River of Words
by Kirsten Wile BA'92 MA'97 Table of Contents

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.
Assistant Professor 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 knowledge.
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 departments.
"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."
Ultimately, whether 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 out www.riverofwords.org

Summer 1998 Continuum Magazine