Faded white roses laying on loose pages from books

In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect

Notes from the September Literati Meeting

We met to talk about ‘Nature’ as a theme in the glittering world of literature in a quiet corner of a sprawling urban garden. Against a leafy backdrop, our discussion flowed from science fiction with generations of environmental evolution to pastoral admirations of rural life and on to the natural (and inevitable) state of death. We inevitable brought up pandemic-related words and touched on the otherworldliness of the natural world.

Given that nature is all around us, it’s no wonder that the theme evoked such a diverse range of recommendations!

‘Sci-’ and ‘Cli-’

Science fiction, climate fiction, and a bit of neurological science thrown in for good measure. 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
A sci-fi novel that uses evolved spiders and their human observers/interventionists to tackle big themes of developing intelligence, adapting to environments and situations, and shifting societies. 

Dune by Frank Herbert
Herbert’s novel stretches over 3,000 years of environmental change, examining how humans transform nature to their needs and the consequences of ecological change. Now the question is whether this year’s big budget film version will be anywhere near as good as the book. 

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
A work of climate fiction (known as cli-fi to the cool kids) that weaves together three parallel stories about apiculture into a powerful warning about the importance of bees. The second and third works in Lunde’s planned Climate Quartet, Blue (2017) and Przewalski’s Horse (2019) continue her exploration of the consequences of humankind’s treatment of Earth.

The Mind’s Eye and other books by Oliver Sacks
A neurologist delves into how visual functions break down via case studies and his own experience with eye cancer. Sacks’ many books look at the brain’s many strange pathways and give a human face to the nature of the mind. 

Discovering Sacks’ short essay “Why We Need Gardens” — which invokes literature, medicine, and nature — was a lovely post-gathering treat! 


Pastoral prose

Like an idyllic escape into the countryside, these works present the best of nature, particularly in rural settings

The Country Child by Alison Uttley
A relatively plot-free exploration of girlhood in the British countryside, Uttley’s semi-autobiographical work is filled with vivid descriptions of farm life from a child’s perspective.

The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont
This lengthy work shows the relationship between humans and nature through the four seasons. It was a beloved read during secondary school, but the Nobel Prize-winning epic was not a hit when revisited as an adult. 

“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening.”

Hermann Hess, from Bäume: betractungen und Gedichte (Trees: Reflections and Poems

Short stories & poetry by Hermann Hesse
Hesse is well-known for his poetic prose and straight-up poetry about natural subjects. His descriptions of landscapes may have peaked when he lived in Ticino at a cooperative colony; German-language film Monte Verità (2021) attempts to express the beauty of the place cinematically. 

The Overstory by Richard Powers
A sizable ecological novel about people with strong relationships to trees that questions whether humanity is doomed, but trees will survive—or if it’s the forests that will be destroyed.  


The many faces of Death

Arguably the most profound and permanent of all natural forces, works related to shuffling off this mortal coil were a repeat topic during our discussion. 

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Macdonald writes about the death of her father and raising a notoriously hard-to-train bird of prey as part of her mourning. She has an analytical way of expressing her grief and her background as a naturalist comes through.

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden
Death is personified as a shape-shifting Black woman in this surprisingly uplifting book that the narrator notes really “isn’t all about Death [it’s] about Life and the living.”

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
Doughty’s memoir is a death-positive call to share in the peace she’s found working in a mortuary and a crematorium—and embrace our own natural mortality. 

Will the Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty
Designed for young readers, but equally entertaining for curious adults, Doughty tackles entertaining questions like “Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral?” in an approachable and educational way. (Spoiler: the answer is no.)

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
A quirky exploration of death and how dead humans help the living. Roach’s easy-to-read approach to science explains how we know the things we know about death.  

A three-pane comic with a girl talking to death, who has great job security
“Duties,” Mary Death by Matthew Tarpley

It’s unavoidable

Given the omnipresence of news (and anxiety) about COVID-19, it’s no surprise that pandemic-related materials cropped up. And perhaps it counts as a natural disaster, although this New Yorker article argues it’s more of an ecological one

Just the Plague by Lyudmila Ulitskaya
Written as a screenplay decades ago, rediscovered by the author during lockdown, and now translated to English as a novel, Just the Plague is inspired by an outbreak in 1930s Russia and its cover-up. 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A merciless, highly communicable illness leaves much of North American uninhabited. Cheery, right? Twenty years after ‘Year Zero,’ a travelling theatre troupe offers some hope that civilisation can right itself again.

Severance by Ling Ma
Fictional Shen Fever, which locks those infected into compulsive behaviour that leads to their deaths, spreads around the globe and causes mass lay-offs (hence the book’s title). Ma folds critiques of capitalism and consumerism into a zombie apocalypse. 

Intimations by Zadie Smith
Six essays from this acclaimed novelist offer nearly real-time commentary on lockdowns, the Black Lives Matter movement, current events, and her own creative writing.

Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh
This 2011 film starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law envisions a pandemic with a staggering death toll while—and perhaps offers some comfort as the fictional scientists get a handle on a solution pretty quickly.


Snow and spirituality

Do harsh climates and hard times bring out the best in people? These works suggest the answer might be ‘yes’ — although that’s not a unanimous verdict. 

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
Combining natural history, anthropology, and travel writing, Lopez celebrates the North American Arctic. This holistic look at flora, fauna, and people incorporates somehow spiritual musings on light and how it shapes the surroundings. 

‘Lost in the Light’ by Tara Kramer
A personal essay about the harshness of the Poles, the disorientation of circumpolar light, and the bewilderment Kramer has felt living in Antarctica and the Arctic through her work with Polar Bears International.  

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Based on a true story about a murder and an execution, this novel reflects the harsh conditions of dark winter nights and endless summer days in 19th century Iceland. 

“If you want to help kids fall in love with God, help them fall in love with nature.” 

Anne Lammot, from Dusk, Night, Dawn

Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott
Lamott’s personal essays grapple with finding hope in what feel like increasingly troubled times. While her Christian sentiments may not always connect with those outside the faith, there’s something almost heavenly in her honesty and humour.  


A motley remainder 

As always, there were a few resources that simply refused to be categorised with the others. These are the brainy, the zany, and soapy recommendations that demanded a subheading all their own. 

Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention by Ben Wilson
Themed chapters explain how people formed cities, from the earliest settlements to the modern metropolis, and how urban living shapes humanity. 

ZeFrank on YouTube
His ‘True Facts’ videos about all kinds of animals, nature, and science are presented with so much humour and heaps of detail. The one about macaques (aka snow monkeys) is particularly recommended. 

Why Women Kill created by Marc Cherry
A multiple timeline serial following three sets of residents in the same house. Part escapism, part examination of the roles of women, part almost-over-the-top dark comedy. For extra credit, look for the symbolism of the colour play in the sets and costumes. 


Just around the bend

The next get together of The Literati is Wednesday, October 27. Odds are good we’ll be able to gather in person in Zürich to discuss works related to ‘Beauty,’ but if we end up back on Zoom, that will be beautiful, too!

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The title of this post was inspired by a quotation from Alice Walker: “In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” And the header image is adapted from photo by Annie Spratt — thanks for making it freely available on Unsplash!

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