This morning, for my first, I met with 4 other lovers of nature and writing at one of my favorite places, the Wildcat Glades Audubon Center, located just south of Joplin right off of 43 Highway. Writer and teacher Susan Nunn led the group through a study of place, and what a wonderful location for the class to meet!
My friend, Cate, invited me to this study and I was so excited to take a writing class that involved time spent in solitude on the trails at Wildcat. Susan shared about the importance of really knowing a place, of moving deeper into what we think we know about the landscape we are in, or that we are creating for a fictional character, and discovering all that is true about a location and the people that might inhabit it. Using the examples of three different authors, she showed how each wrote from different understandings of place, and how that understanding molded their literary work.
We did a fun and eye opening exercise. Partnering up with someone in the class we didn’t know, we each wrote about our hometown on one side of a blank piece of paper. We then traded papers and wrote what we knew about our partner’s town, drawing from facts or our imagination, depending on how much we knew! I wrote about the city of my childhood, Tulsa, OK, while my partner wrote about his hometown of Pittsburg, KS. This was a very interesting exercise, as our perspectives were very different. Those who grew up in a town saw it in much deeper ways than those who wrote from little or no knowledge of the place. I noted also that my perception of Tulsa was from a child’s viewpoint, since I moved from there when I was 12. An adult would perceive that sprawling city much differently.
We then headed out onto the Wildcat Trails for an hour of solitude and three exercises. The first 20 minutes session was spent in observation, mentally noting what our five senses were recording. I found the tree that I first “met” on my winter stroll through the woods. I quieted the chatter in my mind and allowed myself to open to all that was going on around me. The sun was warm on my upturned face. The breeze caressed my skin, carrying to my nose the scents of earth and flowers, even as it stirred grasses and rustled through the leaves on trees. Birds chirped merrily and squirrels frolicked through the underbrush. I noticed that the area I was standing in, near my oak tree, teemed with life. The oak tree itself had vines growing on it and ants and other insects moving busily across the bark.
During the next 20 minutes we were instructed to focus in on one object and follow that thread of thought to see where it would take us. I settled onto the ground, next to the oak tree, and leaning back against it, allowed my heart and soul to connect to the tree, feeling its energy, feeling the rough bark against my back. Thoughts fluttered into my mind that this was an ancient oak tree, nearing the end of its life. It had weathered many storms, survived pests and drought. The landscape, or place, around it had changed greatly over the years. Where once only woods existed, now people walked or jogged by, some more aware of their surroundings than others. I imagined roots growing from the soles of my feet, burrowing deeply into the earth, and my body lengthening, growing upward, arms outstretched. I could feel myself as a tree, there next to the oak, swaying gently in the breeze, feeling the permanence that being root bound would bring, and yet also feeling the swift passing of time that belied that permanence. What an amazing 20 minutes!
The last 20 minutes were spent sitting quietly on a sandstone rock, near the river. I listened to what my heart was telling me about myself, in relationship to the time spent in this beautiful place. I thought about how I am like an oak tree, still growing, having not yet reached my full potential. I thought about how important it is for me to be mindful of the moment and not spend time rethinking the past or worrying about a future that hasn’t happened yet. My attention was directed to the river, where in the center, the current ran strong, and the water flowed freely. Near the edge of the river, the water slowed into stagnant pools, bits of debris clogging the surface. I saw, as I observed the river, that as I stay centered, my life flows, and as I move away from center, I get bogged down with junk littering my life, becoming stagnant and stuck.
At the end of our solitary hour, we gathered again at the Audubon Center to unpack for each other what we had observed, focused on and heard our hearts say. Each person had an amazing experience to share! And in the sharing, I learned more about my classmates and their stories and perspectives.
This was a wonderful study! I am grateful to Susan Nunn for leading us. I better understand the importance of knowing the place that I am inhabiting and writing about. I look forward to capturing more of today’s experience in my journal…and to future writing classes!