Nature Writing

Professor: Stephen Siperstein
Institution: Stonehill College
Course Number: ENV 375

ENV 375: Nature Writing, Spring 2013

Stephen Siperstein

CRN: 40705           [email protected]

TR 2:30-3:45                 Office: TBD

Martin Institute 206                 Office Hours: TBD


“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay our till sundown, for going out, I found was really going in” – John Muir


Course Description:

Oftentimes in our day-to-day lives it is easy to overlook that nature is all around us, in the places where we live, work, and play: from mountains to cities, forests to backyards, farms to malls. Whether these places seem to us to be natural or unnatural, rural or urban, local or global, the more-than-human world is everywhere we look (or don’t look).  In this course we will examine how the genre of nature writing can help re-establish our sense of place and heighten our awareness of the human place in the more-than-human world. Throughout the semester we will be reading and analyzing selections from a representative range of mainly 20th century U.S. nature writers, applying the techniques and styles that these writers use in our own essays, and taking short excursions to discover nature in and around Stonehill.  Furthermore, while nature writing is usually written in the first person and often requires us each to go out on our own and explore the world using our own five senses, this course will also emphasize writing for an audience and writing as part of a community.  We will work on our writing together in workshops and other peer review settings, and at the end of the semester we will collaborate to create a class publication (a small magazine or journal) and possibly organize a public reading of our work to share with other students and faculty at the college.  Neither nature nor writing is static.  Neither exists in a vacuum.  Thus, in this course we will continually share our ideas and rethink our assumptions about humans, nature, and the writing process.

Course Goals:

By the end of this course, students ought to be able to:

–       Analyze exemplar texts from the nature writing genre, for the intertwined purposes of identifying genre conventions and experiencing nature in new ways.

–       Experiment with a range of those genre conventions (both style and content) in writing own essays.

–       Reflect on own experiences of nature—including the nature in and around Stonehill—and expand those reflections into coherent and well-formed essays.

–       Work collaboratively in a workshop setting and share writing with those in this class as well as with a wider audience in the Stonehill community.


Required Texts/Materials

–       A lined, or blank if you prefer, notebook that you can use as a nature journal (suggested: Clare Walker Leslie’s blank Nature Journal: A Guided Journal for Illustrating and Recording Your Observations of the Natural World, available on

–       Leopold, Aldo.  A Sand County Almanac.  New York: Ballantine Books.  First Ballantine Books edition, 1970.

–       Price, Jennifer.  Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America.  New York: Perseus, 1999.

–       Shiva, Vandana, ed.  Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed.  Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007.

–       Snyder, Gary.  The Practice of the Wild.  New York: Counterpoint, 2010.

–       Williams, Terry Tempest.  Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.  New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

–       Recommended but not required: Raymo, Chet.  The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe.  New York: Walker & Company, 2003.  (Not available through Stonehill bookstore but available on


Additional readings listed on schedule are available on our course eLearn site.  Please make sure to have the readings printed out for the days we are discussing them.


Note: we may go outside on any given day; thus, always come to class prepared with a jacket, long pants, closed toe shoes, and whatever else you need to be comfortable.


Assignments and Grading Percentages

Participation 10%: Because this is a small discussion-based class,the success of the course depends upon each of you coming to class having closely read, considered, and written about the assigned material.  Listening to the interpretations of others cannot substitute for developing your own views, ideas, and analysis.  Thus, I want you to take ownership of your thoughts, words, and writing—an impossible notion if you do not participate in class discussions.  I realize that it is often difficult to speak up in a classroom setting.  We all sometimes clam up: get nervous, become unsure of ourselves, question if our ideas are valuable and are even worthy of being said.  These feelings are both natural and understandable, but it takes practice to overcome them.  Thus, I want you to practice participating frequently every class period.  I will be evaluating participation based on the following rubric:  X=absent; D=Present but without book or readings; answers show that the reading hasn’t been done; C=present with book and basically attentive;
B=contributing to class discussion and able to respond to questions; A=thoughtfully responding to classmates and able to offer responses to the material that show insight and appreciation.


Discussion leading 5%: At the beginning of the semester you will sign up with a partner to lead class discussion for a day.  This might involve providing the class with background information about the author and topic, posing questions to facilitate discussion, and leading activities based on the reading.  You will be required to meet with me during office hours before your scheduled presentation day to discuss your plans for the class period.


Workshopping and peer review 5%: Throughout the term you will be reading, listening to, and responding to the work of your peers in class.  You will be evaluated on both your written feedback and your engagement in the peer review sessions.


Writer’s notebook 10%:  Many of the writers we will be reading this semester kept what might be called either writer’s notebooks or nature journals.  Keeping a nature journal will provide you an opportunity to study the world, to develop a greater awareness and care for the places where you live, work, and play, and to practice writing on a daily basis.  I encourage you to use your journal as a space to keep track of your experiences of nature and as a space to develop ideas for the course’s other writing assignments.


Specific journal requirements: at least 4 days a week, at least 300 words a day.  You should write on the following schedule.

One day a week: 

–At the beginning of the term you should choose a place on or around the Stonehill campus where you think nature plays an important role.  At least one day a week every week you should return to that place to write in your journal.  Try to go at different times of the day to get different perspectives of the place.

One day a week:

–Write an imitation of one of the authors we are reading that week or the week before.  The goal is not to duplicate the author’s content but to capture the author’s characteristic style and tone.  In this way, imitation becomes a form of analysis.

Two days a week:

— Free write.


I will collect your journals periodically during class time throughout the term.  Thus, make sure to bring your journal to every class session.  It will be graded P/NP.


Reading responses/ low-stakes writing assignments 10%:  Every week I will be assigning shorter papers to help guide you in your reading or help prepare you for writing the longer essays.  These will be low-stakes assignments, meaning I will grade them zero, check minus, check, or check plus.


Essay One 15% / Essay Two 20%:  These essay assignments will ask you to take the strategies and approaches to nature writing that we encounter in the readings and discuss in class and incorporate them into your own writing.  These essays will be written in cycles, meaning that you will write two versions of each assignment: a first version and a second version after receiving comments on your first version from me and from your classmates.  I will distribute more detailed guidelines as the due dates approach.  The ultimate goal will be putting together at the end of the term a class publication that includes a selection of your essays.


Final portfolio 25%:  The final portfolio will be due at the end of the semester and will include the following: a new essay (or, if you prefer and speak to me ahead of time, a major revision of one of the two essays you have already written); a reflective piece that considers your own development as a writer over the course of the semester; and a selection of other shorter assignments that you have already completed for the course.  Thus, it is important that you save everything that you write throughout the semester.  I will distribute more detailed guidelines as the end of the semester approaches.


Schedule of Assignments

All assignments and readings due the day listed.  This schedule may change throughout the semester.

Week 1:

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, January 15  


Thursday, January 17 Lopez, “Landscape and Narrative”




Week 2:

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, January 22 Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing”

Thoreau, “Sandbank passage”

Thursday, January 24 Kingsolver, “Memory Place”




Week 3:

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, January 29 Thoreau, “Walking”


Thursday, January 31 Gary Snyder, “The Porous World” (Crawling)

Kathleen Dean Moore, “Winter Creek” (Poking around)



Week 4: 

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, February 5 Leopold, Sand County Almanac, “Foreword,” “January,” “February,” “March,” “April,” “July,” “November,” “December”  
Thursday, February 7 Leopold, Sand County Almanac, “Wisconsin,” “Arizona and New Mexico,” “Country” (177-180), “Part IV: The Upshot”  


Week 5:

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, February 12   Essay 1 due, first version
Thursday, February 14 Revision workshop in class today; read classmates’ essays ahead of time  


Week 6:

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, February 19 Price, Flight Maps, “Introduction,” “Missed Connections,” “A Brief Natural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo”


Thursday, February 21 Price, Flight Maps, “Looking for Nature at the Mall,” “Roadrunners Can’t Read”




Week 7:




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