Kathryn Aalto is the author of the new book Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World. She also has written the books The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh and Nature and Human Intervention, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Outside and Smithsonian Magazine. She lives in Devon, England.
Q: You note that the idea for your new book came from your reaction to an article in Outside magazine. Can you describe how that led to your writing the book?
A: Outside magazine had an article called something like, “What all well-read travelers like to read.” I travel, and I read the article; the date was, I think, 2003. I said, this is a little old. Twenty-two of the 25 were by white men. I wrote a funny but snarky response. I said I could do better, and [was told] we’d love for you to do it!
I wrote an article, looking at 25 women, back to Susan Fenimore Cooper, then I added Dorothy Wordsworth who lived and climbed in the Lake District. The article got a lot of buzz, and I was approached by Timber Press, who published my last book, and they wanted a book. A lot of books about the outdoors and adventure come from articles in Outside magazine and other publications.
Q: You've chosen a wide variety of women to include—can you say more how you selected them, and how you researched their lives?
A: I always had my finger on the pulse of what people write in this field—academic papers, books. I focused on women—I learned more about Dorothy Wordsworth. Her brother William Wordsworth wrote "Daffodils." I learned she climbed England’s tallest mountain in 1818. She wrote about it and her brother included it in his book without giving her credit. I start with a walk in the Lake District.
I reached as far back as I could, and then I turned to Elizabeth Rush, writing about climate change. There are 200 years between them.
Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote Rural Hours before Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden. Women were our first nature writers in the U.S. And there were a lot of women writing about nature in the 20th century. Gene Stratton-Porter, carrying a gun and wearing trousers, wrote about how the Midwest was disappearing.
I wanted to get different time periods to represent. There was not a lot of diversity in the anthologies of nature writing I grew up with. This book includes classic and overlooked women.
Q: How would you define "nature writing" as you approach it in the book?
A: We are part of nature. People often think we’re separate. Nature writing tends to be characterized by the personal essay. I included poets, a landscape historian, but in general, it’s characterized by the personal element. The essay is really important—with an essay, you have a personal tone, a conversation with the reader.
It’s like a circular walk in the woods with somebody—it’s intimate, often uncertain; there’s a bit of a ramble to it.
There’s also climate change fiction, environmental journalism, natural history. I use the term as a general term to put everything together.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Writing Wild?
A: I saw in my essay about Carolyn Merchant that we have a very different relationship with the natural world now than we ever have had. Back a few centuries, before the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, people thought they were part of nature, they saw nature as a mother.
I hope people pull back and understand where we are as a species in time, and how are we having an unjust relationship with the natural world. What can we learn from these women, to appreciate how far we’ve come? We couldn’t hike alone, or write.
It’s important to appreciate women writers, and look at what we’re doing as a species with the natural world, and what we need to do to make it right. To appreciate women of color, who bring an important relationship of justice and injustice. I want to complicate people’s thinking, and these women help do that.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book proposal about the world’s greatest plant hunter. It’s about obsession, and also about colonialism, and how plants move around the world. It’s for fans of Jon Krakauer’s work.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb