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Richard Louv, Nature Writing, and Camp Kooch-i-ching
The idea of this blog evolved over a series of lunches with Hugh and Alice last year. My friendship with Hugh goes back to the mid-seventies when we attended Camp Kooch-i-ching. When I heard that he and Alice had moved to Music City, I was tickled. It has been great connecting with him after a thirty-five year hiatus. Has it been that long?
During one of our first lunches, I mentioned that he read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods because I knew Hugh would be talking to a lot of prospective parents, and I thought Louv presented a persuasive and erudite argument for getting children outside. In Nashville I have seen independent schools establish a plethora of sports camps in an effort to maximize the use of their facilities and to bring in a stream of income. And ironically I have seen less children playing outside. In his book Louv reminds us of a series of trends that has changed the nature of childhood in the last fifteen years. Gone are the days when you could ride your bike a few miles away from your home. Rarely do you see pick-up basketballs games in the neighborhood. And for breaking rules in “gated-communities,” children and their parents can face draconian consequences.
When I began my teaching career in the mid-eighties, the hot book of the times in education was The Hurried Child by David Elkind who argued that our children’s time was overscheduled and over-planned. He also asserted that if children did not have leisure time to “create their own fun” they would then have difficulty developing critical thinking skills, exercising their imaginations, and polishing their problem-solving skills. When I look back over my career, I would have to say that this situation has not improved at all. In fact, it has gotten much worse.
Over one lunch at Kalamatas, a Mediterranean restaurant in Music City, I told Hugh and Alice I was teaching a freshman composition course at Lipscomb University, and my department head had asked me to come up with a theme. I immediately thought of the genre of nature writing , and my primary text was going to be Louv’s book. The non-fiction essays that are a part of this genre provide so many examples of good writing: Thoreau’s Walden, Annie Dillard’ s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitare, Gretel Erhlich’s Solace of Open Spaces.
I first became interested in American Nature Writing when John Elder, a co-editor with Robert Finch on the Norton Anthology of Nature Writing spoke at my graduation from the Bread Loaf School of English. To this day, I regret the fact that I never got to take a course from Dr. Elder. I would see him on the Bread Loaf campus enthusiastically conferring with his students, and I heard stories of his “class campouts and journal writing activities.” After his graduation speech, I bought the Norton Anthology of Nature Writing the next day.
The next spring I ate dinner with a professional photographer who lived in Sante Fe, New Mexico who said I just had to read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. Abbey, who is sometimes referred to as “Cactus Ed,” served in WW II, studied philosophy at the University of New Mexico and worked as a park ranger at Arches National Monument. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond or Annie Dillard on Pilgrim Mountain outside of Salem, Virginia, Abbey found himself alone in a unique landscape. In Desert Solitaire, he reveals an intimate knowledge of the Utah desert’s flora and fauna and writes with a thorough knowledge of the tradition that preceded him with a cantankerous, curmudgeonly voice, and an irreverent, and sometimes crude, sense of humor. I was hooked.
I also think it was my experience at Camp Kooch-i-ching that is the catalyst for my interest in this type of writing. I know that many of the lessons learned on canoe trips and activities on Deer Island were an integral part of my adolescence.
When I was a young boy, my father who was on Deer Island for one summer, would tuck me in bed saying, “Some day you are going to Camp Kooch-i-ching, and you’re going to find yourself with a canoe on your head. You’ll be carrying that baby across a portage, you will be sweating like a pig. Huge mosquitoes will be buzzing your ear…. And you’re going to love every minute of it.” A few years later, I found myself in that exact situation near Beaverhouse Lake, and he was right. I did love it.
A common denominator of the genre is a passionate love and intense curiosity concerning a particular place. Aldo Leopold focused his attention upon Sand County, Wisconsin, Gretel Erlich described the open spaces of Wyoming and
Barry Lopez eloquently describes the diversity of the Arctic wilderness.
John Elder, in the introduction of the Norton Anthology, said that nature writers are “the children of Linnaeus.” And it is through this desire to observe, notice and classify differences in nature out of which grew many of diverse impulses of this genre. In a future entry, I’ll share with you a taxonomy of nature writing.
Elder adds that “a constant theme of the nature essayists was the search for a lost pastoral haven, for a home in an inhospitable world.” Some writers attempt to provide their readers an antidote to industrialism and urbanization and an alternative to cold science. “ David McCullough, in his book Brave Companions, reminds his readers that Theodore Roosevelt’s mother and wife died on the same day. Not long afterwards we see him in the Badlands camping, hunting, and immersing himself in outdoor activities. In one sense, he is mourning the loss of his loved ones; in another sense he is reinventing himself.
In this genre another common motif is the element of play. Not only are these writers exploring and documenting these landscapes, but they are having fun in these environments. In Cry Wolf No More, Farley Mowat attempts to learn more about “the diet of wolves by devising his own recipe for Creamed Arctic Mouse” (Elder). And I think every reader of this blog can relate to this desire to play in a natural landscape.
I have vivid memories of taking a break during lunch to climb and jump off the cliffs that loomed over the Bloodvein River. I also remember catching fifty-five fish with three fishing rods in less than an hour after shooting a small rapids near the Savant River. And I remember the summer evenings sitting near a dying fire by the side of a lake, talking with my friends about the day’s events and about all of our girlfriends, only to be interrupted by a loon searching for his mate.
Good teachers ask good questions. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field, but I do love reading the writings that make up this genre. Many of you have probably have taken courses in this area, or you may have read many of the texts I have alluded to.
That’s great! Please feel free to share your ideas and thoughts. I’ll conclude with a reading list. I hope to learn a lot by writing this blog.
A Reading List
• The Norton Anthology of Nature Writing
by John Elder and Walden
• Desert Solitaire
• The Singing Wilderness
• A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
• Arctic Dreams
Leslie Marmon Silko
Terry Tempest Williams
• A Sand County Almanac
• The Solace of Open Places
• Travels in Alaska
• The Age of Missing Information
• The End of Nature
• Last Child in the Woods
• The Way of Ignorance
• Home Economics
• Black Elk Speaks
• The Log from the Sea of Cortez
• The Last American Man
• Into the Wild
• Silent Spring
Criticism and Commentary
• The Ecocriticism Reader
edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm
• Uncommon Ground
• The Machine in the Garden
• Wilderness and the American Mind
• Grizzley Man
• Cry Wolf No More
• Into the Wild
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On 16 Feb 2012 at 06:36 am -
- by Bobby
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