Writing about the Natural: An Ecosystem of Thought
David Haskill begins his book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, with a discussion of the mandala. A mandala is a stunningly beautiful work of temporary sand art (also existing in other forms, like this image) that takes a circular form.
The finished creation is composed of “concentric rings of symbols and color, representing steps to the path of enlightenment” (Preface). Haskill takes this idea of the representative mandala and adopts it to watch a small mandala of woods in the Tennessee mountains for one year, to see what he can see and learn about that one small area of the woods, and then apply that to his larger ideas about nature. He states, ‘I believe that the forest’s ecological stories are all present in a mandala-sized area” (Preface).
In a similar fashion, I would like to consider how my writing over the past year – since returning to finish my undergraduate degree in English Literature at the age of thirty-five can be studied as a mandala. My aim is to connect the study of the process of creating this writing mandala to a larger ecosystem of thought regarding the environment and nature writing. I will chart my progress on the path to enlightenment that Haskill mentions as I journey through my final year of undergraduate school at the University of Georgia. Like Haskill, I too believe that a study of this last year’s writing has lead me to an understanding of my writing story as a whole.
I have chosen five examples of my writing to showcase my skills as a researcher, analyst, and my ability to work in many different genres and styles of writing – from academic research and opinion papers to environmental blog posts. I will draw from my process notes and remembrances to illustrate my insights, challenges, and triumphs along the way to becoming a better writer, and particularly a better writer of environmental literature. I will start with a brief description of each piece, and then do a short analysis of each piece in the portfolio to see what I learned about my mandala of nature writing.
This is an academic research essay that I wrote which focuses on Georgia author, Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A View of the Woods.” An interesting aspect of this project was the research I conducted to tie my opinion of O’Connor’s short story to a larger ecological criticism. I often begin with my own argument and thoughts on the piece, and then I begin researching the subject. I attempt to find both scholars who agree and disagree with my argument. I believe my argument shows powerfully in this essay. I use evidence and research to equate childlike innocence with a love for the natural, and experience with the machinations of progress.
This project was written earlier this past year and through the writing process, I learned for the first time that I was skilled at talking about nature and tying ecological concerns to my study of literature. The process of writing this paper was exciting and difficult. I found that the drafting process as the paper progressed was invaluable. I realized I had something important to say about this topic. I was still less confident in my abilities as a writer at the time this was written, but I can see in this piece after some time and reflection, that I really discovered the kind of writing I wanted to do. I see now that the projects I feel most passionate about always involve nature.
This project was inspired by the writings of William Bartram from the late 1700’s. He was on a very important royal survey team here in Georgia that was sent to survey the lands the Native Americans were the cede to the crown. I discoverd through my research that one of the iconic locations he describes is close to Athens, and that there is controversy regarding the exact location in modern times. I knew I wanted to take my own adventure and follow in Bartram’s and other researcher’s footsteps. The process of completing this presentation and script that I delivered before my class was life changing, and made me realize that I definitely wanted to write about nature, land, and the connections to history and writings from the past, whether they be fictional or not. I learned that I was really excited by this type of writing, and that it made me feel like a journalist who is looking to the past in order to make connections in the present. I also created the presentation, and took the photos and video so I learned how to integrate media into my writing, and I felt that it gained more resonance with this topic in particular because I was connecting images with my writing, which I have wanted to do since I was a child.
This piece was inspired again by my time in the mountains. This is an academic research paper that I wrote specifically because of my childhood memories of the shadows as they moved across the face of the mountains. Dillard discusses similar shadow movements and I felt an immediate connection. The paper was very specific and narrow in its focus, as my first paper for this class was way too broad and general. The professor suggested I focus more narrowly, and I learned how to do very close readings and in depth analysis. I surprised myself with this one, but again the connection to nature, and the Appalachian mountains in particular, are here and made this one of my favorite essays because I was able to dig deep and make connections in this essay that I never had before.
The final piece in this portfolio was created in my Writing About Writing class this semester. This is an entirely different genre of writing. It is a New York Times Draft style essay. This was created for a project that was open except that it must attempt to mimic a particular style and be about the craft of writing. I really enjoyed creating this piece as I look forward to actually having some of my work published in the future. This piece taught me to address who my audience is, and how I needed to write to accomplish a connection with my intended audience. The nature theme is everywhere in this piece, and I feel like it represents my evolution of writing. I learned to write in a new format and to understand the purpose of my writing in the world outside my academic sphere.
Like the sand art mandala, and Haskill’s Tennessee forest mandala, I see the beauty in my progress and in my writing now. I also understand that my part of the whole is connected to the world ecosystem of thought in so many ways I never imagined before returning to college. The connections I have discovered so far touch the realms of nature, art, history, culture, beauty, love, and joy. I am changed as a writer and a person by the connections I have made. I’m so glad I wrote them down, and then reflected on what I learned. Unlike the sand art mandala, my art will not be destroyed immediately after being created, but has a chance to make more interesting connections possible in the future.
Another link below to the 1st essay in the portfolio
an academic research paper that discusses Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A View of the Woods.”