A big day in Sewanee: fall classes started at the University of the South. Being back with the students feels great. Their energy and insight is inspiring. It’s a great honor to spend time with them as we travel the semester toward the solstice.
This fall I am teaching a class on “nature” writing. I’ve tried to gather readings that touch on multiple perspectives, including texts by writers for whom the idea of nature is alien or oppressive. I’m not convinced that “nature” exists, at least not as it is usually formulated within the West as a collection of objects outside the self (“environment” is even more insular, deriving from environs, surroundings). We’ll dig into these ideas, guided by our authors. The reading list, which will have additions later in the semester, is as follows:
|The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape. Robert Macfarlane. The Guardian, 27th February 2015.|
|The trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon, 1995, In: Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, William Cronon, editor. W. H. Norton.|
|(1) The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Gilbert White. 1789. “Advertisement” through “Letter X” (2) Wasteland. A journey through the American cloaca. Frederick Kaufman. Harper’s Magazine. February, 2008.|
|Book of Ice, Paul Miller, 2011, powerhouse Books, 978-1935613145|
|Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2015, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313560|
|All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, Winona LaDuke, 1999, South End Press, 978-0896085992|
|(1) All Our Relations, and (2) Sumak kawsay: the written word, justice, and Ecudaor’s constitution.|
|Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton, 2012, Shambhala Press, 978-1611800166|
|Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder, 1990, North Point Press, 978-0865474543 PS3569.N88 P82 1990|
|The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 2010, Algonquin Books, 978-1565126060|
|The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, Eds: Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lauret E. Savoy, 2011, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313195|
|Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, Kathleen Jamie, 2007, Graywolf Press, 978-1555974459|
|Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, Rebecca Solnit, 2013, University of California Press, 978-0520274044|
|The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod, Henry Beston, 1928 (Holt Paperbacks edition: 978-0805073683)|
|The Peregrine, J. A. Baker, 1967 (New York Review Books Classics edition: 978-1590171332)|
|“Nature” writing in Islam and Christianity|
|Janisse Ray and William Bartram|
|Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard|
Students will write essays weaving disparate strands of our readings and discussions into word-fabrics of what I hope will be interesting and attractive textures. The prompts for their two longest essays are: What is the relationship between language and landscape? And, What is a tree? I look forward to their responses.
In addition, they take on several “creative writing” assignments in which they can experiment with words and form. My syllabus has some advice on creative writing which I am eager to have critiqued by fellow ramblers, follows:
Drop “Creative Writing Assessment” into Google’s ever-open maw and the machine will regurgitate thousands of “rubrics” by which creative writing can be placed onto a linear hierarchy of worth. But “creativity” is not born in a rubric, nor is it received in two-by-two tables of check-boxes. The quality of writing can be quantified on an Excel spreadsheet, but this process fails to honor the participatory, context-dependent, and transgressive natures of art. The same is true, not coincidentally, for science.
In this class we will use part of our time together to converse about what makes good writing, creative writing, beautiful writing, and unsettling writing. There will be no single answer to these questions. Indeed, what and how we value writing depends on the narrative of our own lives, the particularities of our needs and affinities, and the tangle of political, bodily, historical, cultural, and philosophical influences from which our minds and emotions are made. When we read, we enter one portion of another person’s consciousness, leaping for a few moments outside the self. This suggests one way of thinking about writing: Do written words make possible this leap and, if they do, how startling, beautiful, entertaining, interesting, or troubling is the time we spend in your world?
Some tidbits of advice about the “craft” of writing, advice that we’ll discuss further in class. If you need a rubric to guide your work, start here:
“Show, don’t tell.” Shun clichés. For example, “Show, don’t tell.”
Attend to the senses.
Juicy verbs are your friends.
Flocks of adverbs and adjectives will choke the engines of your flying machine.
Form matters, sometimes. In the beginning…then an arc or a circle or some other geometric design.
Write, let it sit for a few days, return and revise. Repeat, repeat.
If the metaphor feels right, use it, push it almost to the edge of absurdity. Or beyond. Listen for the crash as it lands.
Confusion is OK, in small doses. “Difficulty” for its own sake is generally unhelpful, unless you’re writing within a deliberately obscurantist genre.
Mind-body-emotion: we’re unified, kinda. So connect ideas to the body, emotions to the mind, the body to the world beyond our skin. Find fractures in this unity and worry at them.
Connection and meaning: cast lines and hook your work into unexpected places.
Multiple realities exist in every place or idea. Honor this. Burrow or lift us to the more quirky layers, the ones that you know about, but the reader does not.
Put in the hours. Stand and stretch. Celebrate every gleam in your work.
What a privilege to have the opportunity
To be in your class!!
Wish I were there!!!!
Thank you. I send my best wishes.
I wish I could take this. One of my favorite ever books is The Sound of Snail Eating, and I have been dying to read the Macfarlane book (not just the article, which I also loved). I hope the students appreciate this opportunity as much as you will!
Thank you, Robley. The snail book is an important work, in my opinion.
Remember David, Seamus Heaney’s quote:
“Landscape is sacramental, to be read as text.”
A master indeed.
“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. “
This is one of your more fascinating blogs especially the reference article by Robert MacFarlane in the Guardian.
Valley Head, AL
Thank you. Macfarlane has written some outstanding books. The Old Ways, in particular, is fabulous.
I regret the chance to be in your class this fall — what an enticing welcome. The bibliography is full of what I should read or have already read and should read again — Gary Snyder, Alison Deming, Henry Beston. Thanks for sharing. Brad Stroup, Tucson.
Thank you, Brad!
I would take this in a heartbeat in the community…might just check up on the syllabus to do my own writing and studies lol…glad you are back teaching the students.
Thank you, Debbie. It is good to be back in the classroom. Yay! Very psyched, as they say.
That comment from me Debbie, not anonymous lol
I found your first paragraph a bit overly wordy. And it took me a while to understand the meaning of ‘rubric’ and then how to understand it in the context of your course introduction.
Having just finished Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac”, I’d urge everyone with an interest in nature to read and enjoy it.
Thank you: excellent points. Leopold will be in the next semester’s class on non-fiction. He is also read in several other classes at Sewanee so I chose to have some other voices in the list for this semester’s class.
some devastating facts about what is happening to our society, ultimately in my view at the hands of bottom-line-driven tech capitalism
How delightful! I began my class on “Journeys” today and our first reading (for Friday) will be your month of January in the Forest Unseen.
Wonderful. Thank you. If you’d like me to Skype, shoot me an email. I hope all’s well with you.
A killer class! And The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating? What a title! I’d take it for that one alone.
I do hope you sneak in one of your own chapters. Good for students to hear perspectives from the author’s themselves.
Check out that snail book…powerful. They’ll get a full dose of Haskell. Not sure about assigning my book in this context though.
Hi David, love the class reading list and assignments! I’ve been contemplating a similar course for our grad students here at University of Hawaii and would also include “Staying Put” by Scott Russell Sanders, “Bird by Bird” Anne Lamott, something by Wendell Berry and possibly Michael Pollan’s “A Place of My Own”, there are so many great “nature” writers out there-including you! Have a great semester/quarter. Aloha from Hawaii, Nicole
Great suggestions, Nicole! Thank you. If ever I can help with a Skype visit, just let me know. I really enjoyed my last e-flight to Hawaii. All the best from the land of Monotropa, David
Some wonderful resources here, as well as beautiful recommendations on writing. Thank you so much for sharing!
Oh, and Mary Oliver should be on list, I think. Some Haiku perhaps.
Yes. They’ll be making surprise appearances through the semester!
You’re using the Beston book! Would love to hear how the students respond to it. I go back to it every few years just for the lyricism. Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem “The End of March” takes place more or less on that same beach. Sounds like a great class.
Beston’s book is rich. And his idea of kinship mature and compelling. Thank you for the Bishop information: it is great to hear that these works are connected across the years by the same beach.
Another list to print and post, playing pin the tail on a title, revelling, wondering, being charmed and alarmed, winter’s reading list quadrupled yet again! Thanks a lot! No, really, thanks. More is not always better, except when it is. Your faithful “here, come take a look” approach to our common lot (life on earth) is (as always) fun, motivating and nourishing.
Thank you, Karen. I resonate strongly with the beautiful way that you express our relationships with reading lists.
Thank you for your reading list, David – an actual map of treasures, especially Kathleen Jamie’s FINDINGS and J.A. Baker’s PEREGRINE, which are new to me.
You’re in for a treat.
Would like to add Fredrik Sjoberg’s The Fly Trap to this wonderful bibliography. And, for the hell of it, Pig Earth–a stunning novel about natural life and eating, killing and other sexy stuff. And now I will start reading.
Joan, a Fan
Thank you! Excellent ideas.
P.S. I am, as we speak, indexing the Journals of Gilbert White for just plants and animals, am up to 1782 and would be glad to share any entries a student might be interested in. (It’s all on index cards in cardboard boxes) For example, what does Gilbert have to say about swallows or yew or corn?
This sounds like a great project! Wow. I will let students know of your offer. Thank you.
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Wonderful looking course, David – and fabulous to read such enthusiastic responses in the comments to the rich variety and ever-growing reach of the genre!
Thank you Julian. I tried to get a diverse collection of perspectives in the syllabus. I plan to feature your fabulous book in next semester’s class for creative writing students.
Well that’s an unexpected honour, thank you! Do let me know if I can be of any help; I’m always happy to answer students’ questions.
Thank you! I will be assembling the final class schedule over the winter break and may be in touch to take you up on your offer. The students have much to learn from your book and I’m looking forward to reveling in your words with them.
What a treat for you to share this! Thanks so much! I am familiar with Robert Macfarlane’s writings but not this article. Many fantastic selections which has me exited to explore the ones I am unfamiliar with. Any Jay Griffiths, Rick Bass, Jeffers, or Berry making an appearance? -not that there needs to be. Thanks again!
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