Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Notes Towards Day 10 (Thurs, Oct. 4) : "Ordinary Good Writing = A Well-Weeded Garden"

Anne Dalke's picture

CMJ's "aerial view" of this place....

I. coursekeeping

* naming, to conclude?

* weather prediction: 74 degrees, 6 mph wind, 30% chance of rain

* Hannah trying (again!) for the Moon Bench...

* your next writing assignment is to re-think the kind of writing you have been doing, to re-write some small portion of it, and to explain what happened (what you learned/noticed) when you conducted that experiment. Send this to me and your (new) writing partner, in the form of a 3-pp paper with a thesis, by Friday @ 5:
Hannah <-->mtran

* when you post your nature writing, as usual on Sunday evening, also add a sentence or two about the genre you've been using there...what "literary kind" is it? what "mode" have you been writing in? (what new mode might you try out?)

* reading for next Tuesday: 3 pieces by the great sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin--> one short story, "Vaster than Empires, and More Slow," and two very short essays: one on genre, "Science Fiction and the Future," and one on "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction"--@ the "top level" of our eco-linguistic analysis: the generic...

II. for today, I asked you to read 2 short essays by the poet Gary Snyder,
"Unnatural Writing" and "Language Goes Two Ways," which asks us to think
about the KIND of language we are using; and an essay by Joseph Meeker
called "The Comic Mode," which asks us to think about the KIND of stories
we are writing about the environment

but!( first!) one more ambiguous figure!
-- what do you see?

also! let's listen to our own writing...(though we should be LOOKING @ it,

since our nature postings this week were much more visual…
and we started to see things you didn't see on your first visit.
Let's take a few minutes to read and listen to what's emerging--

Rochelle: This morning at the English House I was drawn to the perimeter -- where the grass meets the woods, and the building. And I found today that what stood out to me were objects and bodies in motion. This was because mostly everything was still (except with the aid of this wind). So when something moved on it's own it caught my eye. I encountered two eye catching events of movement. First was the floating spinning leaf. Spinning occured around, and around, and again. The second was a lot of bees. The bees surrounded the entire tree. Working up and down. Gathering and back again. While I was walking around the perimeter of the backyard of the English house I was tempted to go into the woods. But I reminded myself that my place was in the backyard of the English house and not in the woods. I felt slightly stuck. Cannot move out.

Minh: Yesterday was Moon Cake day…on which people can see the full moon from the earth….As I sat on the bench, enjoying the tea and cake, I looked at the sky and was surprised: full moon, where are you? …It took me a little while to finally realize where the moon was….the longer I looked at it, the more clearly I could see its shape – a perfect circle. I also noticed how high the sky was. …Suddenly I was scared to think of how far, how large and how deep the sky was.

CMJ: I drew this image while watching the rehersals of a circus dance troupe in the cloisters Sunday morning. At this partiular point, I sketched them singing Bread and Roses, a popular protest song of industrial workers at the turn of the last century. The tune also happens to be dilivered in a most enthusiastic manner en masse at one college's nighttime rituals.

As I walked around the Labyrinth, sat on the bench, lay in the hammock, the instinct that - what I saw, felt, smelt, heard was really my own perception only - became stronger and stronger….what is recorded is determined by the writer's stand point…. if the perception itself is doomed to be subjective, is it ever possible to create a new language form in order to represent the world more accurate to what it is?…Drawing is very subjective and just like language it depends very much on the skills that one has....since I am not a camera, it is quite acceptable to scribble and express subjectively and to foreground and background so as to represent what I feel and see.

Alex: When I visited the pond behind Rhodes for the second time, I decided to bring along some company. My teammate …replied with,"It's messy, but it's beautiful"….to her … the pond seemed a little out of place on campus. It was fenced off, and not maintained like the rest of the grounds…To me, there was beautiful organization in the reeds, the overgrown shrubs lining the fence, and the looming shadows of trees that hung over the water. I would have never have thought to classify it as a "mess".

Zoe: Sitting. Feeling the wind on my skin. I am cold. Chills shake my being. Focusing on the shivvering trees and branches. My attention sticks to the wind. How can you capture the essence of the wind. .. I enjoyed the feel of the wind blowing against my face and the sushine beating down at my back. There is no way to describe the wind and sun other than to experience it.

Susan: A first attempt at an hour’s observation brings only awkwardness.  In the night I venture forth determined to find a blissful solitude in the darkness….I see a couple gazing at the stars.  I walk quickly away.  The next afternoon, I try again.  I go out when the weather is beautiful, when I figure everyone would be outside.  I reach the labyrinth and I am the only one there….I am with nature while the rest of the world is stuck in their dorm missing this glorious feast of the senses.

The circus music flowed from Thomas, yet I am reluctant to join the mass.
The sun embraced me with warmth, yet I am strangely bleak inside.
The grass under my feet was similar, yet unfamiliar.
The moon last night was bright, yet was not right.
The squirrels were leaping back and forth home.
I am sitting on a bench, gazing the blue blue sky.
Reading Fun Home made me very very homesick. I miss my dad.

SarahC: Read the photos from top to bottom, or from bottom to top….I do not know how to control where they are inserted, and the Serendip fairy put each one above the one before. So, ok. Nor do I know how to write in between or below-- so here is the story. Maybe it is a puzzle for you, to match each caption to the right picture....Back in the "real" world…Still ghostly….The house my mother grew up in…View back toward campus from Cambrian Row…Roots…Three ladies = one beech tree…Labyrinth from below…Labyrinth map, from memory. No, I must admit, the labyrinth does not have the magical feel I was expecting from it. But maybe I have not found its spirit. Maybe this picturing is part of penetrating. Walking to the center does not equal discovering the mystery. Go deeper.

wanhong: In Fun Home, Alison's father loves lilac…On the site I chose to sit, there weren't lilacs. Most flowers have bright pink or red color…They look bright, energetic and exceptional …Their existence could encourage people to move on in their lives. There is one thing that is same between the campus site I chose and the Fun House--both place have scattered plants that do not make people feel crowded....The plannings of both places are natural and undecorative.

Cahier: Funnily enough, sometimes animals live in nature. There are squirrels in the tree that I'm observing in, and we have some unresolved issues.

Hannah: Stress clung in my mind, but I stayed waiting and hopeful under the canopy of leaves. Wanting the tension to blow away with the breeze that blew by me. Wind pulled at my hair and took with it as it left the anxious energy that had been sitting in my head all day and stifling my thoughts. My mind was free again and I was blissful.

mbackus: This week I decided to…do an illustrated representation of the moon bench…I realized how ugly it is compared to the beautiful green, gold, and brown colors that surround it….It provides a wonderful view of the campus, but the bench itself is …cold, and gray, and stone….distinctly out of place among the beauty that surrounds it.

SaraL: my whole week has been phlegm-y…. I have been  mostly bedridden (or roomridden…
Therefore, I did not have the chance to properly visit the cloisters this week, but I will talk about the ecology in my room….Reggie is a potted plant…Reggie's been doing just fine…I marvel at its prosperity. Its leaves sway lazily in the breeze that it manages to catch on the windowsill in our bedroom. It looks happy somehow, and I'm envious.

What do you hear? Does it sound as though we are finding the language we need,
to describe our experiences? (Barbara asks if it's possible to create a language to
accurately represent the world; Zoe says there is "no way to describe the wind and sun,"
except to experience it...)

Let's see what Snyder and Meeker say to these questions...
Gary Snyder is a contemporary poet and, like Thoreau, one of
the grand old men of the environmental movement/studies;
we are reading him @ the recommendation of that orchardist/erstwhile poet,
to whom I am related by marriage....

Start by counting off into pairs, to  tell each other what his key ideas are:
What is "unnatural writing"? What does it mean to say that language goes "two ways"?

Snyder is challenging the canon of older forms of "harmonious, middlebrow" nature writing
w/ a claim that not only the natural world, but the forms we have for representing it--
consciousness, mind, imagination and language--are fundamentally wild:
"insatiable, irrational, moldy, cruel, parasitic, cannibalistic, fermentative, decaying"...
the world (like our minds) is fundamentally unpreditable: we can't guess our next thought
language has its limits-->"The menu is not the meal"--
but it can help us see, if we can let ourselves play w/ its possibilities:
Ordinary Good Writing = well-weeded garden; but
Really Good Writing = more diverse and unpredictable; it roams and dreams.

Can you think of examples? Apply this idea?

Gary Snyder's own poems may not be the best examples
(deeply infused w/ Buddhist sensibility: a disciplined balance);
I'd say that the best example is probably not a poem @ all, but
something more like a primal scream-->
direct, emotional, unmediated expression
(Whitman, maybe? or Ginsberg's "Howl"?)

here's something small that nibbles @ this:
e.e. cummings, "since feeling is first"

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

III. the essay by Joseph Meeker moves up another level of abstraction, to questions of genre
He argues that
* "familiar narrative habits contain stumbling blocks for environmental thinking," that
* "literary representations are useful because not real, and if we are aware of their artificiality,"
* we can change the shape of the stories we tell, which
* can help us to change our behavior (=save ourselves/the planet?).

Go back to talking w/ your partner: what did you get/what else we might get from this material.
The big question is what difference genre might make,
if we are thinking ecology? If we are writing ecologically?

Some (smaller) guiding questions:
What do you know about the genres of tragedy and comedy?
How do you understand each one, and their relation to each other?
(Do you buy Meeker's sharp contrast? See more of a continuum?
Helpful quote: "comedy is tragedy plus time"!)

Which genre/"literary kind" seems more hopeful, as we think/act/
write about the future of the environment, and ourselves in it?
What kinds of stories seem more helpful, in getting
ourselves and others to act/live differently?

What sorts of stories move you most?
Those of doom and gloom? Those of joyful harmony? Those of edgy un-ease?

Return to the large group to discuss:
(Meeker:) "The proud visions affirmed by literary tragedy have...led to ecological catastrophe."
"Humility ..., the essential message of comedy, is necessary for the survival of our species...."

(Mentz:) "Global warming is essentially a literary problem...
the current crisis requires narratives of ecological rupture."

"A shared narrative may instigate action; we need to supplement the
pastoral with a wider range of stories, new choices of generic forms."

Cf. these several narratives:
"The environment is intelligible and harmonious." (pastoral?)
"Nature is inhospitable, hostile and indifferent." (tragedy?)
"Natural systems are not stable (there is no equilibrium or homeostasis):
"wherever we seek to find constancy we discover change." (comedy?)
Do we need a "tragic refusal of all sentimental fantasies about nature"?
A comic wit that plays with multiple possibilities? Or...?

What genre have you been writing in...?
And have you seen your classmates using?
Are those the genres we need (to tell/to hear) @ this stage in human history?