Pages from the Wild: To engage with and write meaningfully of nature, try these prompts and exercises
In this edition of #PagesFromTheWild, Urvashi Bahuguna compiles prompts and exercises to help those wishing to try their hand at writing about nature (however tangentially)
In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging writing from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
The more troubled I feel, the more I reflect on the spaces and activities that have brought me structure and restoration. Lately, I have been remembering the writing workshops I have attended in the past where the cohort has been a mix of people interested in publishing and those who want to try a creative skill (or some dynamic combination of the two). Armed with a prompt and the presence of a reassuring instructor, I have noticed that in a room full of people with varying familiarity with craft, each person will create a piece of some interest, a piece that reflects their voice. I have found prompts and writing exercises second only to reading, in the value they bring. There’s a kind of creative flexing and play that emerges through them.
For that reason, instead of recommending books related to the environment this fortnight, I want to suggest that people try their hand at writing about nature (however tangentially) with the help of prompts and exercises that I have compiled below. I have found that nature writing does not have to be purely about the natural world — it can instead be an originating point, a backdrop or a metaphor. I recognise that each one of us has a different relationship with landscape and ecology. Perhaps birdwatching bores you — which is fine. It is possible that you are afraid of places without adequate illumination and the relative safety of witnesses — as I am in remote areas and in city parks in the dead of afternoon when I may run into a group of men alone. Perhaps, the landscape is sustenance. It could also be irrelevant or volatile. Or it could have a simpler meaning for you than that — a place you run in or pass by, a tree over your bus-stop, a plant on which grows a spice critical to a dish or cuisine that’s meaningful for you, an old tree that fell over in a storm. I suspect there are plenty of stories — irrespective of your position — that you and only you will be able to tell.
The way I have conceived of these exercises is that they can be as peopled with humans, emotions and subjects unrelated to nature as one chooses.
Extended Metaphor: Write a piece steeped in imagery from the natural world, but the images must be part of an extended metaphor. Some examples of this practice include Amy Leach’s The Safari, Ted Hughes’ The Thought Fox and Gloria Anzaldua’s Something To Do With The Dark. As these pieces show, the visceral nature of images from the wild are remarkably useful in describing the churnings of the human mind.
What the Photograph Doesn’t Capture: I am always trying to capture some iridescence on my phone camera — some impossibly resplendent colour or angle on a flower, bird, dragonfly, leaf. When I am looking through my recent photographs and videos, I am often struck by how little of what I have experienced I have actually managed to capture. The photograph tells a specific and (in some ways) limited story. Inspired by a post Nilanjana Roy did recently that began with the words, ‘the moment I couldn’t capture,’ I suggest using an existing photograph or taking one whenever you get the opportunity next. Write about something that left an impression that the photograph didn’t capture.
Collaborative Walking Poems: Some years ago, while a poet friend and I lived in different cities, we decided to write parallel poems based on walks we would take in our respective neighbourhoods. We decided on a time of day that worked for both of us and wrote based off of what we noticed and felt. We paid more attention than usual to what we encountered — it was an interesting way to learn more about a particular time of day in our neighbourhoods.
The synchronised times allowed the poems to speak to one another. It remains to this day one of my favourite collaborative exercises. Find a friend who’ll do this with you.
Spaces Under Threat: One of the ways in which illustrators in India have been drawing attention to the importance of habitats that have been or would be destroyed by development projects is by sketching endemic species as well as species that rely heavily on those habitats — Nishant Saldanha and Alisha Dutt Islam have sketched the Flame-Throated Bulbul and Rufous-Necked Hornbill respectively, which depend on habitats threatened by development in Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Sanctuary, Goa and Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh.
Browse the news for ecosystems currently under threat in India. Choose one and read about the habitat in question. What is unique about this place? What can’t be recreated by simply planting saplings elsewhere? In your piece, try to capture what is at stake. The smallest details matter as much as the more obvious ones — even more perhaps because surprises are an integral part of interacting with the wild.
Odes to Specific Trees: Take a look at Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems Madison Street and My Father and The Figtree and Ross Gay’s poem To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian for a sense of what is possible when writing about trees and kinship. It took the work of these poets for me to see that one’s engagement with a tree can be as simple and varied as a memory, a single moment, an attachment to the fruit it produces, a connection to a fable, legend or ghost story, as a site of historical and social significance. There are trees I have an almost unconscious appreciation for because of their place in my familiar landscapes. In all likelihood, there is a tree close by or one you have encountered in the past that would make for good exploring ground for a creative piece — you can have a particular tree in mind or a species you’ve encountered as a grove or in various places over time.
Heartbeat At My Feet: Because I am by no means a purist, I believe that pets or strays one feeds or helps take care of, qualify as subjects for nature poetry. The title of the exercise is borrowed from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poem, Notes for the Heartbeat At My Feet, about her dog — she borrowed the phrase from Edith Wharton. There are several ways in which to approach writing a poem about a pet or a stray that you care for — Jane Kenyon’s The Blue Bowl is about burying a cat, Marge Piercy’s The cat’s song looks at the world and the relationship between cat and caretaker through the cat’s eyes, Cathryn Essinger’s My Dog Practices Geometry is a wonderful poem about the simple and charming instincts of animals and Austin Smith’s Cat Moving Kittens draws phenomenal parallels between human and cat mothers.
Dirt: In How I Became A Tree, Sumana Roy writes, “…there is no concept of hygiene in the plant world, particularly in a forest. And there is no distinction between dirt and cleanliness in the plant commune.” When I think of the forest in relation to these lines, I think of leaf litter, teeming insects, woody mushrooms, animal and bird droppings, swampy puddles. I think of how different the worlds we build for ourselves are from that reality. Write a piece responding to Roy’s observations — whatever they may evoke in you.
Chimera Poem: Chimeras are mythical creatures made up of parts from multiple beings. Start by searching for images of chimeras. These composite creatures draw from the strengths of many animals. What would such a multi-faceted existence entail? What might be the upsides and the pitfalls of such a life? Write a poem in which a chimera is a central figure — as a speaker, subject or character. You can use a chimera that you come across during your research or you can come up with your own. Choose your combination and placement of animals and birds thoughtfully. Think through your reasoning for the beings you chose, what attributes you associate with them, what their story might be.
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