It was a backdrop to a historical cosmos, or a veneer over a religious one.
Whether it was admired or scorned, the human figure stood in strong relief against it.
After Linnaeus began to give even insects impressive Greco-Latinate names, nature rapidly acquired a new substantiality, and became a subject as well as a setting.
By the 1790's, an English country clergyman who a century or two before might have been writing theological treatises or metaphysical poems produced a book (Gilbert White's '' The Natural History of Selborne'') wherein history and religion were interwoven with, sometimes overshadowed by, beech trees and earthworms.
William's father had described the waters of one of Florida's celebrated limestone sinkhole springs as smelling ''like bilge,'' tasting ''sweetish and loathsome,'' and boiling up from the bottom ''like a pot.'' William saw ''an enchanting and amazing crystal fountain, which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute . After its publication in 1791, Bartram's '' Travels'' was devoured by the generation of young European poets that included the author of '' Kubla Khan.'' Bartram supplied Coleridge, Wordsworth, Chateaubriand, and others with genuine examples of the exotic, Rousseau- esque wonders they hungered for - not only ''caverns measureless to man,'' but noble Creek warriors, lovely Cherokee maidens, flowery savannas, fragrant groves, brilliant birds.
The wonders seem a little overblown to us today, but they were real, honestly observed and vividly described.Nature writing has been particularly prevalent in America, for an obvious reason.European colonists found here a world which was for them (if not for the Indians they displaced) empty of historical or religious association.In this world, they ignored nature itself at their own risk.The early Jamestown and Boston colonists succeeded in ignoring it to some degree, which perhaps is one reason they clung precariously to the coast for the first hundred years, but by Linnaeus's time, Americans had begun to observe nature closely, and to venture into the wilderness with appreciation.In fact, early 19th-century frontier letters contain quite a few effusive descriptions of flowery prairies and soaring forests along with more prosaic matters, suggesting that nature-loving in the romantic mode had caught on.Nature writing changed as romanticism evolved into Victorian pragmatic optimism.It usually is associated with essays such as '' Walden,'' but there is nature fiction, nature poetry, nature reporting, even nature drama, if television documentary narrations are literature.All these have something in common: They are appreciative esthetic responses to a scientific view of nature, and I think this trait defines the genre.They observed in a piecemeal fashion at first, and ventured without too much appreciation.Early naturalists, such as Cadwallader Colden and John Bartram, were more interested in extracting rare, valuable plants and animals from the wilderness than in perceiving it as a whole, an attitude in keeping with the Linnaean bias for individual organisms over ecological systems (ecology not having been invented yet).