“Nature” writing class

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.

44 thoughts on ““Nature” writing class

  1. Robley Hood

    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!

  2. Shirley Tyndall

    Remember David, Seamus Heaney’s quote:
    “Landscape is sacramental, to be read as text.”
    Marianne’s Mom

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      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. “

  3. pathdoc70

    This is one of your more fascinating blogs especially the reference article by Robert MacFarlane in the Guardian.
    Most enjoyable.
    Thank you.
    Mike O’Brien
    Valley Head, AL

  4. azstroup1

    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.

  5. Anonymous

    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.

  6. lakeontarian

    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.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      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.

  7. RJBates

    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.

  8. David S Johnson

    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.

  9. Nicole Hynson

    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

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      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

  10. Russ

    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.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      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.

  11. Karen Pick

    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.

  12. Joe Mehling

    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.

  13. joan

    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

  14. joan

    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?

  15. Pingback: In Human Words | Bee Happee Now

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      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.

  16. Ralph

    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!

  17. Pingback: Weekly Diigo Posts (weekly) | The Reading Zone

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