A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1

Author Mary Woodbury opens a two-part series on the development of eco-fiction: a form with many roots, which is “not so much a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres.”


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


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

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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.

Horses near our cottage, western Ireland
Horses near our cottage, western Ireland. Photograph: Mary Woodbury

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
Lake Isle of Innisfree. Photograph: Mary Woodbury

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, WB 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.

Eco-fiction: Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905)
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.

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In Part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction, Mary looks 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

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

What the Bee Sees

Artist Jennifer Leach shares a story about bees, honey, hexagons and robotics. What the Bee Sees is the first of two stories Jennifer performed at the Festival of the Dark’s micro-festival Dazzle. What if the world were other?


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


Bee: Apis mellifera flying. Photograph by Muhammad Mahdi Karim
Apis mellifera flying
Photograph: Muhammad Mahdi Karim © 2009
Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

This story is about bees, and honey, and hexagons. I am personally convinced that the very special nature of the hexagon is a key to the tale, and so here I shall begin. A hexagon, as I’m sure many of you will know, is a remarkable figure, with six identical sides, each one of which contributes to one of six indistinguishable equilateral triangles, each with three interchangeable angles of 60o; and with all six triangles converging on the one central point at the hexagon’s heart. If the hexagon’s neighbours are of the same dimensions, they can fit snug alongside, above, below one another, ad infinitum; a community of hexagons can be built by a child, so simple is it. Indeed a magical shape, and quite possibly it is the mystical nature of it that led to a quite extraordinary discovery about bees.

The tale begins at Reading University which, as some of you may be aware, has one of the most advanced robotics research departments in the world. Furthermore, its agricultural department has a research unit that focuses on bees. Ten years ago, these two departments came together with a shared desire to colonise a bee’s vision, to see — first hand — what a bee sees. I was lucky enough to know one of the researchers, from whom I received directly the following account.

To understand the science, it is important to appreciate the enormously complex make up of an apiarian eye. Altogether a bee has five eyes: two are a little like headlights, illuminating the bee’s path quite broadly; the remaining three filter light to create a great sensitivity of vision. Each of these eyes is made up of thousands of small hexagonal units called ommatidia. To see as a bee sees is no mean feat. As you might imagine, it was a work of engineering genius to create a small bee-sized helmet with five robotic eyes that could be clipped onto the head of a bee. It took nine years to develop, and was first ready for testing late last year. You might like to picture this helmet as akin to sunglasses, fitting over the bee’s own eyes yet not disturbing its sight. On 11th November 2017, in the research gardens of the agricultural department of Reading University, It was fitted to a bee we will call Bee A. As opposed to Bee B and Bee C who come later in the story. Remotely connected to Bee A’s cap was a commensurate cap known as the Bee Cap, which a designated researcher in the laboratory wore; the two were remotely connected. What this combination of devices allowed, in short, was for the researchers to share the vision of a bee. Or, as it turned out, to share specifically the vision of Bee A.

So, after recovering from its groggy little operation, Bee A went buzzing off on its normal busy business, as only a bee can do. After dancing around a few yellow flowers in the garden, sucking up nectar, unintentionally pollinating the neighbouring flowers at the same time, it flew off towards the hive. The researchers noted that it tends to see blues and yellows, and can also see the ultra-violet light that our human eyes cannot pick up. So far so good, confirming already known facts about the bee and its eyesight.

Next, Bee A flew into one of the hexagonal cells within the hive and this was exciting. Researchers had never previously had the privilege of viewing the inside of a hive cell through a bee’s own eyes. The light inside these cells is glowing and golden, rich and mellow as honey. The little bee fits pretty snugly inside, deposits its nectar, and works for a while producing enzymes to begin the honeyfication process. The expectation was, obviously, that it would then exit the cell the same way it came in and repeat the entire process. What happened next, however, was revelatory. And here I must ask you please for total confidentiality; this research is revolutionary, as yet unpublished, and must go no further than this website.

Instead of flying out the way it had come in, Bee A flew out the back of the cell. Unexpected perhaps, but here was the seismic shock: as it exited, the robotics researcher experienced a mind-bending, body-altering episode that has left him hospitalised. Electronically connected as he was through his Bee Cap to Bee A’s robotic eyes, he suffered a fragmentation of vision, a severe jarring of his eyeballs; he reported that every atom in his body seemed to condense into his heart area, and for around one second he was as dense and leaden as a lodestar. As he described it, ‘I felt as if the entire Universe had imploded momentarily within my own body.’

Incredible and absurd as it seems, scientists believe that Bee A had entered a pin-sized Black Hole, and even more incredibly and absurdly, passed through it unscathed. Whilst medical staff attended the unfortunate researcher, his colleague grabbed the Bee Cap, reestablishing connection with Bee A.

What she saw almost blew her mind. She was out in dark space aglow with a violet light that can only be described as celestial. Stars did not stud the heavens, they peppered it, millions upon millions of violet swirling stars moving in a diaphanous mist. There are no words for it. Literally no words. It is not a sight that belongs to our universe. And Bee A’s behaviour in this universe was not as on Earth. Its body stretched and elongated so that it became serpentine, streaming along on wings that needed to do no work. It floated, as if on an ocean, carried on an invisible tide that drew it along with directed energy. As it travelled, it appeared to be gathering nectar in its regular fashion. And the researcher noticed that its vision too had altered. Each ommatidium began to spin clockwise, so that the bee’s sight became a kaleidoscope of purple spinning hexagons. After a few seconds, she pulled the Bee Cap from her head, was violently sick, and passed out. By the time she came to a few minutes later, Bee A was back in its cell, and had deposited its otherworldly gathering of nectar.

On completing this task, the bee then fell into what seemed to be a trance. It lay so for several minutes. The robotic cap indicated that the bee was experiencing REM sleep, just as a human would. And then – extraordinarily – whilst still in this state of sleep, it flew out of the front of the cell, and went about its usual busy business in what we shall call, for shorthand’s sake, ‘our world’. As if in a dream.

It goes without saying that the immediate desire by the researchers was to follow up the experiment by trying out the same procedure on what we shall call Bee B. And later Bees C, D, E and so on. Over a period of three weeks they did this, collating the mindblowing evidence that suggests each bee, when it exits the back of its own cell, passes through the same nodal shift as did Bee A but each appears to go into ITS OWN UNIVERSE. (The researchers have learnt, it hardly needs stating, to remove the Bee Cap for the duration of this shift point). No two universes have so far looked alike. Each has its own distinct colour, form of motion, velocity, some are complex, others simple, some light, others more muted. Within its universe, the scale of the bee varies from diminutive to overly significant, and each bee moves about in its own fashion. Some ‘swim’, others roll, one vast bee stood upon its back two legs and walked. Each is, in its own way, utterly wonderful.

In all universes, all bees have one commonality, that of gathering nectar which, after returning back through the nodal shift point to the golden glow of the hive cell, they deliver to the collective. And here is what is, perhaps, most unexpected of all. The researchers at the university have of course closely analysed the bees’ honey, and the evidence is indisputable – no matter which universe the individual bee has collected its nectar from, and no matter by what method, the honey produced back in the hive is exactly the same.


Find out more

Jennifer’s second story is The Gift of the Goddess Tree. You can explore the Festival of the Dark, the Celtic cycle of the year and more at Outrider Anthems.

Jennifer will be participating in La Liberté d’Expression art exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley, 19th – 25th April, where she will also be storytelling with arch-storyteller Dr Anne Latto.