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:

Mary Woodbury
Mary Woodbury
A fiction writer, researcher and curator of websites exploring ecology in fiction and providing ecoliterature resources for writers.

Author: Mary Woodbury

A fiction writer, researcher and curator of websites exploring ecology in fiction and providing ecoliterature resources for writers.