Untangling Environmental Stories

September 20, 2019 § 1 Comment

Ana Maria Spagna Craft PhotoIn the craft essay from our new issue, Ana Maria Spagna explains how the complicated threads of environmental stories can be untangled by embracing contradictions. She acknowledges that tackling these vital stories is a challenge and hopes her contradictory lessons will compel more creative writers to explore this theme.

Here’s an excerpt:

So often what draws me to environmental stories is the sheer energy of people fighting on the fringes, exploring solutions, working with shovels and saws, with computers and maps, with megaphones and musical instruments. Super heroes proliferate on the big screen, in the realm of so-called make-believe. They also surround us every day: sheep shearers, oyster farmers, citizen scientists, teachers, students, writers. Always writers.

Read the rest in our latest issue.


A Review of Scott Freeman’s Saving Tarboo Creek

March 16, 2018 § 1 Comment

tarboo downloadBy Tucker Coombe

When Scott and Susan Freeman purchased an eighteen-acre parcel of land in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2004, they could see that decades of logging and unsuccessful farming had taken their toll. The landscape was riddled with noxious, invasive plants––thorny stands of Himalayan and Eurasian blackberry, mats of reed canary grass, and tall swaths of horsetail and thistle. Tarboo Creek, the once-robust salmon stream that flowed through the property, “looked like an open wound.”

In Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land (Timber Press), Freeman describes how he and his family, as part of an intensive, community-wide effort, restore the waterway and surrounding lands. A local excavator sculpts a shallow, meandering stream, then drops old trees in strategic locations to create pools for the fish. Several inches of gravel are sprinkled onto the bottom of the stream bed. Banks are seeded and covered in hay. Finally, water is diverted to its new home. Over the next decade, more than 10,000 native shrubs and trees are planted in the surrounding floodplain and abandoned pasture.

Freeman teaches biology at the University of Washington. His wife, Susan, provides the book’s delightful, pen-and-ink illustrations and is the granddaughter of Aldo Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most important conservation thinkers and author of A Sand County Almanac (1949), the groundbreaking book that advocated for moral responsibility toward the land. The Freemans are, in short, part of a multi-generational family steeped in ecological awareness and land-restoration expertise.

Freeman is a close observer of the natural world, and his descriptions are lyrical and compelling. When salmon return to Tarboo Creek for spawning, they “arrive a fire-engine red and bristling with vigor but are dead in less than two weeks. The females beat the skin and muscle right off of their tails as they dig a nest for their eggs.”

And who knew about nurse logs—fallen tree trunks whose rich, rotting structure serves as an ideal growing site for a new generation of trees? “Once an old tree has been down for a decade or two,” he writes, “it’s common to see a row of four-foot-tall hemlock or cedar saplings lined up along its back, like schoolchildren waiting for the bell.” Freeman also depicts a family that’s deeply connected to the rhythms of the land. On spring nights, Scott and Susan can gauge the warmth of their pond simply by listening to the tree frogs. And it’s not unusual, on an autumn afternoon, for several children to sit shoulder-to-shoulder along the stream bank, watching a female salmon dig her nest and naming the males that hover nearby.

But Saving Tarboo Creek is not simply a happy tale of ecological restoration. Freeman’s superb chapter on salmon includes a grim history of the animal’s near-extirpation. A lovely description of tree-planting morphs into a stark chronicling of global deforestation––followed by sober discussions of climate change, human overpopulation, and an impending mass extinction. “Biological and cultural evolution has now put human beings in a position of immense power relative to other species, and we can be destroyers or stewards,” he writes.

Freeman dedicates this book to the young men and women––his father-in-law, Carl Leopold, among them––who saved the world from tyranny during World War II, and also to the high school and college students of today: it’s your turn, he says, to step up and save the world.

But just how does he propose doing this? Rather than providing thoughtful, practical suggestions, Freeman preaches against what he sees as a “poverty of values” in our society––a focus on consumerism that leaves us unhappy, unhealthy, and out of touch with the natural world. And in trying to illustrate just how out of whack we’ve become––fretting about how many Americans take medication for depression, or alter their appearance through plastic surgery––he goes too far. Freeman risks not only sounding sanctimonious, but alienating those whom he will need to enlist if he hopes to turn the tide on environmental issues. (The fight to save the world needs everyone––even those who’ve had a little nip and tuck.)

I finished this book wanting more information. What does Freeman recommend to readers who are anxious to join the battle, but have no idea where to start? And for those living in high-rise apartment buildings––more likely to line a windowsill with potted ferns than purchase a piece of land––what useful steps does he suggest?

Saving Tarboo Creek shows us a remarkable slice of the natural world. I only wish it offered more advice on saving it.

Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Hairpin, and can be found at tuckercoombe.com.


A Review of J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature

January 30, 2017 § 6 Comments

the_home_place_overlayBy Amy Wright

“There are still priceless places,” J. Drew Lanham says, “where nature hangs on by tooth, talon, and tendril.” And there remain rare breeds of humans who fall in love with a land darkened by the blood and sweat of ancestors purchased to work it.

Google a list of nature writers and a band of such similar skin tones scrolls across the screen you might be viewing a steadily receding ice cap. I recognized the bias reading Thoreau, Muir, Abbey, Wilson, Dillard, etc. but did not probe the roots of that particular privilege, which itself suggests privilege. My love of nature stems from growing up on a farm that has been in my family for at least six generations, so I hadn’t appreciated before reading The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature that legacy could also dissuade a sense of connection. “Conservation is simply a longer word for care,” Lanham says in an interview, but our ability to care corresponds with hope of seeing our affection requited. For many in the South, where Lanham grew up and still lives, “thousands of people can’t afford a square foot of the soil that their ancestors paid for with their lives.”

This love affair with nature is a complex one, addressed to an audience accustomed to misinformation and wary of idyllic depictions, but also in need of new models of care particularly from brown and black folks like his father. A teacher, as is Lanham’s mother, James Hoover Lanham farmed their seven acres in Edgefield, South Carolina, in his spare time to feed their family and supplement their income. Like many men of his generation, “Big Chief” expressed love more often through toil than touch. Clearing brush and stream, fixing fence and roof, his hard labor brightened the blood and filled the lungs of their home place. Young Drew watched his broad-shouldered exemplar “in bone-shivering awe as he worked through the discomfort of wet and cold without complaint.” A dimensional character as likely to recite the epic poem Beowulf as point out geological specimens of feldspar, mica, and quartz, Hoover clearly influences Lanham toward his career as an ornithologist, wildlife ecologist, and professor at Clemson University.

But his widowed grandmother, Mamatha, may be what makes Lanham the scientist he is—capable not only of publishing in peer-reviewed research journals but also of being moved by “the perfume of place: the pleasant mustiness of decaying leaves on a Blue Ridge forest floor, the sulfur stink of a Beaufort mudflat at low tide, the drunken sweetness of an orchard in October.”

Sent at age four to provide Mamatha with company in her ramshackle behind their family’s house, young Lanham grew up in her “tin-roofed, broomstraw-swept, rusting, rural, wood-fired world.” Born in 1896—one generation removed from slavery—Mamatha, “straddled nine decades and all of the history and social evolution that came along with them.” The perfect narrative device for bringing to life the cultural landscape that fledged a black birder, her character helps illustrate his unlikely calling. Plus, with her religious superstitions and knowledge of medicinal herbs, she is a fascinating personality, “a conjurer with a foot in two dimensions—this world and the spirit one.”

Lanham finds more canonical models at school, including Aldo Leopold. Fans of Sand County Almanac will appreciate its influence on Lanham’s descriptive prose:

Loblolly is a fast grower that stretches tall and mostly straight in forests that have been touched occasionally by fire and saw. In open stands, where the widely spaced trees can grow with broom sedge and Indian grass waving underneath, bobwhite quail, Bachman’s sparrows, and a bevy of other wildlife to call home. But where flames and forestry have been excluded, spindly trees fight with one another for sun and soil and will grow thick like the hair on a dog’s back.

But giving voice to place is particularly important to those who have long been dispossessed, Lanham says, since it yields a critical sense of self-purpose and belonging.

Through his observations of loblollies and church sermons, vireos and southerners, Lanham provides another model, harvesting affection for a place that is not always receptive to it. His writing style fosters integration by drawing together the narratives of slavery and conservation and the languages of science and literature. The Home Place thus supports a promising shift in an age-old dialogue increasingly aware of diversity’s role in propagating holistic communities and resilient ecosystems.

Amy Wright is the author of the poetry collections Everything in the Universe, and Cracker Sonnetsas well as five chapbooks, including the prose collection Wherever the Land Is. With William Wright she co-authored Creeks of the Upper South, a lyric reflection on the connection between waterways and cultural habitats.

A Review of Patrice Vecchione’s Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life

April 6, 2016 § 2 Comments

vecchBy Amy Wright

Patrice Vecchione has experience prompting writers, whether university students, community members, or elementary school students. Over the years, though, she has noticed a shifting relationship among them to the imagination. Individuals who used to respond to going outside to look at the clouds with descriptions of “elephants parading, a dragon biting its own tail, a tall man singing to a crowd” now look up and are quiet. When someone finally says, “Clouds, Miss Patrice. I see the clouds,” she questions whether the part of their brain that fancies and ideates is getting enough exercise.

I ordered her latest title, Step into Nature, after hearing her interview on radio station KKUP about conserving a wildlife habitat at Ford Ord National Monument. Having overlooked the book’s subtitle, Nurturing Imagination in Spirit in Everyday Life, I was surprised by its motivational tone. I was snowed in when it arrived; otherwise, I may not have let her offer encouragement I didn’t know I needed. A child of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I have long called on nature as a source of inspiration and strength, but of late diminishing species and weather extremes have worried my relationship to the outdoors. It was helpful, then, to find her descriptions of raptors and tumbleweed paired with sentiments like “art-making itself is a refusal to be plowed under by doubt.”

From the future of the Great Barrier Reef to the endangered Lignum vitae, or tree of life, Vecchione knows few are willing to protect species and habitats until they personally recognize their value. She touches briefly on her backstory in this volume, but nature helped her recover from a painful relationship with an alcoholic mother, which she elaborates in the poetry collection The Knot Untied (Palanquin Press, 2013).

Vecchione’s initial reluctance as a nature-goer, who began in her in her thirties to find woods and parks as invigorating as museums, fosters associations for others. She lays the groundwork for adult wonder when a flicker “with her loud, single-note kreer call” sounds like laughter above.  She bridges the intimacy of her solitary walks with passages from writers like Federico García Lorca, Gary Soto, and Anaïs Nin.

Although novice or out-of-practice nature-goers are the better audience, there are passages for experienced nature lovers too. Many times I have cupped my ears to distinguish the trill of wrens from warblers, but I had never discerned, as naturalist Paul McFarland has, the distinct notes that sound from the hemlocks or firs that house them. The “longer the needle, the lower pitch the song,” he says in a passage Vecchione cites about wind song. In another section, hail breaks so cleanly from its cloud it stings one side of the trail she is on while leaving the other side untouched, reminding those accustomed to venturing outside of the constant potential for surprise.

An advocate for the trails she walks, Vecchione values her privilege to live within ten minutes of a large protected open space. She wanders farther afield from Jacks Peak Park to prickly-pear cactus and redwood canyons, but this recreation area grounds her insights into the artistic process. The author of Writing and the Spiritual Life and two poetry books, she directs much of the book toward writers afflicted with self-doubt. “Art is optimistic,” Vecchione says. Encouraging others to listen to the quiet of those cochlea-like fiddleheads as well as the “silence before a thunderstorm,” she points out. “Not only can people be silenced by others; sadly, we can do it to ourselves as well.”

A force for greater self-acceptance, she calls attention to art that, like nature, incorporates imperfection. Japanese ceramicists, for example, mend broken pots with seams of gold in celebration of wabi sabi, or “a sensibility that an artist brings to her work that accepts loneliness and invisibility, as well as imperfection and transcendence, and allows them to manifest like shards of lightning.”

Peppered with writing prompts and questions, this book best leads readers to close it and head outside. To open it though is to awaken an urge. Whether one has grown, as she was in her twenties, “numb to the craving,” for a relationship with the earth, or if one has never wandered it, as Henry David Thoreau prized, Vecchione calls readers to tend this crucial freedom to the creative process while spaces remain preserved for it.


Amy Wright is the author of Everything in the Universe and Cracker Sonnets, both forthcoming in 2016. She is also the nonfiction editor of Zone 3 Press, coordinator of creative writing and associate professor at Austin Peay State University, and author of four poetry chapbooks. Her first prose chapbook, Wherever the Land Is, is scheduled for release this spring.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with nature writing at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: