Two views

On Saturday, A (not her real initial) and I went walking at the Minute Man National Historical Park in Lincoln, MA, sketchbooks in hand. Although both A and I were looking at the same pastoral landscape, our views are slightly different: A drew in pen and captured the architectural nuances of the Captain William Smith house, and I used a mechanical pencil to capture the larger landscape with its stone wall, fringe of forest, and scrubby burdock.

Neither sketch captures the afternoon’s brisk temperature, the smattering of raindrops that pelted the page as we began to draw, the red-tailed hawk that zoomed past as we stood motionless, or the steady parade of families with toddlers, baby strollers, and inquisitive dogs that passed us. Regardless of which drawing you prefer, either one offers more warmth and personality than a pixel-perfect photograph of the same scene.

Captain William Smith House


Yesterday morning, instead of writing in my journal, I did a quick scribble-sketch of my neighbor’s raggedy forsythia shrub, which I see from my kitchen table every morning I’m in Keene. It’s a scene I’ve sketched before, something I contemplate as part of my morning routine. Last week, I watched and sketched juncos flitting in this same forsythia, black and white birds illuminated by the harsh light of a monochromatic winter afternoon. Yesterday, though, was different: the morning light glimmered with a golden sheen, the forsythia looked like a clumpy cloud clotted with last weekend’s snow, and the heaps of snow clogging my yard glittered, crystalline. The scene was the same, but the light was different. Last week, the light was white, and yesterday, it gleamed golden, a subtle shift marking the earth’s gradual turn into spring.

Cedar waxwings

Yesterday afternoon was clear, with temperatures in the mid-thirties, so I took both of my first-year writing classes outside to walk and sketch along the Ashuelot River, as I have in the past. One of the benefits of requiring my writing students to keep nature journals is the excuse it gives us to walk outside on nice days, and yesterday was as good a day as any for walking: sunny and cold, but with the hope of spring.

On our way back to our classroom, my 2:00 class and I watched a single cedar waxwing, separated from his flock, foraging in a crabapple tree next to a dumpster behind the Student Center. I was the first to spot the bird, which was unusually low, close, and blithely oblivious to our presence, concentrating on the withered fruit he was gleaning. “Why are you guys looking at a dumpster,” a dawdling student asked as he caught up to the group, and then he saw what we were looking at. “Hey, he has yellow on his tail, and red on his wings!” Yes. My students didn’t know the name “cedar waxwing,” but they could recognize the details that make this bird different from the usual sparrows and crows they see around campus, a bird whose belly gleamed golden in a season of grit and gray.

I later heard the flock that lone waxwing had wandered from, just a few trees away: close enough for even a dawdling bird to catch up with his group. Today, I spotted a small flock of waxwings–the same group of nomads, or their neighbors–in a tree along Marlboro Street: the source of that second photo.

"Pastiche" stencil on campus bus stop shelter

Last Thursday afternoon was sunny, so after my Thinking and Writing students had spent about an hour working on the next draft of their semester-long research projects, we took our nature journals and headed toward athletic fields where the home team plays.

"Pastiche" stencil with shadow self-portrait

We’d read in Henry David Thoreau’s 1851 journal that he had heard great-horned owls calling this time of year, and the Keene State athletic fields aren’t far from the rail-trail where I’ve seen barred owls. We didn’t hear any owls in the slanting light of a late November afternoon, but we did see several crows, a pair of flitting juncos, and evidence of beavers.

My teaching colleagues and I have been talking a lot lately about outcome-based pedagogy, which is the practice of designing assignments and assessments focused on the intellectual end result you want to encourage. There was no official pedagogical outcome I tried to achieve in taking my students on a walk on Thursday: we walked because the weather was nice and the practice of keeping a nature journal gave us an excuse. Without an official outcome, we walked with no expectation of assessment: no, this sunny November day won’t be on the test, and there’s no quantifiable way of determining whether Taking a Walk has a measurable impact on a first-year student’s Thinking and Writing skills. In the absence of officially empirical evidence, however, I still believe that walking is good for writing and that being bipedal is good for the soul.

Nature journal-in-the-making

Last Thursday afternoon, I took my first-year writing students outside to draw in their nature journals. It was sunny and mild, and I gave them a choice of two tasks: either draw clouds or draw the lilac tree that sprawls in front of Parker Hall. It’s an exercise in seeing as much as drawing: once you stop and look, what do you see? I think looking is addictive, or at least I hope it is. What I want instill in my students, if they get anything from this class, is an inquisitive spirit that looks, notices, and wonders.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

This cultivated habit of noticing is a theme running through this entire course, “Thinking & Writing: The Art of Natural History.” It’s what Robert Sullivan does in his rat alley, it’s what both Henry David Thoreau and Clare Walker Leslie do in their journals, and it’s what I urge my students to do in their semester-long projects. Pick a topic that truly interests you and spend a semester investigating it from every conceivable angle. Really look at it, deeply and and repeatedly, noticing its nuance and details over time. Read about your topic, think about your topic, and talk to others about your topic: get to know it first-hand and up-close, in a way none of the rest of us do. Become our resident expert in the minute details of your topic and its intersection with your life.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

It’s a foreign concept to many of my students, this invitation to explore their own life deeply. When my students learn the first day of class they they have a 15- to 20-page paper to write, they immediately think of distant, well-publicized topics that they reason will will be easy to research because so much has already been said about them. Surely for a long research project, they think, they should pick a big and grandiose topic: serial killers or the death penalty or Global Warming with a capital G and W. These are Big Topics, ones that garner attention, headlines, and entire shelves in bookstores and libraries: the Brad and Angelina of research topics. With so much attention being paid to these types of topics, my students think, writing a long research paper will be easy, like a big scavenger hunt: just go out, find the “facts,” and bring them back.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

My students don’t yet know–they don’t yet believe me, really, when I say it–that this is not the kind of research topic I’m looking for. I hesitate, in fact, to call this project a “research paper,” because that mere term causes my students to click into a familiar mode of producing out of sheer habit Whatever Worked In High School.

Veterans' Memorial

The long project is an exercise in investigating a topic close to home, like the rats that ran down an alley in Robert Sullivan’s own city. It needn’t be spectacular; in fact, the best topics are usually the most obscure ones, the ones that Only This Student deeply loves and is genuinely interested in. In asking my students to be intellectually curious, I’m actually asking them to take a deep and genuine interest in their own lives. I’m asking them to show up on a partly cloudy day in the shade of a sprawling tree and capture what they see.

Once again, I’m asking my first-year writing students to keep weekly nature journals as described in Clare Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal: an assignment designed to complement the kind of observation and intellectual inquiry their semester-long writing project demands.

The three journal entries illustrating today’s post come from my own nature journal: three separate entries from three separate Septembers. You can read more about the philosophy behind my “Art of Natural History” class–and you can see another September nature journal entry–in this post from 2006. Enjoy!