Interpreting the New England Landscape

31 Jan

This the second in a series of posts written by students in LSS110: Interpreting the New England Landscape, which takes place at the MacLeish Field Station each January. 

01/16/19 Wednesday

Morgan Pierce, Camille Butera, and Camille Butterfield

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We began the morning with Naila Moreira, a visiting professor who helped us define the term creative nonfiction, as a mode of writing that places a narrative upon the events of life as they are experienced, and draws on background knowledge to supplement these stories. We discussed the components of creative nonfiction, which included a plot, character development, voice, emotion, and sensory imagery, and also discussed the importance of relating to the reader, and allowing the reader to see themselves in the author. We then discussed the Arts Afield program, which aims to create a 200-year archive of artists’ work at and inspired by locations within the field station.

Then, we were prompted to call out words that we associated with the field station. Naila prompted and guided us toward various types of words we hadn’t yet explored, such as ones with intense emotional or negative connotations, or multiple layers of meaning. We came up with an extensive list that ranged from animal and tree names, to emotions and feelings. Some that stood out to us were ghosts, invasive, traces, abandonment/ed. Keeping these words in mind, we then went out to the porch swing, which is one of the Arts Afield locations, to observe, sketch, write, and collect objects to suspend within ice suncatchers. The electric fence was off (which was lucky, since all of us rolled or crawled under it to get to the swing!), and there were cows in the pasture, but they got spooked soon after we arrived. We all spread out and began engaging with the landscape as individuals. Rays of sunlight broke through the clouds as we all sat in the quiet to reflect and observe.

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After about 30-40 minutes of writing and reflecting, we walked back to the building. Naila prompted us to come up with a metaphor, a character, a feeling or emotion, and a question we had following that experience, and invited everyone to share one of those things. Then we spent some time crafting a more polished narrative, but Naila assured us that they didn’t have to be good, which was liberating.

After that, she asked us how we felt about the writing process and whether anyone wanted to share. It was a friendly audience, and everyone had beautiful and insightful thoughts to share. Here are some quotations selected from some of our creative writing essays:

“Maybe these lumps of rock that have formed like wrinkles at the corners of my smile seem immense to you. Maybe my sense of calm today has cast a blue, grey haze over your sky. Maybe the delicate, intricate lines the trees form over the hills seem beautiful to you. But I take no ownership over my features. Even as you stand awestruck gazing over this landscape, I can not say that I shaped myself for your appreciation. How I formed was both random and mathematical all at once. My core, arteries, bones, flesh all created by outside forces. I have no will, I have no desire. I am simply the material evidence of the forces of physics. I am not like you. You can understand what you are and investigate your world. Your powers of interpretation are not mine to possess. But in so many ways, I am you. Broken pieces of my body make up your being. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, magnesium, these were formed in me before ever appearing in you. In a period of time, the difference between us will diminish further as the organic material of your body is reclaimed in the cycle of life. As you sit here observing on that rock, you ask me “how do you know to put these colors together to be seen as beautiful to me? Or is it that I have evolved to appreciate these colors and interpret them as beautiful?” Maybe the answer is yes, I am beautiful. Maybe the answer is no, I am only beautiful to you. But maybe I can not answer your question. You and I are both too similar and too different to attempt to make that distinction.”

“Though they may not be the tree which lingered here, hundreds of years, they still strike us, still remind us of the grandeur of the land. We changed them, they changed themselves, they change us. And is this lack of “authenticity” so terrible? We ourselves alter, whether by personal choice to change or through the simple fact that every seven years we regenerate (or so I’ve been told), our old cells falling away to be replaced with the new, sloughing off old skin, old hair, the lost becoming dust on the wind or specks in the sunlight. What matters now is that the trees are here. That through the rushing of the wind and the occasional thrum of cars on the drive up to and along the field station, the cries of birds and drilling of woodpeckers persists. It is faint, but it lingers here in the landscape. Here, the trees are erect, the bushes flourish, dead leaves fall to the ground, replenishing the soil as their bent, orange-brown forms are subsumed into the off-yellow grass. The landscape survives. It alters, becoming new and bent and changed, but it survives. No person, no place, no object can exist outside of a bubble without inducing or experiencing change, so why would we pretend this space could ever be different: all it can do it persist and march on.”

“In the act of drawing and writing what you sense, your relationship with the space around you becomes both intensified and muted. Looking from notebook page to mountains and sky, your eyes become intent on the contours of a rocky slope, a stone, a bank of clouds. You take them in, together and individually, feeling the shapes and textures of the world travel from your eyes to your brain to the muscles of your hands. Putting pencil to page is an act of hope. Belief that you may create something that constructs this location in your mind long after you have left it behind. Your eyes and fingers move quickly, traveling around landscape and paperscape, birds fluttering through the sky. The wind hums in your ears and the cold threatens to still your fingers, as it seems to still all life, but there is so much more to record, so much feeling to convey with numbing hands and watering eyes. Winter does not still all life. You see life all around you. Your eyes seize on fragments of green in this tawny landscape. Blades of grass retain their hue, and conifers loom, taunting the cold that strips their deciduous counterparts of their dignity, leaving them in a state of careless, lonely beauty. Barren branches grasp for the hints of sunlight that only just manage to penetrate the slate-gray clouds that keep rolling by. You feel a fog roll through your mind in much the same way, yet this fog heightens your perception of these glorious sights, while preventing you from feeling your nose drip or your hands burning with cold. There is still motion. You remain in touch with bits of world, lichens blooming over stone, hazy blue mountain skyline, the trees in between. You are breathless, pencil moving more quickly now, as your hands attempt the futile task of describing the taste of air, the movement of stillness, the traces of lives and deaths this land has felt. Your eyes widen and you stare fixedly into the distance, willing your senses outward toward the horizon. A single leaf floats in mid air, drifting just as you are.”

To finish Naila’s visit, we all wrote a poem together, with each person contributing one word as we went around the room. It went as follows:

within the trees, time

stops. ghosts linger there

aching for hazy bittersweet;

sweet memories interrupt

shapeless events. dream spill.

ash dusts rhythms of life.

 

Then we ate lunch and made suncatchers out of some plants we found outside! To do that, we filled bowls with water, inserted a piece of string, and the plants we had found earlier, and set them outside to freeze.

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After lunch, we went outside again to look at Dan Ladd’s artwork, and discuss strategies for a seeing exercise that is useful for students of all ages. The three questions to ask are:

  1. What’s going on here?
  2. What makes you say that?
  3. What more can you find?

Using these questions, we talked about various reactions to the artwork, and learned about the history of Dan’s work and presence at the field station. We discussed the beauty of his work, but also the elements of torture and interference with nature. His work directly tackles questions of the natural and unnatural, and the ethics behind it are mystifying; however, if we consider human beings as part of the landscape rather than separate from it, perhaps his work is quite natural after all. His reach across the space was broader than most of us realized, as he seemed to tinker with every bit of property he could get his hands on! We discovered much of his work on our walks through the woods. Next time we hike through the field station, we’ll be sure to keep our eyes open for new creations. Some flurries began, and we headed back inside.

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We then began planning for Friday’s activities with the sixth graders, by first brainstorming about examples of effective teaching we remember from our preteen years, and then brainstorming about how we wanted the morning to be broken up. Since there are three main areas we’ve been working with, we decided to create three stations, one about science, one about history, and one about art. We students were in charge of coming up with the three activities, and breaking ourselves into groups. Then, we worked more closely with our group members to narrow down our ideas and consider logistics. Everything seemed to come together really well, and everyone seemed excited about their different roles in helping the plan for the day take shape.

To finish, we all gave one word that we felt was connected to our experience of the day, and then wrote blue post-it notes to stick on the map.

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It was a beautiful day of exploring, together and individually. Our words of the day were authenticity, liminality, ghosts, individuality, presence, hybrid, long term, contorted, expansion, observation, being, structure, and creativity.

 

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