Walks and Talks with Dave (and Henry): Nature Writing During the Quarantine
Since this is a class about Thoreau (sort of) it is fitting that this fourth and final lecture in my Terrain.org series is about journals. His journal was his seedbed, his boneyard, his workroom, and his laboratory. Reading Walden at 16 was what kicked off my starting a journal and I’ve now been filling journals for 43 years. I draw on these all the time for my finished books and essays.
My journals deepened in 1999. That year I set out to write a book about ospreys. As a kid on Cape Cod I had never seen the birds; they had been all but wiped out by DDT. When I moved back to Cape Cod as an adult I found that the birds had moved back too. I spent six months watching four nesting pairs of ospreys, spending several hours each day observing them in the way I’d watched the heron. I did this because I had come to love the birds—their enormous and sloppy nests, their daring dives, their flashing wings—but also for another more practical reason. I had sold a proposal for a book to a publisher about the birds and their comeback from DDT, and so watching ospreys became my daily work, my job, my sod-breaking.
But even though I was getting paid to do it, sitting still was not easy. “You’ve got to learn to live on osprey time,” said Alan Poole, the osprey expert who served as my adventure’s Obi Wan Kenobe. “It’s a good life the birds lead,” he added. “You’ve got to watch them do nothing. And they do a whole lot of nothing.”
In April of my osprey year I tried a small experiment at one of the nests. I stowed my watch, pens, tape recorder, and journal in my backpack, and hiked out near the nest, sitting on the bank above the creek. My goal was to see the place, and nothing but the place, and not let the mosquito-like hum of worry interfere. I hunkered low, out of the wind, and watched the nest. Two Canada geese came in for a landing in the creek in their silly way, like awkward puppets held up by wires, and as I watched and thought—wanting desperately to grab a pen and write down the bit about “awkward puppets”—I realized just how ingrained was my need to scribble. For a short time my experiment seemed to work, until, after a while, the old sensation of uneasiness replaced that of peace. I got antsy and cold. I forced myself to sit still. I got up and sat back down. Finally, after a seemingly interminable period went by, I gave in. I walked over to my backpack, took out my watch, and stared at it. Seven minutes had passed.
But over the course of that year, I gradually, grudgingly got better at sitting still. And along with my new skill came rewards. At the beginning of my six months I couldn’t tell an osprey from a gull. By the end, after many hours of watching the birds fly, eat, raise their young, and, yes, do a whole lot of nothing, I felt I had started to really know them. In fact, I later bragged to a friend, if a giant osprey was hurtling toward earth, and Bruce Willis had to assemble a group of experts to save the planet, I might be included on the team along with Alan Poole and the other scientists.
Since I couldn’t begin the book until the ospreys left for South America, that meant I had six months of just filling my journals with notes and observations at the nests. I was chomping at the bit to start, but I believe that that enforced patience, and daily journaling, turned me into a better, deeper writer. Now, whenever I start a book, I make myself start with journal notes, holding off on rushing to the computer.
David Gessner is the author of 11 books that blend a love of nature, humor, memoir, and environmentalism, including the forthcoming Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness and the New York Times-bestselling All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West. Gessner currently serves as chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Ecotone. Gessner lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife, the novelist Nina de Gramont, and their daughter Hadley.