Writing in Nature

The summer is very loud in the South. Various rhythms of cicadas, katydids, and bird songs take turns dominating the soundscape of day and night. I first observed these sounds as a graduate student in Nashville, Tennessee. I took many, many walks in my neighborhood to burn off all the energy that my studies otherwise kept me from. The sounds I heard during these walks left such an impression on me that I came to understand them as a signature of “home.” When I moved away from the South for a few years, my ears ached to hear these sounds again. Who knew that sounds of nature could influence me so much that I would eventually scale my job search to places that would bring me back to them?

Being out in nature during my education was a survival mechanism for me at that time, and for many years prior as well. I first felt appropriated to be in nature as a student when my first-year freshman seminar professor assigned us an Observing Nature Essay. We were asked to sit outside for 30-minutes, observe nature, and then write about what we learned. I never forgot the power of that assignment – it suggested to me that witnessing and reflecting in and on nature was an important part of one’s education. Further, the flexibility of the assignment to interpret the environment around me in a personally meaningful way seemed to suggest that my in-process thoughts could be valuable beyond right or wrong.

To which academic disciplines does such writing-in-nature belong? If we constrain such assignments to Writing or English courses alone, some students will never experience them because of their choice of major. Further, in such reading & writing-oriented disciplines, writing may be more subject to judgment in terms of writing quality, a shift in focus from the emboldened learning objectives above.

When I first became an astronomy faculty member, I decided that writing in and about nature belonged in astronomy. Earth is a planet. Earth is a marvelous place to live in the Universe – the only place we have witnessed life to date. Why wouldn’t I use an astronomy course to enable students to cultivate their always, already Earthen appreciation, wonder, and curiosity – scientific or otherwise – about the nature around them.

Header image: The forest surrounding the University of California Santa Cruz campus, in which I sat to complete my Observing Nature essay assignment in 2001.