20 women writing about the outdoors

8 of 21

14. Isabella Bird

Some of the women on this list wrote about the natural world around their homes, either out of inclination or obligation. They may have written in a time when a lady taking an interest in the “rough” outdoors was bad enough. The thought of traipsing about in the wilderness was just too much, either for the writer concerned or for the society that surrounded her. Take Susan Fenimore Cooper, who apparently felt obligated to write only about the close environs of her hometown.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with focusing in on your everyday surroundings, and we probably don’t need many more books on big, grand natural features. There’s something to be said in favor of focusing on the seemingly small and finding deep, meaningful themes there.

But some women can’t help but traipse. No matter what the people around them say not to, or that they’re encumbered by notions of class, women’s physical abilities, gender, and steel-boned corsets. In the face of resistance like that, mountains may seem like only a little thing.

It proved to be such for Isabella Bird. Bird, a British explorer and writer who was active during the 19th century. She was the daughter of an English reverend, moving from place to place as her father’s parishes were changed.

Ill health and wide travels

From an early age, Bird proved to be intelligent and outspoken. However, she was also often in ill health, suffering from “nervous complaints” like headaches and insomnia. A doctor recommended that young Isabella get some fresh air, a popular cure at the time. She, therefore, learned how to ride horses and, later, how to row a boat. Such physical activity often made Victorian parents nervous, as the prevailing beliefs at the time said that women needed low activity in order to remain quiet and compliant.

As she grew older, however, Isabella felt the need to travel. She first began traveling in 1854, when doctors recommended even more voyaging, this time a sea trip to the United States. Her letter sent back home were so engaging that they formed the basis of her first book, The Englishwoman in America. She later traveled in Australia, Hawaii (where she climbed both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa), the newly-minted state of Colorado, Japan, China, India and many other countries.