An Exercise in Nature Writing

We’ve had a beautiful weekend here in Columbus, Ohio. Plenty of sunshine and temperatures approaching 70. The trees are almost bare now; only a few are being stubborn and refusing to let their red leaves fall to the ground. It was the perfect sort of weekend for the writing assignment I gave my advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction writers last week. Find a place in the natural world, I told them. A park, the Franklin Park Conservatory, the Columbus zoo, an arboretum, Mirror Lake on campus, or a more secluded spot in the countryside. Just let yourself be there. Take note of all the sensory details. Pay attention to your response to your surroundings. What happens to you when you’re in that place? Bring your observations to class, and we’ll use them for a writing activity.

Today, it’s rainy with temps in the 40s. A perfect day for writing. A perfect day for recalling our beautiful weekend. So let’s get started.

1.     Locate yourself in the natural world. Begin with a sentence something like this one from Elizabeth Dodd’s essay, “Setting Forth in their Footprints”: That night I sleep on blm [Bureau of Land Management] land just up the road, overlooking the Lyman Canyon, marked on the map as an intermittent stream a few hundred feet below the rim.

2.     Once you’ve established your place in your particular slice of nature, sketch in the sensory details of the place. See if there’s one detail that especially makes an impression on you.  Again, an example from Elizabeth Dodd’s essay: A high mesa to the east changes color as I sit watching, cooling in the evening; a tiny bit of snow clings to its upper reaches, but the rock flows various shades of vermillion, rufus, ocher, and I recognize for a moment the perfect shade of a stone I picked up days ago, grinding from it a few experimental grains as if to approximate paint. Then, briefly, the rock seems to shine from within, the way the dying heart of a campfire would have if I’d kindled one, just in the last moments before it would be time to scatter the coals, douse them with water, and listen to the hiss of ash-scented steam. Notice how precise Dodd is with her naming.

3.     Let the details lead you to a statement that expresses a mood. Dodd says, Instead I listen to the current in the canyon below, an allegro of motion, of flow, the world in its exquisite movement into spring.

4.    Now carry that mood inward as you make statements about what being in that place is like for you. Maybe you’ll begin with a statement something like, “For some time, I’ve been thinking about. . . .” Or maybe something like, “Being in this place makes me feel/wonder/ think/question. . . .”

5.     Come back to one of the details of the place, perhaps a detail that you featured in the first step of this activity in the way that Dodd featured the mesa in the example from her essay. This time find something new in that detail. Maybe you begin, “I keep coming back to the sight, sound, smell of. . . .” Now that you’ve let the natural world take you to your own thoughts and emotions, what do you notice about your featured detail that you didn’t the first time you encountered it? How has your place in the natural world changed as a result of the journey it invited you to take inside your head and heart?

“Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity,” Thoreau said. I hope this writing exercise invites you to use your relationship with the natural world for the divine purpose of instruction as you take a closer look at what our interaction with natural spaces can tell us about ourselves.





  1. mpigeon on December 4, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Thank-you so much for posting this exercise. It is not only incredibly helpful, but also refreshingly practical to have a writer break down bits of the process into steps. It aids me in thinking more about the process of my writing, than the story itself, which can only enrich the writing itself. Also I found the excerpt that you included by Elizabeth Dodd so very vivid. She took me there. With gratitude for your generosity in doing this blog. M. A. Pigeon

    • Lee Martin on December 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm

      Dear M.A.,

      Thanks so much for stopping by to visit my blog and for taking the time to comment. I’ve always said we have to look at pieces of writing as made objects and then figure out how they got made. That’s why I try to use the readings in my classes as a way of inviting these types of exercises in which we practice the steps a writer took to make the object that he or she made. I’m so glad you found it helpful.

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