Continuing Education

Wild Words: Exploring a Nature Writer's Lexicon

Instructor Mary Oak will tell you the act of writing is about building a relationship. It’s a process in which the writer seeks to establish a healthy rapport with their subject and entice it to grow. In Oak’s upcoming course in Nature ImageWriting, students can look forward to courting the natural world through their work while giving it room to bloom.

As a nature lover herself, Oak has found that joining her fascination of the natural world with her writing process has offered a deeper sensitivity that has only enhanced her creative process. “I see time and again that in our fast-moving world, people benefit from slowing down and paying attention to a tree or a flower or the sky or a creek,” she says. “It feeds them in a different way than writing about their lives or ideas or making up stories do. In that regard writing with a focus on nature could be called ‘writing beyond the desk’. The summer is the perfect time to be outside and do this!”

Not surprising, the list of writers who’ve inspired Oak in the area of nature writing is lengthy. “I am fortunate to have studied with Terry Tempest Williams and David Abrams and their work is a deep source of inspiration to me,” she says.  “What I learned from them about being present to our sensuous interconnection to nature serves as my foundation.  Their writing articulates a sense of deep attention as do many others: Alison Deming, Barbara Hurd, Barry Lopez, Scott Russell Sanders, Robert Michael Pyle, Sharman Apt Russell, Annie Dillard, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, David James Duncan, Brian Doyle, Kathleen Raine, Pattiann Rogers, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Nancy Willard and Jane Hirschfield. I draw on these writers and more, although obviously I will have to make selections from these since it is only a four-week class.”

Writing can have any number of approaches, from prose to poetry, however Oak says students will not be subjected to stylistic pigeonholing in her class. “As a teacher, I hope to encourage each writer in whatever approach is Imagecomfortable to them,” she says. “It’s good to get a sense of how the different forms each have their own gifts and limitations. In this class, we’ll work on expanding the lexicon to give writers the right words to truly express what they witness.”

In encouraging the development of the nature writer’s lexicon, Oak says she will put emphasis on student journaling. “Nature journaling is a first step that can lead into poetry or a lyrical approach to prose: the poetic essay. At the same time if someone wants to write a more objectively scientific piece, that’s okay with me too.”

When exploring the beauty of nature, from its gentler aspects to its more aggressive, a writer’s interpretation of the natural world may swing like a pendulum between unabashed reality and lyrical reflection. “We’ll be exploring objectivity and subjectivity in our observations and discuss how to find the right balance between these extremes,” says Oak. “I also encourage students to research the subject they are writing about to bring in depth and reveal their fascination. This can be through scientific facts but can also extends to folklore. Both add a dimension of fascination.”

For her part, Oak says she has always found her personal exploration of nature writing particularly exhilarating. “(I enjoy) the sense of wonder that is evoked by paying attention in a deep way to what David Abram calls ‘the more-Imagethan-human world’. The way one can identify with an aspect of nature: a cedar tree, robin or a stone, and find their voice flowing out through words onto the page.”

Nature Writing will be an exciting new path for writers and will place a greater emphasis on process than product. “I hope students will be inspired by the examples we read together and that the class will open a sense of connection and appreciation,” says Oak. “I hope they feel a sense of belonging in the world and the way words can flow to express that.”

Learn more about Nature Writing.

Photo credit #1: Shannon Kinney_cc_2.0
Photo credit #2: Emma Larkins_cc_2.0
Photo credit #3: Cody Badger_cc_2.0