How are contemporary writers writing about place, about the earth on which they live and from which they write and speak? How do they “map” familiar and unfamiliar places through their writings? How do different peoples around the Earth understand key concepts of grounded identity, the practices of living in place, origin myths of the land, and sustainable and ethical living? Essay as a verb, “to essay,” is to attempt, to try, to endeavor. It is a tentative gesture, one which might be understood as attempting understanding or scouting an unfamiliar place. In this class we will read and write about the Earth in all its manifestations—from the cold permafrost of the north to the land soaked by monsoon that creates mud, a wet, softer version of Earth—and explore our and others’ responsibilities to it. To take this class is to read, write, and be present in all the slurries of earth and water, belief and being, silt, responsibility, and the ethics of living in or on dirt, clay, and soil.
Taking as its starting point place-based writing in the United States—Pueblo sculptor Nora Noranjo Morse’s spiral earthwork “Numbe Whageh” (which refers to “the center place,” or “the place from which one breathes”); poet Gary Snyder’s vision of “what [place] means in a storied sense of myth, character, and presence,”—this course will move from a brief overview of place-based writing in the United States to a deeper consideration of the rich literary tradition in writing about the Earth across several countries in non fiction narrative, short stories, and poems about land, water, stars, and living among different primal places and cultural spaces. Our primary method of understanding the literature of the earth will be by reading and writing place-based narratives. We will read contemporary work saturated in local myths or connected to natural histories of place, paying attention to recurring themes about the right use of land and water, environmental concerns and stewardship, connections between humans and “the wild,” shifting locations and related shifts in identity, meaning, and myths, the relationships of place and body, and the spurious binary between culture and nature. We will explore the present and history of place and travel as they exist across several cultural traditions of literature about the Earth. In addition we ourselves will write in different genres including examples of “travel writing.” Students will be conducting first-hand field observations in several ports, keeping a land journal, and writing our own narratives, braided essays, and hybrid forms of poems, fiction, and non fiction that explore relationships between map and world, essay and earth, and geography, photography, and writing. In sum, we will read and write “the literature of the earth.” Students will explore a wide variety of genres, including poetry, fiction, immersion journalism, creative nonfiction, humor pieces, guidebook entries, and glossaries, diaries, and maps connected with our different ports.
Field ClassCountry: Japan
Date: December 2, 2017
Nara, Japan, affords writers a city steeped in histories, a place where cultural layers pile up in the form of well-tended gardens and temples, forgotten ruins, and the earth scored by centuries of careful land use. Reading Nara’s history as a story written in and on land helps us see how narratives can be constructed by spatial arrangements in a city. Even more mysteriously, as we wander around Nara we might read the cultural logic of this city’s selection and arrangement of memories (the monuments and temples and old buildings) as an organic model of a literary form we can try writing back on the ship.
All semester we have been talking about our encounters with place involving two kinds of travel: the travel on the ground and the peregrinations of mind. As we have used our bodies to walk and explore this semester, we have simultaneously considered the mind’s encounters with culture, exploring, for example, how our own cultural baggage affects what we see. In the setting of Nara and its ruins, temples, restaurants, gardens, and streets, we will put to use what we have learned this semester by making close observations of place as well as being self-aware of the nostalgia, anticipation, imagination, and even fantasies that we experience as we travel.
We will blend our knowledge of the US “involvement” in the war with Japan, as we have read about it in John Hersey’s Hiroshima, with what we are seeing today in Nara. We will take photographs and write down observations, collect scraps of paper and memorabilia, look at local museums and cemeteries, and consider how the earth is written upon by history, how memories are reconstructed, and why there is this enduring human interest in retention, in retaining experience or ancestors with visible marks on the land. Beginning and ending the day with purposeful reflection, our cultural encounters with place, food, language, and spiritual monuments will culminate in a braided essay about what you saw and how the histories of each student’s home country intersects with the history of Japan.
We will look together at this braiding of first-person, present-day observation of Nara, and its twin strand, our reflection on larger cultural encounters or taking a wider perspective on what this place means. We will talk, too, about how the location of travel writers—their homes, experiences, sense of body, practice of self-definition, sexual identity, or their class, race, and ethnicities—always informs what is noticed and what is said. What happens when we learn to read traces of histories in places? What can we learn about making history visible by exploring Nara? What can we take away that will inform our own knowledge as essayists?
1. To practice skills of close observation.
2. To define story and explore how narrative might be represented visually.
3. To reflect on how architecture, spiritual monuments, and ruins tell us a story about the present and the past.
4. To develop a sense of how the past is contained in the present, and how such histories can be conveyed in writing.
5. To practice taking field notes.
6. To practice writing in the nonfiction form “the braided essay” about cultural identity and the way it traces on land.