Landmarks of American Nature Writing

19. Modern Memoirs and Nature Essays

Over the last hundred years, the writers of memoirs and nature essays about western Virginia have reflected upon what it means to be a part of this place in the modern world, either as residents or as travelers. Concerned with the landscapes of memory, language, and desire, these writers have ventured into regions known and unknown, echoing the concerns of three centuries of nature writers before them.


H. Morrison, Jr. Lumber Camp near Mt. Jackson, Shenandoah County, Va. Photograph, c. 1903-10.

This photograph of a Shenandoah County lumber camp illustrates one of the dominant uses of the environment in western Virginia in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the modern memoir and nature essay was born. The large pile of boards in the center rear of the photograph contrasts sharply with the surrounding foliage. Note the presence of the three young boys in front of the lumber pile. The owner or financier of the camp may be the well-dressed gentleman in the bowler hat behind them.

A. G. Bradley. Sketches from Old Virginia. New York: Macmillan, 1897.

Arthur Granville Bradley was a noted traveler and historian who made several visits to Virginia. Author of over thirty books, including a biography of John Smith and a history of colonial America, Bradley published a series of narratives about Virginia (some of which originally appeared in Macmillan's, Blackwood's, and Badminton) as Sketches from Old Virginia in 1897.

A. G. Bradley. A Negro Sportsman. Drawing, 1884.

One of a series of unpublished field sketches originally drawn to accompany his Sketches from Old Virginia, this 1884 drawing provides a rare glimpse of an African American in leisurely engagement with the natural world.

Bradford Torrey. A World of Green Hills: Observations of Nature and Human Nature in the Blue Ridge. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898. Barrett Library.

A widely published amateur ornithologist, Bradford Torrey was the author of 11 books and an editor of the 14-volume journal of Henry Thoreau. In A World of Green Hills, Torrey describes a birding expedition to the region surrounding the Natural Bridge and the Peaks of Otter.

P. I. Flourney. Shenandoah Valley, View from Shenandoah Mountain. Photograph, July 1936.

Taken the same month that F.D.R. dedicated the Shenandoah National Park (section 2), P. I. Flourney's photograph of the Shenandoah Valley from Shenandoah Mountain shows the growing importance of forested land to automobile tourism in Virginia.

Alexander S. Paxton. Memory Days, in which the Shenandoah Valley is seen in Retrospection, with Glimpses of School Days and the Life of Virginia People of Fifty Years Ago. New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1908. From the library of Mary Johnston, with her bookplate.

Memory Days, a recollection of Alexander Paxton's boyhood adventures along the James River, is Paxton's only published book, written when he was in his sixties. A native of Rockbridge County, Paxton attended Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), served as a member of the Liberty Hall Volunteers during the Civil War, and worked as a schoolteacher in Pulaski, Rockingham, and Augusta counties. This copy of Memory Days was owned by Mary Johnston, who may have used the book as a source for her 1926 novel, The Great Valley.

William Alphonso Murrill. The Natural History of Staunton, Virginia. Bronxwood Park, N.Y.: W. A. Murrill, 1919. Shown: Plate 2, "Butterflies."

One of Annie Dillard's favorite books, and an inspiration for her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Natural History of Staunton is the year-long diary of Staunton resident William Alphonso Murrill. A typical entry (3 March 1896) reads:

True, bracing, electric March weather! A large Lycosa was ploughed up this week. Such a cheery note from a chickadee! Skunk cabbage this afternoon--only a little ahead of me. One plant with flowers unfolded.
In her most recent book, Mornings Like This (1995), Dillard uses the text of Murrill's entries for 1 November 1895 and 24 January 1896, as well as his "Plan of Nature Study for April," to shape what she calls "found poems."

William Carlos Williams. A Novelette and Other Prose, 1921-1931. Toulon, France: To, Publishers, 1932. Barrett Library. Shown: "An Essay on Virginia."

An example of what Williams later called "automatic writing," his modernist "Essay on Virginia" from A Novelette and Other Prose is both a humorous survey of Virginia's geography and culture and a self-conscious reflection on the characteristics of the essay form. "[A]bility in an essay," claims Williams, "is multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of opposed centres of stillness. So the history of Virginia has gone, even more so than most of the states."

Edmund Wilson. The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980. Barrett Library.

Edmund Wilson traveled to Virginia in 1931, providing a vivid, stream-of-consciousness account of his arrival in Roanoke by train in his diary from the period, first published in 1980 as The Thirties. In Roanoke, Wilson found a lushness of verdure, "without the usual summer garishness and coarseness--meadows, feathery locus groves and swamps a bright yellow-green, with the hills blued under a gray sky of light and shade beyond."

E. J. Wilhelm. The Blue Ridge: Man and Nature in Shenandoah National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1968.

Published while he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Virginia, The Blue Ridge conveys Eugene J. Wilhelm's ecologically informed belief that in preserving this area "we are in reality preserving ourselves; we are trying to keep in existence the organic variety, the whole spectrum of natural resources, upon which our own future development will depend."

Paige Shoaf Simpson and Jerry H. Simpson. Torn Land. Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell Co., 1970. Shown: Frontispiece map of Nelson County, opposite title page.

"Within six hours on the night of August 19-20, 1969, Hurricane Camille released a cataclysmic rainfall over a small, rural section of Virginia called Nelson County. The downpour emulsified the mountainsides, producing viscous juggernauts of mud, trees, and boulders that thundered down into the sleeping coves and valleys, grinding to bits the roads, homes, bridges, and people in their paths." So reads the dust jacket of Torn Land, written between May and September 1970 by Jerry H. Simpson, who was associate state editor of the Charlottesville Daily Progress at the time, and his wife Paige Shoaf Simpson. The book's 26 chapters feature accounts from many of the residents who assisted in the county's recovery from the storm. Profits from the sale of Torn Land were used to build a new public library in Nelson County.

Flood Damage from Hurricane Camille. Photograph, September 1969.

Issued by the University of Virginia's Information Services, this photograph depicts the backyards of two Nelson county homes damaged by rocks, tree trunks, and mud. According to the text that accompanies this image, "An average of 30 persons per day from the University of Virginia and Charlottesville communities . . . supplied volunteer labor to help flood victims clear their property."

Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1974. Barrett Library.

Annie Dillard was twenty-nine when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book now widely considered a classic of twentieth-century nature writing. Originally from Pennsylvania, she received her B.A. (1967) and M.A. (1968) in English from Hollins College. In 1972, while living on Tinker Creek in the Roanoke Valley, Dillard devoted herself quietly to the year of walking, reading, and journal-keeping that inspired Pilgrim. Only later, after eight months of nearly incessant writing, did her 1,103 note cards become the book she described--borrowing from Thoreau--as "a meteorological journal of the mind."

Virginia Bell Dabney. Once There Was a Farm: A Country Childhood Remembered. New York: Random House, 1990.

A long-time resident of the commonwealth, Dabney has lived on four farms in succession: one in central Virginia owned by her parents, one in the Blue Ridge Mountains, one east of Richmond near the Rappahannock River, and one on top of a hill in the Allegheny Mountains. These rural landscapes became the subject of her affectionate memoir, Once There Was a Farm.

Richard Crozier. Foothills of the Blue Ridge. Painting, 1984. Gouache, 9-3/4 x 6-1/4 in. On loan from the artist.

Richard Crozier. Near Chantilly, Virginia. Painting, 1984. Gouache, 6-3/4 x 12 in. On loan from the artist.

Currently Professor of Art at the University of Virginia, Richard Crozier is one of the most sensitive contemporary painters of the Virginia landscape. His work has appeared in more than fifty solo and group exhibitions and hangs in many corporate and private collections. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1944, Crozier is a graduate of the University of Washington, Seattle (B.F.A., 1968), and the University of California, Davis (M.F.A., 1974). He is represented by Tatistcheff and Co., New York.


| Exhibit Home Page | Comments | Special Collections | Library Home Page | UVa Home Page |