after mowing

It is the nature of academic conferences that you have lots of “Gee-whiz, let me write that down” insights…but those “a-ha moments” that sit you bolt-upright in your seat are rarer and more precious.

This morning, at the very end of the Q&A portion of Orion Magazine’s plenary panel on “The New, New Environmental Writing” featuring David Gessner, Ginger Strand, and Jordan Fisher Smith, Ginger Strand make a remark that brought into crystal-clear focus what I’ve been trying to do for the past three-plus years on Hoarded Ordinaries. In noting what’s good about the “old” nature writing of a writer like Henry David Thoreau, Strand said it was his “sustained attention” to lived experience: his life, the world around him, his ever-active mind.


It was that phrase “sustained attention” that zinged me like a lightening bolt…and that phrase also resonated with a Keene State colleague who sat next to me during this morning’s plenary panel. If my sometimes-personal blogging about place isn’t about sustained attention, I don’t know what it’s about.

On Saturday morning, I’m participating in a session titled “Grass Roots, Web Logs, and Virtual Moss? An Ecocritical Look at Blogging.” The presentation title I’d proposed is “The Personal Is Ecological: Locating the Self in Place-based Weblogs,” and I’ve been struggling all week with what to say on Saturday. What I want to talk about is the way that many so-called place-bloggers actually focus as much on so-called “personal” matters as they do on so-called “environmental” ones: in my mind, the line between “nature writing” and “personal writing” is hopelessly blurred on blogs such as mine, and I consider that a good thing.

new bloom

What I’ve been struggling with, though, is with finding language to explain why I think it’s a good thing to blend “the personal” with “the environmental.” In my vague grappling toward articulation, I’ve reasoned that habitats consist of particular places combined with communities of interconnected creatures, so blogs that ground a specific person in a particular place are “ecological” in depicting these interconnections. But until Ginger Strand uttered the worlds “sustained attention,” I didn’t have a narrative “hook” to hang my intellectual “hat” upon.


Like several of the participants in today’s Orion Magazine panel (most memorably David Gessner, who addresses this very issue in his book Sick of Nature), I resist the “nature writer” mantle. Yes, I mention birds, trees, and other natural things here…but I show just as many pictures of pick-up trucks, graffiti-covered walls, and other human-made objects. In selecting a masthead image for this newly formated version of Hoarded Ordinaries, in fact, I intentionally chose one with bricks. Yes, there’s some leafy green foliage at the top of my new blog-home, but the leafy-green left is juxtaposed against a brick red right. Here’s the place, ladies and gentlemen, where “nature” meets “culture” and “place” is something “personal.”

tight bud

As David Gessner listed the kinds of things he wishes he could see more of in so-called “nature writing”–references to booze, shit, and machines, written by people who have real-world jobs and aren’t “white guys from Harvard”–I kept thinking of the place-bloggers I read and know: folks with whom I’ve actually drank and shot the shit. The “New, New Environmental Writing”–prose that breaks free of the “gentle strait-jacket of genre” that Gessner decries–is being written and read…it just isn’t necessarily found in the “quiet magazines” that Gessner claims to be so sick of. “We’re here,” I wanted to shout from the back of Wofford College’s Leonard Auditorium, “but we aren’t writing and publishing in the places you’re looking!” Panelist Jordan Fisher Smith pinpointed the precise reason why conventionally published nature writing–the stuff you read in books and quiet magazines–is so homogenous: as a product sold primarily to urban audiences, nature writing is marketed as “epiphanies from pretty places,” and much of what place-bloggers such as Dave and Beth and Fred are offering isn’t always pretty or neatly epiphanic.

I find it hugely ironic that the name of the journal Gessner founded, Ecotone, is the same as the now-defunct place-bloggers wiki were I first found my feet as an online writer. There already is a community of “new, new voices” who are writing and publishing genre-defying nature writing…we just tend to fly under the conventional market radar. Because we deliver our writing straight to our audiences without the middle-men of journals, agents, book publishers, and the like, we can push the usual generic boundaries, offering “nature writing” that is sometimes pretty, sometimes dirty, and always personal. What remains constant, regardless of what we call the writing on our blogs, is the process of how we produce it. Whether I’m blogging a conference in South Carolina or the graffiti-covered factories in my neighborhood back in New Hampshire, what I do when I sit down to write is try to pay Sustained Attention to where I am.

    UPDATE: A two-part podcast of this morning’s plenary panel is posted here and here. Enjoy!