it is possible to make money writing them. The trick is to look outside the box when considering publications. Although nature publications are a natural place to start, you should also consider publications that are related to the themes/topics in your article. For example, if you’re a woman whose career was impacted by an experience you had in nature, you might be able to pitch the story to one of the women’s magazines. Likewise, a piece about a character encountered while out hiking might be a nice fit for Backpacker. And of course don’t overlook more mainstream publications such as Reader’s Digest, Outside, or The Saturday Evening Post if there is an element of human drama in your piece. Here are some publications to get you started:
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/adirondacklife.html
Galen Crane, Editor
Pays $0.25/published word
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/arizonahighways.html
Editor: Robert J. Early
Pays $50-$750 for departments; $0.55-$1.00/word for features
Editor: David Seideman (prefers snail mail)
New York, NY 10003
Phone: (212) 979-3000
Fax: (212) 979-3188
Writer’s guidelines no longer appear on their website.
Back Home in Kentucky
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/backhomeinkentucky.html
Editor / Publisher: Jerlene Rose
Editor: Peter Flax
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/caliwild.html
Editor: Keith Howell
Pays $75-$250 for photos
Field and Stream
Editor: Sid Evans
Pays $100 to several thousand depending on the article.
Guidelines not available online.
High Country News
Contact: Betsy Marston
Pays $35-$100 for photos
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/montanamagazine.html
Beverly Magley, Editor
Pays $50-$125 for photos
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/naturalhistory.html
Editor: Jason Houston
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/outdoorcalifornia.html
Alexia Retallack, Editor
Pays $50-$250 for photos
Editor: Hal Espen
Is a paying market, but doesn’t publish rates in guidelines.
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/range.html
Pays $10-$50 for photos
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/sierramagazine.html
Editor: Robert Schildgen
Editor: Sy Safransky
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/wildlifeconservationmagazine.html
Editor: Debbie Behler
Market Listing: http://www.writersweekly.com/markets/wisconsintrailsmagazine.html
Editor: Harriet Brown
Jena Ball is a freelance writer, teacher, and public speaker with more than 20 years experience penning everything from restaurant reviews to adventure/travel features. She has written for publications such as Wildlife Conservation, The Tribune, Triathlete, Winds, The Japan Times and The ACCJ, and is the author of the popular syndicated column, Halfway Over the Hill.
Mostly recently, Jena founded an online school for journalists working in the fields of nature, food, adventure and memoir writing. For more information about Jena, her work, and the school, please visit: http://www.thenatureofwriting.com.