Stephen Alter

The novelist and nature writer speaks to Outlook Traveller on writing outdoors
Stephen Alter
Stephen Alter

Stephen Alter wears many different hats with equal ease, that of an educator, a novelist and a writer on nature. Recently, he received The Himalayan Club&rsquos prestigious Kekoo Naoroji Book Award for Himalayan Literature for the aclaimed book Becoming a Mountain Himalayan Journeys In Search of the Sacred and the Sublime. It is in his capacity as a nature writer that he spoke at the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai on February 12, in a talk titled Nature&rsquos Narratives Writing Outdoors in India. We spoke to him, via email, on the importance of nature writing, and how he goes about it.

Outlook Traveller (OLT) When writing about nature, what&rsquos your approach Do you take notes when you&rsquore in the outdoors

Stephen Alter Whatever I write about nature begins outdoors, through observations and encounters in mountains, forests or even in my backyard. Sometimes I take notes or photographs but often my initial impressions are simply the chance glimpses of a bird or animal that sparks my curiosity. The first thing to do is identify the species and then follow up with research so that I can tell its story and the stories of other species around it.

OLT When you look at nature writing in India from a historical perspective, what&rsquos the first thing that strikes you Is there a common thread to how writers in India have viewed nature, through the ages

Alter Whether it&rsquos the Rig Veda or Ruskin Bond, the common thread in nature writing is the diversity of creation that surrounds us. Many parts of India are &lsquobiodiversity hotspots&rsquo, where a multitude of species congregate in the same place.&nbspIt is this richness that is so inspiring and also so easily threatened.  Even if one plant or creature is removed from the mosaic, many others will disappear as well.&nbspNature writing is part of a long tradition in India but contemporary nature writers are more aware of the potential for extinction and the consequences of such loss.

OLT What is the absolute essential skill that any prospective nature writer should cultivate

Alter An ability to observe things through the eyes of a scientist and a poet, both at the same time.

OLT You have been walking the Himalayan ranges for a while now, especially for Becoming a Mountain. What is it about the Himalaya that draw you there

Alter I was born in the mountains and they remain my home, so there is a particular sense of familiarity and belonging in the Himalayas.  But it is also the magnitude that inspires me, the elevation and breadth of the Himalaya. At the same time, I often find that what catches my eye are the smaller elements at the side of the path&mdasha flower or butterfly that is as much a part of the mountains as myself.

OLT Nature writers have always grappled with the definition of &lsquowild&rsquo and &lsquowilderness&rsquo. The poet Gary Snyder says that the words &lsquofree&rsquo, &lsquospontaneous&rsquo, &lsquosustainable&rsquo and &lsquonon-exploitative&rsquo might be an apt way to define it. What has your experience taught you

Alter &lsquoWild&rsquo is one of those words that confuses us because it has so many definitions.  But in its best sense, &lsquowild&rsquo refers to those places where human beings have not left their mark. Poets like Gary Snyder inspire us to explore wild places without desecrating the natural sanctity of those environments.&nbspThis isn&rsquot easy and we often fail but I like to think of &lsquowildness&rsquo also as a state of mind, when we can&nbspbecome a part of the wilderness without intruding upon it.

OLT How do you feel about India&rsquos wilderness today Is it under greater pressure

Alter India&rsquos population continues to grow and there are very few places that we can call a true wilderness in India.  Instead of all this nonsense about &lsquoeco-friendly&rsquo solutions or &lsquogreen-initiatives&rsquo, there should be certain places in India where we do nothing at all, except allow the area to be untouched by man.&nbspImagine 1,000 acres that is closed off &nbspto man for a 1,000 years. That is the sort of place that should be preserved and protected, both as an idea and in reality.

OLT What do you suppose increasingly urbanised human beings need to do to discover their own &lsquowildness&rsquo

Alter If we can imagine a wilderness, we can also discover it in small places. A cluster of flowerpots on a terrace in Mumbai can be a symbol of distant and inaccessible wild places. The birds in the trees outside a city apartment might fly off to a wilderness area tomorrow.&nbspThey can connect us to somewhere we cannot go ourselves.

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