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!