Creighton Nicholas Brown: “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen'”

When I arrived at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, to register for my first semester as an undergraduate student, I was handed a copy of Neely Tucker’s Love in the Driest Season (2004), a memoir detailing the experiences of Tucker, a foreign correspondent, and his wife volunteering in an HIV/AIDS orphanage and the eventual adoption of their daughter. After I moved into the dorms, much of orientation was devoted not only to navigating my first year of college, but also to discussing the common book with my fellow orientation club members and our faculty advisor. Then, once classes were in full swing, we took a break for three days of symposium, which centered around the ideas presented in Tucker’s life narrative. National and international speakers came to campus to discuss global poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My early English professors worked the text into their classes juxtaposing Love in the Driest Season with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) to discuss the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or highlighting the theme of poverty to discuss hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

The goals of this long-established program, which mirror the mission of Concordia, is three-fold: to “stimulate an intellectual discussion among faculty and students,” “introduce students to academic life through a common read and academic discussion,” and most importantly for me as a student at the time, to “learn about issues that shape our world today and in the future.”[1] Reading Love in the Driest Season early in my undergraduate education deeply impacted my time at Concordia College and has continued to shape my scholarly activities and the work I do with my own students at the University of Kansas.

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Well-chosen common books have the power not only to foster faculty and student engagement across campus, but also they offer students an opportunity to critically think about their own subjectivities, the communities they inhabit, and how they can positively influence the affairs of the world through their vocations and civic engagement. Common books, particularly creative nonfiction, demonstrate the strength of narrative to provide alternative forms of knowledge often ignored by those in positions of power and connect the work we do specifically in the Humanities—and more broadly at the university—to issues facing us locally and globally, preparing students to be both critical readers and writers and ultimately civically engaged citizens.

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My first fall as a doctoral student in the English Department coincided with the first year of the KU Common Book.[2] This was new campus-wide initiative aimed at providing in-coming freshmen with intellectual opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster critical thinking. Faculty and instructors were encouraged to work the text into their courses as appropriate. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009) was the inaugural choice.

After reading the first essay in her collection, “Time and Distance Overcome,” I was excited to teach Biss’s work in my first-year writing courses.[3] But as I worked my way through the rest of the essays during new GTA orientation, I realized the rest of the collection did not measure up to the first essay. I began to wonder how my students would connect with Notes from No Man’s Land, which to me registered as underdone meditations on heterosexual whiteness, particularly my students who did not identify as such.[4] I chose to teach “Time and Distance Overcome”—only.

The next three years featured one benign selection after another—none of which ever really spoke to the aspirational goals for the program as outlined by KU First-Year Experience and the selection committee. Each of these texts in their own way was glaringly white and did not address issues facing the campus or larger Lawrence, KS, community and did not unpack issues shaping the world my students would be entering after graduation. Then, after a particularly charged and quite-rightly confrontational Chancellor’s Town Hall responding to incidents of racial and gender discrimination and violence on campus, the new KU Common Book for Fall 2016 was announced: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015).[5] I was thrilled! I often use some of Coates’s long-form articles to discuss race, class, and gender in my composition classes. The committee had chosen a book that spoke to more than just my white students, bearing witness to systemic injustice and white privilege. Their choice was timely, and for me, marked the moment when the KU Common Book reached its full potential. I was on fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year, so I missed the opportunity to teach this important piece of epistolary creative nonfiction.

This year, however, I am back in the classroom and have loved every minute of working through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), this year’s KU Common Book selection, with my students. Similarly to my experiences teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), on the first day with the text my students grappled with—and many rejected—the sadness and anger presented episodically in the first section of Rankine’s lyric poem.[6] My mostly white students struggled with the toll that micro- and macroaggressions take on the everyday lives of nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-cis-males. This led to a discussion in which we unpacked the title of Rankine’s collection and what it actually means to be a citizen of the United States. To underscore this, we worked through our founding documents, identifying the Three-Fifths Compromise, the absence of women, and the dismissal of Native Americans as “savage.” Using Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” we charted a brief history of blackness in America, moving from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the rebirth of Klan in the early twentieth century to the Civil Rights Movement and ending with police violence and our contemporary political realities. This contextualization helped my students to stop resisting Rankine and begin to listen to what she is saying.

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On the second day with Citizen, as with A Small Place, my students began to explicate deftly the issue of white spaces in Rankine’s second section—my favorite as a reader. This section brings together Hennessy Youngman’s philosophy on the cost of black art for the artist with Serena Williams’s racialized experiences as an African American tennis player. Rankine takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston, who remarked, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” to describe Williams in this still predominantly white sport (25). The racism faced by Williams in three different—and very related—moments from her career opened up a discussion about heteronormative white spaces. We talked about classrooms and universities as traditionally white spaces and identified other spaces that historically privilege whiteness. I asked my students to think about times when they were the other in a particular place and what that felt like. After letting them freewrite for a bit, I asked for examples. My students hesitated, and after waiting patiently, I decided to tell my students about my experiences as a queer person entering new spaces, meeting new people, and always wondering who is safe and who might not be. This is the first time I have purposefully and overtly come out to my students during my teaching career. My example worked, and my students began to share their experiences. This section of Citizen and this activity connected our discussions of race, class, and gender in the classroom to the issues we are facing as a nation.

Over the next few class periods, my students eagerly engaged with the remaining sections of Citizen. Once we finished Rankine’s collection, my students began working on their proposals. My composition course has four major projects each building on the one before. They begin with their project proposals in which they outline an issue of race, class, or gender they would like to spend the rest of the semester researching and writing about, and move through annotated bibliographies, researched essays, and revisions of their researched essays into oral presentations. As my students are developing their individual topics of inquiry, I hold conferences to discuss their topics and help them focus and refine their inquiry questions. Again and again, my students remarked how their research interests stemmed from our discussions of Citizen and how that intersected with their individual major areas of study and future vocations.

I have never been prouder as a teacher: My students were connecting our work in my Humanities classroom to their studies in other fields and thinking about how this might be reflected in their future professional lives.

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[1] You can read more about Concordia College’s Summer Book Read here: Summer Book Read.

[2] You can read more about the KU Common Book here: 2017 KU Common Book.

[3] You can read more about this particular essay here: Marissa Landrigan on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”.

[4] You can read a positively different take on Biss and her titular essay here: Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss.

[5] The Chancellor’s Town Hall was also designed to respond to what was unfolding at the University of Missouri in the Fall of 2015.

[6] You can read my reflection on teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place here: My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

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BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he’s completing his dissertation, (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. Creighton also serves as Contributing Editor and Social Media Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He is both a Cobber and a Jayhawk. Creighton lives, writes, and dog-walks in Lawrence, KS.

Gail Riekie—Of its time and for all times: Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle”

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“I believe we are all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found in Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country attractive. I look back to one bright spot, and that is Waimate, with its Christian inhabitants.”—Charles Darwin

Thus Charles Darwin concludes the Chapter XX of The Voyage of the Beagle, his account, written for a general audience, of the five years he spent as the appointed Naturalist on the Beagle expedition. In this time the ship circumnavigated the entire globe, but its main objective was to survey uncharted stretches of the South American coast. Darwin spent the greater part of his time on land investigating the natural history of what is now Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

The Voyage of the Beagle provides a fascinating picture of the world as it appeared to a young Englishman in the 1830s. We also gain insights into the early attitudes and thinking of one of the most influential scientists of all time. It is clear from the passage quoted above that this is no dull scientific account, despite the subtitle “Journal of Researches.” Certainly, The Voyage of the Beagle contains substantial sections on geology and natural history, some of which the non-specialist may find heavy going, but for the most part Darwin’s lively, engaging and wide-ranging curiosity about the places he encounters make him a fascinating travel companion.

The Voyage of the Beagle was written over twenty years before Darwin finally published The Origin of Species, his seminal work on the theory of evolution by natural selection, but one inevitably also reads The Voyage of the Beagle text alert for hints of his nascent thinking on the subject.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 to an English close-knit family of considerable social standing. His father and grandfather were both doctors. Initially Darwin too studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but he neglected his studies in favour of his passion for natural history. His father then dispatched Darwin to Cambridge University to study for the Church, with the idea that as a country vicar he might pursue his interest in beetles while maintaining a respectable position in society. Through contacts made at Cambridge, Darwin, aged only twenty two, was invited to join the survey ship, the Beagle, both as a naturalist and also because he was deemed a suitable companion for the Robert Fitzroy, the ship’s captain.

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Darwin’s youth and enthusiasm for new experiences are evident in The Voyage of the Beagle from his comments on the Cape Verde islands in the book’s very first paragraph:

“The scene …. is one of great interest; if, indeed, a person, fresh from the sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”

A few pages later on landing in at Bahia in Brazil:

“The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, is weak term to express the feelings of the naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.”

In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s South American adventures include several expeditions with gauchos in wilds of Patagonia, where attacks by the indigenous population are a constant threat. In a town near Buenos Aires, he finds himself in the midst of a real live revolution, which he drily notes “was supported by scarcely any pretext for grievances.” Encounters with “savages” in Tierra del Fuego prompt him to marvel at what he sees as “the gap between savage and civilized man.” In Chile he experiences a severe earthquake and its aftermath, and on Tahiti he is taken on a frighteningly precipitous mountain ascent.

It is clear from the outset that we are in the company of an exceptionally lively, inquisitive mind, passionate about natural history in the broadest sense. In drawing a comparison between ‘civilized man’ and ‘savage’ Darwin deploys both language and the concepts that we would not use today but that were part of the educated discourse of his time. Much has been written elsewhere on the topic of Darwin and racism, especially in the context of his later works (e.g. ‘The Descent of Man’). The point about The Voyage of the Beagle that I want to stress in this piece is how Darwin is interested observing and explaining the behaviour of everything he saw on his life-changing voyage—lizards, tortoises, earthquakes, Fuegian natives. The scope is astounding. We also see how Darwin combined his immense curiosity and capacity for detailed study with an ability to hypothesize and seek explanations on a grand scale. Thus we are treated to glimpses of the traits that led to later scientific greatness.

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Giant Tortoise, photo credit Vince Smith

What might surprise the reader who thinks of Darwin primarily as a zoologist is how much space in The Voyage of the Beagle is devoted to geological observation and theorising. Certain sections may be a tough read for the non-expert, but the interest of these passages lies in what they reveal about Darwin’s ways of thinking about science, and his capacity to see both the wood and the trees. Darwin studies in detail the sedimentary rocks along the Patagonian coastline, and dwells at length on evidence that the land has been gradually uplifted through time. He then muses on why the fossils of mammals he has inspected in the rocks of the Buenos Aires region are distinct from related mammalian fossils reported from North America:

“The geologist who believes in considerable oscillations of level in the crust of the globe within recent periods, will not fear to speculate either on the elevation of the Mexican platform, as a cause of the distinction….”

Of course Darwin does also provide plenty of vivid descriptions of the flora and, especially the fauna he encounters. His writings from the Galapagos Islands, where the local wildlife have yet to learn to fear humans, show him also having great fun. One moment he is riding on the back of a giant tortoise, next he is throwing a lizard into a deep tidal pool to investigate its response. When Darwin spots another lizard digging a hole, he reports:

“I then walked up and pulled it by the tail; at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared at me in the face, as much as to say, ‘What made you pull my tail?’”

He is particularly struck by the tameness of the bird population:

“There is not one which will not approach sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I have myself tried, with a cap or a hat. A gun here is almost superfluous; for with the muzzle of one I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.”

But this being Darwin, the remarkable tameness of the Galapagos fauna is not merely observed and described, it becomes the starting point for speculation about broader concepts of instinct versus learned behaviour and the mechanism of heredity.

“With domesticated animals we are accustomed to see instincts becoming hereditary; but with those in a state of nature, it is much more rare to discover instances of such acquired knowledge. In regard to the wildness of birds towards men, there is no other way of accounting for it.”

Darwin brings the prejudices of his time, but also his scientist’s desire for rational explanation, to his descriptions of the ‘natives’ he encounters. He finds that the New Zealanders’ practice of tattooing and facial markings “gives a disagreeable expression to their countenances” but he also recognises that “…it is moreover probable that the deep incisions, by destroying the play of the superficial muscles, give an air of rigid inflexibility”. He calls the Fuegians “ludicrous” (and worse) but he also comments on their considerable talents for mimicry, and wonders how and why they developed this capability.

The fact that Darwin was raised in a society rigidly divided by class is evident from his condescending comments about social relations among the South American colonists:

“Many officers in the army can neither read nor write, yet all meet in society as equals. In Entre Rios, the Sala consisted of only six representatives. One of them kept a common shop, and evidently was not degraded by the office.”

The extent to which Darwin believed in God continues to be the topic of academic debate. That he was at best an agnostic is clear. When, as in the generally disparaging comments about New Zealand quoted at the start of this essay, Darwin praises Christianity in ‘Beagle’, it is because he sees it as a practical means of advancing ‘civilisation’ rather than in spiritual terms. Perhaps he gives a hint of his true thoughts on religion when he speculates on the reasons that the Australian and American fauna differs so markedly:

“An unbeliever in everything but his own reason might exclaim, ‘Two distinct Creators must have been at work’.”

Is Darwin that “unbeliever”?

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One thing that The Voyage of the Beagle most emphatically is not, despite the book’s title, is an account of maritime adventures. The reader hoping for an account rich in detail of life aboard an 1830s century survey vessel will be disappointed. The truth is that Darwin suffered grievously from seasickness throughout the voyage, and his determination to spend as much of his time as possible on land was not purely motivated by the pursuit of science. Towards the end of the voyage he asks, rhetorically:

“And what are the glories of the illimitable ocean?”

Although Darwin spares the reader the details of his tribulations at sea, he also at no point attempts to portray himself in any way as the heroic adventurer – and not for any shortage of material. To my mind, this is ultimately one of the most engaging aspects of the book. Darwin surely ranks today as one of the most brilliant minds our species has ever produced, and in Beagle he has given us what feels like an honest, unspun account of his impressions and his thinking in the crucial formative five year period when his world-changing ideas began to take shape.

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GailandBertieGail Riekie is a geoscientist with a lengthy professional background in both academia and the energy industry. For her PhD, undertaken as a ‘super-mature’ student, she investigated methane emissions from boggy soils, and followed this with a stint as Associate Lecturer in Earth Science at the Open University. In the next phase of life, she plans to focus more on her writing, aspiring to convey the creativity and richness of the scientific endeavour. Gail lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, with her wire fox terrier Bertie (with whom she is more than happy to share a distant mammalian ancestor).

Read “A Close Encounter with Dr. Trump,” at Aberdeen Voice.

Read Gail’s Bouncing Bertie’s Blog, here.

 

Megan McInerney writes about Charles Bowden’s “On the Edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives, and the Outlaws”

* Note: Bowden’s essay originally appeared (in excerpted form, here) in High Country News (2014), and was published as a chapter in the book Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (2015) by John A. Murray. It is recommended that readers listen to Ives’ first piano sonata before reading Bowden’s essay.

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Charles Bowden was one of the fiercest literary voices to emerge from the American Southwest. Readers and aspiring writers alike stand to benefit from careful attention to the way he weds form to content in this essay and the qualities that lend his voice such a powerful presence on the page. The essay blew me away the first time I encountered it. It grabs me in a visceral way, sweeps me up in its discordant musicality, its painstaking questioning, its vivid, haunting imagery. It leaves me feeling as if I’ve been hit with a brick of truth, the magnitude of which I can’t quite absorb.

This was one of the last essays Bowden ever wrote and it brings his talent as a writer and voice of harsh truth into high relief. It’s about dissonance, about the impossible predicament we’re in as a species on this planet, and about the search for meaning and beauty in the midst of so much noise and chaos.

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In just under 2,000 words, Bowden crafts an essay with rhythmic language and form that mimic Charles Ives’ first piano sonata. His powerful metaphors draw connections between the human and natural world, revealing Bowden’s complex questions and insights about the moral dilemma facing us as individuals, as a nation, and as a species.

Dissonance refers to a lack of harmony among musical notes, a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious elements. On a thematic level, the notion of dissonance is integral to Bowden’s essay; he invites the reader on a journey through the Southwest landscape and his own mind as he struggles to make sense of two conflicting desires: to help immigrants along the Mexico border, and to protect the wildlife and natural habitat that suffer from a swelling human population. Bowden realizes that he can’t do both at once, but like a wolf trapped in a snare, he wrestles with how to escape this predicament.

In the essay’s opening lines, Bowden confesses that he’s decided to give American composer Charles Ives a second chance. Despite the fact that “for years, I heard nothing but noise,” he wants to know whether he still disagrees with his friend Ed Abbey, who saw brilliance in Ives’ music. This is an important rhetorical move to set up the essay, because as readers we, too, are suddenly keen on discovering whether there’s something worth hearing.

Bowden goes on to discuss an essay of Abbey’s that “begins with a roar” and “gets louder, railing against all immigration and its contribution to overpopulation.” Bowden says, “Ives blasts in my head, and I can hear Ed’s voice chastising me.” By setting up these comparisons at the beginning, the reader understands that Bowden is searching for meaning in Ives’ music, and that in doing so, he’s also examining whether he agrees with Ed Abbey, whose stance on immigration was based on what Bowden calls “an argument without a heart.”

Like Ives’ music, Bowden’s essay opens slowly and softly, in a quiet voice, and roots us in scene near the Sonora/Arizona border, a place of human migration and drug trafficking for “the drugs humans need to face their dread.” He establishes a tone of despair, and he’s introspective as he wanders along the creek, armed with ‘binoculars and a bird book.” Yet Bowden’s voice — and the essay — grow steadily louder and more desperate throughout the piece. We hear Ives’ music and Abbey’s voice blast in Bowden’s head as he wrestles with the fact that when it comes to human migration, drug trafficking and trying to protect grizzly bears or beleaguered wolves, “things are not simple.”

Three quarters of the way through, Bowden’s essay erupts into a chaotic crescendo, in the section that begins “I am crazed about cranes.” The rhythm changes as Bowden’s tone and syntax become increasingly urgent, almost panicked, in the lines describing the inevitable knock on his door:

The wingbeats, Ives, I think, Ed, you were on to something with this Ives stuff, and the cranes beat overhead, and there is a knock at the door, and this is not heaven’s door, no, this is my door and a poor face looks at me with hunger eyes and my God there is no room in the house and I look past the face at a battered land, the ground on fire, the streams boiling, the sky black with dread, birds falling dead from the heavens and I should say no.

At this point, Bowden’s voice is blasting in the reader’s head. His sentences grow long and chaotic, mimicking Ives’ “hard low notes” that clang and a sound that “flows but halts and then leaps, marches then ambles.” This creates a heightened emotional experience for the reader, who can hear and feel the discordant notes of Ives’ music and the brimming urgency of the questions Bowden grapples with.

After the crescendo, the calm arrives. In the first lines of the next section, music lingers in Bowden’s mind and “the door is open, a summer breeze rustles the cottonwoods, the ash, the sycamores along the creek.” It’s a serene, quiet moment where beauty sneaks in: “Then, amidst the clatter of the sonata, I hear the quiet and watch a full-grown bobcat stroll past the French doors as if nothing exists save his beauty.” Bowden’s essay — his coda — falls to a fading note, with Bowden standing in a valley near the border, remembering the region’s last wolf run and lamenting that “everything I need and love is now an outlaw.”

There’s a sense of vanishing, of disappearance, of a desperate last attempt to save what’s worth saving. In the essay’s final lines, this is precisely what Bowden tries to do, against all rational argument and reasoning. With Ives still banging away at the piano in the background, Bowden confesses, “My God, he’s good. Ed, you were right. We gotta get Ives into the lifeboat” and of the migrant woman knocking at the door, Bowden says, “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.” It’s a definitive statement and moral stance.

As for the significance of Ives’ music in the essay, the answer takes shape for me in the following lines, where Bowden compares Ives’ piano sonata to sandhill cranes passing overhead — “a measured thing against eternity.” The sonata and the cranes — which have the oldest fossil history of any bird — represent a contrast to the ephemeral quality of human life. Ives music is “a noise that becomes notes and then somehow becomes beauty with warring chords banging against each other, old hymns erupting and vanishing again” and what emerges is a pattern delineating human civilization on the earth as if from a birds eye view. We’re in the eruption phase, Bowden would argue, with the world’s population spinning wildly out of control, and the result is a discordant mess. Ives’ music embodies the reality of discordance, of harsh truths, of beauty and death, all at once. There is no justice for the wolf or the Mexican girl.

Music relies upon measured pace and rhythm — like good writing, like sustainable population growth. Ives and Bowden seek meaning and beauty in dissonance, but the lingering question we’re left with as readers is whether there’s any hope to be had for a dissonant world. Even Bowden himself, who devoted his life to writing, admits, “Look into the eyes of a frightened Mexican girl in the desert trying to reach her people in some small town in America and all the clever words fall into the dust.” Bowden forces his reader to consider the role of words and writing. It’s important to note that the essay ends not with a thought or a lasting image, but a concrete action: “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.”

Eerily enough, after writing an essay that concludes with a rhetorical move acknowledging the possibility that the lifeboat he’s on may sink, Bowden himself passed away.

Bowden brought dissonance and uncomfortable truths to the page. It seems only fitting that he chose to frame this essay with a piece of music that many, including Bowden at first, cringe upon hearing. Why do we listen to music? Often, it’s to escape or indulge in pleasant sounds. Music makes us feel good. We tend to ignore what we don’t like or want to hear. The same might be said, at times, about writing. It’s no wonder Ed Abbey and Charles Bowden, two writers committed to bringing their raw, abrasive voices to bear upon American society, found beauty and brilliance in Ives’ clanging, clattering sounds.

Like Ives’ piano sonatas, Bowden’s essay will haunt me for some time to come.

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1-Megan Bio Pic 2Megan McInerney is a writer and educator currently living in Missoula, Montana, where she is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Studies. She holds a B.A. from Reed College and an M.A. in Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English. Her work has also appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West and Flyway Journal of Writing & Environment.

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

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In English Composition courses, I usually assign Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve heard from students that they really appreciate having that reading included. My students also respond very strongly to “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass.

It’s possible to listen to MLK read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is especially useful in an online-learning environment. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has other excellent resources and curriculum suggestions.

Ned Stuckey-French provides fantastic analysis and context of Martin Luther King’s “Letter” here.

Thank you to Nancy Peck for suggesting the inclusion of original source documents. You can access MLK’s documents through http://thekingcenter.org/archive.

For contemporary and current resources, this NPR report is a useful start: “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester.” The November 2015 NPR report discusses this NYU class developed by Professor Frank Leon Roberts. You can find Roberts’s #blacklivesmatter syllabus and other resources here.

In additition, here is a link to “13 Significant Books on Civil Rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

For creative writing courses, and departments, it’s essential to consider Claudia Rankine’s keynote address at AWP/LA (2016). Rankine adapted that address into an essay for The Writer’s Chronicle, found here. Rankine’s masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) should be considered essential reading.

Please also consult the Syllabus on Black Feminism from Melissa Harris-Perry, here.

Here at Assay, you will find our resources and pedagogy articles useful. Here are a few suggestions:

On James Baldwin:

On Civil Rights:

On Empathy:

If you have other classroom resources that you wish to share, I’ll add them to this post as I receive them. Many thanks!

On Shifting the Narrative by Taylor Brorby (Writers to Read: Brian Doyle)

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You and I know this story, it’s the story of Sandy Hook Elementary. We know the outline, we know what happened. But what Brian Doyle does in “Dawn and Mary” is not only dazzling, it is deeply moving—he shifts the narrative focus. For many of us, Sandy Hook is a day of terror, and Doyle helps reveal, sentence by sentence something deeply human: courage, too, existed that day.

The piece begins in simple description, “Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a Connecticut grade school were in a meeting. The meeting had been underway for about five minutes when they heard a chilling sound in the hallway.” As readers, we’re there. We know this place—we’ve all been to school—and immediately we, because of our own imaginations, start filling in the details of what it looks like—though Doyle employs a type of powerful minimalism of detail to allow us to create our own imagery.

We’re told that most people dive under the table, which later we’re told is what we’re all trained to do. But Doyle narrows the focus of the piece: “But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs and ran toward the sound of bullets.” We know that these two people are important and, little by little we learn about them. Dawn is the principal; her husband proposed to her five times before she said Yes, “she liked to get down on her knees to paint with the littlest kids in her school.” We then learn about Mary, the school psychologist; she has two daughters—like Dawn—she loves to go to the theater, and she’s due to retire in a year.

But somehow—because we know how this story ends—we know that won’t happen.

In the first six paragraphs we are given simple description about the school, about Dawn and Mary, about their personal details. But the sixth paragraph marks the end of one section and begins Doyle’s focused work on helping shift the narrative. After the sixth paragraph, he brings the reader into the piece:

You and I have been in that hallway. We spent seven years of our childhood in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing, and when someone opens the doors at the end, a wind comes and flutters all the paintings and posters on the walls.

He doesn’t tell us what the hallway looks like, but he doesn’t need to. We’re already there—we can see the linoleum, we know the lowered sinks in the bathroom, the little tables and desks. We have been there, and we are there again with Doyle.

Our breath quickens and Doyle writes,

Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies—bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger—must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day.

The entire weight of human history is brought into focus in this section—there is nothing other than this moment. We are in Sandy Hook Elementary with Dawn and Mary.

And then Doyle, is a display of pure humanity, brings the piece to an end. Instead of focusing on the shooter, whom Doyle calls “the boy with a rifle,” we learn that in the particulars of this horrific day, courage lived alongside evil:

The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings. They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?

“Dawn and Mary” is a piece to read over and over. In ten paragraphs, Doyle does more to shift the narrative focus of this tragic event than any piece of news or journalism. By the end, not only does the reader weep, but knows deeper that a piece of humanity has been restored. We know what’s possible, we know what happened, we know that the story of courage is messy and complicated and a necessary tonic to help us go forward with the rest of our days.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMTaylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist, and a poet. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, Taylor’s work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Orion, High Country NewsThe Huffington PostTerrain.org, and has received numerous recognitions through grants and artist residencies. Taylor travels around the country regularly to speak about hydraulic fracking, is a co-editor of the country’s first anthology of creative writing about fracking,Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and is Reviews Editor at Orion Magazine. His poetry collection, Crude: Poems, is due out this summer, and an essay project, Coming Alive, is due out in February.

Reading List: Essays that Define the Essay

The following is a list in response to a request for suggestions of “an essay, accessible to undergrads, defining the literary essay (not academic or comp/rhetoric).” Thanks to Dinty W. Moore and so many others who took part in this Facebook thread. If you have other suggestions, please leave a note, and I’ll add it to this list. (Of course, we were pretty excited to see suggestions from our pages, too!) Where possible I include a link to the piece.

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.”

Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.”

https://www.penusa.org/sites/default/files/didion.pdf

Jessica Handler’s “Favorite Essay to Teach” about assigning Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” might be useful. Find it here.

Hampl, Patricia Hampl. “The Dark Art of Description.” (Indirectly defines the literary essay.)

–. “Memory and Imagination.”

Harvey, Steven and Ana Maria Spagna. “The Essay in Parts.”

Hoagland, Edward. “What I Think, What I Am.”

Lott, Brett Lott. “Toward a Definition.”

Ozick, Cynthia. “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.”

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.”

Stuckey-French, Ned. “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” (Lots of suggestions to use this for undergrads and grad students. Some report greater success using this with higher-level undergrads & grad students.)

We’d love to see more essays that define the essay. Consider submitting one to Assay!

Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Donald Quist’s “Harbors”

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During contentious presidential elections such as the one that just ended, some voters tend to offer up the notion of leaving the United States should candidate X win. The threat gets tossed about too glibly, especially when for years citizens have left this country after experiencing real—not anticipated—trials and hardships. Donald Quist, a black American writer and English lecturer living in Bangkok, Thailand, is one such expatriate and he examines his life and the urge to seek a new one abroad in a powerful essay collection, Harbors (Awst Press).

This book comes at a time when the volume of our social discourse is tuned to deafening levels and the back and forth spews at a head-spinning rate. Into the cacophony steps Quist with the fierce voice and loving, but critical eye of a 21st century James Baldwin. And since a whisper draws more attention than a shout, by the time in one of his essays Quist states calmly, clearly, succinctly, “I am angry,” he has us all by the ears and the words resonate to a depth of earth-shaking proportions.

He wasn’t/isn’t always so quiet. As a child growing up with kids from the wrong side of the tracks or, in his case, school bus route, in Maryland, Quist hit a boy and made him bleed for taking his action figure. At 16, frustrated over having to drive one of his grandmother’s drunken friends home, he snatched away her foam-plated Meals on Wheels lunch and demanded she account for her seemingly rude behavior and burdening of his granduncle. However these outbursts only made clear to him what he didn’t understand, an awareness we could use more of today. He learns all is not as obvious as it seems. He learns the truth of what his grandmother, an ardent fan of Jerry Springer’s raucous talk show, often told him, “Boy, pay no attention to what a person says. Watch what they do.”

Quist writes, “I’m reminded that people have complexity and duality, not unlike an exploitative tabloid talk show allowing individuals largely unrepresented in mainstream media to share their experiences.”

He finds himself cloaked in this complexity and duality in “The Animals We Invent,” when he goes to work for the mayor’s office in the town of Hartsville, South Carolina, and finds himself suffering the sting of two worlds when an arson incident leads to a rash of racial profiling encoutners as police seek the perpetrators whom the victim claimed were black males—they weren’t. He fields calls from enraged citizens. “Aren’t you angry?” one asks. Though Quist himself has been stopped by officers he answers with a pragmatic, “What do you want me to say, sir?”

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But the question he’d like to answer in an interview, the reporter doesn’t ask. How can he still speak for the mayor’s office? “If she did ask, I’d answer honestly—I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I wasn’t to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp, dirty fangs to snap my bones.”

Quist weathers the storm but the squalls large and small keep coming, one upon the other, until he punches a hole in the door of the restaurant he owns with his Thai wife. He questions why they continue to live in the racial equivalent of a tornado alley. The essay “In Other Words” relates the discussion he has with his wife about leaving the country. He writes at times, in an interesting twist, from her point of view. “… when customers do stuff like the patron who tried to avoid paying the bill earlier, it is hard not to feel like it’s a part of something else, something systemic, a lineage of oppression that frames so many of his daily interactions.”

I call attention to this particular essay because of the deeply personal nature of his considerations. Quist blames no one—not candidates, not police officers, not the nature of their small South Carolina town. He is simply looking for a way to walk through the world without a centuries-old burden upon his shoulders. He writes, “I yearned to go abroad to find myself beyond the classification of my race and nationality. I wanted an opportunity to live in a place where I might move beyond the limits of myself.” And though in Thailand he might, as his wife warns him, only experience different debts and new prejudices, Quist also recognizes the possibility to experience new freedom.

With this concept alone, this idea of a new freedom, he challenges our notions of America as land of the free, home of the brave, by showing us in his beautiful, unflinching prose that no matter how bravely a person might live in this country, he or she isn’t necessarily free. The vulnerability Quist brings to the page is palpable especially as he relates feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment (often in himself) in addition to his anger. He cannot ignore, for example, that his father left Ghana for the U.S. to escape a kind of living that now benefits Quist in Thailand.

He writes in “Junior”: “I wanted to tell you about how leaving makes me feel like a traitor, and about how it feels whenever I read news about black suffering in America. I meant to ask you if the advantages of living in a place ever make it easier to forgive its crimes. I wished to voice to you the conflict I experience daily while enjoying the benefits I have in Thailand and the knowledge that so many are silenced and detained by the same governing force that has made it easier for me to hail a cab. I wanted to discuss military dictatorships promising democracy, decency, values, and standards while violating civil liberties, and talk about how every day I witness others bear the type of suppression that led you to emigrate from Ghana.”

So many writers can rage—so few can show or even connect to what lies beneath it. Harbors is an important human document because the author doesn’t invoke self-pity or even sympathy. Instead he, much as Baldwin did, presents his life as testimony and makes you stand with him equally at a vantage point where all can view the situation and say with utter certainty, Things should not be this way. Quist doesn’t pretend to seek clear answers—he knows there are none. But like any good essayist, he knows it is important to ask the questions and try on many answers. “Once I’ve crossed over this deep expanse,” he writes, “I don’t know how long I’ll wander or how far I’ll stray. But I promise you, I will do my best to make the journey meaningful.” With Harbors, Quist has already, to a great extent, done this for all of us.

Editor’s note: Read Sophfronia Scott’s “Writers to Read” about Robert Vivian’s Mystery My Country here.

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her forthcoming novel, The Light Lives Here, will be published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in September 2017. She also has on the way an essay collection, Love’s Long Line Alone, from Ohio State University Press. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

Jenna London on Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge”

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams braids several primary story lines to illustrate the author’s love of and affinity to nature, particularly birds, and the rising water level of the Great Salt Lake, with the narrative thread of her mother’s battle with and eventual death from cancer. Williams also illustrates the intrinsic connection the women in her life—Mormons in Utah—have with the land. Throughout the book, the author uses various elements of nature to gain personal perspective. Williams provides the reader with scientific, anthropological, biological and historical information told through strong language and vivid scenes.

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Like The Shepherd’s Life and The Nine Mile Wolves, animals are an integral part of Refuge. Williams shows her connection to wild animals without anthropomorphizing them. Instead, her scene-driven book presents birds as an essential aspect of the ecosystem as well as a source of solace and education.

Williams uses birds as a metaphor for her own life throughout Refuge, as illustrated in the following quote:

“With each breath, it threw back its head, until the breaths grew fainter and fainter. The tiny chest became still. Its eyes were half closed. The barn swallow was dead.

Suffering shows us what we are attached to—perhaps the umbilical cord between Mother and me has never been cut. Dying doesn’t cause suffering. Resistance to dying does.” (53)

Williams writes the scene in which a barn swallow dies. Next, she analyzes the act of suffering and dying. Rather than applying human tendencies to birds, Williams does the opposite. This technique empowers nature and builds on the idea that humans and birds are intrinsically connected. The above reflection occurs after a scene, making the passage more complex and meaningful. If no musing was included and the chapter had simply ended with the sparrow dying, the bird may not have represented the narrator’s mother. By adding the three sentences of meditation where she did, Williams serves to make a self–discovery and prompts deeper thinking on the part of the reader.

Primarily, nature’s role is to represent a higher power and therefore provides a source of comfort for the narrator. Williams presents the spiritual yet circular relationship she has with the birds: she prays so their presence will give her peace. But she also uses the solace to strengthen her own character by learning to listen to the world around her—human, animal and inanimate. Williams frequently demonstrates her spirituality and commitment to the Mormon faith. She does so in a manner that portrays nature as a primal and spiritual entity that is not idealized. Immediately after a passage in which Williams quotes the Mormon scripture, she writes:

“I pray to the birds.

I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.” [149]

She immortalizes birds without either anthropomorphizing them or including scientific background. Additionally, Williams pays homage to nature without romanticizing it. Isolating the reflection in this manner reveals the spiritual aspect of the author, separating her from the organized religion to which she subscribes.

Williams’ infatuation with and wealth of knowledge regarding birds is the most obvious way nature is empowered throughout Refuge. Williams is a reliable narrator as is clear from her descriptions and concise writing. In one instance, Williams begins a new section in her chapter entitled “California Gulls” with the following:

“The gulls were flying to their nesting colonies on the islands of Great Salt Lake. What they gain in remoteness…they sacrifice in food supply… Round trips are made from Hat and Gunnison Islands to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Daily. White pelicans, double-crested cormorants and great blue herons, also colony nesters, must make these same migrations to the surrounding marshes of Great Salt Lake.” [71]

Her desire to provide scientific information in a manner that the non-informed reader can enjoy and use as a learning resource is also empowering to nature. The inclusion of background intertwined with scene shows that the narrator has a relationship with nature beyond the spiritual. This aspect may make her more believable to some readers, which not only empowers nature, but also shows the realistic aspect of it.

Nature’s oppression is most strongly represented via descriptions, backgrounds and scenes about the rising lake levels and habitat destruction in and around the Great Salt Lake. The author’s father recounts the cloud that resulted from the atomic bomb testing conducted in Utah when Williams was a baby:

“I remember the day…It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explosion went off. We not only heard it, but felt it…We pulled over and suddenly, rising from the desert floor, we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the car.” [283]

Williams could have easily idealized or give human-qualities to the non-human in this passage, but she picks a superb moment to remove herself from the scene. She presents this life-altering moment from the point of view of someone who is not be as attached to the natural world, which emphasizes the severity of the experience. Again, Williams validates the narrator to the reader, which in some aspects empowers the environment. However, igniting chemicals in the middle of the desert to be absorbed by the atmosphere or ground is an extreme example of humans suppressing the environment. Williams subtly provides a contrast through the non-subtle event of the mushroom cloud. This technique certainly distinguishes the writing as a realistic portrayal of nature.

In Refuge, nature is regarded as a source of learning, strength, healing and peace. Williams focuses on birds to illustrate her passion for science, nature and spirituality. She describes her role in a matriarchal family and demonstrates how the women pass their belief in the land on to younger generations of girls. When an author, like Wiliams, is most committed to offering a unique perspective and deeper level of analysis of nature, the intrinsic connection between nature writing and humans become most obvious. When these aspects are either not in balance or are absent altogether, nature writing can become unbalanced and can be perceived as weak or unbelievable writing. Nevertheless, it is the presence of balanced contradictions of the environment that make for the strongest and most complex works of nature writing.

 

Editor’s Note: This completes our three-part series by Jenna London. This analysis of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge pairs particularly well in the classroom with London’s analysis on Rick Bass’s Nine Mile Wolves here. You can read Jenna’s first piece in our nature-writing series on The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks here.

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

 

Jenna London on “The Nine Mile Wolves” by Rick Bass

The Nine Mile Wolves is an activism-driven work in which Rick Bass writes as an advocate for wolf reintroduction in the Nine Mile Valley of Montana. Bass intertwines scene, summary and reflection within the same passage or sentence, enabling the reader to gain the author’s perspective as well as to learn factual information regarding a controversial topic (which was near the height of its debate when the book was first published in 1992). Nature is represented as an entity that is both suppressed and empowered. Empowering aspects include the amount of time and resources dedicated to the survival of the wolf, and the amount of respect the narrator has for the animals. Wolves are a topic of great controversy. But attention—whether it is negative or positive—is an act of acknowledging the species, which is therefore an example of empowerment.

Bass’ book is clearly one of activism with an obvious agenda: the wolf is an important species and deserves to be saved. While Bass doesn’t search for ways in which the species is both suppressed and empowered, these examples are still evident. In at least one instance, Bass represents nature in both aspects in the same paragraph:

“We’re all following the wolf. To pretend anything else—to pretend that we are protecting the wolf for instance or managing him—is nonsense of the kind of immense proportions of which only our species is capable. We’re following the wolf. He’s returning to Montana after sixty years.” (4)

When Bass writes to pretend we are protecting the wolf, for instance, he is empowering the wolf. We’re all following the wolf: this phrase can be both empowering and suppressing—a group of people paying attention to one species is powerful. But again, Bass discusses following a species that wants to live away from humans, which is an act of suppression towards the environment. The above passage is also an example of honest and straightforward writing without the language being either overly sentimental or emotional.

This pack is of particular importance because it is the first to have a territory outside of protected land since the animals were almost extirpated in the early 1900s. Bass describes and analyzes the events, practices and mentalities that led to the near extinction of the American wolf. He writes:

This isn’t all the blind foul-up it appears to be. It’s just the way wolves and humans are, together. It’s like falling through a network of ropes, as if in a circus high-wire act—a slow tumble, bouncing from rope to rope, as if weaving, vertically, from top to bottom, with a lot of things being lost along the way, some wolves, some cows, some innocence… [30]

Nature’s suppression is equally recognizable. Wolf populations have been decimated to near extinction. The animals have been pushed out of their land, poisoned and shot. Even the efforts to re-stabilize wolf populations are an act of suppressing them: humans track, sedate, collar and observe these wild animals whose instincts drive them away from people.

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Wild animals are a rudimentary aspect of The Ninemile Wolves. However, domestic species—cows—are also represented. They are depicted as prey and as the reason humans shot and poisoned wolves. But it is wild nature that exists at the core of Bass’ book. From the first pages, the reader understands that the narrator is passionate about the topic:

“They say not to anthropomorphize—not to think of them as having feelings, not to think of them as being able to think—but late at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that, once again, the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again….” (3)

Interestingly, Bass is not actually giving human characteristics to wolves in the quote above. Instead he is using colorful language to describe the brutal reality of wolves on the hunt. In this instance, nature is not romanticized but is instead brutally honest: one creature in nature dies so that the other may live. At other times, though, Bass does seem to anthropomorphize wolves, which can also be perceived as glamorizing or romanticizing nature: “A train’s faint moan reaches us from the next valley, and I wonder what the wolves think of that—if they ever call back to it. Is it outlandish to think maybe that’s one of the things that drew them to this valley—that they were lonely, and like its sound?” [100] Bass gives human qualities to the wolves when he assumes that the animals have the same level of cognitive thought as humans. Specifically, he assumes wolves feel loneliness at all or in the same way a human may experience it. Here, nature’s role is to take on human characteristics. The wolves become lonely and the mountain valley prompts that loneliness.

Assuming the wolves can feel desire, however, does give them human characteristics. Again, Bass seems to be doing so to illustrate the intensity and ruggedness of wolves, which empowers nature (via the wolves). The structure of the reflection—a choppy sentence followed by a fragment and then a long sentence—matches the tone of the passage. The author is frantically trying to understand and protect the wolves. In the background portions, Bass presents scientific information regarding wolf anatomy and pack behavior. Reflection tucked between science adds an element of awareness or validity to the passage.

More often, as in the quote below, Bass takes a spiritual perspective of wolves:

“I like to think that after death, the wolves’ souls keep running, faster than ever, that they rise just to the tops of the trees, where they can get a better view. They glance back down at the person who has killed their life-body but nothing can hold them back, they’re off and running again, still traveling, flowing, like the northern lights.” [108]

Again, these ideas lean more to the romantic aspect of wild animals. Nature’s role here is to be immortalized and for the narrator to again illustrate his infatuation with these animals.

Most often, though, Bass provides scientific information in an understandable manner. In the following passage, Bass again uses a comparison to explain wolves, but he does so in a way that keeps the animal wild and does not glorify the life of a wolf.

Biologists speak with complete conviction of wolves having

“search images, and I visualize a seek-and-destroy mind-set reminiscent of submarine pilots, of computer grid coordinates flashing before the wolves’ minds’ eyes as they cast and weave through the woods, having somehow decided that day to go for a moose rather than a deer or elk, bypassing young deer huddled beneath fir trees, running right over the backs of snowshoe hares—focused only on that one missing search image.” [27]

Bass dispels the idea that wolves are frantic to kill, that they are unable to control what they eat and when they eat it. Bass does not anthropomorphize wolves. Instead, he explains the animals’ innate tendencies in a way that a non-biologist can understand. Nature is represented as simply an element in a machine, bound to itself by instinct.

Bass often inserts a few words of musing within passages of background by starting sentences with phrases like “it’s curious how…” “Of course it’s sad…” and “Never mind that…” These sentences serve to offset the background information with the narrator’s perspective. Bass also includes musing as sidebars in the middle of sentences. This technique serves to provide the narrator’s perspective and to push the reader to be in support of the topic.

Bass uses musing to transition from scene to background, as shown in the following example:

“ …The fifth toe on the front foot, the dewclaw, never touches the ground. Almost never, that is. Sometimes.

It’s hard, almost impossible to say how many wolves we’re following, but my mind won’t shut off, my instinct won’t and even though my logic tells me it’s an impossible task, the other part is still trying to sort it out…

They [the wolves] split and join, split and join, splicing the woods with desire….” (113)

The musing appears to be prompted by the author’s need to educate the reader. In this instance, musing sandwiched between background leads to author discovery and adds depth to the reader’s understanding. When an author uses musing for self-discovery, the reader, too, gains the discovery of an alternate perspective or non-obvious element. Again, this quote is a clear representation of nature writing. The musing serves as a transition from scientific background to a scene.

Most of all, though, The Ninemile Wolves is peppered with phrases and passages that deliver Bass’ most persistent message: wolves are awe-inspiring creatures. He writes: “It wasn’t enough that the Ninemile wolves had beaten the odds and survived, and had shunned livestock. It wasn’t enough to startle; they had to amaze.” (87) Nature’s role in this passage is to demonstrate the resilience of wild nature (wolves) and of the ability of it to not depend on either domesticated animals or on humans themselves. This quote neither anthropomorphizes nor glamorizes wolves. It simply shows another perspective of the human-animal dynamic: wolves amaze the author.

Editor’s Note: For the next issue of “In the Classroom,” we complete our three-part series by Jenna London. The next piece is about Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, and it would be particularly well paired in the classroom with the analysis on Rick Bass here. You can read Jenna’s piece The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks here.

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Jenna London on “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is a place-based memoir in which the author describes his life as a traditional shepherd in the Lakes District of England in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through his vivid descriptions, reflections, explanations, historical background and scenes, James Rebanks implores the reader to re-evaluate preconceived notions about the shepherding lifestyle. Rebanks argues that the shepherd’s life is a choice and, for many, a calling. Rebanks provides personal, scientific and philosophical details dealing with nature—primarily farmland and sheep—that convinces the reader he is a reputable source. The Shepherd’s Life is divided into four main sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Rebanks could have just as easily separated the book into the major periods of his life. But instead, he uses the section titles to illustrate an intrinsic connection with nature. Rebanks’ general purpose is to inform the reader about this lifestyle that suffers from many stereotypes. In doing so, the author also portrays his deeply rooted sense of place and connection to the land. Rebanks does not use his memoir for self-discovery. Instead, he provides the reader with information he has already learned.

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On a personal level, Rebanks examines his relationship with his father. However, this theme is secondary to the larger picture of the book: the narrator loves life as a shepherd and wants to dispel misconceived notions about this profession. Rebanks gives the following description of the Lake District:

“For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not…But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words…. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world.” [7]

Rebanks addresses how humans and the natural environment in a specific region are interconnected. The setting couldn’t simply be plopped someplace else without having a significant impact on the premise of the book. Rebanks states that the Lakes District is of ecological importance on an international level. In this manner, nature represents an ever-changing entity worthy of further exploration. Suggesting that the land prompts humans to feel something is empowering to nature, as is the notion that conservation principles have been formulated based on this geographic location. However, the idea of people having ownership over the land suppresses the environment.

Domestic animals—sheep—are a fundamental aspect of both the narrator’s identity and his livelihood. He demonstrates a largely symbiotic relationship with the livestock: people provide the animals with food and shelter. The sheep provide people with wool, sustenance and—perhaps most importantly—an identity and life’s purpose. Throughout the book, Rebanks provides the reader with an intimate view of a shepherd’s daily activities, thoughts, and mindset, as is evident when he describes an annual sheep sale.

“…But, as important [the sheep] goes to one of the top flocks, Turner Hall where he will be looked after and given a chance to breed with some of the best ewes. For weeks after the sales I miss seeing him each day, as if once I had a van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone.” [173]

Rebanks enables the reader to see how this lifestyle is a business with an emotional component. Most readers—whether they are interested in art or not—know who van Gogh is, and can understand the extent to which a piece of his artwork is cherished. Therefore, any reader could sympathize with the author, whether or not she can relate to having a similar relationship with an animal.

Throughout the book, Rebanks demonstrates a passion and admiration for the livestock without anthropomorphizing them. Rebanks’ overall tone is one of authority and confidence. While he reveals a great deal of admiration and respect for sheep, Rebanks seldom suggests the lifestyle is an easy or unflawed one. Instead, he provides a wealth of information about a little-known profession that requires a deep understanding of and dependence on the land. For example, he writes: “The best sheep have a sense of their specialness, and this ewe seems to know that she is one of the stars.” [168] Here—as is typical throughout his book—Rebanks regards sheep with respect and suggests they are a species capable of thoughts. But he does not suggest that sheep are capable of the same thought process humans have. Rebanks argues that the ancient life of shepherds is one of choice, not one of misfortune or poverty. Rebanks is not necessarily making this way of life out to be more glamorous than it actually is. But he does argue that this physically demanding livelihood is special and worth saving. Writing candidly, Rebanks easily convinces the reader that his convictions to farming are genuine.

He illustrates several generations of families to whom everything centers around sheep and the land, giving precedence to the needs of the animals before their own well-being. These actions are incredibly empowering to the environment. At the same time, however, the land and animals are manipulated to serve human’s needs. Nature is both empowered and suppressed in the following passage:

“Trimming sheep feet. Rescuing lambs from being stuck in fences. Mucking out the stalls. Trimming the muck from the tails of ewes and lambs. As you drive past, you wouldn’t notice them, but they add up over time. Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a millions little unseen jobs.” [55]

In this example the environment (via animals) is oppressed because it is controlled and manipulated by humans. Lambs are stuck in fences that wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t put them there. Feet and tails trimmed for humans’ aesthetic wishes. But one could argue that those same tasks give the environment a sense of empowerment. In another passage, though, Rebanks mentions that dinner isn’t served until the animals have been cared for. The sheep are given priority over human’s needs, which is also empowering towards the animals.

The length of his individual musings range from a few words to entire paragraphs but average a sentence or two. Rebanks incorporates musing primarily within passages of scene and summary rather than writing passages that are exclusively musings. For example, he writes:

“Tough farms were not places to get rich, but they offered opportunities to those willing (or forced by necessity to take a chance)…If you had a big lowland dairy farm with good soil, you probably looked down your nose a bit at these farmers on marginal land. These tough farms are two months behind in the growing season…” [58]

This moment of reflection is in the “you” point of view and appears to be prompted by the need to define “tough farms.” The reflection serves to describe via comparison. Rebanks refers to a generic person in the shepherding community who is embedded in the lifestyle. Nature has multiple roles in this passage, including educating the non-familiar reader. But most interesting is how nature contradicts itself. It not only provides a humble livelihood (not places to get rich) but also represents a status symbol (if you had…you probably looked down your nose…). This nature-centric passage is another example of the concurrent suppression and empowerment of nature. Rebanks does not romanticize the life of a shepherd in this passage. Even the individuals “looking down their noses” are not depicted as having glamorous or “easy” lives. These aspects add depth to the story and represent how both the placement of musing and the musing itself are critical in molding a work of nature writing.

Editor’s Note: For the next three issues of “In the Classroom,” we’ll be sharing three pieces by Jenna London. You can read each one individually, or read all three together, for example, as a classroom assignment to support the reading of each book Jenna analyzes. Up next, Rick Bass’s “Nine Mile Wolves” and Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge.”

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.