In their new novel, The Nature Book, Pennsylvania native Tom Comitta takes a unique approach to storytelling by stitching together nature descriptions from more than 300 works of fiction. What’s more, the book contains no humans, a purposeful choice by the author to imagine a world without us. What went into making the novel, and what does it say about how we think and talk about nature?
Storytelling is a uniquely human endeavor, and the subjects of the stories we tell — love, war, adventure — center around the human experience.
Tom Comitta, author of The Nature Book, out this year from Coffee House Press, sought to challenge that notion by stripping their novel of people. Another unusual thing about The Nature Book is that it contains no words of the author’s own. Instead, Comitta took pieces of hundreds of books and collaged them together to create a story with the natural world, not people, as the center.
The result is a fascinating archive of how we have written about nature since the start of the novel, about 300 years ago.
It took Comitta a decade to compile and arrange the pieces that would become The Nature Book, including a stint at an artist residency where they covered the walls in fragments of books. Comitta looked for inspiration in nature documentaries and reality television the with the goal of making it a page-turner as well as an experimental text.
“I knew it was a strange book, but I did want people to be able to read it,” Comitta said.
The novel has since been reviewed in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Some readers have been moved to tears; others feel exhilarated seeing the world through birds and hurricane and carbon atoms.
The Nature Book comes at a time, ironically, when nature faces the grave threats of climate change and habitat destruction. While it makes no explicit mention of these disasters, some of its most striking moments include severe storms, which are hard to separate from the extreme weather events fueled by a warming planet. Comitta said they did not intend to comment directly about the climate crisis in their novel, preferring that readers draw their own conclusions from the text.
“I didn’t set out being like, I’m going to write a really intense climate novel that’s going to convince all these people to buy electric cars or something,” Comitta said.
Nevertheless, environmental activism has been an important part of Comitta’s work, a value shaped early on by their mother, Pennsylvania Senator Carolyn Comitta, who has been championing the environment since the start of her political career.
Comitta knows that a novel alone won’t solve the climate crisis — “what we need is good legislation,” they said — but they hope that The Nature Book can have a small part in changing the culture around climate action.
“What culture can do is help condition us to be not only be ready for that but to be eager and inviting,” Comitta said. “Hopefully [The Nature Book] is contributing in some small way to helping to realign our thinking.”
Josh Raulerson (0:00)
Today is Friday, September 1st, 2023. I’m Josh Raulerson, and this is Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. What do you get when you take descriptions of nature from more than 300 novels written in English over the last 300 years and compile them into a new story? You get Pennsylvania native Tomez, The Nature Book, a novel that contains no words of the author’s own, but instead splices together pieces from a wide range of texts, everything from science fiction to memoir, to create a narrative entirely its own. That’s not the only unusual thing about The Nature Book. In creating the novel, Comitta and made a point not to include people. The result is what The New Yorker describes as the literary equivalent of wilderness —that is, a place untouched by humans without the ambitions and desires of human characters typical of the stories that humans tell, stitched together from bits of dh Lawrence, Jack Kerouac, Jane Austin, and many others. The novel traces an epic journey through the four seasons and across a range of natural settings through the eyes of animals. Tom Comitta was raised in Chester County and learned a love of nature and an ethic of environmental advocacy from their parents, one of whom is Pennsylvania State Senator Carolyn Comitta. My colleague Derek Maiolo spoke with Comitta about The Nature Book. He started out by asking the author to explain the collage technique they call a literary super cut.
Tom Comitta (1:26)
Basically, I’ve taken nature descriptions from 300 other novels and collaged them into one book. That’s just nature for about 300 pages. And I say supercut because whereas like, oh, there’s a lot of ideas about what collages in writing. For me, this idea of a super cut, which comes from YouTube is more pointed to the fact that like none of it is my own language. Like that we kind of associate those works with just kind of hybrid archive narratives, meditations on media. So yeah, so it’s basically just nature descriptions for 300 pages, but there’s a story and there are cliffhangers and it tries to map patterns and how we’ve beheld and distorted and spoken through animals and landforms and weather patterns since the beginning of the novel form. So it does cover about 300 years of writing.
Derek Maiolo (2:21)
How did you go from taking more than 300 novels and collecting the excerpts that would eventually become a singular text?
Tom Comitta (02:30)
I spent a year going through text files, mostly like Project Gutenberg or like just public domain files and skimming them, looking for nature descriptions. And then after that year, it happened to coincide with this residency at the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska, where I had like a lot of table space. I think I had 10 tables — more space than I have had since then and might ever have again. But, so basically I printed out what ended up being about 1,500 pages of nature descriptions, cut them up and then arranged them where on each table I had like a different macro pattern. So there was like an ocean table, a desert table, a winter table, spring table. And then in each of those tables I noticed there was the, like second pseudo macro pattern is very positive language and very negative language.
And then I would start to look for other patterns within these smaller groups. Oh, like there’s a lot of obviously flowers in spring. Oh wow. A lot of these flowers are like personified. Okay, here’s a paragraph about a bunch of flowers gossiping together. You know, or with the negative language, often it was centered around storms. And so in each of those sections I described earlier that the four seasons, oceans, prairie, desert, so on each of those like entities kind of is a bit of a mood collage. It always goes from nice to awful and back to nice again. And awful is usually instigated by a storm, unless you’re in the desert where the sun is the villain. And yeah, so it was just a process of looking through those piles and you know, in the desert area there was a lot of horses.
So you start to line things up and you see that maybe a narrative starts to emerge. And at a certain point I was like, I need to get from a jungle, like a, a tropical island to the prairies. I think we need to go to outer space — like that’s the like, like that kind of solution making was, you know, because it was a lot of like trying to figure out these connections. And so we do go into outer space via some birds flying in the atmosphere, followed by electrons that then fly even further. And then we returned via following the story of a meteor hitting the atmosphere. So, a lot of it was driven, driven by these patterns, but some of it was also like, I need to tell a novel. So I need to find a few pieces to help put this together.
Derek Maiolo (4:52)
You described in the foreword that the novel is almost a bit of a time capsule. The actual, The Nature Book itself as being a chronicle of nature writing at this point in time, but also through the history. Could you describe a little bit more of how you see that history changing and being traced, as you go from 18th century through the 21st?
Tom Comitta (5:14)
The history of the novel happens to very closely parallel the history of like industrialization and the Anthropocene, the novel of course, like mass production was like a kind of industrial scale thing that allowed for that readership culture. And of course industrialization led to all this culture of fossil fuel burning and all these things that have gotten to us to where we are today. So there’s a, they’re linked materially I think, but the thing that stands out to me most is how our contemporary technologies dictate how we perceive nature. And so yeah, the thing that is most clear is that, you know, first we have nature compared to like, it looked like a beautiful painting. And then it’s a beautiful photograph, and it was like a movie. And then I think one of the more, one of the latest books that I sourced talks about the waves as like a digital display.
So those are, yeah, perceptual differences. I think I would have to maybe do my own study to figure out like which animals are extinct now that were described here, you know, which surely is the case, but also, you know, interestingly there’s only one reference to climate change in the book directly. Although the accumulation of intense weather patterns might imply that. Like in the book there’s just like these raging storms, you know, but we go to outer space and as we return to earth, there’s a, a description of the ice caps melting. And I basically cut off my sample selection of, of which books I was looking at about like maybe 2015. And that’s about the same time that Amitav Ghosh, the writer and theorist, wrote this book, The Great Derangement, about basically complaining that we are living in climate change and we are relegating that in our creative writing and our thinking to science fiction when in fact it’s like reality. And so that realism needs to negotiate with this as well. And so with that, yeah, cut off your text out at that point, there are not many descriptions of climate change since then. Of course a lot has changed. There’s a lot more climate fiction. And so yeah, those are, those are a few ways that you can see the temporality change.
Derek Maiolo (7:21)
What were some of the struggles you encountered in the early drafts?
Tom Comitta (7:25)
Well, I didn’t know how to write a novel.
Derek Maiolo (7:28)
That’s a good one.
Tom Comitta (7:29)
I really don’t think I knew how to write a novel. I mean, I still, like, with subsequent book projects, it feels like starting over again, but I just don’t think I understood chapters or the importance of cliffhangers or just that kind of tension. So that took a while to figure out those. What I did that first summer was the base coat kind of, but it really was unreadable. That took quite a bit of time to really study what does a paragraph mean? What does a chapter mean? Like what, what do these, how do these things, these things work? And then how do I also keep somebody reading? Because, you know, the idea in itself is kind of the worst novel idea. Like it’s all the stuff that people might skim over or go quickly over. Hopefully, of course, once accumulated becomes something different and active and you know, people have called it a page turner.
But that’s also, because I designed it that way in the end because I wanted — I knew it was a strange book, but I did want people to be able to read it. But really it’s probably, the book that you’ve read is like the, the fourth version. There was a short story version. There was a version where each paragraph was language from a different unique book. The third version, that version, I attempted to strip the human as much as possible from the language. And the finalized book, you’ll see there’s like references to Fisher-Price toys and like, you know, the elbow of the sun going over the horizon. There’s all these metaphorical references to humans. But early on I was interested in trying to push it to the extreme in an attempt to, yeah, I don’t know, see how far I could go stripping the human I was.
So, I went so extreme that I tried, I wouldn’t even include the word riverbank in the event that somebody would see that and think about a financial institution, which is ridiculous because anybody can think about anything while they’re reading. You know, you can’t, you don’t have that much control, which funnily like the book was reviewed, the nature book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. And the main critique was that I hadn’t stripped the human far enough. But then my response to that is, if I had, you wouldn’t be reviewing the book, like it would’ve been dull. I noticed that to write a book that humans can read, they need to have like things that they can relate to. And I found that through this book, there are definitely passages where it’s like, for a very long time we’re just talking about wind or the snow picking up. But there have to be sentient creatures who show up every once in a while because I think those are the people who, the, the people, the, the characters we identify with. because like us, they’re living and moving and trying to survive. And so yeah, that was an early interesting struggle to figure out how do I make this text that is extremely pushing into this potentially unidentifiable space while also making it readable and for people.
Derek Maiolo: (10:04)
There are no humans, but there certainly are characters. And, and I found myself really getting invested with there, there’s, a beaver at the beginning, right? Being chased by an otter. There’s towards the end of the, the novel, this really interesting adventure story with the, the mule, it was first it’s a horse and a mule, and then the mule in the desert. And I certainly felt myself getting invested in the lives of these characters, even though they, they aren’t human. But you’d mentioned something else that I’m, I was curious about it, which is the reaction that you’ve heard from people who have read the book. How do you see this book, you know, fitting into our current time which, you know, it’s a world dominated by humans, a world perhaps, you know, under threat by, by humans. And what does this book mean in the context of all that we are dealing with?
Tom Comitta (10:48)
Yeah, the place of a book among all of the many aspects of our client climate moment, environmental moment, I actually really questioned it a lot going into the publication. You know, I’ve never published a book before like this. I’ve like, uh, at this scale and I had some doubts about what, what ecological writing can do. You know, I just kept thinking, you know, how many more eco books do we need? We need like good legislation. That’s what we need, you know. It’s been like 30 plus years. We know this is a problem. We got some legislation, but there’s still a long way to go. But through actually this process of this book coming out and talking to people and seeing it like interact in the world and just, and having conversations like I’m with you right now made me realize that maybe there is some use for these books, you know. We definitely need legislation, absolutely. But to get to a point where we as a people are searching more eager for that legislation or more embracing of it, you know, when things come down the pipeline and things will, our behaviors will have to change. I do think it’s cultures, what culture can do is help condition us to be not only like ready for that, but eager for that and inviting of it. And so a book like The Nature Book, I guess I’m curious, like hopefully is contributing in some small way to helping to realign our thinking. because we’re going to have to think differently and, and operate differently. And it doesn’t have to just be about like sacrificing or something. There’s just, which I guess is like the, one of the biggest inhibitors to people actually starting to tackle this. But I’m reminded of reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which is basically like a narrativized blueprint for how to solve climate change or, or at least like, slow it and try to reverse our carbon output.
And that book not only was the first time I was able to imagine us solving this, this crisis, which I before, I just couldn’t, like, you literally see them do it. You see the, the world do it. But not only that, the thing about the book not only make does it make you feel hopeful, it shows that the changes that are necessary are also going to probably make us better as people collectively. That they will force us to be cleaner, treat each other better. Of course, this is best case scenario, like if we’re, if we want to survive, we have to treat each other better. We have to treat the planet better, and that’s our job.
Derek Maiolo (13:11)
I’m curious too, to talk a little bit about your, your early life and, and how you came to, you know, to, to see, see the world this way. One notable thing is I’m doing this interview in Pennsylvania, where your mother is Pennsylvania Senator Carolyn Comitta. She has been someone very vocal about protecting and conserving the environment. And so I’m curious, did she have an impact on your interest in writing about the natural world or just you as, as an artist?
Tom Comitta (13:40)
Very much so. Both my parents were like, I believe were celebrating the original Earth Day in the seventies. My mom, when we were growing up, the one thing I keep, I always think about with regards to her environmentalism, which was holistic. It wasn’t just this one activity, but throughout, each year in the nineties, and this is before there was recycling trucks that would come around and pick up your recycling. My family would keep all their recycling in like paper bags in our garage. And then on my mom’s birthday every year in the nineties, what she wanted to do to celebrate her birthday was recycle. And so we would all, as a family, get a U-Haul truck and take all the recycling from the year to this local recycling facility. And she just taught us the importance of thinking more deeply about the objects we work with, you know, that they should be more sustainable of course. And you don’t just, you don’t, we don’t just have to throw things out and forget where they go because of course they do go somewhere. She just has always shown me that one that it’s like we have to be stewards of this beautiful planet. And two, that organizing is important and just trying to find ways to bring people together to get things done are, are also important.
Derek Maiolo (14:57)
And a lot of your art, whether you are, are writing or performing, it seems to have some kind of commentary. And I’m just curious, how does activism, like, to what extent does that play a role in your work as an artist? Like, especially relating to like environmental activism.
Tom Comitta (15:17)
As a novel writer, I think about so deeply about the context of these books where like, the most political I can directly get is into like the mechanisms that create fiction. You know, like this is kind of a criminal book, like I’m breaking copyright and I could get in trouble. There is a exception to copyright rule called Fair Use, which is why I think I’m okay at the moment, but then to get directly back to The Nature Book, sometimes I feel like in these projects it’s sometimes enough to just repurpose and it like becomes critique in the nature book. Like I didn’t set out being like, I’m going write like a real intense climate novel that’s going convince all these people to buy electric cars or something, or solar panels. And that was just more an aesthetic choice in the end. I think I did write a climate novel , you know, be with the accumulation of extreme like weather, you know, every storm is apocalyptic, you know, it’s just maybe how I write.
I think that it, I think the book would’ve been overwrought and too in your face, if I had come into it being like, I’m going make some big grand statement. And in the end, I think that there were so many constraints and things I was juggling that I didn’t even have time to think about that. And the process kind of generated that. And for some reason I feel more comfortable with that than making some direct statement. I’m happy to make a direct statement here, but for some reason in a book, I’m, I like it to be more complicated.
Derek Maiolo (16:44)
And I will say for someone who read it, I think what it allowed me to do, or what I found myself doing was reading into those, like you were saying, these kind of apocalyptic storms, that like small scene with the, the ice melting. I was almost projecting my current reality onto the book, which was really interesting. I knew I was reading sometimes these descriptions were a couple hundred years old, but I was reading them in this current moment. I couldn’t help but project the issues of the world as it is now as like into the world as it as it was. And what was another element too was just the, the amount of animal life that is present there. I couldn’t help but compare it or contrast it to the relative scarcity of, uh, you know, biodiversity and, and like the health of ecosystems.
So it was just that was kind of like an interesting experience for me as a reader to read a book so suffuse with animal life during a time when we are reckoning right now with, you know, potentially the sixth mass extinction, you know, what some scientists are are calling it. So I think that that, that, like, to your point, it was maybe more powerful to not comment so directly and allow the reader to come to the work with their own lives and, and make those connections on their own. Well, we’ve talked a lot about the book. I, I am really curious if, if you don’t mind to hear a bit, uh, from the, from the book itself?
Tom Comitta (18:15)
Yeah, I thought that I would read, like I usually read the first two and a half pages, but I’ll read the first page of the book.
Since the beginning time was a form of sustenance, pleasant as the spring comfortable, as the summer fruitful as autumn dreadful as winter weeks, months seasons passed with dream-like slowness and the earth moved in its diurnal course to a waiting horse, perhaps time passed with torturous langer to a tree. This phenomenon was common enough, much more unusual was the fact that years passed and by some accident another tree arrived and flowers and birds and insects on earth. Time was marked by the sun and moon by rotations that distinguished day from night. The present was a speck that kept blinking, brightening and diminishing something neither alive nor dead. How long did it last? One second less. It was always in flux in the time it took to consider it, it slipped away.
There were times though, especially towards the end of a long cold, dark winter when time slowed to an operatic present, a pure present sun was all shrouded over with mist and could no longer shine brightly. And the snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind in a soft universal diffusion, a continuous symphony. At such a moment it seemed that time stopped the day and the scene harmonized in accord words, was it the shifting colors, the snow, the snow fell so thick that it was only by peering closely that such heavy flakes blended like the elements of color elements that somewhere in the grid of time would recede and show that amid the prostration of the larger animal species, the few nearby trees and plants buried under amorphous white cloaks and winter storms, time disappeared. And it was like seeing all time, as you might see a stretch of mountains.
Derek Maiolo (20:50)
So this is the first page of the book. How did you get from the various source material that you drew from into this singular excerpt?
Tom Comitta (21:00)
Early on I thought that the book was going begin like in outer space and then like come like with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, like a lonely planet on the western arm of the most boring galaxy. There was this planet, you know, so this language was, was accumulated thinking about that kind of an introduction. But as I was trying to write the beginning of this book, I studied TV nature documentaries to figure out like, how do you start a book like this, you know, how do, how do they start these documentaries? And they all start kind of how I just described where it’s like a wide shot of earth, like our home among the stars, and then it kind of zooms in a little bit and you see like a wintry landscape and or like desert dunes and these things. And then you get closer and there’s like a bear or a goat and then you start to learn the story of the bear.
And so what you just heard is maybe the first half of that zooming in where we do get this kind of like wide shot of earth, get a, like some mentions to horses and animals, but then we eventually get to these like animals sleeping in a wintry landscape. So that’s narratively how that worked. Another way to read it is that it’s a super cut of the word time . The amount of times I said time there, it might be 20, I don’t know, you know, basically this is where there are of several meditations on time throughout the book, but I, this was a pile of language about time and the planet and ordered into a narrative, created this introduction to this beautiful little spherical object we are sitting on .
Derek Maiolo (22:36)
So as you were making this novel, you know, stitching together all of these component books, how did you do that in a way that didn’t break copyright, you know, like in a way that, uh, makes this something that is your own
Tom Comitta (22:52)
To meet Fair Use, the like legal exception that allows me to do this, one of the things is that you need to transform the original work and critique it. And I think that I critique the language in several ways in this book. I wanted to make sure that each paragraph had at least two books in it if the work was in was still protected under copyright. If it was in public domain, I didn’t really care because it’s just fine. So there are some paragraphs that are straight out of like McTeague by Frank Norris or, or Moby Dick, but usually like pretty edited to ke to keep this, this narrative flow. But yeah, some paragraphs might have like 12 books in them and there are some that have like some longer passages that are like slightly modified by small things, but every paragraph’s a little different in how it relates to that. Like for instance, the first paragraph has probably like six books in it and then paragraph three has maybe two. So just because there’s a section in paragraph three from Jhumpa Lahiri and it kind of said everything it needed to be there. I still claim that it’s transformative because in the sequence of what I’m doing here, there’s no connection to the original story or use, it’s literally just being part of this buildup to how time works in this book.
Derek Maiolo (24:13)
Is there anything that you think readers should know before they read The Nature Book?
Tom Comitta (24:21)
That’s a great question. I feel like readers should just feel like they can approach this in any way they like, you know, if it does feel too much, you can hop around, you can read it in heats. I did write it to be read straight through, but I also recognize that sometimes how that’s, that’s how I read. And I hope you enjoy yourself and and uh, hopefully the book is not asking too much of you and you can just dip into it and see how you feel.
Josh Raulerson (25:03)
That was PEC communications coordinator Derek Maiolo talking with Tom Comitta, author of The Nature Book. You can get your copy from Coffee House Press and learn more about Tom Comitta by visiting their website. Find the link to those resources, as always, on the pEC website in the show notes for this podcast episode. You’ll find [email protected], pecpa.org. Check back in a couple of weeks from now and we’ll have another podcast episode for you. Until then, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Raulerson and thanks for listening.