A Hunger for Reality: Writing an Essay of Place

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Posted 05 September 2008 by Michael Umphrey

Institution: Director, Heritage Project

What follows is a draft of a teaching plan for a high school class. Any model essays you are familiar with that might work with secondary students would be welcome. Any suggestions for developing this unit would be also be helpful.

© 1998 Michael Umphrey

Before beginning this unit, students should read several essays of place (that is, personal essays dealing with the history, the nature, and the folklife of a place, as interpreted by the writer). This unit assumes students have read “A Few Miles Short of Wisdom,” by Kim Stafford (from Having Everything Right, Confluence Press, © 1986).

This essay is about one writer’s visit to one place (the Big Hole Battlefield). It is also about a kind of hunger that people often feel to see the world more clearly and to understand it more deeply. His visit is a learning expedition, and he’s driven by a hunger for reality, a desire to shake off drowsiness and to be fully awake and alert, to know who he is, where he is, and what’s happening. It’s the desire that makes us want to learn.

The sessions need not happen on consecutive days. As I note further on, the proper pace for writing an essay may be the saunter. Several days may pass between sessions, to allow students to work on the assignments.

In this seven-session project, students will move through the ALERT process:
Asking questions, Listening for Answers, Exploring for further understanding, Reflecting on what they have learned, and Transforming their learning into a creative product. The emphasis is upon individual research and writing.

First Session: I Will Be Changed

“A few nights in your life, you know this like the taste of lightning in your teeth: Tomorrow I will be changed. Somehow in the next passage of light, I will shed reptilian skin and feel the wind’s friction again.” — Kim Stafford

Suggestions for Discussion: We will use the ALERT process to build an essay of place, step-by-step. Doctors say that a person is “alert” when he is fully awake, which means vividly aware of who he is, where he is, and what is happening around him. In working through the ALERT process, you will find yourself awakening more and more to who you are, where you are, and what is going on in the world around you.

The process has five steps: ASKING questions, LISTENING for answers,
EXPLORING the answers for better understanding; REFLECTING on what you have learned, trying to make connections between the various bits of information and what you already understand; and TRANSFORMING your discoveries into a new contribution to what we know by making a final product that will endure.


“What is a ‘Place’?” Is that strip of grass between the lanes on the interstate highway a place? Is an internet website a place? Is McDonalds a place?

What about the Little Big Horn Battlefield? Chief Charlo’s grave? The camping spot on Lolo Creek that Lewis and Clark called Travelers’ Rest? Your favorite summer swimming hole?

Some “places” are really no place. That is, we pass them without seeing them. When we are there they have no meaning for us. We don’t remember them when we are gone. But other places are part of the landscapes in our minds.
When we are homesick, we remember them. Sometimes we feel an urge to go to them. When we think of important events, times full of life, we see in our minds the places where they occurred, which are inseparable from what happened.

Other places are storied with events of national significance, so the entire country remembers important events by remembering the place where they
occurred. Gettysburg. Wounded Knee. Pearl Harbor. Thousands of people visit
such places so that they can forge a personal connection with events that matter. At such places, monuments and signs and plaques usually re-tell the

And yet other places have more personal meaning. The place where a brother
died, or the place where a friend shared a secret, or the place where you thought through a hard problem and decided to change your life. In these places, no memorials make the story public, but the story is real and important, nonetheless.

For this essay, you can choose to explore either a public place with which you want to have a better connection, or you can explore a personal place, to which you want to give a richer and deeper reality.

ASSIGNMENT [5 MINUTES]: In your journal, make a list of places you may want to write about. Maybe a place where something important to you or your
family has happened:

Does your family have a special place it goes for picnics or reunions?

Is there a place where you had an important conversation with a friend?

Is there a place where something traumatic happened to you?

Do you know where, exactly, your parents got married or got engaged? Do you know where the first members of your family to come to this town slept the first night they got here?

Is there a special place you go with friends to be happy together?

Or maybe a place where something happened that changed your town or state or nation:

Are there places nearby where something of historical significance to the state or nation happened.

Are there places that are the subjects of debates today about what is going to happen to them?

Are there places that have cultural significance to groups who live in your community?

Don’t pick a place that is completely private, about which you won’t be able to gather any history or other people’s stories.

What is a story? Any sequence of events doesn’t necessarily make a story any
more than any arrangement of words makes a sentence. Cognitive scientists have found that children, from a very young age, can tell when a narrative is a story and when it isn’t. We’ve all heard people who narrate without ever telling a story. One thing after another happens, but there’s no point to it all. It just keeps going without reaching meaning. It’s like a joke that has no punchline.

To make a story, you need to include three elements: a protagonist who cares
about something, events that touch upon what he or she cares about, and a
moment at which some new meaning is made. Or, in other words, character, plot and theme. Or, in still other words, emotion, action, and meaning.

Since the foundation of a personal essay is your first-hand experiences, you will want to tell the story of your search for the meaning of a place. In an essay, you, the writer, will be the protagonist. So, we have the character. Now we need to know what you care about.

Journal Writing Assignment: Identify a place that you want to write about.  In a few paragraphs, say what meaning the place has for you right now, what seems important about it. Include a narrative of one visit you made to this place, what happened on that visit, and how the trip made you feel. This needs to be a place that you will be able to visit as you work on youressay.

Second Session: Apprentice to the Place Itself


“Where Joseph and the Nez Perce band were attacked at dawn one year after
Custer died, I meant to stand apart from my own life and listen. I meant to stand apart from my century, if I could. The people who raised me would recede, and I would stand apprentice to the place itself. If wisdom could be portable from history, I might read it there in some configuration of the ground. . .I had taken the exploratory vow: I will not eat until I learn from this place.”  –Kim Stafford

Suggestions for Discussion: There are a few simple ways that you can listen for what a place has to teach: you can find out something about its history, you can learn more about the natural or the built environment that exists there, and you can gather insights, either by interviews or by readings, from other people who have something to say about it. Before we are done, we will do all of these things. But first, go to your place and listen as carefully as you can for what secrets it might be holding, for what it might teach you directly.

Activities: Read samples paragraphs drawn from published essays that llustrate writers carefully observing the human impacts on places. (See bibliography for suggestions).

Journal Writing Assignment: When Stafford visited the Big Hole Battlefield, he was looking for a way to commune with other people, the Nez Perce. He
wanted to know what it felt like to be them, to live their lives. Are there other lives that were connected with your place, that you wonder about? Try to imagine who was here, and what being here felt like for them.

Apprentice yourself to your place. Try to learn from it. Visit your place, and take careful notes, looking for things that you want to know more about.  How old are the trees that are there? How did they get planted? Are there any non-native tree growing there? Who might have planted them? Is the vegetation different than it would have been fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago? If there are buildings, where did the material to build them come from? Who built the buildings, and why? Who else has used the site, and what did it mean to them? What is happening to the site today? Is it changing? In what ways? Is this good or bad?

Write down three or four questions about other people who are connected with
this place that you might be able to answer, either by researching history or by interviewing others. [It is important to share this brief writing assignment with other members of the class. In hearing the questions that other people posed for other sites, we begin to realize the other questions that we might ask. The number of details at any site that might be significant is literally infinite. The more we think about and talk about what might be learned about a place, the more questions we will have. The goal at this point is not to reach conclusions, but to wonder, and to begin making a plan to get from wonder to knowledge.]

Third Session: Preparation for Knowing


“The past wears an armor that thickens, and I was a fool to think hunger and a wish could pierce it. I had learned the dates and the map, had seen in photographs a long-braided woman and the anguish of old men. I had browsed on books in the National Battlefield gift shop, and I was fed full with history. . .I was grateful for all of that. All that can make a visitor ready to know. But that public way of knowing is not knowing in itself, only a preparation for knowing. Knowing is a change of heart, physical, slower than the eye’s travel across a page of text, or across a stone dressed with words.”  –Kim Stafford

Suggestions for Discussion: As Stafford’s essay continues, he gives the reader quite a bit of historical information about the Nez Perce War. Obviously he needed to read historical documents as part of his “preparation for knowing.”

Where can you learn more about the history of your place? What has happened there before? What other people have experienced the place, and what did it mean to them?

Activities: [Note to teacher: At this point, the students can simply be asked to find one or two interesting facts about their place, using traditional library research. But if desired, this portion of the unit can be expanded to include specific assignments that require students to use a variety of research tools:

a) local newspaper archives (looking for events that occurred at the site)

b) county courthouse records (to trace ownership of the land)

c) agency records, if the place is part of a government project, such as a state park or a federal irrigation district

d) published books, if the place is significant enough to be mentioned

e) family records, if students can get access to these

It might be necessary to allow students to research a broader geographic area than their particular site. For example, if they have picked a picnic area on a particular creek on the Crow Reservation, they might want to gather information about the Crow Reservation rather than about the creek. The goal is to put the place in its historical context. Most of the Nez Perce story that Stafford recounts did not actually happen at the Big Hole Battlefield.]

Journal Writing Assignment: Write about an event that occurred in the past that relates to your place, focusing on what the event meant to ordinary people rather than on just reciting facts.

Fourth Session: Then I Saw. . .


“Then I saw the bear, and stopped the car. It was a young bear, about my size and black as lightning’s footprint, rambling northeast along the south-facing slope of the river gully, in the direction the Nez Perce survivors of the battle had taken toward Canada. When I climbed out and the car door made a sound, the bear didn’t shy suddenly off to the side like I’ve seen bear do, or coyotes feeling the bullet-blast of human sight graze their shoulders. . .I could see the close squint of the eyes, the nostril-flare of pertinent curiosity. She lifted her nose to know me by the thin daylight, she turned away, head swung down, and ambled away over the open slope of sage, climbing toward the bluffs at the crest of my sight. . . I felt history receding with the click and clatter of her steps, as if I saw the last run of a river trail away down the geologic trough of its bed.
What made seeing not enough? What made me want to meet that shaggy woman, not merely see her sip the wind over her shoulder and turn away?” –Kim Stafford

Suggestions for Discussion: You will want to evoke a sense of the earth as it is revealed at your place. This might be a matter as simple as carefully observing details about the plants and other creatures that are there, of describing the place. As you do this, avoid words like “beautiful” or “majestic” which are abstract nouns and don’t let us see, smell, hear, feel, and taste the world that is present. Pass on the information that your senses pass on to you.

But simple description, as important as it is sometimes, stops short of the most powerful writing, which aims for meaning. By now, you should have some general idea of what you would like to tell about your place. With this general idea in mind, do a bit of research into ecosystems like the one that exists at your place. If your place is a lake, read some scientific articles about lakes. If there are deer at your place, gather and read articles about the lives of deer. Read background science on the sort of place it is: is it a creek, a mountain, a lake or a pond? How long has it existed? What caused it to exist?

Activities: Read samples of nature writers, such as Barry Lopez or Terry Tempest Williams, that show the writers trying to make sense out of what sort of a world we live in.

Journal Writing Assignment:  Write about some aspect of nature as it exists at your place. This can be a brief essay on the winter lives of chipmunks, on the ecology of boundaries between grasslands and forests, on the hydrology of rivers and streams, on the mid-summer feeding habits of grizzly bears, on why leaves change color in the fall, on how dragonflies “see,” or any of a few million other topics. If you have trouble getting started, take ten minutes to make a list of twenty questions for which you don’t know the answer. Then pick one. You may want to go to your place, and ask questions about what you see there: What do the mosquitoes do when you’re not there? What do the sort of trees that are growing tell you about the climate? What birds are there, and what do they eat? With your questions, you can begin research. This can include a visit to the library, but it may also include a phone call to the Forest Service, the Park Service, or some other agency that has specialists in biology. As you are writing, look for chances to include sensory details from your place that will help the reader fully experience your place.

Fifth Session: The People


“Following the ant, I saw flecks of blue in its path, and then I was lying down to see tiny blue glass beads strung out along the path of the thread that had held them until it rotted to nothing. So. Before the ribbons marked this place, an older ribbon. Before an older ribbon marked this place, the beads. And before the beads? The ant was skirting a grey sphere half-sunk into the ground: a round musket ball of lead.

“A century collapsed into this moment of ground, where generations of private celebration grew outward from one story. This square yard of pine duff bound a guest register that could never be tallied, only renewed, only inhabited by the night-faithful memory that walked in the form of the people.” –Kim Stafford

Suggestions for Discussion: There are at least three levels of culture: the highest level is academic culture, which consists of those things we learn through formal education. The middle level is popular culture, which consists of the movies and magazines and songs that the media create and market. The most fundamental level is folk culture, which consists of all the things we learn by hanging around and observing, the things that are passed on from one generation to the next in the course of living. Folk culture has an extraordinarily strong influence upon us. Most of what we know we didn’t learn in school or from movies. We learned it at home and just by living in the world.

Who can you talk to about the place? Make a list of people who might know about the place, then pick the one that seems most likely to have personal knowledge of the place.


a) develop a research outline
b) make an appointment for an interview and familiarize yourself with the recording equipment
c) at the interview, introduce yourself and build rapport with the person
d) tell the person what you are doing and what you already know about the place
e) move through your interview outline, listening carefully to answers and following any promising leads that come up, even if they aren’t in your outline
f) listen especially for interesting language or interesting observations; you won’t use everything the person tells you, but most people will say something that gives you a vivid picture that you may want to use
g) ask the person for the names of other people who might have personal knowledge of the place
h) write a thank you note after the interview

Journal Writing Assignment: As soon as possible after the interview, write a
summary of it, including a description of the person trying to capture unusual mannerisms or dress, and the gist of what was said, including direct quotations of the most vivid material.

Final Assignment:

Use your journal entries to construct an essay that tells about one visit to the site you have selected, pulling in other material you have developed.

Michael Umphrey
Director, Heritage Project