Drawing Inspiration from Micronature
October 25, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
Nature: There’s inspiration for you. Everyone says so.
But what part of nature? The natural world writ large is too immense to tell me a story. White puffy clouds are too changeable, their reversion to gray disappointing. Tall firs are aloof, reliant on intimidation. I cannot be inspired by the fragile bowl of the sky; I cannot be inspired by something too mysteriously beautiful to understand. If I don’t understand it, how can I write it? I lose myself instead of finding myself. To be sure, losing one’s self is valuable sometimes, but for me, it rarely holds literary sway.
I consider instead the specificity of a dead fawn’s matchstick legs tangled on the roadside; of a turkey’s clucks and gobbles, tiny-brained invader of my driveway. I finger two greedy curls of wild grape vines, capturing nearby phlox an inch at a time. I go for the micro, not the macro. The variant, not the vista. I’m a sucker for wabi sabi, the beauty in nature’s imperfections, the smaller the flaw-containing object, the better.
When I’m walking the dirt road along the nature conservancy near my house in preparation for writing, I usually walk the same way, to the same place. I absorb the particularity of small changes along the route, substituting the question “What’s different?” for “What’s glorious?” I am as always amazed by nature’s editing process, the random-seeming aggregation of her sloppy mistakes with her happy accidents and her delicate precision.
Still, the question: Does nature inspire my writing? I know that nature does a poor job of inspiring me to write about nature. I once wrote about a rafter of turkeys; that piece garnered 21 rejections before it went back in the drawer. Micronature, on the other hand, does a great job of inspiring me to consider the hallowed value of detail.
Detail is the beat. Detail tells the story. Detail is more than what something or someone looks like.
Sound is a detail. The maddening insistence of a loon on the river channel inspires me to include the low, anguished cry of a widow in my description of her mourning, and to compare it to a loon.
Texture is a detail. A grouping of overgrown perennial grasses next to a neighbor’s house reminds me to describe the feeling of smooth legs brushing against the sharp edges of tall grasses.
Color is a detail. The beaten-in side of a small boat on the river helps me envision the precise color of red lipstick a clerk wore in Dollar General, the rust and creases in the metal reminding me that her mouth had a battered quality I need to describe.
Movement is a detail. The red-winged blackbirds that attack my feeder in late Spring have a single-minded way of dive-bombing from a tall hemlock to the feeder’s platform. I summon their urgency to describe someone rushing to the scene of an accident.
Smell is a detail. I have examples from the natural world, but the best example is from the world of spirits. It occurred while I was writing a memoirish essay about my mother. I happened to crack open a bottle of bourbon one night to accompany my efforts. Writing that evening about a formative time in my adolescence, I described my mother as smelling of bourbon and sleep, and knew it was right.
Whether these examples work for you or leave you cold, I urge you to consider how small details, even imperfections, in the natural world can be a fruitful place to begin your musings. Look down, not up. Holding something from your backyard in your hand may remind you how often small things lead us to bigger things. Micronature may cause you to register wonder at a manageable scale, jump-starting imagination and metaphorical thinking. And it may be that the small imperfections in nature assist us as we characterize the human imperfections that make our work true and convincing.
Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.