Reflections on Reading and Writing the Landscape

Note: “Reading and Writing The Landscape” was a 6 credit class I took through the UNM Honors College in the Spring and Summer of 2016. What follows is the paper I presented at the 2017 Western Regional Honors Conference with Amaris, who taught this class, and Jesse, who took the class along with me. Note that this was meant to be read outloud.

 

I’ll be breaking this talk down into three parts: first discussing the classroom component of Reading and Writing the Landscape, then the field aspect, then finally reflecting on going forward and the class as a whole.

Part one: Classroom

I’d like to start by reading excerpt from my final paper for Reading and Writing the Landscape.

“Where I grew up, we carved streets in the forest and let the trees fence us in. The forests are like a museum: expansive, old, protective, explorable. New Mexico is not like that. There’s too much space over my head and too little green around me. The hugeness of the sky leaves me exposed, as if a giant bird might swoop down, plucking me up and carrying me away into the too-big, too-blue sky. I am used to trees and hills, and lots of them. In New Mexico, the trees are shrubby and scattered and give precedence to the expanse.

I am drawn to making connections, considering the big picture, dabbling in different fields, and doing anything that lets me get my hands dirty. Reading and Writing the Landscape promised a class about geology, anthropology, history, early naturalism, nature writing, fiction, and travel, all of which interested me. It also promised the chance to visit three national parks and travel with friends for six hours of honors credit, which seemed like a good way to invest my time.

In class we spent one Wednesday struggling through Lewis and Clark’s non-standard spellings of “Mosquito” and “Sioux”, the next reading poems by Richard Hugo or excerpts from famed paleontologist Jack Horner’s book Digging Dinosaurs. In class we performed favorite passages from the Corps of Discovery’s journals, including a particularly spirited version of Captain Lewis’ close encounter with a bear. We described animals as if we were the first naturalists to describe them.

One week, class was canceled in favor of spending the evening looking at the stars while reading Plains Indian folklore outloud. Another day we took a field trip to the top of one of UNM’s parking lots. We sailed between genres and subjects all while orbiting around the concept of Montana. Although there was a lot to cover since we knew our fieldwork would giddily ignore the disciplinary boundaries, we somehow managed it in a packed semester.

 

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I do not look excited about this coprolite. I was, in fact, very excited about the coprolite, but feeling a little heat-sick. (Photo by Amaris Ketcham.)

 

Part 2: The Field

Montana field journal day 9, after arriving at a nearly abandoned paleontology camp: “Two of the [geology] grad students returned an hour or two after we set up camp, and one of them offered to answer science questions. I asked what the fossils on the table were, which led to a nearly hour long tour and discussion. I learned a lot about how important it is to be able to communicate to non-scientists without being condescending and how important it is to make a good impression on landowners, since a bad one reflects poorly on all field researchers.”

Most of my geologic knowledge heavily favors New Mexico. I knew this going into field work but was less aware of other frames I was working within. For example, most of my geology had been done in the company of other geologists. Jason, who co-taught Reading and Writing the Landscape alongside Amaris, is a paleontologist, and two students – myself and one other – were studying geology. Everyone else was unaccustomed to looking closely at the landscape and likely hadn’t put a rock in their mouths since their pre-kindergarden days.

In Montana we challenged each other to expand our perspectives on the land. Geology informed fiction, fiction blended with history, and history informed our perspectives on science. We convinced the writers in the group that yes, putting rocks in your mouth and licking fossils is a real thing that real geologists do. I was persuaded to write poetry – about rocks, of course.

Reading and Writing The Landscape not only encouraged cross-disciplinary work, it encouraged conversations with a diverse array of strangers. On one hike in Glacier National Park, Jason was repeatedly stopped by strangers who asked him geology questions. As I mentioned in the journal entry I just read, I had a long discussion with two geology graduate students about the difficulties field scientists face in communicating with the public. We talked about our class work and personal interests with hikers, tow truck drivers, and a charming preacher who joined us for breakfast when we were stranded in Cooke City. What we had learned in class contributed to our appreciation of what we were seeing in the field, while what we saw in the field cemented what we had learned in the classroom.

 

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Kristen, of New Mexico Field Geology, taking a strike and dip measurement on top of Sandia Peak. We were all minorly terrified of getting struck by lightning.

 

Part 3: Onward

Field Journal, Day 1, between New Mexico and Wyoming: “Last fall I drove through Colorado on the way back from Arches National Park, and I remember lots of small towns, with yellowing birch and aspen scattered in the open spaces. The trees in this part of Colorado are shrubbier and hardier, and the cities are bigger. This road lacks the kitsch that is strewn along Route 66. It is straightforward and plain, without the ghost of a heyday clinging to the edges.”

While science communication and geology are my main academic focuses, writing speculative fiction has been my most consistent passion for the last ten years. I was not expecting a class on the Corps of Discovery to impact how I wrote fiction but it did, and for the better. Writing creatively about landscape has improved my ability to write about the places I visit and to breath special life into places I create. I was captivated by place before, I just hadn’t practiced writing about it in a way that was creative, not scientific.

Keeping a Montanan field notebook and journaling for three or more pages a day was initially frustrating, but I came to appreciate it. It helped me remember conversations I’d had, things I’d learned, and what happened when. I appreciated it enough that I now take a combination travel journal/field notebook on trips, thinking of the world as my field and my disciplines as anything and everything.

I’ve never been particularly good at “artsy” drawing, but I know I can make scientific field drawings. By framing everything as a field sketch I convince myself to draw. Even if I’m drawing food and birds the same way I draw rock outcroppings, it’s still drawing, and it’s more drawing than I would have done otherwise.

 

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Samantha sitting on the KT Boundary while Jadzia, left, takes her photo. I’m on the right, waiting for my turn. (If “KT Boundary” doesn’t excite you, think “the physical evidence of the massive extinction event that did in the non-avian dinosaurs” and you’ll get an idea of why Samanta and I were excited. (Photo by Amaris Ketcham)

 

I learned a lot of facts during Reading and Writing the Landscape, like how to pronounce ‘Sacagawea’ and what a snowfield is. Beyond facts, though, Reading and Writing the Landscape helped me further integrate areas of thinking that are rarely integrated in university classrooms or field classes. Not only did it encourage me to practice synthesizing information in new, nontraditional ways, but it encouraged us to make a habit of writing and observing across disciplines, practices I am happy to carry into future endeavours.

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