Tag Archives: nature writing

A brief introduction to the Peircean semiotic, Part 1

Some more academic work, but rather basic. There are a lot of introductions to Charles S. Peirce’s sign theory out there, but I had to do one of my own in order to have some raw material to support points I’m making elsewhere. So you get the benefit of it if you so desire! Peircean semiotic has been a very important theoretical undergirding for my approach to composition, and in particular my approach to teaching science and nature writing, but I haven’t had much opportunity until recently to start demonstrating where and how. It was very trendy in the academy not that long ago, and still may be, but I no longer pay any attention to what is or isn’t. In any case, the engagement then was rather superficial, and the usefulness of his theory has hardly been scratched.

Let’s begin.

Semiotic, or semiotics, or even semiology, is the study of signs in communication. The differences in the name indicate the different inheritances and legacies of theoretical traditions, the later two deriving from the major Francophone legacies, those represented by Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure. I’ll be describing the basics of Peirce’s model of how signs function, and so prefer his term, semiotic.

I am chiefly indebted for my understanding and application of the sign theory specifically to the following two works:

John K. Sheriff. The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

Floyd Merrell. Pierce, Signs, and Meaning. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.

Also, in many respects this one:

Karl-Otto Apel. Charles Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism. John Michael Krois, trans. Highland, NJ: Humanities, 1996.

The key thing in the Peircean model is to remember to think of things in threes. Peirce was a Kantian at heart, and a formal architectonic system that would use some basic formal relations to describe all human experience was always his goal. Through introspection, systematic analysis, and extensive reworking and revision of his basic model, he arrived at three irreducible formal categories for the functions of the sign and three corresponding phenomenological categories for the process and experience of signification.

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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.

Introduction:

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.

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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.

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Wildflower report: May

On the bulletin board above my desk, I pin up lines from favorite poems as reminders. One card has these lines from Gary Snyder’s “For the Children”:

Stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Snyder here is imagining life as a difficult hike up and down hills (“the steep climb / of everything”), and the advice is meant to carry the next generation through to until they, we, reach that easy pasture “in the next century / or the one beyond that” – or, in other words, always and always ahead of us. It’s a lovely metaphor, life as a somewhat dangerous hike through the wild: a reminder not to let those in your group, howsoever you determine that group, get separated and lost, nor to go off on your own without their support; to be observant and respectful of your immediate environment, even to the smallest and least consequential element; to be alert to beauty; to not overburden yourself, as it is the journey that is the thing, not whatever you drag along with you. And I’ve always treated it as a metaphor, and not as literal. I do not, honestly, know the flowers.

And now the flowers are everywhere. Last month I decided that I would familiarize myself with the flowers, and to do that I would document them by photographing them. The process of documenting them has become rigorous and even obsessive, as I’m determined to record every kind of flower I can find in the fields. Eventually I imagine I’ll want to identify them, but that’s slow and tentative work, and flowers last only so long. For now, it’s enough for me that I’ve documented them.

So I started even before the trees fully unfurled their leaves, when days were still a little cool and damp, mostly, and that is when wildflowers were suddenly blossoming everywhere. The fields and woods are hardly fixed, even within each season, and even within each month, so every day must present an entirely new mixture of buds and blossoms. There are many I missed before I started, and there are many that have blossomed and disappeared in the ensuing intervals between walks. Some plants seem to blossom all summer, and some only for a few days.

So a part of my unfolding obsession is to document them as a progression – month by month for now, with the recognition that this will be a project that takes up a couple years, because not only did I entirely miss some of my favorites, like the blossoms of the locust, which I caught just putting out its leaves only a few weeks ago, and a towering purple flower that resembles wild phlox, but I’m also not entirely successful in capturing the images. My equipment, a digital point-and-shoot equipped with a macro lens, has its limitations, but even more limited are my capabilities as a photographer. A number of times I’ve been unable to get a decent picture and have been unable to find the flower again.

locust

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Miscellany

I’m preparing two essays, one brief and another longer, on religion, knowledge, and contemporary society. Plus, I’m due to post an update on the job search. Meanwhile, as I’m continually threatening to violate the spirit and form of a blog with my long even if somewhat spontaneous ruminations, here’s a few small things.

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The big snow; the loss of two of the outbuildings

So there was this big snow right before Christmas. December 19. It was lovely. Well over a foot fell in this part of New Jersey, and apparently much, much deeper over at the shore. The last storm this big was already now, what, three years ago? It’s been my impression that New Jersey winters are much less snowy than when I first moved up here. With climate change very much a concern for those who accumulate weather data, you would think that changes in annual snowfall would be something to keep track of – certainly it leaves a major impression on us laypeople. So I thought I’d take a look and see if there was data in easy reach about changes in snowfall over the past few decades. And while a warming global climate might lead one to expect that there will be less snow, certain areas, of which the Northeast is one, are predicted to see an increase in precipitation, which could mean more snow, right?

No. It’s less snow. Although the mean temperature increase for the area over the past century has been 1.8° F, which I believe is pretty much on track with global mean increases, the winter season in the Northeast saw an increase of 2.8°. More precipitation isn’t going to mean more snow if it’s not cold enough. I wasn’t able to get much specific data on New Jersey, but the Climate Change New England people include New Jersey in their regional studies, and those roughly indicate a loss here of around 5″ annual snowfall from the 1970s, when annual snowfall totals began to be recorded on a systematic basis. The loss in New Jersey is not as marked as areas such as the Adirondacks that are getting 40″ to 60″ less snow now. The Northeast region overall is experiencing 16 days fewer of snow on the ground over the winter since 1970, lake ice is melting a week earlier than a century ago, and our beloved lilacs are blooming four days earlier than in 1965.

So we enjoy it when we got it right? Well, it’s not going away anytime soon, if it ever disappears at all, but it seems likely that there’ll be a telling difference in how much of our winters remain snow-covered as the years roll by. It was not so much the loss of snow on my mind the day after the snow fell, though, but the pending loss of some of the remnants of the farm’s glory days. As part of the condition of the sale of the undeveloped land and the fields to the open space consortium, the property manager’s cottage and the tractor shed and bullpen near it were to be torn down. I grabbed a camera, stuffed my jeans into my boot-tops, and headed out.

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the farm is sold; long live the farm

The 100-plus acre farm on which we live has been for sale for some time. It’s a huge chunk of land, and the restrictions on subdivision for this area are quite strict. Land cannot be subdivided into lots smaller than 13 acres, so it’s not the kind of parcel to move quickly on the market, and certainly not in the current real estate climate. The owners were hoping either someone would buy up the entire property for a horse farm or as an estate property, in which case we and the other farm tenants would likely be eventually turned out to the street, or that they’d be able to sell enough to open space that they could keep and maintain the main house and the barn and cottage apartments in which the tenants live. The latter is what has come to pass, with the official transfer of the fields and the woods to happen with the new year. A lucky break for the owners, and for us.

The unlucky ones were the family that had taken over the late property manager’s cottage a ways back in the woods. That house stands on the property that will be open space, and so it has to come down as a condition of the sale. The late property manager, who had lived there for somewhere around fifteen years, was very well liked around here. To be true, his duties as property manager were a little murky, as I can’t recall him concerning himself with anything to do with the apartments – but then, no one has: out here we largely take care of ourselves, and have the bill sent to the landlord if it concerns things like furnaces that are likely to outlive our tenancy.

What he did do, other than, or so he claimed, arrange for our dumpster rental, is run the hunt club. The hunt club paid an annual rent for the privilege, which was not inconsiderable. The property manager was a local guy and lived his life entirely for two things, lonely old women and hunting. He knew how to work the system. Because it’s a private farm, he and his friends were able to secure permits that enabled them to hunt around the clock and throughout the year. As he let on to us, there was some hedging going on as to what and was not a legitimate kill: infrequent pickups with camper shells would drive by late on the way down to his cottage, and he would later let on that some contraband trophy had been brought from elsewhere to be tagged here.

In any case, while hunting did continue more or less throughout the year, the tenants had pretty much unimpeded access to the fields and woods in the warmer months, and in colder months, when the pace of the hunting increased throughout the official hunting season, we knew to check and see if anyone had come down to hunt before heading out, though we could fairly well assume that we shouldn’t venture in the wilds during the day midwinter. The hunt club nominally continued following the death of the property manager, but the amount of hunting and the number of hunters declined. Oddly enough, this didn’t translate to increased access to the fields and undeveloped acreage, since the decrease in hunting activity meant an increase in the unpredictability of its timing, and, truth be told, the family that took over the empty cottage, and ostensibly some of the duties of management, made it evident that they were not particularly interested in socializing with the other tenants, and so we we simply did not know what was going on out there. Over the past few years, the fields in winter had become practically inaccessible.

That family is gone, and so has the hunt club, and so, for the first time ever, we have largely unimpeded access to the woods and fields year round. The first day of regular season the farmer showed up with his son to hunt, but other than that, this winter the woods belong, so to speak, to the tenants. So last month we decided to exercise the privilege  and headed off along the farm road.
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