The Nature of Technology

Before I began teaching my annual nature writing class online in Chatham’s low-residency MFA program, I taught on-campus incarnations of the same course. One of the course requirements, then and now, was that students keep a nature journal, which has a long tradition in the nature writing genre. Students are asked to choose a single place and to visit it roughly weekly all semester, staying for at least twenty minutes each time, and then writing about their observations and ideas gathered while there; students also craft entries in response to directed prompts to accompany their place-focused entries. This is my favorite assignment of each semester, as I eagerly look forward to reading students’ notes and ideas as they develop a relationship – sometimes positive, sometimes negative – to their individually chosen places.

With the transition to strictly online teaching of this course, I have necessarily had to adjust this project. In on-campus classes, students were asked to – gasp! – handwrite their entries in a paper journal. And the results were often astonishing. Now students keep nature blogs, because it would be very difficult to try to weekly read and evaluate the handwritten journals of students who are located all over the country (and sometimes abroad, such as this semester).

A former student friend recently scanned and posted to Facebook some of her journal pages – scattered throughout this entry – from that summer course five years ago.And seeing these images again reminds me that, as much as I still enjoy this assignment even in blog form, as much as I feel the nature blogs are often just as inspired and as creative as the handwritten nature journals were, I miss that medium. A lot. J. gave me permission to share those images and some of her thoughts on keeping her nature journal that summer:

“Most of [these pages are] just musings on time spent in a community garden down the street from my house when I lived in Pittsburgh. I was taking a nature writing course, and one of the assignments was to choose one place, visit it often, and write while there. It was an amazing assignment. The act of sitting in a place for longer than I normally would and writing about it was a wonderful way to open my eyes to the many layers of beauty the garden had. Drawing became an extension  of that, a way to still my mind and focus my attention on what I was surrounded by. The longer I was there, the more I wrote and drew, the more I could see. I couldn’t believe how beautiful eggplants were in their various stages! One evening, just after sunset, I sat in front of a plant that had white bell-shaped flowers and started to draw it. The blossoms were closed when I began the sketch, but each time I looked up to capture another detail the blossoms were open wider. Whoa! So I stopped drawing and literally sat there watching these flowers open up before my eyes. No time lapse photography needed!”

Amazing stuff, really amazing!

The Nature of TechnologyThe Nature of TechnologyThe Nature of Technology


8 thoughts on “The Nature of Technology

  1. Mel, these are beautiful pages! Our posts don't quite match up to the handwork done on these…oh well. I wish that you could meet Libby Mills, a biologist (I think) that works on the Skagit River watching eagles. I know that she has also worked in Alaska. I was privileged to explore a box of her journals…lovely watercolors with many notes about the landscapes, birds, weather, and animals she has been among. I don't know if she has website or not.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing these pages with us. I have hopes in the future of creating handmade books with some of my poems in them…a gift to those I love and who are with me on this journey of mine.

  2. J. is also an artist, so the artwork came to her as a natural extension of her writing meditations for this project. I would love to have such skill myself, be able to keep a nature journal that incorporated a visual interpretation of the natural world. Alas, I lack the art gene and I instead live vicariously through others. I will have to look up Libby Mills' work!

  3. Admittedly, Mel, I've wondered already how my experience with the coursework would differ if I was forced to hand-write from my place instead of extrapolate and transcribe from the comfort of my laptop, Internet connection and all. The work of this student reminds me of the work of Lewis and Clark. (A quick Google search yields this as a point of comparison: It's raw, it's reactive; heck, it even includes drawings. And it's the most expedient path to intimacy with a place, I'd suspect. Anyway, this is all to share my musings over the same subject and simply wax rhetorically over whether my intimacy with Sand Island will at all stack up to the intimacy your former student has with his/her community garden. Tough to say, but worth wondering.

  4. Mel,

    I really like your overall point – that handwritten (including the option / ability to illustrate in tandem) is a wonderful way to experience writing of any kind. Perhaps it is more prescient in nature writing because we have the pictures to accompany our thoughts, but even poetry on the page is powerful to read.

    I wish I had better penmanship because I actually enjoy the process of writing longhand. There is something about the flow of the ink, the weighted balance of the pen and the visceral contact with the paper that satisfies as it stimulates the imagination.

    If I ever get to teach a writing course that includes journaling, I might just steal your ideas.


  5. What's interesting Steve is that I was looking closely at some of the scanned pages, and I realized that some of the entries were written well after the course had ended that summer. Jen told me she continued to visit the garden, in various seasons, all the way up through her departure from Pittsburgh entirely a year or so later. That's so amazing to me, that while the pages hint at intimacy developed with place, it's clear that this was a real and lasting intimacy.

  6. Steal all you would like Dan 🙂

    There is something about the flow of the ink, the weighted balance of the pen and the visceral contact with the paper that satisfies as it stimulates the imagination.

    Well said, and exactly my thoughts on the difference. This was an aspect of the assignment that all students found difficult, even Jen: writing out by hand demands an attentiveness, a deliberateness, and a slowness. This act is so unfamiliar in our immediate-gratification-technological culture these days, and it's a difficult practice that we've gotten out of the habit of.

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