Learning nature writing with Stephen Alter

“When I travel, I find myself torn between wanting to savour the moment and yet, hold onto the elusive details that will help me write later. But somehow when I get back home, all that remains is the vague goldenness of that memory. “It was beautiful,” I say lamely, unable to articulate just what was so wonderful about what I had witnessed,” writes Gowri N Kishore.

“Stories travel,” said Stephen Alter, smiling around at us. “Just as the birds do, and the trees. 

When you trek up the Himalayas, the last trees you see are often the birch or bhojpatra trees. But the truth is, they are the first. The first trees to move up the mountain slope as the ice melted thousands of years ago.”

I am at a session on nature writing at the third edition of the Neev Literature Festival in Bengaluru. Stephen Alter, author of eighteen fiction and nonfiction works centered on nature, is speaking. He talks about finding stories in the most unexpected places, the contents of a nature writer’s toolkit, and his own personal relationship with the Himalayas, at whose foothills he was born and raised.

“What is nature?” he asks, throwing open the session. And waits patiently as the twenty or so people in the room, many of them part of the festival organizing team, fidget in our seats. Our original self, someone says eventually. Everything that is not man-made, says another. More answers keep coming, mostly variations of these. 

“Do you consider yourself part of nature?” Alter asks. Many of the audience look like they want to say yes, but are too ashamed to do so. As a race, we haven’t exactly been living in harmony with nature these past few decades. 

“The biggest mistake we make,” says Alter, correctly guessing our sentiments, “is of seeing ourselves as separate from nature. We are part of it and we have a role to play in it.” 

I have always wondered how nature writers do their work. 

When you are standing in the middle of woodlands teeming with life, listening to the twittering of unseen birds and gazing in delight at the blue, blue skies, how does your mind squirrel away these details? How do you bring them alive when weeks or even months later, you are sitting at your desk, trying to drown out the noise of the traffic outside?

When I travel, I find myself torn between wanting to savour the moment and yet, hold onto the elusive details that will help me write later. But somehow when I get back home, all that remains is the vague goldenness of that memory. “It was beautiful,” I say lamely, unable to articulate just what was so wonderful about what I had witnessed. 

This is what has brought me here today, to Alter’s session. Born to American missionary parents in Landour in 1956, he is a true son of the mountains and writes a great deal about them. His most well-known work is the award-winning memoir Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in search of the Sacred and the Sublime. His latest book, Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth, has just been released. 

Having equated nature writing with Ruskin Bond for many years, I am surprised to discover that it means such different things to different people. To some, it triggers a train of philosophical thought and possibly, existential questions about life itself. To others, it is a record of a time and a place that is constantly changing, a verbal portrait if you will. To yet others, it is a way of introspection, to ponder their own relationship with nature and question the way of life they have chosen. As I listen to the various responses, I realize that for some of this writing at least, one does not need to remember many details. 

But for those who want to, Alter has some techniques that he himself practices.

Observe.

To be a nature writer, you must be observant, says Alter. Notice sights and sounds and smells. Enjoy the moment and feel everything you’re feeling—but also pay attention to the details if you want to write about them later.

Have memory aids.

Take pictures, he suggests. You may not remember everything, but pictures can jog your memory. Carry a journal with you and record what you observe. If not right then and there, then later, when you have a quiet moment. Put down what you saw and felt and thought, so you can come back to them when you write. 

I have a habit of recording short videos of the places that enchant me. Sometimes, I also leave a voice note on my phone while a thought is still fresh in my mind. Just in case the details slip away by the time I get back to my room. As Alter speaks, I realize that these could be more powerful memory aids than photographs.

Listen to stories.

“There are stories everywhere, myths and folktales, anecdotes and memory.” Alter recounts. “Even the most scientific of work sometimes has a fantastic element to it. Like the argali mountain sheep whose scientific name is ovis ammon. The name came from Amon, an ancient Egyptian deity represented as a ram. Or the sheer number of Indian botanical species whose names were inspired by names of friends and family of the East India Company officials who discovered them!”

So, collect stories, he says. Talk to the people who live there, your hosts, your guides. These tales are not just fascinating to hear but may also give you ideas for your writing and help you connect with the place you are writing about. 

Do your research.

“I may sound like I know the names of every plant and animal that crosses my path in the Himalayas, but that’s not really true,” Alter laughingly confides. “I rely on good old Google quite a bit these days.” Then he grows serious. “Research is important to a nature writer. Not so much to find new things to talk about but to verify facts and enrich the stories you have already discovered.”

Use your writer’s craft.

Finally, after all the observation and recording and research, comes the writing. And when you write, be a writer—use your craft. “Let’s say you observe a bird in a tree,” Alter twinkles at us. “And you decide to write about it. What would you say? You could say ‘A blue bird sat on a tree.’ but that creates no powerful visual. Instead, try a metaphor. ‘A bird sat hidden in the tree above us, so blue that it looked like a patch of sky.’” 

He smiles at our response to that delightful turn of phrase. “The next step is to add details. If you don’t know what bird it is, take a picture, go home and look it up. And once you find out, add that little detail when you write: ‘A slaty-blue flycatcher sat hidden in the tree above us, looking entirely like a patch of sky.’ Now the picture is complete!” 

He beams as a ripple of satisfaction passes through the audience. Today’s story is complete. A dozen of us are going to go home and try to describe the roses in our gardens nodding off at dusk and the methi herbs in their little window-sill planters struggling to wake up with the sun.

Stephen Alter, Source : Culture Trip.

Gowri N Kishore is a writer based in Bangalore. Her works have been published in Kitaab—the Asian literary magazine, Huffington Post India, Women’s Web, Indian Express, Deccan Herald and Reading Hour. She is a winner of the Elle Fiction Awards 2013. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies by Pageturners and Random House India. She is a recipient of the President of India’s Balsree Honor for excellence in Creative Writing. She blogs here.


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