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"I want its poetry to overtake us" ~ On the Power of Place-Based Writing

Jennifer McStotts reviews Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-Based Writing, edited by Florence Caplow and Susan A. Cohen

Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-Based Writing, edited by Florence Caplow and Susan A. CohenWildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-Based Writing is at best a glorious introduction to and seminal collection of contemporary place-based writing, but it is also, undeniably, a love story. The Wildbranch Writing Workshop is entering its 24th year; co-sponsored by Sterling College and Orion magazine, the workshop gathers together like-minded writers—those who engage in “nature writing and beyond.” It is no surprise to anyone who knows the workshop’s history or its participants and faculty that this anthology captures the reverence and appreciation they hold for the natural world.

But the anthology goes beyond reverence to something more intimate, something I would call love. It doesn’t build to that emotion, slowly establishing these writer-nature relationships throughout the more than 60 poems and essays that comprise the text. No, it starts from a place of love. In that spirit, the opening section of the collection is titled “Intimacy,” and from there the collection flows through the themes “Speaking of Place,” “What Comes from the Land,” “On Perceiving and Knowing,” and “For the Children/For the Future.” And though the collection is nonfiction and poetry, a few pieces blur the genre line with lyricism, such as Julia Shipley’s “Aubade:”

This spot of blonde grit that isn’t a spot, the way the river isn’t the same river with water sluicing through it at every moment, is part of it. But what I pick is the middle of the road where we sank to our knees to look at a broken shell, then lowered further till the sand shifted and filled the space between the backs of our knees.

Why a road, why the middle of the road, why the middle of a one-lane, sand-packed track? Because it was ours. Our concentration enveloped it, and it absorbed us, offering us one ant hole and a stunted prickle of grass.

This semester, I’m teaching a class on the rhetoric of environmental writing, and for a recent class session I chose selections entirely from Part I of Wildbranch to demonstrate to my students how descriptions borne from love can result in a rhetoric of joy, an environmental advocacy based entirely in the heart. We read and discussed most of “Intimacy,” this first part of the collection, comparing the eagle-trainer relationship in Paul Grindrod’s “Des Ta Te: A Love Story” and Jennifer Barton’s owl-rescuer relationship in “To Liv,” then introducing the students to the possibility of poetry-as-advocacy. With only a nudge from me, the students used the work to realize what I hope the authors might want them to take away: the potential for environmental advocacy in the power poetry has to create a feeling in the reader. For some of the students, the poems with strong narratives drew them in most; for others, it was the images created in their minds, the compelling tactile descriptions, or the writer’s sense of authority and presence. Each work created a bond with the reader by sharing the author’s love for place, for flora and fauna, and in my opinion the same holds true for the rest of the poetry in the collection, the variety of which is beautifully captured in the pair of poems closing Part IV. First is Louise Fabiani’s pained and tragic “The Ecologist,” in which Fabiani celebrates-yet-mourns:

We live our work,
and work on the edge of despair.

Knowing well that, all about,
living lights are going out:
terrestrial stars extinguished.

Then, Mira Bartók’s untouchable, graceful “A Leaf is a Book is a River,” which opens:

I once knew a boy who painted birds with turpentine
set them on fire with the swish of his hand
winged flames flew up then exploded
over a veil of trees. Is there a word for this
a word for this kind of fire

Lest one get the impression I favored the poems in the collection, I should attend to the excellence of the nonfiction. Parts II and III move into personal connections with particular geographies and the produce of those lands. It was here that I was personally moved by Rachel Shaw’s “Settling,” which so eloquently captures the feeling of nomadism and displacement so common in contemporary American culture. What drew me to the piece most was that I too am a child of the American West, grateful to have returned. Having recently revisited Edward Abbey’s inimitable Desert Solitaire with its celebration of the emptiness and vastness of the West, I was re-centered by Shaw’s words: “The West is not defined by absence, if it is all you have ever known.” 

The collection is also peppered with epistolary pieces—essays that avoid the cliché of writing letters to nature and artfully elevate the form. Early in the book is “Letter to Douglas” by Tony Cross — a clever missive of love to the Douglas fir, written with candid wit and flourishes of beauty.  Editor Susan A. Cohen’s “Dear Bowl” appears near the middle of the book; there Cohen drew me into her intimate descriptions of her affection for a new wooden bowl, like a lover commencing a relationship, full of apology and plea. The collection closes with an epistolary piece—Scott Russell Sanders’ “For the Children”—that speaks candidly of our failure to caretake our world and our intent to do better in the future, for the future. Sanders irresistibly sets out the need for the next generation to anchor against dislocation and yet also to travel, to see the world: “I hope you’ll be able to live in one place while you’re growing up, so you’ll know where home is, so you’ll have a standard to measure other places by . . . Wherever you live, I hope you’ll travel into country where the land obeys laws that people didn’t make.”

The Wildbranch anthology brought me the work of writers I already knew—like Sanders, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Terra Brockman, and Simmons B. Buntin—but it also introduced me to many other voices. I am most grateful to have been exposed to the poetry of Alison Townsend and to the other works mentioned here, as well as to Susan Futrell’s essay “Prairie Skin.” I returned to Futrell’s piece after finishing the collection in the same way I suspect I will return to this essay in my class on rhetoric. Speaking of the prairie, she writes, “I want its poetry to overtake us while we still have the sense to notice what losing the prairie might mean.” Perhaps in places where plain and grand styles of rhetoric have failed the environmental movement, where we have not convinced those who don’t understand our love of nature and place, there is still time for another chance if we turn to art.


Jennifer McStotts worked as a lawyer in Georgia and as a college professor in South Carolina before she figured out that writing clandestinely is not the most effective way to go about being a writer. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona, and has work forthcoming from Brock Review and Re)verb. More about Jennifer can be found at www.JenniferMcStotts.com.
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Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-Based Writing

Edited by Florence Caplow and Susan A. Cohen

   University of Utah Press
   320 pages
   ISBN 978-1607811244


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