Jack Collom

An Ecosystem of Writing Ideas

Part I.

For ten consecutive years I've offered a course called Jonathan Kane, Composition with MelonsEco-Lit (Ecology Literature) at Naropa University. It's part of the Writing & Poetics Department but also welcomes other Naropa students and local citizens at large.

In Eco-Lit I strive to suggest far more than we can thoroughly cover. To be expansive. We use a 400-pp. coursebook as well as many supplements (especially now that nature writing is gathering steam and becoming more isolated "cries in the wilderness"). Such an overload of input, I think, may be confusing at first but eventually settles into intelligibility—sometimes long past the end of the course.

We read and discuss (as literature, as nature representation) poems and essays by recognized luminaries of the field. Thoreau and after—Muir, Carson, Leopold, Silko, Snyder, Abbey, Lopez, Ehrlich, Griffin, Eisely, Dillard, Jeffers, et al.—we also go back in time to Boethius, Nashe, Gilbert White—around the world to Issa, Coyote and Jataka Tales, Orpingalik the Eskimo songmaker, //kábbo the Bushman and many others. Beyond these "nature-people," we seek the eco-lit sense in fine poets of any subject matter—feeling that a good poem, in being intensely relational within itself, is an ecosystem whatever it's nominally about, and feeling that writers of scope inevitably include, are included in, nature. We seek that sense, too, in such happy miscellany as comic strips, diaries, songs, lists, letters, slang, politics, slogans, definitions, fables, rebuses, jokes and science jargon. We touch on perhaps the greatest nature book, Melville's Moby Dick.

We're looking for a strong variety of form, in our readings and writings, to stimulate the generation of new, medley-oriented paradigms, to keep up with—and even help lead—the profound and rapid changes going on in humanity's knowledge of and attitudes toward nature. In my view, the word "nature" is peculiarly and extremely misunderstood by most of us. It's seen as something pretty one might sniff in passing, or as bothersome floods—in any case, as secondary to the world and culture of Homo Sapiens. As something, in fact, we're busy replacing with pavement, hydroponics, genetic engineering, tree farms, zoos and animation, virtual waterways, etc. Something—beyond our faint praise—boring, nondynamic, poscardy, too dumb for double entendre.

In truth (yes, it still exists), nature is, importantly, everything. It gains flavor from its subsidiary meanings: beauty, wildness, basis-of-life and all their specifics. It gains poignancy through its contradictions. It's the big matrix; we're a few dots not only in it but of it. The "of" is what we forget. "Of" is identity of processes. Recognizing "of" is the springboard of love, without which there's only destruction of ourselves and others. It's time, and past time, for us to transcend our species' solipsism, to roll out affect as as far as we roll effect. The Jackson Pollock remark, "I am nature," still has the ring of an outrageous cry. But it's just an overdue recognition.

The word "ecology" means literally knowledge of the house. Intimate relationships. In the sense that our house is now the entire world, the study of ecology has come to be a comprehensive study of the relational—the main point about Earth's life is that there is no main point, rather a ramification, the spreading interdependence of all things. Energy and significance seem to live in the dynamics that pass between the different things more than in the things themselves. Each year, more and more scientific studies increase the leading-edge sense of the primacy of context in, well, everything; animal communication, for one small but pervasive example, simple mechanistic yelps noted in the heydey of Behaviorism. What's growing is an ecosystem emphasis, and I try to bring that very sense to the literature, in the widest and yet most penetrating ways.

Students are encouraged to contribute favorite writers, variant viewpoints, new facts. The more the merrier; I'd rather we struggle with bewilderment than oversimplify the possible links between writing and nature.

In addition to our varied classwork, we go on a couple fieldtrips per semester, simply nature walks in the mountains or plains, and write in an out-of-doors setting. Typically and inevitably, the settings include lacings and heaps of people-generated stuff; in this and other ways we learn that no separation between nature and humanity is possible! At the end of the semester we assemble a class anthology, each student contributing a given number of pages. Many (not all) of the included pieces reflect assignments made; they come from in-class (extemporaneous) or out-of-class writings. Following is an "Illustrated Lecture" from those anthologies (keep in mind that these are writing students, mostly new to nature as a subject).

© by Jack Collom

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