Nature writing is nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment. Nature writing encompasses a wide variety of works, ranging from those that place primary emphasis on natural history facts (such as field guides) to those in which philosophical interpretation predominate. It includes natural history essays, poetry, essays of solitude or escape, as well as travel and adventure writing.
Nature writing often draws heavily on scientific information and facts about the natural world; at the same time, it is frequently written in the first person and incorporates personal observations of and philosophical reflections upon nature.
Modern nature writing traces its roots to the works of natural history that were popular in the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th. An important early figures was the "parson-naturalist" Gilbert White (1720 – 1793), a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist. He is best known for his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789).
William Bartram (1739 – 1823) is a significant early American pioneer naturalist who first work was published in 1791.
Gilbert White is regarded by many as England's first ecologist, and one of those who shaped the modern attitude of respect for nature. He said of the earthworm: "Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. [...] worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them" White and William Markwick collected records of the dates of emergence of more than 400 plant and animal species in Hampshire and Sussex between 1768 and 1793, which was summarised in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, as the earliest and latest dates for each event over the 25-year period, are among the earliest examples of modern phenology.
The tradition of clerical naturalists predates White and can be traced back to some monastic writings of the Middle Ages, although some argue that their writings about animals and plants cannot be correctly classified as natural history. Notable early parson-naturalists were William Turner (1508–1568), John Ray (1627–1705), William Derham (1657–1735).
William Bertram, in 1773, embarked on a four year journey through eight southern American colonies. Bartram made many drawings and took notes on the native flora and fauna, and the native American Indians. In 1774, he explored the St. Johns River. William Bartram wrote of his experiences exploring the Southeast in his book known today as Bartram's Travels, published in 1791. Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis, in their book, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, name Bartram as "the first naturalist who penetrated the dense tropical forests of Florida."
After Gilbert White and William Bertram, other significant writers include American ornithologist John James Audubon (1785 – 1851), Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882), Richard Jefferies (1848 – 1887), and Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), who is often considered the father of modern American nature writing, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) John Burroughs, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, M. Krishnan, and Edward Abbey (although he rejected the term for himself).
Another important early work is A History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick, published in two volumes. Volume 1, "Land Birds", appeared in 1797. Volume 2, "Water Birds", appeared in 1804. The book was effectively the first "field guide" for non-specialists. Bewick provides an accurate illustration of each species, from life if possible, or from skins. The common and scientific name(s) are listed, citing the naming authorities. The bird is described, with its distribution and behaviour, often with extensive quotations from printed sources or correspondents. Critics note Bewick's skill as a naturalist as well as an engraver.
Some important contemporary figures in Britain include Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Mark Cocker, and Oliver Rackham. Rackham's books included Ancient Woodland (1980) and The History of the Countryside (1986). Richard Maybey has been involved with radio and television programmes on nature, and his book Nature Cure, describes his experiences and recovery from depression in the context of man’s relationship with landscape and nature. He has also edited and introduced editions of Richard Jefferies, Gilbert White, Flora Thompson and Peter Matthiessen. Mark Crocker has written extensively for British newspapers and magazines and his books include Birds Britannica (with Richard Mabey) (2005). and Crow Country (2007). He frequently writes about modern responses to the wild, whether found in landscape, human societies or in other species. Richard Deakin was an English writer, documentary-maker and environmentalist. In 1999, Deakin's acclaimed book Waterlog was published. Inspired in part by the short story The Swimmer by John Cheever, it describes his experiences of 'wild swimming' in Britain's rivers and lakes and advocates open access to the countryside and waterways. Deakin's book Wildwood appeared posthumously in 2007. It describes a series of journeys across the globe that Deakin made to meet people whose lives are intimately connected to trees and wood.