Tag Archives: nature

“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.

Bee comb

This week I took advantage of what may be the last warm, sunny days of the season to tidy up the bee hives for winter. I removed unneeded boxes of frames from the tops of the hives and shuffled frames within the boxes to keep as much honey in the hive as possible. Thus prepared, winter hives are less likely to blow over in storms and, more important, all the honey is gathered into one place within the hive. In cold winters, bees huddle in a ball around their honey stores, slowly eating the honey as fuel to keep them warm (the center of the hive is as warm as human body temperature). If honey is thinly dispersed, the balmy bee ball cannot form.

I had forgotten just how beautiful the wax combs of honeybees are. The near-perfect six-sided geometry, repeated hundreds of times is a fabulous piece of natural architecture.

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The wax is secreted from chinks in the abdominal exoskeleton of worker bees. The bees then mold the wax into the six-sided pattern using chewed wax particles. This task falls to middle-aged (2-3 week old bees) worker bees. Younger workers look after the brood; older workers leave the hive and forage.

This weekend marks the 153rd anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species. It is therefore fitting to include here Mr. Darwin’s thoughts on the wonders of beeswax.

He must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration. We hear from mathematicians that bees have practically solved a recondite problem, and have made their cells of the proper shape to hold the greatest possible amount of honey, with the least possible consumption of precious wax in their construction. It has been remarked that a skilful workman, with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is perfectly effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive. Grant whatever instincts you please, and it seems at first quite inconceivable how they can make all the necessary angles and planes, or even perceive when they are correctly made. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears: all this beautiful work can be shown, I think, to follow from a few very simple instincts. (First edition, Chapter VII, page 224).

He elaborated these thoughts with a series of calculations and experiments, summarized in a recent essay at the Darwin Correspondence Project. As you might expect, Darwin concluded that natural mechanisms could explain the structure of bee comb and that sophisticated combs could have evolved from simple beginnings.

This naturalistic view contrasts with the opinions of Darwin’s contemporaries. After reading Darwin’s passage, I pulled down Langstroth’s Hive and the Honey-bee, an important review of bee biology and bee-keeping published in 1859 (the 4th edition, 1878, is the one that I have on hand; post-Darwinian for sure, although Darwin is not mentioned). Langstroth writes of comb:

To an intelligent and candid mind, the smallest piece of honey-comb is a perfect demonstration that there is a “GREAT FIRST CAUSE.”

These enraptured references to the Divine are peppered throughout his work.

Langstroth was a priest, but depression kept him from many of the usual priestly duties. Instead, he studied insects, especially honey bees. Although his theology seems unsophisticated to modern ears, his entomology was not. His careful studies of bee behavior transformed bee-keeping. In particular, these studies led to him a new design of bee hive, a design that is still the preferred hive for most bee-keepers, especially in North America. Unless you’re eating honey from wild nests, you can almost guarantee that the honey in your kitchen came from a Langstroth hive. I use a modified design: Langstroth in the upper portion (from which come the photos in this post) and open in the lower part (no photos — I never open this part, leaving it for the bees to do as they will).

Winter birds

This afternoon, I heard the querulous call of my first yellow-bellied sapsucker of the season. This migratory woodpecker breeds in mixed coniferous woodlands in the northern forests, then winters in the southern U. S. and in Mexico. Unlike their woodpecker cousins, sapsuckers prefer to feed on live trees. They take a delicate approach to drilling, making horizontal lines of holes from which they drink sap and eat sap-tippling insects. With the sapsucker’s arrival, Sewanee’s woodpecker count is up to seven species. The others are: pileated, hairy, downy, red-bellied, red-headed, and northern flicker. (The endangered red-cockaded woopecker used to breed in Savage Gulf, just north of here, but has been extirpated from Tennessee for more than thirty years.)

So far, this has been a good year for sightings of winter birds. Pine siskins have been quite abundant and I saw a pair of red-breasted nuthatches in early October. In some winters both these species are rare or absent. All this good birding for southerners results from hard times for the birds up north. When pine and hardwood seed crops are poor in Canada and the Northeast, birds are driven south by hunger.

According to Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists, this will be a bad year for northern seed crops. His “bird forecast” focuses on Ontario, but what happens up north will be reflected in bird life across the country.

Humans add an interesting overlay to this natural year-to-year variation in food supply. As I note in The Forest Unseen, our love of birds results in the transport of millions of tons of sunflower seeds from the former prairies into bird feeders all over the country. This makes life easier for many birds, causing some of them to expand their winter ranges northward. Bird-hunting hawks therefore also linger in the northern woods. Our bribes have shifted the calculus of migration.

We know surprisingly little about how feeders affect the day-to-day behavior and ecology of birds. New technology, deployed (appropriately enough) at Sapsucker Woods where the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is located, is starting to shed some light into these questions. Least we humans feel left out, the same technology is being used to study our own “day-to-day behavior and ecology” and, like the birds, as long as the sunflower seeds keep coming, we’re happy to play along.


As we slide down the slope behind the equinox, animals have accelerated their autumnal movements. My backyard now consistently hosts several migrant bird species each day. In the last week: rose-breasted grosbeaks, magnolia warblers, Tennessee warblers, American redstarts, gray catbirds, chestnut-sided warblers, warbling vireos, and a summer tanager. Unlike the songsters of spring, these mostly silent birds can be hard to detect. A flicker of foliage reveals their presence, then a glimpse of their plumage as they prance through the concealing twigs. Grosbeaks are an exception to this crypsis. Although they can be hard to see, their sharp tweek call, given repeatedly through the day, gives them away. The sound is just like that of a sneaker squeaking on a gym floor. Listen for it, then look up.

Last night, as I left the Biology picnic on campus, another migrant bird making a spectacular display over the old building that houses the fire station. About two hundred chimney swifts were scything the air in a tight, fast vortex. They swirled around the brick chimney that protrudes from the station’s roof. One by one, they folded their wings and dropped in. Like hot cinders carried up by the wind, these birds seemed to ignite the dead dusky air with their coordinated vitality. A little tornado of life. The swifts are on their way south to the Amazon where they’ll feast on tropical gnats all winter. I suspect that they are speeding on their way as I write: this morning’s cold rain squalls mean there will be few flying insects in Sewanee today. Time for swifts to get out of here.

Birds are not the only migrant animals making their way through our skies. This week has seen an impressive number of monarch butterflies winging across the treetops. It seems impossible that so slow and delicate a flyer could make it all the way to Mexico, but that is where they are all headed, to a few small patches of dense fir forest in the highlands. The monarchs gather there in the tens of millions to rest in the cool but unfrozen woods. Remarkably, these autumnal migrants are the grandchildren of the butterflies that left Mexico this spring. Somehow their genes guide them to precisely the right location.

One for the road: a monarch loading up on thistle biofuel earlier this week near Lake Dimmick.

Another migrant butterfly, less celebrated than the monarch, is the gulf fritillary. This species breeds all over the southeastern U. S., but overwinters only in the deep south. Unlike the fluttery monarchs, these butterflies scull their way across the air with seemingly powerful and directed wingbeats. In Florida, where adults linger all winter, huge flocks of them will sometimes stream over fields and scrubby areas. A river of bright amber.

Gulf fritillary. Photo taken earlier in the year.