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Writers boost environmental awareness

POSTED: April 26, 2007 5:02 a.m.
A long list of Southern writers has celebrated the South’s exceptional beauty and special sense of place. Today an increasing number of southern writers continue this tradition but are also highlighting the serious environmental challenges facing this region, including explosive, unprecedented growth that is predicted over the next 20 years. Writers are using their talents to give voice to the hundreds of special southern places that are endangered, from the mountains to the coast.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental advocacy organization, has given an annual award for exceptional nature writing for the last 14 years. The Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment honors those who use words on a page to capture the beauty, the way of life, and the special character of the South.
SELC hosted renowned Southern writers Janisse Ray and John Lane, both past Reed Award winners and judges, at a reading and reception March 24 in conjunction with the annual Virginia Festival of the Book held in Charlottesville, Va. To a standing-room crowd, Ray and Lane read from their work and from selections of other award-winning pieces, and remarked on the growing importance of nature writing in reversing environmental destruction and restoring natural landscapes in the South.
Can nature writing awaken people to the changes around them? Charles Seabrook, retired environment writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and winner of the Reed Award and several other conservation and journalism honors, believes it can be a tremendous public resource. He receives frequent calls from readers saying they hear chainsaws and bulldozers from nearby development.
“They want help,” he said. “People get fired up about the environment when it affects them in their own backyards.”
Reed Award winner Dorinda Dallmeyer, an environmental ethicist at the University of Georgia agrees. “People are finding their living environment less and less tolerable.  Because of it, we’re going through a revival in environmental interest. The current generation is becoming more concerned about their role in nature and their interrelationship with it.”
“Southerners have always had a special connection to the landscape,” Janisse Ray said, “And, of course, the South is known for its literature.”
In the 1980s, modern southern nature writing was just emerging. “There was a huge western nature writing movement,” she said. “Western writers were so moved by their landscape that they were putting pen to paper to defend it. I saw that was exactly what we need to do in the South to use our art to better protect the landscape.”
Ray received the Phil Reed Award in 2000 for her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and has been a nature commentator for Georgia Public Radio and founding board member of Altamaha Riverkeeper.
Some feel strongly that nature writing in the South, in particular, is coming into a new age. “Nature writing is the most exciting genre there is right now,” Ray said. “Today, nature writers are, for the first time, taking their place in the canon of Southern literature — and it will be a huge seat that they occupy.”
“Everyone is pleased to get an award — it is validation — but these writers are writing because they have a passion for what they are writing about, as a ‘call to arms’ to get others engaged,” Dallmeyer said.
And the readership for this genre is growing, adds 2005 Reed Award winner Larry Earley, former editor of Wildlife in North Carolina and author of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest. “Every bookstore has a nature section or an environmental studies section now, a testimony to how interested the public is in these topics.”
2007 Book Festival panelist and 2001 Reed Award winner John Lane sums it up: “It’s imperative we continue to celebrate the best of southern environmental writing. The environmental movement should be the empowering and transformative force in the South today, as the civil right movement was in the 1960s.”

Middleton is founder and executive director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, an environmental advocacy organization focused exclusively on the South as a region.
 

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