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Writing Language Back into the Land

1 September, 2009

Another  inspiring guest post by Kelly Shepherd. He muses on how nature writing can and should change ourselves and our world. You can read more about nature and writing at his website:

Not everyone loves nature writing. Many find it irrelevant or unbearably dull. If you have participated in writers’ circles or poetry readings, you have probably encountered the worst of ‘garden writing’: loving but unimaginative descriptions of the flowers and songbirds in one’s backyard.

Creativity—how low can we go?

But let me step back from the writing circle—and the garden—to discuss writing in terms of creativity. Creativity might be difficult to pin down, but we can probably agree on what it is not. I think everyone would agree that if we learn to do one thing in a specific way, and then continue to do that one thing in that same way, over and over, then we are not acting creatively. Poems and novels are not composed on assembly lines; they are not put together by robots. Yet, despite our best efforts, our creative writing can become boring and formulaic.

Everything can be reduced to a lower version of itself. That’s what we do every day, isn’t it? We simplify, cut corners, we make things easier for ourselves. We reduce the workload, manage our time, multitask. Does anyone really believe that these things make us better at what we do? Or reduce our stress levels? At best we remain overworked while believing we are learning to be more efficient. We are encouraged to strive for the lowest common denominator in our daily tasks and routines.

Sadly, this philosophy is also applied to the creative spheres. One need look no further than the television to see just how low we can go. Never mind television: If even sonnets and symphonies can be written by computers, then this is hopeless isn’t it? Why should we even bother?

Why nature writing?

So why nature writing? How will it help anyone if we tramp off into the forest or the desert? Or sit on a riverbank, or swim in the sea? Why climb a mountain? And why write what we have experienced?

Why indeed? In his wonderful book, The Spell of the Sensuous, philosopher and linguist David Abram addresses these very questions:

For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.

Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves—to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs—letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf (273-274).

Taking a cue from Abram, I propose that both our creativity and our sanity might be salvaged by a new approach to writing about nature. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, what is at stake is both the physical environment and the more intangible realms of the human mind and spirit.

Approaching nature

This type of approach requires that we be open-minded. As much as possible we need to put aside our boredom and cynicism. We might need to go a little further afield than our own backyards and flowerbeds! More than anything, we need to be willing to experiment and explore. This will mean different things to different people.

The American poet, Gary Snyder, suggests that one way to intimately familiarize yourself with your surroundings is explore them on all fours, crawling on hands and knees through the forest. This is truly a sensory, or sensual, experience of the land—feeling it and smelling it up close, seeing the wilderness from a smaller animal’s perspective. The Canadian poet Tim Lilburn writes of lying prostrate under trees in the prairie wind as an exercise in sensuality, as a meditative practice. Lilburn’s provocative question—”How to be here?”— invites explorers and writers to delve ever deeper into all kinds of wilderness.

These writers are not the first to remind us of how to approach nature. Henry David Thoreau’s pond, Matsuo Basho’s frog jumping into it—these visions are still dynamic, alive. Such vibrant natural images might be recorded for posterity, frozen onto a page or a screen, but that does not mean that we should leave them as we found them.

The 8th century Chinese poet Han Shan and the clouds over his mountain wrote one another into existence. If we believe this, then it’s important to realize that all these hundreds of years later, Han Shan and the clouds still haven’t stopped writing. Returning both our language and ourselves to the land might be nothing less than an act of faith.

How to be here

What is your question? Do you have the time or the space to think of your own? Do you have the energy to seek out an answer? Never mind crawling on the forest floor: can you learn to make a meal from the plants you find there? Don’t stop at lying down under the trees: spend the night! These breezy dreams and green breakfasts can become poetry, should be poetry, uncooked and dark and itching with unfamiliar scents and sounds.

We need to be willing to believe that these might be the first poems we’ll ever write.

Kelly Shepherd

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.


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