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The Problem with Nature Writing

Nature writing is a prestigious genre graced with such legendary practitioners as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unfortunately, the genre is no longer that popular. For The Believer, nature writer Jenny Price shows what the sprawling Los Angeles Metropolitan Area reveals about the genre’s failure to connect with modern readers, and how we can rethink our relationship with nature.

People frequently ask Price, “Is there nature in L.A.?” Many outsiders incorrectly claim that L.A. has no history, beauty, depth, culture, or pedestrians. Their inability to recognize nature in the city stems from the same core problem that plagues Price’s genre: the idea that nature is something separate from, or untouched by, humanity. “To define nature as the wild things apart from cities,” Price writes, “is one of the great fantastic American stories.”

And it’s one of the great fantastic American denials. On Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills in the Bel Air area, in the Santa Monica Mountain foothills, the TV producer Aaron Spelling has built what’s widely publicized as the starship of Hollywood homes—a 56,550-square-foot French limestone mansion with 123 rooms, with two rooms for wrapping gifts and a rose garden on top of one of four garages. Here are two generally ignored facts about Spelling’s famous homestead. First, it is a house of nature: Spelling built it, has maintained it, and stocks it with fantastic quantities of oil, stone, metals, dirt, water, and wood (a likely forest’s worth of wrapping paper, to begin with). And second, there are very few maples on Mapleton Drive. Maybe maples grew here in abundance once, and maybe not. Either way, the street enjoys the idea of maple trees, which conjures a bucolic refuge above the smog, noise, and torrential activity of the megalopolis below. Call it maple mojo. Smaller manses of nature line the rest of Mapleton Drive as well as the neighboring streets Parkwood, Greendale, Brooklawn, Beverly Glen. No parks, no woods, no dales, no brooks, no glens. Just the mojo of wild nature.

Is there nature in L.A.? Far more than our philosophies dream of, and much more than in Portland or Boulder—more, possibly, on Mapleton Drive alone than in some small towns in Iowa. One may as well ask if there is water in the ocean. To get on the bus—to imagine a more vital and comprehensive nature writing—is to deem the question plain dumb silly, along with “Where is nature?” and maybe even “What is nature?” and especially that nonsense about the end of nature, which makes only as much sense as declaring an end to rocks or air or water and bespeaks exactly the way of thinking by which L.A. lost its river. The powering question of this literature should become, rather, What nature is it?—and then, How do we use nature? How do we change nature? How does nature react? How do we react back? How do we imagine nature? Who uses and changes and imagines nature? And often the most vital questions of all: How sustainably? How fairly? How well?

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