Three Ways to Encourage Nature Writing

One of the most rewarding aspects of my Moving Writers beat is hearing from other educators about how they encourage students to identify when they feel they are a part of Nature and not merely apart from it.  Despite receiving a constant barrage of information, or perhaps because of it, our information-glutted minds seem to forget this essential fact: We are Nature.  An important shift I’ve made in my own teaching practice relates to better understanding barriers to access to the outdoors and the need for environmental stewardship based on celebrating urban Nature – not just Nature imagined somewhere else as a pristine wilderness.  Drawing attention to the resources of sensory observation – focusing on what we know through hearing, touching, seeing, smelling and tasting – has helped me connect writing instruction with a joyful exploration of our planet home.

“Our Small Corner”

The first book I read this summer was Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist.  My students have expressed a desire to hear more voices from their own generation, so I was eager to take McAnulty’s book with me on a road trip and learn from his example.  In an August entry, he describes tuning in to the bird calls as he watches robins visit a bird feeder from a hammock:  “We all have a place in this world, our small corner.  And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion.  Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Downs, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock.”

Writing Start: What is our own small corner from which we can develop a habit of noticing?  What role does noticing play in our ability to form a sense of connection?

I love offering “writing starts” to students as a provocation to get the pen going.  I let them know I often cobble my own writing starts together to connect ideas into a brighter constellation.  When I introduce myself to a new group of students, I will tell them about my “small corner” – a habitat restoration area in the Angeles National Forest.  At one of the planting sites, I’ve been observing the growth of Asclepias fascicularis (narrowleaf milkweed).

Asclepias fascicularis (narrowleaf milkweed)

Even while denuded of flowers, I find the plant very beautiful, possibly because I am aware of its importance to the Monarch caterpillar.  Repeated visits to this spot have made me alert to even subtle changes to its appearance, stretching my vocabulary to pinpoint the differences I observe. In her book Poemcrazy, Susan Goldsmith Woolridge describes how her own strong gathering instincts have made her a collector of words.  While others may collect shells or stamps, she lists words in her journal, never knowing exactly when one might trigger a new poem.  To this end, she tosses them into a figurative “wordpool.”  I made my own wordpool based on my observations of Asclepias.

Knowing that it is a larval host plant for Monarch butterflies, I’ve been drawn to Asclepias.  Due to habitat loss and pesticide use, the western population of these butterflies that winters in California has declined by 99%.  My wordpool collection captures the jumble of associations that spring to mind whenever I approach this planting site, where an ecological restoration team heroically does passive restoration work – rebuilding the native plant community while passively eliminating invasive plants.

Writing Start: A “wordpool” is a wonderful visual representation for how words combine and swirl together.  Create a “wordpool” based on your small corner noticings.  Add, delete, and combine words to form a poem from your word collection.

The Invitation to Find Our Park

José González’s Encontrando Mi Parque: An Ambicultural Journey defies narrow categorization.  Personal narrative, place-based writing, and call to action combine to offer an invitation: we are invited to see ourselves in America’s open spaces.  His description of his initial encounters with Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, and Yosemite as a young person is an extended invitation: to feel welcome in places far from where we come and to associate the outdoors with recreation.  His journey into park advocacy is inextricably woven with his cultural journey from immigrant Mexicano to American Chicano.  Through reading statistics that reveal national park visitors do not reflect America’s diverse population, my students and I heard an implied call to action: to see what barriers to park equity exist in our own local contexts.

The issue of limited access to parks and green spaces is a concern explicitly brought up in González’s travel observations: “As I traveled to different national parks across the country, I began to couple the simple majesty and beauty of what I was seeing with the nuance and complexity of how those landscapes came to be.  And more and more I began to notice which communities were present at these temples of nature and which were not.”

Writing Start:  How does González’s invitation to “find our park” help us take a closer look at our own communities?  Help students undertake a “mapping” of their own community to investigate the presence of accessible green spaces. 

Writing Start: Invite your students to make a postcard illustration that celebrates their chosen park.  This can be accompanied by a “Wish You Were Here” message to their future self.

Revising First Impressions

Next school year, I plan to encourage my students to use the iNaturalist app for tracking their observations of the natural world.  I remember the delight I felt when I first saw other users confirm my plant identifications and add my shared images to scientific data repositories.  By comparing your uploaded image with images of the same organism uploaded by other users, you are given the opportunity to see it from new angles – how a plant displays new colors during its flowering season or how a lizard seemingly changes color prior to skin shedding.  The app mapping will display where observations have been recorded across the globe, providing insight into where a species is likely to flourish and where it is disappearing.

One day last winter, I was lucky to attend a plant identification training that helped me better understand what it means to live in a biodiversity hotspot.  Matthew Loftis, a Forest Aid Angeles Forest Coordinator, pointed out a small flowering plant, with five pink spoon-like petals.  I was charmed by its delicate appearance, even more so when Loftis explained that its dark red pollen had been the mysterious cause of bees appearing with red legs the previous year.  Not wanting to forget this diminutive beauty, I took a quick picture.  I was eager to learn more about this plant called Erodium cicutarium, which I assumed was native to this chaparral region.

   My uploaded Erodium cicutarium observation (left)

Once I uploaded the image and read more about Erodium, I realized that it was one of the major invasive plant “offenders” in the Angeles National Forest.  The workshop trainers explained that its aggressive growth and seed dispersal outcompeted native annual forbs for space.  I am eager to explore more ways I can embed iNaturalist as a layer of fact-checking as I learn more about forest flora and fauna in my “small corner” and model this practice for my students.

Writing Start: Identify an invasive plant that is frequently observed in your geographical region.  Upload an image of the plant to iNaturalist so other observers can confirm (or challenge) your identification and write a narrative of how the plant was introduced to your region.

-Xochitl

How do you encourage Nature writing in your classroom?  What texts offer models for close observation of the natural world?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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