Sunday, December 12, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 12, Sarah Minor: The Greatest Nature Essay Ever

After Brian Doyle


. . . WOULD BE AN ESSAY about death. About the sins of every father who forgot his maker’s name. The opening scene would describe a stag in his prime. The stag has come to teach the children about sex. About viability and forest fires, anticipation and mystery, sperm and egg. We are watching Bambi on the living room floor when a gunshot silences the forest and takes mother away. The children’s eyes are wide. Mother here is her regular conduit; a plot device, a motivational hole. 

The second paragraph would engage our senses. In the air, the smell of a rotten horse polluting the writer’s local stream. Or perhaps it is autumn and all around us is the flavor of death’s crisp accrual. Death, we know, happens mostly in nature, to plants and birds. Not to Justices on screen with first names for last names, like a pope. Death, they know, is natural, though ideally preventable, but also legal whenever it is conducted as justice in the form of a plural, national revenge. Inside the essay is a story and inside the story we can just make out something else, crouching low. 


The next two paragraphs would get a little crass. The essay would show us a near future, where the brittle song of the 7-year cicada is getting drowned out by a parade. In the street below, women who were paid to have their aborted tissues harvested walk hand in hand with patients who survived heart disease by taking a drug built with fetal stem cells, the drug prescribed to most supreme court justices. The greatest nature essay would eventually liken Kavanaugh’s crying face to a rutabaga with a specificity that would stop our breath. Or the essayist would recall “eating Plan B for breakfast” with her girlfriends, paying in cash at the clinic down from the high school. Or the essay would feature a close-reading of the moment in The Daily’s coverage of the 2021 Roe hearings, when the line before the first commercial break—“…and then the conservative views came into focus"—was followed directly by an ad for Exxon Mobile’s carbon capture program. We had almost forgotten this was a nature essay. That Nature is the god every state aims to play, the higher power AA describes. In the background, in the kid’s shows, Mother dies and dies.

The next paragraph would slow us down with a scene. Syntax is emotion, and in any great nature essay the details on the page, passing as quickly or slowly as they passed in life, carry all the emotion we’re going to get. Now the sentences go long, short, long. Three “escorts” in matching rainbow vests sit in front of a pink clinic where they are rhythmically spritzed with holy water by the women marching along the sidewalk, holding a poster featuring the mangled body of a one-year-old child. The baby is white, the baby is the audience; the baby cannot die. Traffic passes close by and every time the clinic’s automatic doors swish open, two men dressed as giant infants in diapers wail and shake pastel rattles. 

The perfect nature essay is quite short. You can feel it narrowing. Nine inches, fifteen calendar weeks. Maybe that’s cheap. The essay leaves us wanting. But then the essayist asks you a question. Plenty of time to decide. A breath, a bridle, a breakthrough bleed, forty hours, a feature film, a semester's leave. "What’s the question?" you ask, but time is running out. The crouching thing moves back to the dark; now the essay can return to that smart, backlit stag. The greatest nature essay ever would compare nature to a shaft of light. Or nature to a bee sting. Nature, a comet. Nature like a gong. Nature burnt rubber. Nature trails a string of lube. Nature wakes with a “hot and ready” sign on her forehead. Nature wearing gel polish. Nature, a park view. Nature, AFAB. Nature lining the tarmac. Nature, Poleo Chino. Nature, Pennyroot. Nature bears her father’s child. Nature on Mars. Nature on T. Nature: Jaundice and thrush. Nature a stench, an oiled gull, a traffic cone. Nature via metaverse. Nature, my surname. Nature, justifiable homicide. Nature dead doctors. Nature puke green. Nature a clothesline. Nature a vacuum. Nature a medical hose. Whatever the image, the essay’s last paragraph would teach us what the great nature essays do: That fine details reach the broadest audiences. Not because truths are “universal,” or because most readers have walked into a grim, pink clinic, or smelled a neighbor’s horse, dead in the creek, but because to live anything is to live it by the details. We have turned again to the nature essay, not for a choke of hope or for the life that could have been, but to be reminded of what it feels like to be present with living as it happens. The essay almost brushed our hand, but then it pulled back suddenly. A relief that reminds us of our tenuous presence, our particular strangeness, leaving a coppery-sadness like autumn behind.

1. The writer Catherine Lacey says, "Syntax is emotion."
2. Brian Doyle wrote "the perfect nature essay is quite short" as a denouement to the original essay.
3. During the 2021 Roe hearings, Justice John Roberts suggested that 15 weeks is "plenty of time to decide."
4. During the 2021 Roe hearings, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described the "stench" of a certain politics the court might not survive. 
5. "Justifiable Homicide" was coined by Paul Hill, who shot and killed Dr. John Britton and James Barrett outside a women's clinic in 1994. The phrase was later adopted in the language of a 2011 anti-abortion bill proposed in South Dakota. 

Sarah Minor is the author of Bright Archive (Rescue Press), and Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit (Noemi Press). She currently teaches at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Find her online at and on twitter at @sarahceniaminor

1 comment:

  1. Doyle's original is one of my fave essays ever and you've done it wonderfully here. Cheers!