Willal Cather Memorial Prairie in Nebraska

Magazine Articles

Writers By Nature

February/March 2016

Illustrations by Stan Fellows

The Nature Conservancy has protected ecologically precious lands and waters across the United States—including places that have inspired some of the nation’s greatest writers.

From the grand coastal panoramas of John Steinbeck to the mesmerizing minutiae of Rachel Carson’s salt ponds in Maine, these scenic spots have served as both ecological and literary habitat.

John Steinbeck

Many of John Steinbeck's cherished novels transport readers into the world of early-20th-century California farming and ranching communities like those of his birthplace, Salinas, in Monterey County. Images of the region’s rolling hills, ranchlands and breathtaking ocean vistas figure in his works. In 2006, the Conservancy purchased an easement on the 11,000-acre Gabilan Ranch in the mountains overlooking California’s Monterey Bay, ensuring that this gorgeous working landscape and wildlife habitat remain unmarred by development.

"The Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love." —East of Eden

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Conservancy's 2008 purchase of a 14,600-acre forest property in New York’s Adirondack Mountains came with a crown jewel: Follensby Pond, the idyllic locale where Ralph Waldo Emerson and nine of his intellectual contemporaries spent a contemplative summer in 1858. Their expedition, which included artists, poets, scientists and doctors, constructed a simple “Philosopher’s Camp” on the pond’s shore and spent their days in discussion, exploration and creative endeavors. Emerson penned a long poem about “The Adirondacs,” rejoicing in the freedom of escaping everyday life for a while.

The Adirondacks in New York
The Adirondacks in New York © Stan Fellows

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway's last home, in Ketchum, Idaho, was bequeathed to the Conservancy in 1986 by his wife, Mary. The house, recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is not open to the public, but nearby Silver Creek Preserve offers visitors access to a landscape where Hemingway fished for trout and hunted ducks from a canoe. When he first visited the area in 1939, he wrote to his son Jack, “You’ll love it here, Schatz.” Today, the Conservancy owns 851 acres along Silver Creek and has protected at least 12,500 additional acres through conservation easements.


Willa Cather

In 1972, the Conservancy purchased 600 acres near Willa Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, to create the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, preserving the inspiration for her novels about early-20th-century western pioneers. The land now belongs to the Willa Cather Foundation.

"As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running." —My Ántonia

Rachel Carson

Nature writer Rachel Carson is best known for her 1962 book Silent Spring, about the devastating effects of DDT pesticide on wildlife, which catalyzed a nationwide environmental movement. But she started her career as a marine biologist, and most of her work focused on the wonders of sea life. The Conservancy’s Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve in New Harbor, Maine, protects the quarter-acre salt pond where Carson once gathered inspiration and specimens. Carson was a founding member of the Conservancy’s Maine chapter in 1956.

New Harbor in Maine
New Harbor, Maine © Stan Fellows

"Here were creatures so exquisitely fashioned that they seemed unreal, their beauty too fragile to exist in a world of crushing force. Yet every detail was functionally useful, every stalk and hydranth and petal-like tentacle fashioned for dealing with the realities of existence. I knew that they were merely waiting, in that moment of the tide’s ebbing, for the return of the sea." —The Edge of the Sea

Wallace Stegner

Northeast Vermont’s peaceful Barr Hill and Caspian Lake star as Folsom Hill and Battell Pond in Wallace Stegner’s acclaimed novel, Crossing to Safety. Barr Hill Natural Area, a Conservancy preserve since 1972, includes nature trails open to the public.

"The view from Folsom Hill is not grand in the way of Western landscapes. That gives it its charm is the alternation of wild and cultivated, rough woods ending with scribed edges against smooth hayfields—this and the accent dots of white houses, red barns, and clustered cattle tiny as aphids on a leaf." —Crossing To Safety

Folsom Hill in Vermont
Folsom Hill in Vermont © Stan Fellows

T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle's novel, When the Killing's Done, offers a suspenseful take on what can happen when well-intentioned causes clash—in this instance conservationists and animal welfare advocates battling over the removal of invasive species on Santa Cruz Island. Though fictional, the novel echoes a real conservation story. The Conservancy has been working to restore the native ecosystem of Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands, since 1978—removing destructive, non-native feral pigs and sheep, which had pushed the native Santa Cruz Island fox to the brink of extinction by overgrazing the land and by attracting a powerful new predator, the golden eagle. Through the Conservancy’s efforts, the island has been pig-free since 2006, and the native fox population has rebounded from fewer than 100 to more than 1,300.

Annie Dillard

In 1968, the Conservancy protected nearly 100 acres on Tinker Mountain, which was featured in Annie Dillard’s nonfiction masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The property was transferred to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. In a 1975 issue of the Conservancy’s Virginia state newsletter, Dillard wrote of the mountain: “It’s a very good place: granite and grit-dirt, needle and soft-leaf, long light lobes on the flanksides; home.”