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Abstract – Creative Nonfiction Inspired by the San Juan Islands

Inspired by Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the nature-oriented but human-focused nature of her writing, I intend to pursue a similar writing style and process in an effort to create a work that aspires to her level of reflection, while at the same time developing my personal creative nonfiction writing style. At the beginning of my project, I will travel to the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in the greater Puget Sound area of Washington State. I will stay on Orcas Island, the largest of the islands, for a little over two weeks. Through observations of the wildlife and landscape there, I hope to give voice in written form to some of the many themes and revelations embodied by the natural world. The remainder of my project’s research component will probably take place at my home and will involve reading other nature-focused nonfiction and fiction works such as Walden by Henry David Thoreau, The Moon by Whale Light by Diane Ackerman, and Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille.

Annie Dillard’s work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in particular, is perhaps most renowned for the more philosophical themes it contains, rather than for its environmental observations, which are striking and vivid but which serve primarily to supplement and create setting for the discussions of religion, life, and purpose. By never allowing her descriptions of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountain ecosystem to overshadow her deeper meaning, Dillard prevents Pilgrim from lapsing into mere repetitive iterations of nature’s wonder, poetic but trite, vivid but doomed to be forgotten. I have long nursed a fascination with the delicate balance she strikes between description and reflection, personal thought and outward observation, and my goal for this research project is to achieve a similar balance in my own writing. After returning from Washington, then, I plan to continue using the insight and inspiration gathered during my time in the islands to write a series of creative nonfiction essays combining natural observations with reflections on more metaphysical elements such as religion and ideology.

Time-wise, the writing portion of my project is the largest component, as I will be writing during my stay in Washington State as well as once I return home. However, the two weeks spent in Washington are no less crucial, as they will provide most of the raw material for my final product, as well as allow me to begin writing in the actual physical setting I have chosen to discuss.

Leaders in Training

While the first half of my summer was an exercise in self-exploration and my own learning quest, it was during the second half that I was able to explore the teaching aspect of Thoreau’s writing. Thoreau himself was a teacher, working at the Sanborn School and Concord Academy, both in Concord Massachusetts. Thoreau much preferred the company of children to the company of adults, and had a teach philosophy based upon holistic learning and forming community based relationships with his students.

I had been tasked with the job of instructing the Leaders in Training of Camp Takodah. Over the course of four weeks, it was my role to teach twelve seventeen year old girls methods of dealing with campers between the ages of eight and fifteen. Most of my campers had been going to camp for five plus years, so the routine was nothing new to them. The new challenge they encountered was how to take a place that had always been for them ad learn to create that kind of camp magic for children younger than themselves. Here was where they were given the opportunity to examine what made camp so special for them in an effort to recreate it.

My co-leader and I began their time at camp by asking a simple question: What was the moment that camp clicked for you? The answers ranged from the appearance on first coming to camp, to making best friends. The thing that all these memories had in common was the fact that none of this experiences could have happened outside of camp. There is something about the environment of camp that allows for the cultivation of the kind of intense relationships and emotional experiences that cannot be had in most other locales. This comes from the hands-on, daily interaction with the environment and one another that does not come from outside sources, but rather an internal self perpetuating community. This community building is at the heart of what the leader in training must come to understand.

The LIT curriculum teaches three main goals of a summer at camp. 1. That each camper will make a best friend. 2. That each camper will learn a skill or do some activity which they could not do outside of camp. 3. That each camper will come to love camp as much as the staff do. Thoreau writes in Walden, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor” (65). The goals of camp serve to improve the children who attend through their own efforts in a new place apart from parental guidance. It is a challenge to both the leaders and the campers to delve into this kind of emotionally intense learning experience for a limited amount of time each summer. But that is why campers continue coming back and return for years on staff. The community fosters learning as Thoreau’s transcendental theories of education insisted that learning could best occur.

Days Off

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walking

It is days off that allow for contemplation in a way that the daily business of camp sometimes neglects. So while my time off may be best used in catching up on sleep and washing my weeks of dirty laundry, I prefer to spend my time exploring even  more the natural landscape of south west New Hampshire.

On my most recent day off, I was able to get away from camp long enough to climb Mt. Monadnock, a mountain of just over 3,000 feet, which Thoreau himself traversed and recounted in his work Walking. The mountain is a beautiful, granite capped peak popular with tourists and crisscrossed with trails of all levels of maintenance and challenge. I took the white arrow trail to the summit, starting just as the sun had fully risen. I fought the urge to take the Thoreau Trail, a longer route than I had time for, though the poetic symmetry was certainly appealing. But perhaps that is where my mistake in approach began. I had carefully scheduled my day to include all necessary activities, and as I raced myself up the side of the mountain, stopping only occasionally for a sip of water.

Once I reached the top, I took e few moments to enjoy the view which swept out as far as Boston before turning and beginning the descent. Three skips over the rocky summit and my ankle crumpled under me. I froze in that moment after a fall during which one assumes the very worst, then stood, resolved, that no matter the state of my lower limbs, they were going to have to carry my back to the trailhead. As I limped down the mountain, bleeding and embarrassed, I considered the walk.

As Thoreau writes in Walking, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Maybe, if I had focused on the freedom and wildness of the mountainside instead of rushing back to the civil freedom promised by a day off, I would have finished my hike without injury. What I forgot was that my trip was not a race or battle in conquering the mountain, “For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels” (Walking).