I’ve always been drawn to writing about the natural world: nonfiction that engages with a particular geography, explores wild or backyard landscapes, travels into the mysteries of medicine, the animal brain, the limits of the solar system. In environmental or place-based nonfiction, I’m drawn to the confluence of many threads of existence, as the authors locate themselves in the context of something larger, whether an ecosystem, a community, or the universe. Part of the reason I’m excited by women writing the natural world is that I love to see writers challenging the still-pervasive sense that certain subjects (domesticity, parenthood, the internal) are the purview of women, and certain others (science, technology, the external) belong mostly to men. Women whose nonfiction steps over the threshold of the home still feel a little subversive as they venture beyond the boundaries of what has been socially accepted.
But even as place-based writing by women reaches outside the self, it also pushes back against the notion that there is anything wrong with writing about the deeply personal. For as much as women have been relegated to writing about their internal lives, they are often still sneered at for the choice to do so. But what is pregnancy, labor, childbirth, and rearing, if not an animal act? And isn’t making a home ultimately a decision rooted in a deep ecological understanding?
For this list, I’ve assembled a group of women writers who refuse to be limited to the personal, who refuse to ignore the world around them; women who are unabashed in extending the tentacles of their imagination, research, and writing into the outermost reaches of the known universe, but who also embrace the personal by claiming their own place within the natural world. None of the women on this list is an unknown writer, but all deserve more attention for the exceptional work they do exploring the wonders of their environments.
1. Meera Subramanian
Meera Subramanian has been covering global environmental issues for years, with bylines in Nature and The New York Times, among others. With the release of her first book, A River Runs Again, Subramanian is receiving increasing attention, as well she should. Skilled in weaving hard science, investigative reporting, and intimate character portraits, Subramanian manages to paint a nuanced portrait of modern India. From the small farmers implementing organic agriculture in the country of the Green Revolution, to the village women trying new, less pollutive cook stoves to reduce air pollution and illness, Subramanian crafts a big picture narrative from detail-oriented reporting, allowing those making environmental change on the ground to speak for themselves.
2. Amy Leach
Amy Leach’s stunning 2012 essay collection, Things That Are, is an ode to the universe, as much a book of poetry as a collection of essays. In the most intricate description of the curve of a pea tendril, or a swirling meditation on a distant exploding star, Leach crafts a delicate celebration of the grace and beauty that surrounds us all. Her meandering trails of scientific thought are infused with cosmology, theology, and philosophy, and evoke a deep sense of wonder without succumbing to cliche or sentimentality.
3. Chelsea Biondolillo
Chelsea Biondolillo writes personal essays about vultures (among other things), and has earned a dedicated following that transcends any perceived divide between readers of the personal essay and readers of the environmental essay. Her nonfiction chapbook, Ologies, reflects on a lifetime lived as a woman with a love for science, and the struggles — both internal and external — that dot such an existence. Biondolillo’s work is as much about a search for the self as about scavenging birds. With a devotion to image, she peels back the surface and gives us a glimpse beneath her subject’s skin (both literally and figuratively), revealing the tendon, muscle, bone, asking us to see the beauty in the grotesque.
4. Simran Sethi
Like Subramanian, Simran Sethi also stretches the limits of the word “emerging” — with several books and a long list of journalistic publications, Sethi is sought often as a speaker and contributor to conferences and events on food and sustainability. The success of her latest book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, is a testimony to the clarity and accessibility of Sethi’s work. In tackling global food issues, Sethi is careful to stay small, tracing the stories of a few, specific foods. By narrowing her focus to, for example, a detailed interrogation of the impact climate change is having on growing wine grapes in California, Sethi’s nostalgic, delicious descriptions illustrate a concrete loss at the center of a global biodiversity crisis.
5. Antonia Malchik
Antonia Malchik is the current managing editor of STIR Journal, where she oversees lots of excellent science and nature writing, and her own work is infused with a wanderer’s love of the natural world. Her recent essay “The End of Walking,” earned a shout-out from Vela for its deep, reflective pools of thought and its compelling layers of research. Walking is a subject Malchik has explored before, and if we’re lucky, we’ll see a full-length book on the subject with Malchik’s name on the cover soon. Malchik pulls cultural analysis and poignant introspection together into a powerful call to change the way we think about, and move through, our world, and reminds me of the vast creative potential inherent in careful attention to the actions that make up our daily lives.
6. Jourdan Imani Keith
Jourdan Imani Keith has a long history as an environmental justice advocate, and her work as a storyteller and playwright lives in that legacy. The founder and director of the Urban Wilderness Project, designed to challenge the ways in which environmental degradation disproportionately impacts women, LGBTQ people, poor communities, and communities of color, Keith offers art and performance workshops to bring the “endangered species” of the human world into closer contact with the natural world. Keith’s work (see her recent essays in Orion, including “At Risk,” and “Desegregating Wilderness”) is infused with a connection to the land as a space for healing and a source of comfort in a world of injustice, alongside an interrogation of the lack of access to green spaces for vulnerable populations. Keith’s writing unravels the systematic forces of oppression, and enacts her commitment to bring voices from the margin into the environmental writing conversation.
7. Belle Boggs
Belle Boggs is already a successful fiction writer — her first collection of short stories, Mattaponi Queen, won the Bakeless Prize — but her first nonfiction book, The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, will be published later this year by Graywolf Press. Anyone familiar with Boggs’ fiction, with its dark, raging thunderstorms and treasure-laden, land-eating sinkholes, won’t be surprised that her nonfiction sees the natural world as an active force, as present as any character. Boggs’s essays explore motherhood, from nesting bald eagles to pregnant gorillas at the local zoo, but roam widely across both wild and interior territory as she reflects on the struggles of infertility. I think The Art of Waiting will place Boggs in the long tradition of women writing nature and the body, coming to terms with the intimacy between our natural and physical geographies.