Landmarks of American Nature Writing

Preface

Two types of landmarks are represented in this exhibition: landmark works of American nature writing and the physical landmarks these texts describe. These two types of landmarks are presented together because they could not in truth be presented apart, so entwined are they in both idea and reality. Just as the content and style of the texts on display have been shaped by the physical landmarks they discuss, so have the physical landmarks themselves been shaped by the cultural forces in which these texts participate. This exhibition is thus a study in the interaction of landscape and literature, an examination of how a particular place came to occupy literal as well as imaginative space.

The particular place under discussion--Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley--is itself a cultural construction, which for the purposes of this exhibition has been defined as encompassing the area around Winchester in northern Virginia to the area around Roanoke in the south. Its eastern boundary is the upper Piedmont east of the Blue Ridge proper, from about Leesburg to Smith Mountain Lake; its western boundary is the state line separating Virginia from West Virginia. The counties this region includes are, north to south: Frederick, Clarke, Loudoun, Warren, Shenandoah, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Rockingham, Page, Culpeper, Madison, Orange, Highland, Greene, Augusta, Albemarle, Bath, Rockbridge, Nelson, Alleghany, Botetourt, Amherst, Craig, Roanoke, and Bedford.

Although this precise region is not the primary focus of a few of the earliest books on display, it nevertheless functions as an important point of reference in these texts, each of which became significant literary landmarks for later explorers and writers in the region. Similarly, although Harpers Ferry and White Sulphur Springs are today located just over the state line in West Virginia, they were important destinations for the antebellum tourist and are therefore discussed in some of the featured texts. Finally, because Southwest Virginia is considered by many regionalists to be both physically and culturally distinct from the region described here, nature writing from this part of the state has not been included in this exhibition.

As for nature writing itself, it is perhaps best defined by reference to the related concepts of place and time. Traditional definitions of nature writing often limit the genre to nonfiction essays that concern the relationship between humans and the nonhuman world. Such definitions generally trace the lineage of nature writing back no further than the late eighteenth century, particularly to Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne (1789), and usually exclude works of fiction, poetry, and drama, in addition to forms of nonfiction other than the essay, such as speeches, diaries, memoirs, and travel narratives. Such formulations seem unnecessarily limiting, given the tremendous wealth of writing about nature found in earlier periods and other literary forms. A less restrictive definition of nature writing would focus upon the expansive subject--rather than the generic circumscription--of this literature. It would include any text or portion of a text, regardless of its time of composition, that examines the interaction of nature and culture in a particular place.

The Department of Special Collections at the University of Virginia is an ideal location to study nature writing defined in this way because its holdings extend so far back in time. Not only do these collections enable a detailed examination of the history of this particular place, but they also remind the student of nature writing that words on a page are no less "marks on the land" than the physical landmarks themselves. Older books, such as many of those on display, announce their physicality with a startling vividness: they creak when opened, fall apart when touched, and can, without proper care, crumble to dust upon the shelves. They force us to remember that they are as much a product of the earth as ourselves, their pages formed from plants and trees, their bindings from the skins of animals, their inks from pigments dispersed in water, oil, and alcohol. Although modern books also betray their origins when put in contact with water or fire--as do the computers in which more and more of our texts are being stored--these more recent volumes tend to hide their common ancestry under colored covers, glossy papers, and elaborate graphic designs. Yet about all of them we may rightly say, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Although not all of the texts included in this exhibition are landmarks in the sense of being masterpieces, all of them clearly fulfill the original function of the word landmark: they help us orient ourselves to the landscape. As our lives grow increasingly distinct from the natural landscapes we inhabit--so much so that at times we seem hardly to live anywhere at all--we need works of nature writing to remind us how a place once appeared to others and to predict how it might appear at some time in the future. In addition, although not all writings about nature are sensitive to the ecological intricacies of a place, they at least can help us recognize the degree to which our natural and cultural landmarks are the visible products of each other's influence. For these reasons, we must fight the dust, must work at textual preservation and restoration as fervently as we work at preserving or restoring the natural landscape. For better or for worse, our understanding of the "book of nature" will depend in large part upon the nature of the book.

Special Collections has been carrying out this unsung "conservation" work for years, as the large amount of well-preserved regional nature literature in this exhibition demonstrates. Indeed, this exhibition offers only a representative sample of the many forms of nature writing produced in the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley over the last four centuries. As might be expected, the exhibition contains a greater number of historical works than contemporary texts, but even in the modern period Special Collections maintains some exceptional holdings, such as the field guides in case one and the promotional materials in case eighteen. Travel writings are also encountered more frequently than the writings of residents, not only because Tracy McGregor was especially interested in the literature of travel, but also because for many years the social and economic conditions in the region necessitated the working of the land rather than the production of literature about it. Finally, many of the items on display are not works of nature writing at all, but rather the maps, engravings, photographs and other items that illuminate both the context and the content of the featured texts.


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