Alastair Borthwick and Contemporaries Exalt the Natural World in Classic Literature of the Early 1900s

Alastair Borthwick and Contemporaries Exalt the Natural World in Classic Literature of the Early 1900s

Avid readers may find it difficult to discover new classics since they’ve read them all. However, there are still gems in the literary world that don’t receive the attention they deserve. Alastair Borthwick is one such author.

Borthwick’s work is engaging, lively, descriptive and full of humor. He was not only a skillful writer whose words leap from the page, but his work reflects themes that hold importance today. He never missed an opportunity to drive home the concept that nature holds spiritual value and that the mindfulness it inspires is good for the constitution.

He isn’t alone in exalting these themes. In fact, many writers from the turn of the 20th century also featured the natural world in their work. This review of Borthwick and his contemporaries reveals the role nature played in some of the most iconic literature of this formative time in world history.


Alastair Borthwick – An Early Adventure Author

Alastair Borthwick, Writer and Broadcaster

Of all the names on the coming list, Alastair Borthwick is not only one of the lesser-known but he is one of the authors who loved nature with an almost religious fervor. In addition to his literary skill, these reasons make him a very deserving first entry.

He came of age during the formative years of the 1900s, publishing his first book in 1939. This book was based on the work he published as a journalist. He left school at 16 to pursue his writing and eventually took a job at the Glasgow Herald.

While at the Herald, Borthwick worked on its Open Air page and met local hikers who spent their weekends traversing the Scottish Highlands. He was very intrigued by their pursuits and quickly took up hillwalking and rock climbing with them. He reveled in the beauty of his surroundings and the effect the physical activity had on his general health and mental state.

He and his new friends were at the forefront of the outdoor movement in Scotland, where the pursuit was previously seen as an elite activity for the wealthy. Borthwick promoted outdoor culture as an endeavor that removed working-class Scotts from the mental drudgery and stress of their professional lives as well as a great way to meet new people.

Borthwick’s highly social nature lent itself to his ability to pepper his accounts of the natural world with lively recountings of the personalities of his fellow adventurers.

Borthwick’s Writing Style

Alastair Borthwick’s writing style is neither sparse nor overly wordy. He is extremely descriptive, especially when writing about the characters he met during his travels and the countryside itself. He wove the two together seamlessly, painting a vivid picture of his actual experiences.

He often used humor to color his tails, while simultaneously adding personal commentary that was lightly philosophical. He believed that his time outdoors provided a much needed mental break and frequently espoused the benefits to his readers.

But to my mind it (climbing) finds its chief justification as an antidote for modern city life, where we live on wheels and use our bodies merely as receptacles for our brains. (On the crag) one cannot sweat and worry simultaneously. The mountain resolves itself into a series of simple problems unconfused by other issues. Abstractions are foreign to it; its problems are solid rock, to be wrestled with physically; and in the sheer exuberance of thinking through his fingers and toes as his primeval fathers did before him the climbers’ worries vanish, sweated from his system, leaving his brain free to appreciate beauty, which is never petty and never troubled anyone who understood it. – Alastair Borthwick, Always A Little Further

When Borthwick employs literary elements including metaphors and personification, he does so without pretense. His writing is natural and extremely accessible to people from all educational backgrounds and walks of life.

How Borthwick Used Nature as a Theme

Young Alastair Borthwick

It is so easy to feel Borthwick’s focus on nature that it’s actually impossible to consume his writing without noticing it. He advocated that others try their hand (and feet) at a weekend on the hillside.

I have never since known visibility so poor as it was that night. A little daylight was still being reflected by the snow, which was unbroken by any rocks; but it was so diffused that there were no shadows and the snow was without texture. Mist merged so subtly with snow that they were the same shade of grey and it was impossible to tell where one stopped and the other began. By the evidence of our eyes we were walking in a cloud far above the earth, grey blind in a world of no dimensions. Our eyes could not even tell us whether we were walking uphill or down, for the snow appeared to be no more substantial than the mist. We could only tell how the slope lay by the strain on our legs. If it were easy, then we were going down. If it were strenuous, we were climbing. And if we cut across a slope, we stumbled and fell continuously because we could not tell how much to bend the uphill knee. I have not walked under such conditions since, and do not hope to do so again. It had all the vivid unreality of those dreams in which one appears in a public place clad only in pyjamas. – Alastair Borthwick, Always A Little Further

As the previous passage illustrates, Borthwick avoided lengthy passages where he purely described the appearance of the natural world he and his companions were pitted against. Instead, he intersperses personal observations, describes his mental and emotional state and reveals the challenge of the pursuit.

These tactics keep Borthwick’s tales from bogging readers down and make it impossible to skim through any portion of his iconic novel.


Mark Twain’s Identity was Forged by His Surroundings

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Mark Twain is a positively iconic American writer who shaped and reflected the social climate of his day through his writing. Although his depictions of nature were often more subtle than Borthwick’s, he used nature as both a character and an effective setting that shaped the mood and circumstances of his work.

He was born in 1835 as Samuel Langhorne Clemens and published many great works of literature through the early 1900s. He grew up beside the Mississippi River and would later reflect on its significance in his work. His father passed away when he was only 11, and like Borthwick, he left school to start working.

Another thing Twain has in common with Borthwick is his early carer in the print industry. Twain worked as an apprentice to a typesetter at a very young age and eventually became a newspaper contributor. He was around the same age as Borthwick when he was first published in print.

He continued this career as he moved around the country, hoping to move to the banks of a very different river someday – The Amazon. He lived and worked in many areas of the nation, experiencing its countryside and learning about the people who called each place home.


A Humorist

Twain is generally described as a humorist who created literature that revealed the social struggles and climate of his lifetime. His work is both descriptive and simple, with just enough flourish to subtly remind readers that the author himself is brave, likable, and intelligent as well as witty.

His style is often called Southwestern humor, a regional style that features down to earth characters, language, and situations. Twain was never timid about describing characters in realistic detail, even when those details were less than flattering. Additionally, Twain’s style signifies the end of the Romantic period of American literature and the beginning of a style called Realism.


How Twain Used Nature as a Theme

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I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It’s coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. The Almighty has said no doubt, ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ – Mark Twain

Twain was an avid nature lover from childhood and he consistently wove the natural surroundings into his tales in a meaningful way. Even his birth and death seemed tied to the natural world, particularly Halley’s Comet. It has been said that his iconic work, Huck Fin, featured a secondary theme of man’s confusion over his relation to nature.

Twain’s relationship to rivers is also apparent. He saw his formative identity as tied to the Mississippi river, dreamed of life on the Amazon, and even piloted a steamboat for a time. The rivers were a force in the natural world that Twain felt a great connection to.

In Twain’s novel, Roughing It, he recounted his trek west which lasted between 1861 and 1866. This work details his experience crossing the Rocky Mountains in a way that certainly reminds familiar readers of Borthwick’s tales.

Frank L. Baum Reveres Nature and Creates It

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The famous author of The Wizard Of Oz books often manipulated our conventional understanding of nature in order to build fanciful worlds. He is said to have used the ‘forces of nature’ in his plots and remains a beloved author to this day.

Lyman Frank Baum was born in Central New York State in 1856. Like Borthwick and Twain, he didn’t finish school but instead set his sights on honing his writing skills at an early age.

He also spent time writing for newspapers, a trait so many writers of the time shared. It was, however, his love of telling stories to his children that truly opened the door to professional novel writing for the author.

He began with nursery rhymes and his first two published books were in this genre. His true triumph, however, came in 1900. Baum wrote and published an iconic piece of children’s literature called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in which he created his own natural world for his unusual characters to engage with.


Baum’s Imaginative Writing Style

Baum’s style is extremely descriptive in that he drew upon his interest in theater to inform his choice of words allowing him to keep his prose brief while using evocative words to create pictures in the minds of his readers.

From his yellow brick road to his Emerald City, Baum wrote in vivid yet concise ways. He used episodic chapters in The Wizard Of Oz that feels more like scenes in a play. This helps him capture the attention of both children and adults.


Nature as a Theme for Baum

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From the moment The Wizard Of Oz begins, nature is present. Dorothy is swept away by a tornado and dropped into a world where mysterious creatures impact her journey at every level.

The sky was darkened, and a low rumbling sound was heard in the air. There was a rushing of many wings, a great chattering and laughing; and the sun came out of the dark sky to show the Wicked Witch surrounded by a crowd of monkeys, each with a pair or immense and powerful wings on his shoulders. – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

In fact, Baum used animals and the natural world in other works as well. In his series called The Twinkle Tales, several animals from a crow to a woodchuck find themselves in various situations that teach lessons while emerging from natural behavior these animals exhibit.

In these ways, through both using literary elements and impeccable storytelling to create worlds and using the natural world as we experience it as a theme, Baum fused himself with both adventure culture and a type of naturalist narrative.

So powerful was [The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’s] effect on the American imagination, so evocative its use of the forces of nature in its plots, so charming its invitation to children of all ages to look for the element of wonder in the world around them that author L. Frank Baum was forced by demand to create book after book about Dorothy and her friends… – Library Of Congress

As children are enrapt by Baum’s stories, they are pulled into a love for and understanding of the link between humans and the world around them.

The Poetry of Cummings, Williams and Frost

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Robert Frost

E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), and Robert Frost (1874-1963) are influential poets fro the time period who also used nature predominately in their work.

Although Cummings, in particular, used a highly stylized language that was often divorced from conventional syntax, he frequently used nature as a character, theme and prominent setting.

In the example, In Just, Cummings pens an ode to the season of birth and imbues it with a fanciful nature. Complete with references to Pan, he takes the mundane change of our planet in the sky as an opportunity to point out the effect the spirit of Spring has on us.


In Just-

spring          when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame balloonman


whistles          far          and wee


and eddieandbill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s



when the world is puddle-wonderful


the queer

old balloonman whistles

far          and             wee

and bettyandisbel come dancing


from hop-scotch and jump-rope and










balloonMan          whistles




– E. Cummings

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E.E. Cummings

The repetition of natural themes in Cumming’s work is too numerous to recount. It is nearly synonymous with his work and reflective of the style of the time when many writers were exploring the tangible and abstract relationships between man and the natural world.

I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes. – E. E. Cummings

Williams, a contemporary of Cummings, used a more direct and sparse writing style to draw his readers into nature. He even published a collection of works titled Spring And All.

In one of his best-known pieces, Williams attempts to reduce all existence, particularly for rural Americans, down to a pastoral scene. By saying little and describing an iconically familiar setting, he makes a profound statement about life, nature, and how closely linked humans are to the land and the animals we share it with.


so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white


– William Carlos Williams

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William Carlos Williams

It is impossible to speak about the poets of the time who used nature as writing fodder without talking about Robert Frost. More so than even Cummings and Williams, Frost’s name is rarely uttered without a reference to his frequent commentaries on nature.

In fact, to call Frost a naturalist is not too strongly worded.

Nature is the most distinguished feature in Robert Frost’s poems. Frost possesses deep love and sympathy towards nature. However, the typical pastoral life is not the central theme in Frost’s poems. Instead, Frost concentrates on the dramatic conflict happened in the natural world. His poems usually begin with an observation in nature and proceed to the connection to human psychological situation. According to Frost, nature is not only the source of pleasure, but also an inspiration for human wisdom. People will get the enlightenment from observation, thus nature becomes a central character in his poetry rather than merely a background. – Analysis on Nature in Robert Frost’s Poetry

As this analysis illustrates, Frost shares a great deal in common with Borthwick. He advocates for people to interact with nature as a way to improve their well-being and spiritual growth. Similarly, he used nature as a character rather than just a setting.

Ernest Hemingway

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Hemingway is yet another example of writing during the early 1900s who simply could not separate his work from nature. Like many of the authors previously referenced, Hemingway understood how man’s relationship with nature forged character and explained something intrinsic about human nature.

Whether his characters pitted themselves against nature or deeply revered it (often both), they certainly interacted with it in profound ways time and time again.

Many of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and novels involve nature as a powerful influence in the lives of the characters, whether it is as the setting in Across the River and Into the Trees, in a more active role as the prey, such as in The Old Man and the Sea, or both, as depicted in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The quintessential outdoorsman himself, Hemingway’s early exposure to nature has significantly shaped his perception of the relationship between man and nature. In particular, Hemingway acknowledges the dualism present in nature: it provides sustenance, life, and gifts man with its resources—yet it plagues cities with its illnesses, drowns men in its turbulent seas, and steals the life out of the living. The power of nature is unrivaled, and its ability to give and take life echoes the qualities of a godly being. – Modern American Authors

The reference in the preceding passage to Hemingway’s grasp of nature’s duality is important. Although Borthwick generally used a light-hearted tone to explore his rivalry with nature, Hemingway was not averse to taking his narrative into darker territories.

This gives his work an incredible depth that, by merely consuming, causes us to confront our position in the world. Although this happens for Hemingway’s readers in the fireside chair and not on the mountain, it’s something Borthwick also highly valued and encouraged people to experience by scaling the hills and cliffs of his homeland.


An Obsession with Nature

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Why was each of these writers so captivated by nature? In part, because it touched each of their lives in a way that shaped how they saw themselves. Additionally, many understood the importance of retaining an awareness about our connection to it. This is vital to our well being and the well being of the planet.

For these authors, times were often uncertain. The world was experiencing rapid change, industrialization, and many crises of conscious. Nature, however, is constant and their work reminds us of this as it reminded their readers during their prolific lifetimes.


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