Writers look at things from both sides. From one side …
… then the magic that they do …
… then the crossing over. This is called empathy…
…then the other side.
Writing is hard work!
Writing fiction is clear. One needs character, plot, action, an inciting incident, a protagonist, an antagonist, and a conflict. But what about nonfiction? What about environmental writing? Sure, you can make yourself the character, and your tale of discovery the plot line, and your conflict with, say, other human interests in the land into the story, but is that really the story? More about people, when the land needs our attention? It’s a big topic, but here’s one small tip that might be of some help. To illustrate it, here’s an image of a choke cherry tree late in the season. We could write about the seasons, the cycle of birth and death, from flowering to rot and germination, or we could throw aside that story of documented human knowledge, stop trying to fit into it, and just look at the tree. It’s not talking about any of that.
It’s talking about gravity, or more specifically a story of gravity and light. The leaves reach up, the fruit reach shown. The leaves are bright. The fruit is dark. Sure, this seems like a medieval form of knowledge, but why shouldn’t it be? It was pushed aside for the great explosion of the scientific revolution, which means few have developed it since. That’s the story, though. And if you want a human angle, well, there’s lots of material in medieval documents, lots more in alternate spirituality documents, and a lot to be said about photography and the contemporary imagination. The actual documented science is just a tiny slice of what is available to you as a writer. It’s the easiest path, because it is so well-organized and documented, but it is also the one that will lead you most directly away from the earth, when the earth was your goal in the first place. Or maybe it was the sky?
You might want to talk about rain then, or maybe that cluster caught on the twig on the upper right, in between worlds.
What I love about this image is the way the large yellow plane of the leaf picks up the yellow from the asparagus ferns and breaks up the division of the image into two parts created by the vertical grass stalk in the centre of the image. Against it are three elements: the blurred yellow at the folded tip of the leaf, the deep blue of Wood Lake in behind, and the vertical brown leaf caught deeper in the grass. It is an image of a leaf at rest, or at least arrested in its fall, but the image itself is not a rest, except in its totality. The balance here is not the expected thing, however, the leaf caught on the ferns, but all elements, in union with all others. That’s how poetry is put together, too.
Cottonwood Leaf in Asparagus and Grass
Wood Lake, British Columbia, Canada
But, that’s not all. The image was made from a bench memorializing my friend, Harro Lange, who made a long journey from Latvia to British Columbia as a child after a war a lifetime ago, and spent his entire life trying to reassemble that lost world. The books he used for this task fill my writing studio now. It’s my task to deal with them. It’s Harro’s task to deal with the asparagus. That is also how poetry is put together. If you add one more element (the natural, the social, and …), such as a camera or a park bench, then you have a Haiku (the natural, the social, and the manufactured, breaking expectations.) Such poems are not things a poet writes. They are meditations that make poets. So, please, put down the device you’re reading this on and go out and sit, make yourself ready and then wait. No one ever wrote a poem in any other way.
Here’s a gloriosa daisy. We have words for it, but at the centre of the flower there are stamens rich with lemon-yellow pollen…we don’t have a name for that. What we have is a name (“pollen”) that the scientist Lynnaeus cooked up out of the Latin word for fine flour, or mill dust — an industrial waste product that blows around in the wind (“pollen”). Now, that’s just not good enough. “Dust” would be better. The German word, “Samen” or “seed” (in the sense of sperm), is at least accurate, but, really, we just don’t have a word for this stuff, in any general sense that expresses something other than 18th century technological thinking, and we don’t have one that expresses the spirit of it in any way. That’s where you come in. Over to you.
What trees think of words is not what words think of trees.
It’s not that words don’t think. They do. Through us. It’s not that trees don’t think. They do. Through being. No, I’m afraid that it’s us, the humans in this equation, who don’t think, or, rather, don’t think very well. In the above image, for example, the trees are considered the weeds. If you would like to freshen up your environmental writing, just turn that around. Don’t enter fantasy, or anything. That’s not the point, but let the trees be, and be with them. It is a way in which art and science can be one. It is one part of scientific understanding that is largely unexpressed in popular culture — largely because in school it is called art. Only you can say when it is time to stop going to school and to go to the trees. Likely, though, when you say it, it will be because you learned it from the trees. Why wait? Because of the words? Because of your smart phone? Is it, cough cough, really as smart as the trees above? If you don’t know the answer, go ask the trees.
Since an environment includes the observer, what you include in your writing is your point of view. A sailboat as a backdrop maybe?
Or a live-on diving barge?
It makes a big difference. Maybe you want to suggest other human possibilities? There’s the non-obtrusive look.
On a look like that, you can write any story you like, especially one that concentrates on physical elements. But maybe you like wildlife? Migrating birds maybe, seen from far up on the grassland hill?
Or maybe you notice something unexpected? Like this boat wake, and the difference between it and the image above?
Do you see how that works? Your content is your point of view. You can’t hide. Don’t.