Under remarkably blue skies on a winter morning in February, 65 students
from a Salt Lake City high school met in an outdoor classroom at the University's
Red Butte Garden. Accompanied by Colorado poets Pattiann Rogers and Linda
Hogan, students walked some of the garden's 16-acres of hillside trails
through shaded and snowy arbors and sunlit fields of bitter brush, attentive
to the sounds of a nearby perennial stream. Their breath visible in the
cold air, students discussed poetry as a means of self-discovery and exploration
of the natural world--a sign that this was to be no ordinary field trip.
The students (supplied
by Brighton High School) and the poets (supplied by the U) are participants
in a project called the "River of Words." Hogan and Rogers are two of
13, mostly local, experts taking part in this interdisciplinary excursion
which incorporates lessons in writing, painting, photography, animal tracking,
bird watching and river ecology. Students involved in the project create
literature and art in response to their observation and study of the natural
world. Turning the outdoors into a living museum and a biological library,
this experience complements work in the schoolroom.
Inaugurating the secondary
school outreach program of the University's English department, "River
of Words" is a national project designed to familiarize America's youth
with their local watershed and the importance of the plant and animal
life its rivers support, in preparation for a more responsible stewardship
of the environment. It was created three years ago under the direction
of former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, and in cooperation with the
Library of Congress and two organizations that conduct educational programs
promoting environmental awareness, the International Rivers Network and
the Orion Society.
The "River of Words"
project was organized with the fundamental supposition that nothing can
substitute direct experience for increasing society's understanding of
and appreciation for nature. The English department's new outreach program,
which introduces K-12 students to the world of poetry, is governed by
a similar philosophy. Enabled by vital grant assistance from the Utah
Humanities Council, the program brings visiting writers to Salt Lake's
secondary schools to work with teachers on curriculum development and
with students in writing workshops.
of Creative Writing Katharine Coles PhD'90, who is largely responsible
for this new University program, says it's intended to provide secondary
schools with access to important national literary figures they couldn't
normally afford to bring to Utah. Writing, which is as much of a learned
skill as painting or sculpting, is best learned from those who write,
and nothing inspires budding authors more than contact with those whose
work has been accorded the praise of great literature.
Pat Russell BA'74,
the Brighton High School teacher who initiated the local organization
of the "River of Words" project, agrees. "You're best instructed by people
who are actively involved in writing themselves. As a teacher, if you're
not doing any writing yourself, you're just talking about abstractions,"
she explains. Writers who have attained a measure of success through patience
and perseverance make both knowledgeable and inspiring coaches. The skills
are important, but another part of teaching writing is convincing students
of the validity of their own experiences, and established writers are
in the best position to accomplish this, says Russell. "Writing about
the local environment, really, is just a natural fit with my own teaching
philosophy. You start with what's local, with your home, personal memories
and experiences, and then move off into writing about others, into abstractions
and complex characterizations," she adds. The "River of Words" project
allows students to experience the wonder of what's happening in their
own backyards while instilling confidence in the value of their ideas.
A U alumna, Russell
has been writing and teaching high school creative writing classes since
her graduation in 1974 with a bachelor's in English. She initiated the
"River of Words" project locally in 1996, receiving a national award for
the outstanding quality of the programs and curricula she coordinated
and helped develop the following year. This year's River of Words project
was her third, but the first to involve the talents of visiting writers.
"We've never had-out of-town writers before, and it's because of the U's
program that we were able to get them this year," she says.
Coles and Russell met
through their mutual affiliation with Writers at Work, a non-profit literary
arts organization in Utah committed to providing an opportunity for aspiring
writers to meet and learn from established professionals. Both educators
are members of the organization's board. Well aware of Russell's success
with students in her outdoor classroom--student Parker Shaw was a finalist
in the 1996 national poetry competition, and Alexandra Rich won the national
poetry competition in 1997--Coles saw the project as a natural counterpart
to the University's own efforts. "I think that one of the really nice
things, in terms of being associated with the "River of Words", is that
it gives us an external context of why literature matters," and in this
case, that's the environment, she says.
Of course, testimonies
as to why literature matters are as numerous as the reasons people write.
But Russell, "who is a wonderful and incredibly committed teacher, knows
that kids really care about the environment, and what it means for their
future. If we can show them role models, people who are using their literary
activity in an important environmental context, they get a first-hand
experience of how literature can work in the world and make a difference,"
adds Coles. Literature is more than the profound expression of profound
ideas. It has a definite social function. Literature has always served
as a record of history and has inspired acts of faith and social change--even
revolutions. Writing continues to teach and extend the borders of human
Among other things,
environmental literature reminds individuals of their membership in the
larger human and non-human community. To paraphrase the poet Gary Snyder,
such membership creates, in the process, larger networks which break down
territorialities and divisions, just as do rivers of water or words, says
English Department Chair Steve Tatum. "The "River of Words" project this
year represents the first of several steps the Creative Writing and American
Studies faculty and students hope to take toward developing an environmental
writing program that will encourage both the writing, and the study of
writing, about the environment," Tatum explains.
Ideally situated in
the American West--an area of ongoing political debates about water and
land use--the U has been home to many writers who have focused on the
environment in their work, including Wallace Stegner BA'30, Edward Abbey,
and Terry Tempest Williams BS'79 MS'84. Likewise, Coles, a poet herself,
is no stranger to the differences literature can make, nor to programs
intended to take renowned writers into under-served areas. During her
tenure at Westminster College, she headed the school's Ann Newman Sutton
Weeks Poetry Series, which is now one of the richest institutional poetry
series in the country. A self-proclaimed "poet optimist," she is personally
invested in the U's outreach activities and is deeply committed to making
her own students understand that poetry matters outside university English
"I think it can be
so easy for us in academia, isolated literally on a campus surrounded
by buildings, to forget that what we do has larger social and political
implications. When we turn our minds and our budgets toward creating those
links with the community, we're reminded why what we do really matters,"
says Coles. "It's important that our students are aware of that, because
we work them really hard and it's easy to get a kind of tunnel vision."
Russell sees the "River
of Words" project as a cure for her own students' feelings of isolation
and dislocation, which are often a result of the conventional classroom
experience. "Learning facts in isolation, and inside of a classroom, has
never really been anything that most of us retain or internalize. The
reason the outdoors is such an appealing thing is it provides you with
some avenue for seeing yourself in a natural fabric of something that
involves more than just you," she explains. "And you don't have to spend
money, take a course, or learn to meditate" to have this experience, she
adds. "Just sitting on a rock somewhere and watching what happens in the
world gives that sense of perspective, and everything changes."
Poetry, an unequalled
power of expression, is particularly well-suited for fleshing out this
new perspective provided by spending time outdoors. It puts words together
in unusual ways, connecting the inner world with the outer world by giving
form to the unseen and communicating the unspeakable. A secular route
to experience, poetry links you to the world in ways that can be both
socially and personally transformative, says Coles. Writing poetry in
response to their observations of the natural world, Russell's students
learned something about themselves in the process. "There are those kids
for whom this is really a kind of personal epiphany," says Russell. "I've
had some students tell me that through this experience they finally understood
the purpose of school or the importance of a liberal education. And many
continue to keep journals and respond in writing to their lives and the
world around them after high school," she adds.
Whether speaking of
environmental or cultural issues, literature also transcends practical
concerns and speaks to the metaphysical. Coles says though it's not quite
academic nor scholarly to talk of poetry as visionary, it's important
for her students to understand poetry's potential in those dimensions
in order to avoid the discouragement associated with wholly investing
oneself in something of purportedly little cultural value. "We feel really
shy about acknowledging the way the humanities, in general, and poetry,
in particular, link us to visionary experience," she says, "but there
are pockets of people everywhere for whom poetry is a sort of lifeline."
Henry David Thoreau, for example, took pains to write in great detail
of activities as mundane as the sowing of a bean field, but he also referred
to himself as a "mystic, transcendentalist and natural philosopher."
Of course, no two poets
will say things quite the same way. The work of both Linda Hogan and Pattiann
Rogers is distinguished by an attentiveness to nature, science, and spirituality,
but governed by opposing perspectives. Hogan is influenced by her Native
American tradition, while Rogers writes in concert with her Judeo-Christian
heritage. Though decidedly different, "their spiritual points of view
really complemented each other," said Coles. "Pattiann really uses a lot
of science in her poems, while Hogan tends to be more suspicious of...the
social hierarchy of science."
Russell's group of budding poet visionaries choose to champion or challenge
scientific progress, Western civilization or environmentalism, isn't so
important. What matters is that they experience the miracle of both nature
and poetry first-hand. And while Russell admits that the 'River of Words'
doesn't profoundly change all students, she says, "even if there's just
one kid a year that that happens to, then it's all worth it."
The "River of Words"
project is just one of several outreach activities the English department
has planned. For more information about past and upcoming events, call
Andrea Malouf at 581-6168.
Kirsten Wille BA'92 MA'97 is a University News Service writer.
For more information on the "River of Words" project, check
Summer 1998 Continuum Magazine