A History of Eco-fiction, Part 2

— approx reading time: 9 minutes

In part 1 of this two-parter, writer Mary Woodbury outlined some of the common ground that helps 'define' eco-fiction: "not so much a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive ... Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space." In this concluding part, Mary looks at how this super-genre has grown and diversified in recent years. And her own story returns to her family trip to Ireland, where we began part 1.

You can read part 1 of A History of Eco-fiction here.

The Canopy Expands

Eco-fiction may have become popular decades ago, but it has not gone away. It is evolving. When reviewing the recent novel Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, for the New York Times, Wai Chee Dimock stated in There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea

“This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th.”

The world seems less and less hopeful. So many crises exist now that it’s hard to wrap our heads around them. We are reminded in the news, every moment and every day, of school shootings, shaky politics, poverty, starvation, refugee crises, murder, racism, rape, sexual harassment, and hate. Authors take these issues into consideration when building stories, and some of the biggest crises (which don’t necessarily make their way into the news: climate change, extinction, and dwindling wilderness and biodiversity) are subjects making their way into plots, world-building, and tension among characters. We haven’t seen anything like our world before. We imagine the wilderness so that we can hang onto what’s left. We want to write about our world before its best parts are gone. In fiction, there is desperation to cling to unlogged forests, clean oceans, sparkling rivers, vast deserts, and even just backyard ecosystems that mesmerize us. I have sat at a lake in the mountains of British Columbia watching minnows for hours, amazed.

I run a  monthly spotlight on authors who explore climate change in fiction, and have had many interesting discussions. One was with John Atcheson, who stated:

“I think fiction still has an important role to play in defining the zeitgeist of an era. What I find fascinating is the plethora of dystopian works in film and fiction. I believe they are both a reflection of the times we’re in, and a creator of them. By which I mean, there’s a vague sense of dread, even among those who don’t acknowledge climate change, and dystopian stories allow them to grapple with their fear. Actually, I think the dread goes beyond climate change. The institutions and the disciplines we used to rely on are in disrepute so there’s an inchoate sense of doom … hence the other phenomena in film, and in graphic novels, The Super Hero.”

Winds of Change: short stories about our climate
Published by Moon Willow Press, 2015.

Here is the gist: fiction plays an important part in helping readers grasp large concepts that are simply numbers and bytes in the news. Good storytelling, which is not didactic, is an art form that allows the reader to not just escape but reflect, care, and cope. Stephen Siperstein, who contributed poems to Winds of Change, an anthology of stories about climate change that I published in 2015, said that many do not give climate change a thought and that there is rampant denialism, skepticism, and “climato-quietism” (Bruno Latour’s term for that laid-back attitude that somehow, without us acting, things will take care of themselves). According to Stephen, “This is the ‘new normal’ of our cognitive and affective lives, and for us to figure it all out, we need help. We need guides and maps. We need emotional resources. In short, we need the literary and cultural arts.” Bill McKibben preceded this idea in Grist, back in April 2005: “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art.”


A short note on Dystopia and Utopia

“Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.

Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.

Ursula K. Le Guin Explains How to Build a New Kind of Utopia

Dystopian literature may be hopeful, and utopian literature may present problems it doesn’t imagine.


I have noted often that eco-fiction stories are not just frightening but may offer hope. Often we are the antagonist, but redemption transforms us into the protagonist. We can do good together, even in times of crisis. Despite the dismal forecast for how climate change will continue to affect us and all other species on the planet, the strongest stories seem to happen when we “feed the good wolf” — when we look up, face our mistakes, apologize for them, and fix them … when we do what’s right. And what’s right, in this case, is also becoming what’s cool!

The concept of solarpunk is also a positive for literature; it’s not just a fiction genre but a hopeful aesthetic. I interviewed one of its stewards, Adam Flynn, who said:

“As billions of people in the developing world begin the rise out of poverty, they are looking for a vision of the ‘good life’, and unfortunately the current vision tends to involve fast food, large cars, big houses, and conspicuous consumption. Sustainability at scale means renewable energy, reusable infrastructure, an end to throwaway culture, room for human dignity, and the possibility for continued flourishing (although perhaps in different ways than how we define it currently).”

‘Wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking’

Ecologically oriented fiction is growing, and it’s entirely organic. Nobody says “hey, here’s a cool genre — write in it!” That’s not how fiction works. What is happening is that people naturally worry about the state of our world, and our future — just like people have been doing from the beginning of time — and some people tell stories about these things. When these things include an exploration of ecological systems around us, and how we relate to them, eco-literature is born and also is evolving with the shaky times. Running eco-fiction.com, I have built a database of books posted at the site, and while it is not exhaustive, almost 600 books are listed. The project is nearing its fifth birthday (on August 13th, 2018), and it’s evident that the number of fiction writers who fashion tales from stark realities is growing. This site has turned into a lifetime project, and in continuing with this study, I have grown fond of the diversity of storytelling within eco-fiction — it’s the most important thing to me, because the authors are all unique with their life experiences. They draw from different places, languages, and cultures, enriching this body of literature with fresh voices.

The Wild in You by Lorna Crozier and Ian McAllister, published by Greystone Books, 2015

I always think back on Wai Chee Dimock’s words on how eco-fiction is evolving: wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking. This description is so apt. Authors are writing, and thus also documenting, the story of how humans evolve in what seems to be a mass extinction. The Holocene extinction, otherwise referred to as the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction, is the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity. Various modes of literature place ourselves in this epoch, which is full of sorrow, ghosts, dwindling biodiversity, plastic oceans, and death. It’s also full of embracing the wild within us. I chatted with the wise poet Lorna Crozier, who remarked:

“If we’re lucky enough to get into the wilderness, our bodies and our spirits crackle with life. Our legs on a trail feel stronger. They become animal again. Our sense of smell is honed. Raven speaks to us in one of the 200 dialects ornithologists have been able to measure. When a grizzly inhales my scent, I live for a moment inside his body, inside his mind. How can I not be changed? To get inside myself in a deep and meaningful way, where I might, if I’m lucky, find words to say what can’t be said, I have to get outside. I have to be larger than myself. Rain-drenched, I have to breathe in the wolf, the grizzly, breathe in the wild beauty of the world. And I have to figure out what to do to protect it — to stop all those human things that are causing such harm. The most optimistic part of me hopes the poems are one small way to do that.”

And the most optimistic part of me hopes that fiction will accomplish this.

Then there’s Jeff VanderMeer’s body of new weird fiction novels that are perfect examples of wild and breathtaking storytelling. I referenced his work in my three-part series at SFFWorld.com, Exploring the Ecological Weird. When I talked with Jeff about the Southern Reach Trilogy, he said:

“I’ve always explored weird real-life biology in my fiction, especially in the context of fungi, which often seems alien in its details. These are in a sense transitional forms, between animal and plant, that are incredibly complex and which we don’t quite understand all of that complexity just yet. So often it’s not that you go out to explore ecology through weird fiction, but that the weirdness of the real world suggests certain impulses in your fiction. The Southern Reach is just the most personal exploration, and thus the dark ecology content probably is more intense and more front-and-center. This is largely because the setting is highly personal — North Florida wilderness — and certain elements, like the (at the time) seemingly endless spiral of the Gulf Oil Spill that kind of took up residence in my subconscious.”

As we walk along the heavy Fleet Streets of our time — as W B Yeats did in his day, thinking of The Lake Isle of Innisfree — it’s not enough to dream about nine bean rows, linnet’s wings, a bee-hive, and a small cabin made of wattles and clay; though there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are on the global Fleet Street now, one that is being extinguished. Authors are telling our story, and in some way it’s an old story, but in many ways it’s a new one, now that the Anthropocene has been recognized. 


The reason we went to Ireland is because my mother’s relatives came from there long ago, and it was her dream to visit the country someday. Dad, unfortunately, had early onset Parkinson’s disease, and he retired early and never was able to travel far. After he died, I relied on my mother more and more for her old mountain ways and advice (she grew up in the Appalachian hills with parents who lived off the land), and my husband and I wanted to take her on a lifelong dream trip to her ancestor’s homeland, a place she had dreamed of visiting since a child.

Mom and me at Fitzpatrick’s pub in Doolin. I made a heart around us, because I love her!

I still feel Ireland every day, though it’s been two years since we visited. I see tiny orchids and Burnet’s roses and mountain avens poking through rocks in the Burren and vast swamp and peat lands filled with rocky outcrops and hills. We climb one hill, and there’s even a higher one. The further we go, our perspective of the Irish green patched land is wide-ranging, but we never can seem to reach the very top. It’s somewhere up there. Our GPS gets confused and takes us down forgotten country lanes where abundant heather springs up around ruins of centuries-old cottages and barns. I see the big ocean swipe the rocky beaches below my run on the precipitous trail above the Cliffs of Moher, where tall grasses sway in the early June gales. I also feel cold winds slap my face on the boat to the same cliffs, where tens of thousands of seabirds nest in the rock shelves. At first, we didn’t see anything but whitish vague shapes in the rocks, but the closer the boat got to the cliffs and the seastack, it became so clear: puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, and other birds everywhere. I see the blackness in Doolin Cave (Poll an Eidhneáin), home of the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe. We stand next to its waxy looking body in the dim light set up in there, and feel ancient. Running down a country lane flanked by peat fields and bloody cranesvilles and stinging nettles, I feel like Gandalf will come along in his wagon at any moment. I hear the cottage shutters banging night after night from the strong North Atlantic winds. No matter where we go there are verdant fields and groves of trees and cows. What existed at one time still remains: ancient ruins of old forts and castles and farmhouses, along with dolmens, cairns, and other megaliths. It’s a place where time is not linear, where the past transcends the present, where a faerie may take your hand and take you away to the waters and the wild. Much like the field of literature called eco-fiction.


Find out more

You can read part 1 of a History of Eco-fiction here.

Mary Woodbury runs eco-fiction.com: Blowing your mind with wild words and worlds. Check the site’s interviews and spotlights for some of the best modern eco-fiction — including her interviews with John AtchesonAdam FlynnLorna Crozier and Jeff VanderMeer quoted in this post. Mary also set up Dragonfly.eco: an ecologically oriented writers workshop (with a new global eco-fiction series), library, and resources for authors and readers in a changing world: a place for writing and reading meaningful stories about our natural world.

Mary wrote a three-part series Exploring the Ecological Weird for SFFWorld.com, and published Winds of Change: stories about our climate — an anthology of various authors — at Moon Willow Press (2015).

There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea, Wai Chee Dimock’s review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, was published in The New York Times (5/5/17).

What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art by Bill McKibben, was published by Grist (22/4/05).

Ursula K. Le Guin Explains How to Build a New Kind of Utopia was published at Electric Lit (5/12/17).

You can find out more about the Holocene Extinction — also known as “the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction … the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity” — in this Wikipedia article.

You can also read author David Thorpe’s ClimateCultures posts on utopian and dystopian fictions via his profile page in our Members Directory.

A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

ClimateCultures welcomes new Member Mary Woodbury with the first in her two-part series on the development of eco-fiction. 

Eco-fiction, Mary suggests, is "not so much as a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres."

You can read part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction here.

Horses near our cottage, western Ireland

When we approached the cottage in Ireland, a pair of white horses in the meadow raised their heads to look our way. Strong winds lifted their manes and tails wildly yet gracefully. We had driven from Dublin to the west coast, near Doolin, and were staying above the cliffs in a cottage. I was tired from an overnight flight and the drive to Doolin.

You look at Ireland on a map and think it wouldn’t take very long to get from coast to coast, but it takes a while to get used to driving on the other side of the road and the other side of the car. It takes special patience to understand the roundabouts, to safely navigate the narrow country lanes with no shoulders — only rock walls, with more seasoned Irish drivers whipping by at 100 km/h or faster — and to stop and smile while farmers older than dirt slowly herd their cattle across the road. My husband was the driver, as my mother and I took in the magical countryside around us. When we arrived at our destination and stepped onto terra firma, my spirits rose. I went straight over to the horses. They were the cottage owner’s animals, and it took some wading through wet, tall grasses to get there, but the horses came right up to me and allowed me to pet them and feed them hay from the meadow. Each evening, when we returned to the cottage, they were there to greet us.

And each morning, when we left the cottage, we explored the wilds of Ireland: caves, the Burren, the sea, the cliffs of Moher, and the many places we ran — which William Butler Yeats had written about. We sailed to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, a real island in Lough Gill, which Yeats was inspired to write as he walked the bustling Fleet Street of London in the 19th century and dreamed of getting away into a simpler life more strongly connected with nature. We did trail runs in Slish Wood, which was what Yeats referred to as Sleuth Wood in The Stolen Child and in the trails around the lake isle. Nearly every single waking moment of this journey was filled with sweat, wonder, being away from cities and people, and interacting with natural things and places, though at night we did hit the pubs. I sensed within the wild a great seclusion, sacredness, awe, and even discomfort at times. It was a world alive with remnants of the past. I felt free.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

If my story were fiction, it might be called eco-fiction, because the story depends on natural places and the human connection therein. Many precursors to eco-fiction exist, and Yeats’ early work — such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree and The Stolen Child, which dream of escape to the wild from the Victorian world he was locked into — might be considered one inspiration for the modern literary field. Later, he sought this escape via mysticism, but the early roots were steeped in Irish mythology:

For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

from The Stolen Child, W B Yeats

What is Eco-fiction?

One of the largest works describing Eco-fiction is Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (2010). He researched hundreds of books and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction were:

  • The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  • The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  • Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  • Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

Another definition is by Mike Vasey (referenced in Dwyer’s book):

“Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principles.”

Some descriptions are simpler. Ashland Creek Press calls it “fiction with a conscience,” and one of the press’ co-founders, John Yunker, via personal correspondence, called it a super-genre. I think of eco-fiction not so much as a genre than as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive. I am not big on labels or boxy terms, but eco-fiction is broad and has a rich history.  Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space. It can be set in the past, present, or future. It can be set in other worlds. 


A short note on climate change in fiction

These days, many terms have sprung up to address the ‘hyperobject’ that is anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or what one might call the biggest eco-crisis of our times, perhaps what all other prior concerns in eco-writings have led to, built upon, and culminated in. Such genres include Anthropocene fiction, new nature writing, enviro-horror fiction, afrofuturism, green fiction, ecofuturism, ecopunk, biopunk, solarpunk, environmental science fiction, environmental fiction, climate fiction, and ecological/new weird fictions, to name a few–and these do not always relate just to just climate change but to a related eco/socio/political/cultural system. A hyperobject, according to Timothy Morton, explains objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change. Again, I think of eco-fiction as a way to bring alive the wild in any genre, whether romance, adventure, mystery, you name it. 


A History

Jim Dwyer stated in his field guide that the first time he heard the term eco-fiction was from the Eco-fiction anthology published in 1971 by Washington Square Press. Within this collection are even older short stories dating back to 1933. You might be surprised at the big authors in this little anthology: Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asimov, and William Saroyan. The preface to the anthology states:

“The earth is an eco-system. It possesses a collective memory. Everything that happens, no matter how insignificant it may seem, affects in some way at some time the existence of everything else within that system.
Eco-fiction raises important questions about man’s place in the system:
Will man continue to ignore the warnings of the environment and destroy his source of life?
Will he follow the herd into the slaughterhouse?”

So the first time the term eco-fiction came about, it contained stories going back to 1933. But, like with many living things, this type of literature has roots and branches and an ever-extending canopy.  According to Dywer, precursors include magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical fiction. Like with the anthology edited by Stadler, science fiction roots are evident as well. Environmental science fiction and ecologically oriented weird fiction go back far, because, as with Yeats’ and others, writers in every field have always worried about the trappings of walls and cities and refinement and wondered about the kind of life where one can “come away” to the “waters and the wild”. We can find such concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works, too, which often pit machine and greedy power vs. an imaginary (but not unrealistic) natural world. Patrick Curry wrote an article titled Tolkien and Nature at the Tolkien Estate, stating:

“Tolkien…returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive “resources” started to bite only 400 years ago. Middle-earth is real because despite our modernist education we recognize it.”

There’s a long lineage of works in this canon, from early myths of weather gods and goddesses such as Thor, the thunder god, or Susanowo, the Japanese Shinto god of storms and sea. There’s Noah in the Bible and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1759 was Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which dealt with regulation of the weather. Various storms, such as floods and winds and ice storms and fire, figure commonly in eco-fiction plots — but stories do not have to be apocalyptic; they also can be subtle and thoughtful.

Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905). Courtesy, Wiki Commons.

We cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to Upton Sinclair to Michael McClure to Naomi Klein.

One might say eco-fiction first began as cave drawings of animals and birds, which documented an era of humans connecting with their environment, and did so with storytelling via art; but the term became popular in the 1970s when natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists, and  nature writing with a sense of advocacy grew in literary study (ecocriticism), nonfiction, and fiction. Along with other environmental movements, the study of ecologically oriented fiction began to bloom and there became a sense of morality in storytelling. We have to be very careful in storytelling to be true to art forms, however, and not be preachy. Eco-fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us –- our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection. 


In part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction, Mary will look at how this “way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness – and human connection to these things – into any genre” has been evolving from these earlier expressions and will return to the personal journey to her Irish roots.


Find out more

Mary Woodbury runs eco-fiction.com: Blowing your mind with wild words and worlds. Check the site’s interviews and spotlights for some of the best modern eco-fiction. Mary also set up Dragonfly.eco: an ecologically oriented writers workshop (with a new global eco-fiction series), library, and resources for authors and readers in a changing world: a place for writing and reading meaningful stories about our natural world.

She wrote a three-part series for SFFWorld.com: Exploring the Ecological Weird (see links to other parts in the article). And you can read these interviews with Ecolit Books and Writing Forums, where Mary talks about her work and inspiration as a writer and publisher and about environmental literature. 

Mary also wrote three articles on climate change and storytelling for the Free Word Centre — where, of course, you can also find the writers’ panel discussions and more from the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts climate change events for writers, which I helped TippingPoint organise at the Free Word Centre. Which also gives me another opportunity to plug the excellent anthology of all the poems, stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from these events, published by Cambria Books as a free ebook.

For the articles and books mentioned in Mary’s piece: