Nature Writing Workshop Recap

River of Golden Aspen, Colorado

We’re taking this week to post the Nature Writing Workshop from the 2018 WWW conference given by Evelyn Hess and Janice Kirk. It was presented the Saturday of the conference, but due to the WWW business meeting, the workshop was a bit rushed for both presenters and attendees. There was a large amount of information that wasn’t covered, and the presenters wanted to be sure this information was available (and it’s great to have on the blog for posterity anyway!)

(Please note all artwork in this blog post was created by Janice Kirk).

Nature Writing Workshop Part 1 {Janice E. Kirk}

Because our schedule was rushed, and also because several people who planned to come weren’t able to make it, we offer text of our WWW Nature Writing Workshop as it was intended to proceed.

Pull out your notebook:We begin with a brief writing exercise: Jot down your earliest memory about nature and the outdoors. Think back to the early years. Where were you and what were you doing when you noticed something about nature—grass under barefeet, wading in the creek, a bird, sunset colors, etc? When you have a memory or two, stop and think about how this may have started a thread that wove through your life. Is there a lifeline of connection between that four–year–old experience and the present? Do you still notice such things? After you reflect on this and make notes, don’t throw this away. You can use it and build on it.

Blue Lake inlet canoe 001The Need: The need for nature writing is great. The natural world is facing ruin, and the human population has little experience with nature. Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder”. “Nature Deficit Disorder” is real— a travesty for children; a handicap for adults. It reflects the real gap in ground level knowledge. We need to rebuild our connection to the natural world

Question:Our question for you is this: can you, will you help put nature back into everyday experience? Everyday language? The good news is that publishers are looking for good nature writing. It’s a trend.

Readers are looking for it, libraries are searching for nature material, teachers are too.

Writers can touch the heart with settings, metaphors, style, phrasing, symbols, images, etc. Writers can help re–establish sensibilities that used to be held in common. We called it Common Sense, the basic ground level truths about earth, air, fire, water, and ether. It’s not so common anymore since we have switched from a rural to an urban population.

Why do we tell stories? Let’s stop and reflect. To entertain or inspire, of course, but also to build readiness. We can nudge readers toward receptive insight. Some folks can’t take the news that we are responsible for pollution, toxic wells, waste, smog, deforestation, fisheries depletion, you name it . . .  An insightful writer can prepare them with a story, a parable, a poem, or an essay. A good example is Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, where a young woman trapped in an early and unfulfilling marriage gets caught up with the event of the Monarch Butterfly migration and the whirl of change it brings to herself and her family.

blue-lake-marsh-conifer-wildflowers-003.jpgSurviving for all of us depends on how well we understand four Fundamental Laws of Nature:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else.
  2. Everything must go somewhere.
  3. Natural systems know best.
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

It’s urgent that we explain that to city–folk. We are talking about SURVIVAL. Truly.

Handicap: A new category has been recognized in human development: Emerging Adults, a Neverland between teen years and becoming adults. Ages from 18—32 or more! This age group is slower to mature, and they are handicapped in the Real World, the great outdoors. Talk to a university professor. They know. The younger audience is dumbed down. No experience. No interest. Too many are totally distracted pushing buttons. If you know anyone like this, take them for a walk or a hike, and leave the I–phones at home.

On the other hand: Millennials are taking up environmental battles. They want to be involved in real ways with hands–on projects, marches, voting, etc. Hurray!

Field Experience: Getting outdoors is your best source of information. Experience with nature is basic truth; reality; understanding the ways of earth, air, fire, water, and ether. The key is observation.This is where art and science begin, taking note of what you see, hear, smell, feel, sense, and name in the outdoors. Sensory perception is a first step in learning. This is the most basic research you can do, and it is your primary source: you saw it, you felt it, you were there. No one can argue with that.

Blue Lake beaver lodge lily pads pelican 002I suggest starting a Nature Sketchbook/Journal. Pick up a small drawing pad, 6×9″ or so, one that will slip into your daypack with a pen that flows easily or an HB or No. 2 drawing pencil, a simple sharpener, and a white eraser. Make quick drawings, don’t worry about expertise, you will get better as you go along. Also jot down weather, sounds, location, phrases, poems, animal sightings, and more. I include several sketches as examples on the back of the Handout.

Skills will develop over time, and the more you look and listen, the more you will see.

Start where you are, the backyard or neighborhood park, or journey to a state park or other natural site. You will gain a naturalist’s vocabulary: rain shadow? geology terms? cirrus clouds? (Have you seen The Cloud Collector’s Guidebookby Gavin Pretor–Pinney? Cool.). On your walks you will gain facts. You will gain descriptive images, phrases for poetry. However, when you go to use them I caution you not to use too many images at once. Give the reader a moment to savor those images and perhaps picture them in their inner art galleries. As you continue sketching and journaling, you will begin to notice Nature’s Ways and learn how to get along outdoors. You will feel like you belong.

Research/Resources:We are using John A. Murray’s book: Writing About Nature (Univ. of New Mexico Press: 2003), an excellent guide for learning about this craft. He uses an extensive assortment of books on his Reference Shelf. Take a look. Wow. Does this expand your thinking?

Add to his list the National Park Service websites with online helps of bird lists, geology, history, animal lists, plant lists, etc. Google Maps to check roads, locations, and topography. Old time naturalists are worth delving into. They often have additional information on animal behavior.

Whatever you do, be accurate. The fact police are out there.

Inspiration: Remember the beauty! Tell us about the wonders of creation: stunning vistas, beauty at hand, sense of mystery, the sense of something more, small miracles in the details, amazing life forms, delicate mechanisms, ingenious systems, and all interrelated.

Planet Earth operates in a magnificent dynamic equilibrium, with built–in checks and balances. Much is out of balance right now. Is it too late? The clock is ticking.

Writers: Please help connect us to the REAL world, the natural world. Reveal to us the extraordinary that you find in the ordinary.


Nature Writing Workshop Part 2 {Evelyn Hess}

We begin the second half of the workshop with a five-minute free write to describe a nature-based observation on your way to the conference. Thanks. We’ll re-visit this later.

When some folks think of nature writing, they think of Wild Kingdom or Steve Irwin’s Crocodile Hunter, or perhaps the life cycle and behavior of ravens. Then of course they feel intimidated if they don’t have a science PhD. But that would be like thinking you couldn’t write about breathing or thinking unless you were a pulmonologist or neurologist. In fact, we each are part of nature and nature is part of us. Whatever we are writing, from history to mystery, will connect more quickly with readers if it has a sensitive grounding in the natural world.

That sensitive grounding requires attention to detail, which profits from practice. Try a regular discipline of ten to thirty minutes a day outside in the natural world. Dress for the weather. Bring your journal and pen or pencil. Do not bring your to-do list, either on paper or on your mind. Do not bring your inner critic. Do not bring your phone. Find your perfect place, be comfortable and Be There. Date your journal entry.

Sit quietly. Disengage your left brain. Open all of your senses to your surroundings. How does the air feel in your hair, on your skin? What is the smell of the earth when it’s cold, when it’s wet, when the sun warms it? What do you hear in the wind, the dry leaves, birdsong, neighbor children? Keep it real.  Record information picked up by your senses.

Don’t worry about how you will use what you record. Don’t worry about memorable prose or even complete sentences. Do record specific sensual detail. Janice (and John Muir Laws, introduced to us by a workshop attendee) sketch  what they are seeing. I do too if it’s something I want to ID later and need detail more graphic than my words allow, but usually, words are my medium. Absorb, record, then give yourself a moment for gratitude.

Getting well acquainted with the natural world requires attention and immersion. Connecting to your heart and to those of your readers necessitates reflection. Your regular practice of sensitive experiencing and journaling demands that first part: attention. At the same time that attention gives you the tools for nature writing, it benefits your brain by building new synapses, and benefits your psyche, giving you therapeutic respite from the news of the day.

Immersion, by repeat visits to the same place at different times of day, different weather, different seasons, connects you to a place. It becomes yours and you become part of it. We only love what we know. We protect what we love. As we invite readers to experience our place, we can inspire them to protect their own places. The Earth, our source of life and renewal, needs our love and care. And attention and immersion can build the setting for any kind of writing, from memoir or kids’ story to romance or revolutionary manifesto.

Though the muse may visit while your senses soak in your surroundings, reflection often happens when you get back to your desk, or go for a walk, or lie in bed at night. What you have experienced in the natural world triggers something personal. You remember something, or learn something or imagine or feel something. The descriptions you’ve recorded are from “outside.” Reflection is from “inside.” It is the “so what” of the experience, the meaning, and can become the seed of a story.

The South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission lists four kind of truth: Forensic, Personal, Community (or societal) and Healing truths. Those have many parallels in writing. As we journal using pure senses without an interfering left brain, we are recording the forensic truth: the who, what, where and when of the experience, which is then fortified by immersion. As we begin to reflect, we find the personal truth, and when we tell our stories, they often become community truths. Think of the horror, fear, humiliation and loss felt by the South Africans, who, on telling their stories and hearing those of others, found a greater truth. From that community truth, they were able to move from personal pain to see original causes, and therefore where to look for healing. The conclusions of our stories often only hint at the healing truth, letting our readers develop it more in their own minds, but that hint will come only after developing those truths in our own minds.

End of workshop prompt and take home assignment if desired: Look at both of your free writes: Jan’s beginning prompt (your earliest memory from the natural world) and the one you did about a nature-related observation on your way to the conference. See if you can pick up a thread. What do they have in common? Do your observations strike a personal chord, trigger a memory, a feeling, a comparison, a revelation or question to explore? Make a note and put it aside for future development.

Happy journaling! Enjoy tuning up those senses and giving voice to the natural world.


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