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.

Becoming the Student: Jennie Case Reflects on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference

This past summer, I prepared with some apprehension to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference. “Apprehension” because although I had attended graduate school, where I relished the conversations I had with other emerging writers, Bread Loaf marked four years since my last experience as a student. I had continued to exchange work with a few colleagues, and I attended conferences like AWP and ASLE, but between caring for an infant, finishing my dissertation, adjuncting, and then teaching, the time I had as a writer was simply that: time to write. It was my opportunity to sit down with a notebook, a computer, or a draft, and to craft something, read a collection of essays, or respond to a friend’s work. Outside of that, I was always the instructor: leading discussions and guiding students to analyze the structure of a published piece or to recognize the potential in their own developing drafts.

Sending my work in for a workshop at Bread Loaf Orion, as a result, brought back with it a surprising anxiety. Suddenly, I recalled how I had always felt when submitting work for workshops as an undergrad or a graduate student: that nervous anticipation, the second-guessing as I wondered if this essay was really far enough along, and how this roomful of people I did not know would respond to it—would respond to me. The anxiety my students wore on their faces in my undergraduate classes, I suddenly felt again in my own body: the way I bit my tongue, the way I sometimes reread my work and saw in it potential, but sometimes reread it and cringed.

Thankfully, I had no reason to feel intimated. That first day of our workshop in Vermont, I found myself surrounded by writers, and although some of us taught, others worked for the EPA, or as environmental journalists, or ran small farms, or wrote environmental journalism. Many had a much more extensive scientific background than me. Yet, everyone had submitted thought-provoking essays that explored the human relationship to place from interesting, compelling angles. We read each other’s work carefully, and we gave thoughtful feedback. I was reminded, once more, what it was like to be in a community of readers. A community of people who care about writing, and language, and what that writing can reveal about the human place in the world.

Outside of class, I attended lectures on fieldwork and using writing to break silence. I woke early to go on bird walks, getting back to the main lodge just as the breakfast bell rang and I loaded my tray with fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoons, I attended mindfulness meditation sessions, where the instructor discussed how to use meditation to make room for creativity. At each and every event, I sat quietly, my notebook open, my mind open, ready to receive.

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What I will take with me the most from my experience at Bread Loaf, as a result, isn’t necessarily the feedback I got on that one essay, or the networking I did, but the reminder of how important it is to be a student: to find ways where I can step back, and simply listen to others and learn from them. To not try to be the authority, but to open myself to new perspectives and experiences—to go on a bird walk with birders far more experienced than me, and to sit in on a conversation with people who do something completely different from me for a living, to listen to lectures by accomplished writers and take rapid notes, to leave a workshop not thinking “I think that went well,” or “I believe I handled that part of the discussion effectively/ineffectively,” but with ideas and inspiration for my own work.

When I boarded the shuttle from Bread Loaf back to the Burlington airport at the end of the week, I did so with a satisfying exhaustion. The conversations and activities had been so engaging, I felt absolutely worn out. And yet, I also knew how necessary the opportunity was——and how rare. I will not be able to attend writing conferences like Bread Loaf every year. That simply isn’t an option right now for me and my family.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of becoming a student, not always the professor, and so I will make a point to seek out such opportunities, whether at future conferences down the road, at lectures hosted by my university, or at community events. They make me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better literary citizen. Placing myself in situations where I am not the expert reminds me what my students experience every day. And it reminds me how much there is to still learn from this world—and how joyful and challenging that learning experience can be.

Here is the reading list I gathered at the workshop:

Jane Brox’s The Wake of Silence (forthcoming 2018)

Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

David James Duncan’s River Teeth

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affairs with Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore’s Great Tide Rising

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen

For more information on the 2017 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference (and to apply), please click here and here. The 2017 conference runs from Saturday, June 3 – Friday, June 9, 2017. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.

Editor’s Note: Please also read Jennie Case’s “In the Classroom” contribution “A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

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Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Writers to Read: Karen Babine on Paul Gruchow

paul-gruchowI have a friend whose driving ambition is to convert people to the cult of Joseph Mitchell. I replied that if that was the case, then mine was to convert people to the cult of Paul Gruchow.

My readerly and writerly relationship with Gruchow started in a Minnesota Writers class during my sophomore year of college, the first time I’d ever read any work by any writer who had come from the state I grew up in. As we read Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, which had just won the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction, it was the first time I realized that I could write about Minnesota, I could write about rural Minnesota, people would read it, it could be published, and it could win awards. It was, I realized in hindsight, the most important moment in my life as a writer. My state, my home, was valuable—I didn’t have to write about other, more “important” places. (This, if you will allow me a moment of pride, was intensely important when my (first) book won the Minnesota Book Award this spring. I wish he was alive so I could thank him.)

On 22 February 2004, Gruchow died by suicide. Paul Gruchow was born in 1947 in Montevideo, Minnesota, raised on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, and after many years of living with and writing through depression, he took his own life. In 2012, his posthumous memoir, Letters to a Young Madman, was published, a draft of which he had finished before he died. I have not yet finished the book. To read of his bipolar struggles in the kinds of sentences Gruchow could write—that is not something I can bear for more than ten pages at a time. This book is, quite simply, the most devastating book I have ever read.

Gruchow writes of the places where he finds himself, and he uses those places to illuminate his world—and his readers’. His work is characterized by the precision of his attention to details, both of the natural world around him and the words on his page. John Henricksson calls Gruchow a “literary naturalist,” a distinction I feel hardly captures the mastery of words that Gruchow possesses when writing about the various topographies of Minnesota, from the farming prairie of Chippewa County in Grass Roots to the wildness of the North Woods in Boundary Waters. Gruchow writes in his Boundary Waters, “We confront in wild places evidence of powers greater than our own; this evidence humbles us, and in humility is the beginning of spirituality. Wildness matters not because it alone is sacred but because it arouses in us the sense of sanctity that makes visible the sacredness of everything else in life” (BW 201). Such awareness of the natural world brings the reader to a higher level of reality, both on a physical and metaphysical plane.

If writers never read solely for pleasure, if we are always aware on some level of what we can learn, then there is no more brilliant teacher of language than Gruchow. His writing is complex in its construction, with serious attention paid to each word and its placement in the sentence. He has mastered the use of poetic language within the prose, intuitively aware of the way the words sound against each other. Grammatically, appositives and parentheticals serve to break up thoughts, to add color to his descriptions, to add interest to a narrative passage, to work the language just one more way. His marvelous use of questions to open Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (1995), as well as elsewhere, serves to make the reader accountable to his or her own conscience.

Gruchow’s writing is full of unusual attention, which gives freshness to his descriptions of things that might seem pedestrian under the lens of other writers. He avoids descriptions that are ambiguous in their commonness, for instance, his rendering of Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior: “I wish to avoid certain adjectives in writing about Isle Royale, words like beautiful, primeval, pristine, natural, wild. There is already enough ambiguity about such places. Certainly Isle Royale appears to be all of these things” (“Spring” 167).

In the essay “The Meekness of Angels,” Gruchow writes of an encounter with a bear: “The bear’s voice was as enormous and commanding as its physique—grander, less guttural, and more eloquent than the roars of the one lion I have heard” (44). Gruchow could have easily slipped into generalities in the descriptions, yet he does not, not ignoring the way grander and guttural sound together. Following this line, the actual description of the mother bear in “The Meekness of Angels” avoids trite and overused language, language which is slow enough to give evidence to Gruchow’s awe over her:

She was enormous and blonde. The silver tips of her venerable hair glistened in the long angle of sunlight filtering through the trees. She did not make a sound as she moved with athletic grace toward her purpose, her massive shoulders as fluid as water. She was like a waterfall on legs. The hump of her back was so prominent and her size so great, that in another setting I might temporarily have mistaken her for a bison cow” (42).

The sentence level attention continues in Gruchow’s impeccable diction. His tone is nearly always soft-spoken and humble, sometimes self-deprecating, something that so clearly follows his speaking voice. No matter his tone, however, his diction gives the reader no doubt as to the writer’s intelligence.

The way words taste in the mouth and vibrate in the ear is not neglected in Grass Roots. In “Rosewood Township,” after the initial description of the cattail marsh at the end of the north-south eighty at the beginning of the essay, Gruchow returns to it: “For me, the most important place on the farm was the cattail marsh at its north end” (20). He goes on to describe the marsh: “Here was a piece of Rosewood Township as it had existed for thousands of years, a surviving testament to the tallgrass prairie, and the richest and most complex representative of it.” He goes on to describe the marsh: “As summer wore on and the wet days of May gave way to dust August, the ponds evaporated, exposing ovals of black mud, ringed by rank growths of cattails, rushes, and tall wetland flowers. These ovals baked and cracked, the rich alkaline deposits in them collecting as fine white powder (21). There’s alliteration here, assonance, true rhymes and slant rhymes–nothing is overlooked.

Slowing the moments down to where the reader can appreciate the language only works if the writer is equally intuitive about where not to linger in his descriptions. In “Rosewood Township,” as he is recalling accidentally burning down his family’s barn, where not one of the panicked animals which had fled into the barn for safety had escaped. The description of the entire ordeal is two paragraphs, at the end of which Gruchow gives the reader a quick glimpse of how he felt about it: “I was out of my mind with grief and fear. I imagined being sent to prison” —this would seem uncharacteristically pedestrian and unoriginal, if not for the next sentence, which gives startling clarity to the young boy’s fear: “I had, as young as I was, a faint sense of what my carelessness would mean to family already dangling by an economic thread.” His fear had less to do with punishment than the welfare of his family. He continues: “The smell of smoke and burned flesh nauseated me. I took to my loft and could not speak or eat for days. Ten years passed before I found the courage to talk about that afternoon” (12). By the brevity of this description, he makes the reader take responsibility for reading between the lines. There is obviously more to what Gruchow-as-child felt, but Gruchow-as-writer knows that his readers are going to have a good idea without expressly stating it.Gruchow’s philosophies and epiphanies operate under the principle that the language has all the answers—and this is some of the finest examples of high exposition on any page.

Gruchow is just beginning to think in his 1986 Journal of a Prairie Year. He has not yet begun to know all the places his mind may take him. For instance, a moment from JPY:

Our language does not distinguish green from green. It’s one of the ways in which we have declared ourselves to be apart from nature. In nature, there is nothing so impoverished of distinction as simply the color green. There are greens as there are grains of sand, an infinitude of shades and gradations of shades, of intensities and brilliancies. Even one green is not the same green. There is the green of dawn, of high noon, of dusk. There is the green of young life, of maturity, of old age. There is the green of new rain and of long drought. There is the green of vigor, the green of sickness, the green of death. One could devote one’s life to the study of the distinctions in the color green and not have learned all there is to know. There is a language in it, a poetry, a music. We have not stopped long enough to hear it.

This moment of green is not as actualized as similar moments in later books, but Journal is, of course, the beginning. The movement towards high exposition, of a writer being able to hit the reader over the head in such a way that the whole world rings and echoes pleasantly inside the skull, is not a skill or gift that happens immediately. But the brilliance of Gruchow is that his writing has always offered the promise of a glimpse into a world that few are privileged to see.

As Gruchow becomes more confident of his language craft, we see that never does he let that language slide in the face of his epiphanies. For instance, from his 1989 The Necessity of Empty Places:

Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity. Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed. No amount of busyness will produce it. It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment. If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone to it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you. You must not wait ambitiously. You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort. The solitude is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.

This passage filled my ears like song when I sat on the boulders of Inishmore, in Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic. If anything, the rhythm of the words against each other illuminated whatever I may have been thinking as the waves pounded the boulders of Inishmore.

In Boundary Waters, everything Gruchow has worked towards comes to fruition: the sound and taste of the language, the rhythm, the etymology, the preciseness of his words in pursuit of that which will make the world make sense. One of my greatest pleasures in reading Gruchow has been in watching his craft develop from one book to the next. One of the best examples in Boundary Waters comes near the end of the final essay, “Spring: Wild Isle,” an essay which made the Notables list of Best American Essays in 1998. Gruchow writes:

There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed by never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.

(Those familiar with Assay will recognize this passage as our inspiration for the magazine’s name and its purpose.)

I’ll close with this thought: something amazing happens when the right writer meets the right place. I’m talking about the magic that happens when Bruce Chatwin is writing about Australia, when Tim Robinson is writing about the West of Ireland, when Bill Kittredge writes about Montana. Gretel Ehrlich speaks of this in The Future of Cold when she writes that “For years, Nietsche searched for what he called ‘true climate,’ for its exact geographical location as it corresponds to the climate of the thinker.” Part of that is the irreplaceable quality of the writer. Part of it is the brilliance in their technique. But most of it is the harmony between the inner and outer world, the organic particularity of place, and how it finds expression in ink.

 


_mg_8267Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. Her book, Water and What We Know (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award and was a Finalist for the Midwest Book Award and Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.

images

I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:

SWARMING

 

Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly

 

back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling

 

wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel

 

all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath

 

breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.

***

W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com

Jennifer Case–A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an environmental writing course, I immediately recalled a warning my mentor had given early in my teaching career. “I once taught a book that I loved, and the students hated it. It was the worst teaching moment I’ve had,” she said. “Never teach your favorite book.”

PilgrimatTinkerCreekDillardPilgrim at Tinker Creek is, without a doubt, my favorite book. The first time I read it, I was a quiet, intense high school student who enjoyed gardening, writing, and hiking. I was struggling with religion, trying to understand my own beliefs, and Dillard’s environmental spirituality—deep and dark and unnerving in its questioning—felt like a new kind of communion. “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on on like a pipe; our breath is not our own,” Dillard writes (15). Reading such passages when younger, I felt pummeled, played on, breathed upon. I felt fed and swallowed whole.

I hesitated, as a result, when assigning the book to my class because I couldn’t bear the thought of them not appreciating it, or—perhaps even more—the book no longer living up to my memory of it.

To be sure: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is dense. It is meditative and philosophical, chockfull of allusions. It is a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. To help my students digest it, I broke the class into groups and had each group take a five-page chunk of the chapter “Intricacy.” They identified their section’s major images, symbols, and ideas, and they transferred those glosses to the board. By the end of the hour, the board was crammed with phrases such as “red blood cells,” “the goldfish in the bowl,” “chloroplasts,” “evolution and trees,” “eye pouches and Henle’s loop,” “intricacy and red blood cells and speckles.”

When I asked what they saw, they replied, “a mess.” Which was true. Aside from a few echoes and patterns, the reverse outline we created appeared random and confusing and discursive.

I then read from the middle of the chapter, where Dillard writes,

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. (138-139)

“In what ways is form meeting content, here?” I asked, and we discussed how Dillard’s chapter, in tackling the complexity and messiness and intricacy of the natural, biological world, is also complex and messy and intricate. Her essay, like the subject matter she describes, goes on millions of tangents simultaneously, with an abandoned energy that, for some students, seemed unwarranted. We discussed how Dillard’s chapters—each of them—masterfully mimicked the subjects they tackled. My own faith in Dillard’s writing—and my students’ appreciation for her—burgeoned. I sighed with happiness and considered the lesson a success.

But it is the book’s afterword, actually, that offers the greatest lesson, and explains why I keep returning to it. When describing her experience writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay she’d read about mathematicians, who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age (279). The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when I promised myself that I, too, would write a Pulitzer prize-winning book by the time I was 30.

I am older, now, than Dillard was when she started writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though I teach at a university and consider myself a writer, I have not published that Pulitzer prize-winning book. As a result, reading about Dillard’s nerve for excellence makes me strangely nostalgic. But Dillard’s book still pummels me; it still inspires me in its confidence, in its willingness to explore painful depths and answer impossibly complicated questions. More than anything, then, this is why I continue to teach Dillard’s essays. I want my students to be ambitious. I want their nerves for excellence to spark. Year after year, decade after decade, Dillard’s work has offered such stimulation, for me and for them.

***

Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

It’s ironic that I’m reading this book while suffering a sore throat and sinus distress that I suspect is the result of spending time in a friend’s pool yesterday. I could find no other explanation for the tingle in my throat that started about dinnertime and steadily became worse overnight. My mother made the connection to chlorine and a Google search turned up more information on it. It’s only a theory right now, that the chlorine in the pool is responsible for my misery right now, but it sounds pretty plausible. But I also got a delivery of homegrown tomatoes from a friend who had too many to know what to do with and I’m going to douse them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and oven roast them to save them for winter. I’m fairly sure my friend didn’t use any chemicals on them. At least I hope not. Continue reading

Topic: Men, Health, and the Environment

IMG_7690Thanks to Jennifer Lunden for this list:  essays by MEN that blend issues of health and the environment, a companion post to her earlier list of women. Please add your suggestions in the comments below!

__________

  • Edward Hoagland, “In the Country of the Blind”
  • Ben Quick, “Agent Orange: A Chapter from History That Just Won’t End,” Orion.
  • Alan Weisman, “Polymers Are Forever, Orion.
  • Bill Sherwonit, “Tracking Toxics,” Orion.
  • Peter Hessler, “The Uranium Widows,” New Yorker, September 13, 2010.
  • Alan Weisman, Echo in My Blood
  • Carl Safina, The View from Lazy Point

Topic: Women, Health, and the Environment

IMG_7690Thanks to Jennifer Lunden for this list: essays by women that blend issues of health and environment. Add your suggestions in the comments below–if the piece is online, we’d love a link to it.

____________

  • Susanne Antonetta, Body Toxic
  • Belle Boggs, “The Art of Waiting
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • Camille T. Dungy, “Tales from a Black Girl on Fire, or Why I Hate to Walk Outside and See Things Burning,” from The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World, ed. Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy (Milkweed Editions, 2011), pp. 28-32.
  • Gretel Ehrlrich, A Match to the Heart
  • Gretel Ehrlrich, “The Solace of Open Spaces”
  • Kristen Iverson, Full Body Burden
  • Mary Heather Noble, “Experimental Road,” Fourth Genre, Fall 2014.
  • Joyce Carol Oates, “Against Nature”
  • Eva Saulitis, “Wild Darkness 
  • Sandra Steingraber, “The Sound of Migration”
  • Sandra Steingraber, “Environmental Amnesia,” Orion
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Alice Walker, Am I Blue?
  • Nicole Walker, “Move Out,” Newfound, Vol. 6, Winter.
  • Terry Tempest Williams, “A Disturbance of Birds”
  • Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge