On one of those glorious spring days of childhood, Michaela Fisher went out exploring. “I was riding my pony and my dog tagged along,” she recalled. “Suddenly my dog, Lilly, froze, and then darted off into the tall grass. My pony and I followed her, and came upon a fawn in the grass. She was so tiny, still full of spots, and totally still as we came upon her. Lilly didn't do anything to the fawn, and just watched. We were all mesmerized!”
Most dog owners have similar tales of surprise and discovery, of treasures unearthed at the end of a canine nose. I don’t have a dog, but I do have something else: the mentality of a writer.
For the past seven weeks, I’ve been teaching WRI 273, a Northland College course called “Writing the Environmental Essay.” The opportunity arose through a combination of serendipitous factors. Prof. Cynthia Belmont, who normally teaches the course, went on sabbatical. The pandemic meant that I was a little less busy at the Museum than normal, and that we were eager to find ways to reach new audiences. Social distancing measures meant that I had the option to teach the course entirely virtually—and skip many dark, winding, deer-filled drives to Ashland and back. Plus, being a Northland graduate who has now been writing an environmental essay every week for ten years made me uniquely qualified to teach this one topic. Right?
I think I learned as much as the students.
I’ve never taken an essay writing class myself; so when I started reading our textbooks to prepare for class, I had a constant stream of “ah ha” moments. In one handout, a chapter from Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerard, I read, “…and because they [writers] prowl the world with their eyes wide open and their ears pricked for sound, wherever they go interesting things are liable to happen.…captivated by the moment, they are also outside themselves, inventing the words they would use to describe…” You mean that I’m not the only one constantly looking for something I could turn into a story?
I put those quotes on a lecture slide for class, and I was still thinking about them last week as I walked home after visiting the swale of leafy liverworts. I knew I had some interesting photographs, but how could I turn those tiny weirdos into a story? What words would I use to describe their peculiar beauty, and how could I make them meaningful? The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook by Michelle Nijhuis says that essays must be “about the author and about the world.”
I ended up trying to show that the closer you look, the more you see, and there’s always more to see in nature. When I hold this idea up as a lens and look out at the landscape, I find a world that is chock full of life. I feel less alone. I may never know whether or not my readers caught that intention. But maybe if they did, we’ll all feel less alone.
As I read farther in the text, Nijhuis began talking about the external journey and the internal journey, and how the best essays weave them together. This was an idea I’d never thought out explicitly, but as I read, I felt a kinship with this other writer and I felt the hazy thoughts in my own brain coming smack into focus. Yes! That’s exactly what I was doing when I wrote about leaf miners several years ago.
In an essay that became a chapter called “Growing Up Before My Eyes,” in my second book, I found a maple leaf with a funny squiqqle through it, and shared the parallel journeys of the leaf miner larva who made the squiggle, and my own process of deciphering the natural history of the critter, ending with the image of a cheek-pinching grandma. As another text advised, I try to bring my readers “physically—and emotionally—into the landscape” with me.
It wasn’t just the textbooks that illuminated and expanded on my own nebulous thoughts about writing. Class discussions brought enlightenment and connection, too. As the students commented on the readings, or provided feedback on their classmates’ writing, I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement, astounded at how well they were putting these communal thoughts into words. Nodding, that is, until some idea would catch me off guard, and I’d cock my head and try to see the world in a new way, often laughing as my perspective tilted wildly.
This happened with an essay about dogs, a topic I know little about. When I commented that writing about extinct breeds of dogs was “esoteric,” another student (whose earlier essay had included her beloved dog), wrote in the chat “It’s dogs. Least esoteric ever.” I laughed out loud and remembered the words of another student: “I write because I love the phrase, ‘I haven't thought about it like that.’"
As it turns out, there are many ways to discover new perspectives on the world. Teaching this class was one way. Michaela followed the nose of her furry friend. Or I could walk around with a mentality I now know is that of a writer: eyes wide open, looking for new life in the weeds, and inventing the words to describe it.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com to receive free shipping!
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.