Writing as a Naturalist

This post is rather academic, and also covers stuff I’ve already thrown up here. So I apologize in advance for being pedantic and repetitive. But I need to get this stuff consolidated and thrown up here as part of my process for getting some pedagogical concerns distilled into a longer article. I have some poetry and some field reports coming to leaven the atmosphere when I can get more time to write.


Every fall I teach an advanced composition class called “Writing as a Naturalist” that asks students to write from their direct, personal observation of natural phenomena. Broadly defined, a naturalist acquires experience and expertise in some facet of the natural world in order to educate and enlighten others about it, and while the title can apply to a specific position, say in the education department of a non-profit or governmental science or environmental organization, we use it quite loosely in the class to describe anyone with an interest or attachment in the natural world willing to make a case to a general readership for the importance and meaningfulness of that world. The basic requirement of the class is that the students each week spend a couple hours outside writing about what they observe. Certainly most of the students whom the class attracts enjoy being out-of-doors, and most are pursuing degrees in the natural or environmental sciences, but many of those who would not consider themselves outdoorsy, I think, find the basic requirement of the class at the least refreshingly different. The formal writing assignments are few and relatively simple in scope. The primary piece of work as a culmination of the personal observation of nature is a long essay, twelve to fifteen pages, on some specific aspect of the natural world that the student has observed over the course of the semester. In addition, the students produce two shorter essays, the first discussing some exemplary readings in nature writing and the second connecting the issues raised in those readings to the students’ own initial experiences in direct observation. The students do the writing component of the observations as a journal, and that field journal accounts for a relatively large percentage of the course grade, reflecting its practical centrality to the other writing assignments. The journal entries as a record of each student’s individual encounters with the natural phenomena in which they immerse themselves forms the raw material for the final long essay and much of the second shorter essay, and if the student has not spent a long time looking at and reflecting on something, that student will find little to write about.

University composition courses are generally based on a discursive model of composition, the notion that student writing – that writing itself – is primarily a dialogue with other texts. This discursive model forms the pedagogical methods and goals for composition courses: the students are exposed to texts to which they will in turn respond with their own. This makes my class a bit unique in the world of composition, since I am asking students to develop responses to observations of a tangible, concrete world. Of course, even when we’re talking about nature writing, we are still well within a discursive view of the writing process. My class, like other classes working from this pedagogical framework, situates student writers within an interpretive community whose members read and right to deliberate on ideas that matter to them, and in this fashion we lead students who have previously in their education viewed themselves as passive consumers of pre-existing knowledge to see themselves as engaged in and actively producing the knowledge the defines and drives those communities, in our case those who think and write about nature and the environment. To accomplish this, students read and write about texts that present ideas and arguments already in process, and they see how individual writes address certain topics and develop an argument that adds value and interest to certain ideas and concerns. In my specific example, in the earlier part of the semester we are reading seminal texts by Emerson and Thoreau as well as important contributions by figures such as Susan Fenimore Cooper and Sitting Bull, leading up to more recent contributions to the genre from writers like Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, or Wendell Berry. Students respond in turn to the arguments they encounter with arguments of their own. But where does one place raw observational data? How does one draw connections from personal experience of things about which one knows little to an on-going discourse of ideas?

To ask those questions in a different way, how does one make tangible the process by which new and previously unmediated details and events enter into ongoing discourses and literary traditions? That formulation is bound to raise objections, but I am not being philosophically naïve. It may be ridiculous to speak of wholly unmediated experience, but it is also important to agitate against a sclerotic notion that everything is always already contained by language. We have become so accustomed to the idea that there is not outside to the text that we forget it was meant originally as a provocation and should not be taken as a principle. When I ask students to make a regular habit of going outside to wait and watch for something interesting to observe, I am placing them deliberately beyond the margin of any page with which they are familiar. I expect them to do the work of placing that sensory data within an interpretive context, and I am asking them to formulate an argument about it. I am asking them to say something new, and not entirely about what they have read or what they have thought, but to a large extent about their personal, direct observation. So to repeat the question: how do we make tangible the way new experience enters into expression? The framework for my answer is largely adopted from the semiotic of Charles Sander Peirce. It would be easy enough for me to describe how I teach moving from direct observation to a full argument without relying on an explication of his ideas, and anyone interested in the practical dimensions of my pedagogy can easily benefit from what I am about to write without wrestling too deeply with his ideas. I will use him, though, because he makes an excellent framework for arranging the key elements of my assignments and methods, and not surprisingly, as it was the framework from which much of the course structure was developed. Peirce’s semiotic was developed in no small part to answer the very question about which the pedagogy for the class revolves: how do we write and talk about new experiences?

More on this coming soon. First up will be a discussion of the field journal!

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Field Report – Father’s Day, 2014

Nature and New Jersey may not be an easy association. One could write convincingly and well about nature living just about anywhere, though. The challenge of finding topics and finding them meaningful isn’t terrifically greater in an urban environment than a rural one, provided that one is looking for them as they present themselves.

But there is quite a bit of wilderness, or at least minimally managed nature, in New Jersey. The Pine Barrens of south Jersey remain one of the largest and most significant undeveloped areas along the East Coast, and the western portions of central and north Jersey along the Delaware River offer quite a bit of open space.

It’s a different experience, though, than natural areas in even other northeastern states. Excepting the Pine Barrens, both neighboring New York and Pennsylvania have much larger tracts of forest and the like. The most dramatically mountainous and possibly beautiful area in New Jersey, the Delaware Water Gap, offers some stupendous hikes, but on pleasant weekends in the summer there are so many people on the trails that it feels more like a social event than communing with the splendor of nature. I’ve seen a family of black bears there moving through the forest understory not thirty yards away while I was walking up a mountain trail with so many hikers in front and behind me that it more resembled a line for a ride at DisneyWorld than anything else.

Where I live, in the Delaware Valley of central New Jersey, there is ample parkland, and our previous house was quite surrounded by it. But as one of the agricultural centers of the colonial era and later, and even still, I imagine, a significant grower of garden vegetables, much of that parkland turns out to be smallish – several hundred acre – conjoined plots of old farmland. The result tends to be rather chaotic jumbles of different stages of reclamation and transition, plus a noisy understory of nonnative plants. But pleasant enough, and plentiful, and even on occasions a bit beautiful.

We were hiking in a gem of a tiny park this weekend. We were doing only a three-mile loop, but the day was a bit warm, and the boy, while at times a willing and hardy hiker, is only ten and tends to get fairly grumbly in the heat. It was our first time there, though it’s only twenty minutes from the house, because I think the trails were groomed for birders primarily and therefore not listed by two trail associations I depend upon for new area hikes. There was definitely a lot of bird racket coming from the bushes as we got out of the car and located the trailhead from the parking area. “See,” said my wife, “there are birds here.”  Yes, almost all catbirds and robins though. And that was just fine. Anyone expecting anything more exotic midday in June in a postage-stamp-sized park in central Jersey is bound to be disappointed.

The understory was filled with the usual grass, including a significant carpet of the Japanese stilt-grass that seems to be taking over every shady spot of forest in the state, wild raspberry, bindweed, and others. The trees along the walk alternated between groves of cedar and a mixture of poplars, hickories, and beeches in the older transitional areas. Ordinary and a bit confused, aesthetically speaking, but there was a moment when we crested a hill and began to descend into the oldest part of the hardwoods where the undergrowth was fairly sparse and the poplars and hickories had grown straight and tall. The ceiling of leaves was so far overhead that the catbirds’ chatter echoed and reverberated, and it added space and depth to their usual commotion. It was as if we’d entered their cathedral where their ordinary squeaks and burbles become elevated into a spare, democratic, sonorous hymn.

Uphill in the sun we found a typical tangle of Russian olive and honeysuckle, imported and aggressive bushes that are among the first to reclaim abandoned farmland. Earlier in the season the Russian olive’s blossoms produce a wonderful smell that’s unavoidable in the rural areas around here. It’s a beautiful bush, too, with leaves of a slightly paler green than others, and silvery undersides that can make for magical transformations when a breeze picks up and reveals them. But terribly invasive. My wife wants to plant the back line of our yard with them anyway: they’re deeply emblematic to us of many walks through old farmland over the past decade plus.

The Russian olive blossoms in late May, so its smell had already gone. Now it was the honeysuckle’s heavy perfume that dominated. As we passed a number of honeysuckle bushes close in on the trail, it came out that my son hadn’t learned how to get at the nectar, and my wife wasn’t too practiced at it either. We stopped, and I showed them how to pluck the blossom, pinch off the calyx at the back with the nails of the thumb and middle finger, and then extract the long white string of a style out the back of the blossom. Just as the stigma at the end of the style is about to emerge from the hole at the back of the blossom, it brings with it a tiny drop of sweet, fragrant nectar. That goes on your tongue.

“It tastes green,” my wife said. Perhaps. If green had a flavor for me, it might not be that sweet. Still, that’s what green does out here – turns sunlight into sugar. I told them to look for the slightly wilted blossoms, as their nectar is usually the sweetest. We stood there plucking blossoms and pulling out and tasting the nectar until we felt like moving on.

Getting the nectar is a small movement, and it brings a small drop of sweetness. The ordinary bulks so large in our lives, even out of doors. What pleasure it offers might best be found in these small excesses, whether practiced or unexpected. But to a hummingbird, moth, bee, or butterfly, what an entire continent of pleasure a honeysuckle bush must be.

I saw quite a lot of Little Wood Satyrs flying around. I don’t know whether they appreciate the nectar or not. I also took some pictures of a white, five-petaled flower that blossoms atop a straight medium-height stalk with simple leaves in paired opposites. The pictures didn’t turn out, and I couldn’t identify the flower in my field guides anyway.

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Non-Human Community

My department recently hosted a three-day Teaching with Technology seminar. I feel I’m already fairly plugged in enough that I have most of the skills involved in teaching using the Internet and social media, though sometimes I do need to be exposed to ideas why this might an area in which I’d want to increase my abilities. I have students in my Science Writing class write blogs over the course of the semester, with some mixed results, but by and large I’m a pen-and-paper kind of composition instructor. Part of it is practical: in a large state university, we’re not providing the students with laptops or tablets, and I can’t necessarily count on students having regular and unimpeded access to devices during class-time. I’m also hyper-vigilant about electronic technologies distracting students from the task at hand during the class, and flipping open a laptop screen reveals at times too many temptations to students, and too many distractions to other students seated behind them.

At the same time, I acknowledge and am a living example of how much actual writing going on in the world is occurring on-line, or at the very least, is occurring while a small stream of on-line information is being held at the ready. Even when writing about nature, I find I’ll have several browser tabs open with scientific or natural history information. I think it’s important to get students aware of and working with these tools in a way that strengthens their own arguments and develops a sense of writing as in part a community process.

So I came away with at the very least a renewed commitment to pushing my students more dramatically toward doing their work online, making the Internet part of the classroom rather than simply a distraction, and particularly my more advanced writing students. I’m still on the fence about whether to drop my usual writing journal requirement for my Writing as a Naturalist class in favor of a blog, as there are still so many advantages in getting students in the habit of taking in-the-field notes. Certainly I will make every effort to either get them to bring laptops or if that fails make machines available to them during class to do collaborative peer-editing on Google Docs, so that not only can I see what revision suggestions are for student drafts but I can also share the drafts with the class for discussion and further revision.

At one seminar meeting, we were asked to consider also how opening the classroom out into the Internet also means opening the class out into the immediate community, and to develop an assignment that reflects it. And in my Writing with a Naturalist class, there’s not much of an outside community that we’re working with so much as an outside world that sustains us all, so I thought I’d consider how getting students to take advantage of online resources and moving their writing work online might engage and affect that outside world, and indirectly or directly the other communities that support it. So I wrote a prompt for a blog post and I posted it on the seminar blog. I’m also reproducing it verbatim below, just to have it here, though you can also view it there.

The nature and content of the prompt below also raises additional questions for me and the class. How might you engage fledgling nature writers with larger issues of community and environment in ways that aren’t specifically environmental advocacy? Clearly that’s a paramount concern currently when we think about writing about nature, but it certainly doesn’t exhaust the purposes one might have in writing about it. Some, like purely aesthetic and spiritual approaches, I don’t find particularly effective as a focus in the classroom – and, sadly, I think I’m just about cured from ever teaching Annie Dillard again. Oh, the awful messes that result when students try to emulate her. So, anyway, what approaches or focuses other than preservation or conservation might be effective in getting students to think about larger contexts or audiences for writing about the natural world outside specific research and professional contexts?

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Is Buddhism really a religion?

What follows is an at times academic and at times personal essay on Buddhism as a religion versus philosophy. I had thought to be able to touch on all the points I wanted to in about 1000 words, but now find it’s run triple the length and still not quite plumbed all the key points fully. So it may not be of wide interest.

LOL. Because so much that I put up here has a wide, general interest. Enjoy:

The blog over at Tricycle has been featuring a series of posts by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. on “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism” that offer to dispel popularly held misconceptions of Buddhism through closer looks at the religion’s history and practice. I strongly recommend it. Previous posts in the ongoing series have looked at, for example, whether Buddhists are necessarily vegetarian or inherently pacifist, and I think the posts are going a long way to getting people to think beyond idealized and monumentalized notions of what Buddhism can and should be. And, after all, what could be more Buddhist than an effort to disenchant a beguiling illusion.

The most recent post addresses the idea that Buddhism is not a religion but a system of philosophy. There’s little doubt that this is a common misconception – I had several students this past semester write papers in no small part premised on the idea that the core of Buddhism is a system of claims about reality easily divorced from practice and tradition. They’re acting out of a deep ingrained point of view. Anyone who’s spent some time looking at scholarship on “Eastern” religions, for example, is aware of the tendency of Western scholars to attempt to salvage a pure and true philosophy from what gets seen as the flotsam of ritual, magical thinking, and superstition.  And it’s not just an academic trait but a larger cultural mode of thinking about religion in general.

Buswell and Lopez’s assert that Buddhism is indeed a religion by any definition, except if one were to narrowly define religion as focused about a belief in a creator god. Buddhism’s relative lack of interest in creation myths certainly distinguishes from other religions, and its founding principles deny the existence of any single omnipresent entity.  But what definition of religion do we then use to apply to Buddhism to see whether it fits? Buswell and Lopez in their post look simply for evidence of belief in miracles and magic, and descriptions of magical events in the legends and scriptural accounts of Buddhas and advanced spiritual adepts are quite evident. My favorite in the post is the reference to the eight sites of pilgrimage in Indian Buddhism, which includes Sravasti, “where the Buddha performed the ‘dual miracles’ (yamakapratiharya) to vanquish a rival group of yogins by flying into the air and releasing fire from his head and water from his feet, and vice versa.” Showing the prevalence of myth and superstition is easy enough, but Buswell and Lopez don’t explain why they have chosen this definition of religion and not any other.

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Spring responsibilities

I wasn’t even looking for warblers this season, but I saw a Chestnut-Sided Warbler in a cedar at the shore when I was on retreat. A jewel of a bird; about as exotic looking as little songbirds come around here. I was just standing on a deck, deep in thought, and there it was, in a branch about six feet from me. I also saw another warbler, something yellow, dark, and striped, but I didn’t get a close enough look at it to identify it. Magnolia, or Cape May, perhaps. I wasn’t out this season to look for warblers, and now the migration has largely passed me by.

Spring is becoming summer, and I feel once again like I haven’t fulfilled my obligations. Spring is a time of responsibility for me: the frogs crawl out of the muck and start chiming, insects and wildflowers appear, and birds begin moving up the coast. As soon as I notice things changing, I start telling myself that I need to get out the frog call and insect noise CDs to start learning to identify the sounds by ear. Get out in the woods and field with the binoculars and a notebook.This year, of course, I keep meaning to get back with learning the butterflies, and so I need a good field guide.  And a good net: I’ve learned I don’t always have the patience or stamina to stalk a butterfly long enough for me to see it as it lands on a nearby branch.

As I was out walking earlier today, the dogs ran by me in a spurt of enthusiasm – they are whippets, and run a lot, very fast, with much enthusiasm – and startled an orangey skipper before I could get close enough to note and commit its features to memory to look up later. Because I have the dogs, and because another form of responsibility insists that when I’m out walking I should make every effort to bring them along so they can get some exercise and some enjoyment, I’m not often walking with binoculars looking carefully for the warblers, and others, passing through. The dogs make a bit too much ruckus for real birdwatching. And the boy often comes with me, too, when he’s not in school, and he talks non-stop. So as I walk through the woods, I’m surrounded by a loose bubble of noise and commotion, which makes stopping for birds and bugs a little harder. It certainly doesn’t draw them too me any better.

But I’ve never really considered myself a birder, despite my deep and abiding fondness for birds, songbirds especially. I find the list approach off-putting, for one thing. And I know that committed birders have all kinds and varieties of lists, and they’re not giving each species a more-or-less fungible weight that once checked off absolves the birder from giving that species any further regard. I know this, but still the field-guide approach, the effort to see everything within a national range, and the completist impulse all unnerve me slightly. My focus has always been a bit more local: I love the birds because they are an expression of the place where I am. And quite literally an expression: the birds are the place made audible, its own speech of a sort. And the same with the flowers, the trees, and the frogs and others. The responsibility I feel is the obligation to know what’s right here with me and how it fits. And that of course is leaning rather hard on a necessary personal observation that I’ll just leave hanging for a bit.

I have some nicer thoughts about lists and birds plus insects that I hope to write about soon. I haven’t been doing much writing. I need to work harder to organize my working life so that I am doing the writing – another obligation I’m not living up to.

And here are some flowers. (As always, all flower identifications are provisional, subject to correction of my ignorance.)

Wild geranium. Lovely guys.

wild geranium

And leafy spurge. It’s an invasive, but I can’t deny its beauty.

leafy spurge - a bad guy

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Snake handler stuff

I haven’t seen the Nat’l Geographic show yet, but one of Snake Salvation‘s snake-handling Pentecostal ministers has died of a snakebite. He refused medical service after being bitten as part of the spiritual trial that is involved in the practice.

We tend to view snake handlers as fringe freaks, but it’s a fascinating subculture that seems to persist precisely because of its fringe nature and not entirely in spite of it. This Buzzfeed long form by Gemma de Choisy is excellent. I’m having my students read it this semester.

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Two links about religion

If you’re coming here for the nature stuff or the poetry, well, I’ll get back to that next week. I wanted to keep on the religion/secularism thing for one more post and throw up a couple links about religion and material culture – punningly literal material culture. I’m talking about clothes, son. I’m teaching a class on doing research in religion and secularism studies this semester, so it’s even more on my mind than usual.

First, this blog post by the Pew Research Center about a University of Michigan study about religion and secularism in primarily Middle-Eastern Muslim-majority countries drew a lot of attention, as it focused on social attitudes toward appropriate women’s dress as an index of secularism, Westernization, and Muslim identity. In particular, the infographic at the top of the post went massively viral.


It shows stylized portraits of six Muslim women from the head up in attire perceived as increasingly less restrictive, starting with the burqa and then moving toward an ultimately uncovered head and Western attire, and then gives the percentage of respondents from each country that selected that attire as the most appropriate dress for women in public. Some of the attention the graphic drew was satirical, some of it disapproving, but mostly it would seem the attention was due to the fascination with how Muslim women dress. (Hey, I retweeted it too.) Hence the disapproval, that Pew was playing into the Western obsession with Muslim women’s hair-covering, not to mention that the graphic abstracted women in the countries covered to a handful of caricatures.

I get the discomfort with the reduction of women’s presence to a sliding scale of clothing marked as increasingly foreign and weird, and I get the annoyance at how fascinated people seem to be with this aspect of culture in Islamic societies. But 1) I think a graphic like this helps give people a slightly better picture of the complexity of cultural expressions of and responses to female modesty in the Islamic world, and, 2) as the authors of the study point out, issues of women’s dress have been central to internal debates about the status of women and secularization for over a century. I think, too, though, that the study could have used some more sophisticated thinking about dress and religious identity that would have helped them move beyond the rather simple and Eurocentric contention that the question of dress unproblematically “also revolves around the question of individual choice, gender equality and a woman’s control over her own body and sexuality,” but it’s certainly true that those questions come up.

The benefit of a more nuanced approach can I think be seen in the interesting and unsurprising gender breakdown of responses in regards to dress. Men and women in each country were largely in agreement about appropriate attire, but differed considerably “on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).” That the Christian populations favor less restrictive clothing is also not surprising, and of course reflects economic and cultural situations and not exclusively religious. What does it mean, I would want the study to explore, that women can insist on having more control and more choice over their clothing, positions that could certainly be seen as reflecting secular values, but that their choices would still mesh with those seen as being more religious, or more traditional?

Second, what I would want it to be would to be more like this fascinating discussion of women’s clothing and religion by Laura Leibman over at Religion in American History that looks at nineteenth-century attitudes toward Judaism, the fraught intersection between whiteness and blackness at the time, and women’s clothing and fashion. I’ll let it stand on its own, and you should go read it in full. A couple things that struck me, though, in the context of the previous debate are the extent to which loose and disheveled clothing were used in art to indicate the non-white status of Jews, and the extent to which clothing that could be seen as stiffer and more restrictive could indicate the relatively freer and less black status of the wearer. That’s the entry into Leibman’s reading of the wedding portrait of a freed mixed-race daughter of a Jewish plantation owner and a slave that closes the post, which then goes on to highlight a number of representations of class and gender freedoms and restrictions in the subject’s tightly corseted attire that cannot be reduced, as she says, to “an assimilationist vs. devout model.”

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