By: Matthew Sharpe

Volume 32 Issue 1, page 1
Genre: journal writing
Grade: middle school
Explores journal writing techniques using urban nature as a starting point. The end product is a book of their writing that acts as a guide to New York City, told from their perspective.

Matthew Sharpe is an American novelist who also sometimes writes stories and essays. His novels are You Were Wrong, Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible. His short-story collection is Stories from the Tube. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. The Sleeping Father was chosen for the Today Show Book Club in 2004. Sharpe has taught writing and literature at Wesleyan University, Columbia University, New College of Florida, the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College, and in numerous New York City public schools under the auspices of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Urban Nature Writing

“WHAT IS NATURE?” I ASKED A GROUP OF thirty or so seventh graders early one November morning. The air outside the classroom window was frosty, and the deciduous trees on West 48th Street in Manhattan were just about done giving up their leaves for the year. I added that I myself was not a scientist or science teacher, but I did have some ideas about nature, which I wanted them to join me in grappling with. Several hands popped up.

“Nature,” said one girl, “is anything that’s natural.”
“Okay,” I said, “so what’s natural?”
“Anything that isn’t man-made,” a boy said. The rest of the class seemed to like that answer pretty well.

Someone said, “A tree is nature,” and someone else said, ‘Yeah, but not if it’s planted and watered by a person. Like Central Park is not really nature. It’s like nature because it has trees and grass and flowers and everything, but all that stuff was put there by somebody, so it ‘s not really nature.”

This discussion began a ninety-minute lesson on urban nature writing that I taught as part of a twelve-week journal writing course for middle school students at the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) in Manhattan. The theme of the course was New York City. I met once a week with three classes—one sixth, one seventh, and one eighth grade—and every assignment I gave them had something to do with city life. I told the students that at the end of the twelve weeks, I would gather their writing together in a book that would constitute a guide to New York City from their own point of view, a document of what it’s like to be a twelve- or thirteen- or four¬teen-year-old living in one of the world’s great metropolises at the end of the twentieth century. And I told them that I thought such a document would not be complete without a section on nature.

I don’t think there’s a special genre of writing called “urban nature writing” or even “nature writing” in the way that there is, say, a genre called “mystery writing.” As far as I’m concerned, nature writing is any kind of writing on the subject of nature. So I didn’t want to begin the lesson by teaching the
students a particular technique of writing, but rather by asking them to observe and think about their immediate surroundings.
I figured they could spend the first forty-five-minute class period thinking and talking, and the second one writing.

After some lively dissension and debate on the topic of whether Central Park was nature or not, I asked the seventh graders in what category they would put a building like the one
we were in. “Definitely not nature,” was the consensus.

I said, “What about a bird’s nest?”
“Oh that’s nature,” someone said.
I said, “Well a bird’s nest is not man-made, but it is bird¬-made. I mean, a bird makes a bird’s nest-which is a kind of bird building—with the most advanced technology available to birdkind, right? So why does a bird’s nest get to be nature while a brick-and-mortar school building doesn’t?”

“Okay,” a girl said, “if you want to talk about like a human nest or something then maybe a log cabin would be nature, but not a skyscraper. A school, I don’t know.”

Again the class was divided. Some felt that humans are entitled by the laws of nature to make shelter for themselves no matter what the shelter is made of, while others felt that a towering steel-and-concrete building was too far removed from the basic animal impulse of shelter-making to count as natural. What I was trying to suggest is that one could think about an urban center like New York City as a kind of teeming ecosystem; that cities, in other words, might be a natural habitat for humans and other urban-dwelling organisms.

“Okay, I have another question,” I said. “If something isn’t natural, what is it? What’s the opposite of natural?”

“Artificial,” one girl said.

I said, “What’s an example of something that’s artificial?”

“Polyester!”

“What is polyester?”

“Plastic.”

“And what’s plastic made of?”

“Isn’t it made of oil?”

“And where does oil come from?”

“Dinosaur fossils!”

“Dinosaur fossils, hmm,” I said, giving myself over to the role of Socratic investigator, aka pain-in-the-neck teacher. “Aren’t dinosaur fossils natural?”

“Yeah,” a student said, “but what they do to them when they make them into some ugly polyester leisure suit is definitely not natural.”

This shut me up for the time being.

Then one tall, elegant, and vocal girl named Rachel made an interesting leap of thought. If log cabins and skyscrapers and possibly even polyester are things that are natural because they are nature plus human ingenuity, then human ingenuity must also be natural. “Like when I was younger, me and my brother used to take all the remote controls in the house and use them as pretend telephones. I would hold the clicker for the VCR up to my ear and make like I was dialing a number and then I would go “br-r-r-r-ring, br-r-r-r-ring,” and my brother would pick up the clicker for the TV and put it to his ear and we would pretend like we were having a phone conversation. So we were doing something that was part of nature because when children pretend, that’s nature.”

What Rachel said reminded me of an essay by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in which he discusses the way that non-human mammals play with one another. Bateson says that these animals, when they bite each other in play, must have a way of signaling to one another that the bite is a fake bite, not a
real one; otherwise they’d be fighting and not playing. I told the class this and added, “That means dogs have such a thing as ‘make believe,’ too, so even if you’re one of those people who says nature is anything that’s not man-made, you’d have to admit that pretending is natural.”

“See what I’m saying?” Rachel asked.

“So maybe,” I continued, “we can say that at least some of the ways humans change the world are natural, whether the change is physical—like using technology to turn some trees and mud into a log cabin—or mental—like using your imagination to turn a VCR clicker into a telephone.”

The discussion in the sixth grade class I taught that day fol¬lowed a different trajectory. The first twenty minutes were devoted to the differences between city and country, and what in each was natural or unnatural. A charming and opinionated boy named Massimo, for example, made a strong argument for buying “natural” toys for Christmas—that is, toys made one at a time from wood and cloth by trained craftspeople, as opposed to toys made of metal or plastic by electronic equipment on an assembly line. Then the sixth grade humanities teacher, Betsy Pratt, politely raised her hand and said, “There’s one kind of nature that nobody has mentioned so far: human nature.” The talk turned quickly to things people do to their own bodies. Most of the sixth graders were willing to concede that clothing and makeup and hair dye—though perhaps not green hair dye¬—are natural, while all of them were quite adamant that cosmetic surgery is crazy and gross and most emphatically unnatural. As I had done with the seventh graders, I encouraged these kids to consider as natural some of the things that didn’t obviously conform to their ideas of nature—skyscrapers, for instance. But they found a place where they drew an absolute line between nature and non-nature. When people do some¬thing that is against nature by being destructive to nature, then what they are doing is clearly and unequivocally unnatural. The discussion that began with facelifts and tummy tucks moved from doing bad things to your own body toward doing bad things to the bodies of other people and other creatures, i.e., hurting the environment. In fact, the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes all agreed on this point: human carelessness with—and disrespect for—nature isn’t natural. As one girl said, “Maybe a factory is natural because it’s like an ant colony or something, but then if the people dump garbage and chemicals into the river that kill the fish, that’s not natural.”

I realize that by asking my students to consider the meaning of nature this way, I was running the risk of making nature mean so many different things that it would end up meaning nothing at all. But this was a risk I was willing to take, in order to encourage them to pay attention to the world around them, and to pay attention to the way they think about the world and the conclusions they draw about it. The last thing I said was, “For the next seven days, look around the city, and whatever you notice that you think is natural, observe it as carefully as possible, because next week you’ll be writing very thorough descriptions of nature.”

A week later, I began the next session by handing out copies of the first paragraph of an essay by Joseph Mitchell called “The Rivermen.” I asked one of the students to read it aloud to the class. (As I usually do, I asked the other students to circle any words they didn’t know while they were being read to.) Joseph Mitchell was a southerner and a journalist who eventually made his home in New York City. In the middle part of this century he was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and developed an approach to nonfiction writing that combined the fact-gathering techniques of a reporter with the lyrical sensibility and ear for dialogue of a novelist. He was also an avid and delighted observer of urban nature, as this passage demonstrates:

I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it. It hypnotizes me. I like to look at it in midsummer, when it is warm and dirty and drowsy, and I like to look at it in January, when it is carrying ice. I like to look at it when it is stirred up, when a northeast wind is blowing and a strong tide is running—a new-moon tide or a full-moon tide—and I like to look at it when it is slack. It is exciting to me on weekdays, when it is crowded with ocean craft, harbor craft, and river craft, but it is the river itself that draws me, and not the shipping, and I guess I like it best on Sundays, when there are lulls that sometimes last as long as half an hour, during which, all the way from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream. Once, in the course of such a lull, on a Sunday morning in April, 1950, I saw a sea sturgeon rise out of the water. I was on the New Jersey side of the river that morning, sitting in the sun on an Erie Rail¬road coal dock. I knew that every spring a few sturgeon still come in from the sea and go up the river to spawn, as hundreds of thousands of them once did, and I had heard tugboatmen talk about them, but this was the first one I had ever seen. It was six or seven feet long, a big, full-grown sturgeon. It rose twice, and cleared the water both times, and I plainly saw its bristly snout and its shiny little eyes and its white belly and its glistening, greenish-yellow, bony-plated, crocodilian back and sides, and it was a spooky sight.

After we went over vocabulary, I invited my students to mention anything they noticed about the paragraph.

“How old is he?” one girl in the sixth grade class asked.

“Well, he’s dead now, but I think he was middle-aged when he wrote this. Why?”

“Because he seems like a kid.”

“How so?”

“He gets so excited about the river.”

“Where in this paragraph do you see his excitement?”

“He keeps saying ‘I like to look at it’ over and over, like he’s a little kid or something.”

I asked which of the five senses Mitchell invoked in this passage. One student said sight, noting the amazing description of the sturgeon. Another said hearing, because Mitchell hears the tug boatmen talking about the sturgeon. Yet a third said touch, because Mitchell described the river as “warm.”

“Any metaphors or similes in here?” I asked. Someone suggested the word drowsy was a metaphor because water can’t really be drowsy, only a person or animal can, which meant Joseph Mitchell was comparing the river to a person or animal without using like or as. I added that Mitchell used a simile when he described the river as being “unreal as a river in a dream.”

Then I gave them their writing assignment: “Being as specific and passionate as you can, write a short description of something natural that’s in New York City. Remember that people who read this might never have seen or heard or smelled or tasted or touched the thing you’re describing, so help them out by appealing to any or all of their five senses. Also remember that similes and metaphors can help a reader to understand the thing you’re writing about by helping them to understand your feelings about it, plus they can make a piece of writing more fun to read since they usually convey something about the personality of the writer.” I asked one student in each class to repeat the assignment back to me so I could make sure that everyone understood. Then I fielded questions, many of which had to do with whether it was okay to write about a particular thing that wasn’t what people usually thought of as nature. “Is sleep nature?” asked a sixth grade girl named Swan.

“What do you think?”
“I think so.”
“I think so too.” (See her description below.)

Five minutes into the intended writing time, a seventh grader named Chaz wasn’t writing anything. I asked him what was going on. “I can’t think of anything to write,” he said. I asked him if he’d had any memorable encounters with nature.

Chaz, a burgeoning comedian and raconteur, began to describe his philosophical differences with his mother: “She won’t even kill a cockroach because it’s a living creature like herself. But then one time I was in the bathroom and there was this red lizard on the floor. Even I didn’t want to kill that.” He then explained how he gently swept the creature into a dustpan and put it outside the bathroom window, pantomiming his own fear and comically exaggerating the details of the story. I often find that kids who are having writer’s block need little more than a few moments of personal attention from the teacher and a question or two about what’s on their minds.

Following are a few pieces of writing produced by the kids at PPAS, together with my brief comments.

My Favorite Tree

My favorite tree is right in front of my apartment building in Manhattan. In spring, tiny buds open up fast, the first on my street, and sway carelessly, with a lazy feeling, in the cool, swift breeze. It looks prettiest then, unlike in summer. In the summer, the tree changes. It stands upright and still, as though it were glued into the ground. Often times, the tree stands there in the hot summers looking like it lacks water and air. As fall comes, the colors begin to change, and it starts to sway in the breeze again. For the last week of November, the tree looks like it is blazing with fire. The tree loses its leaves with every swipe the wind takes. By Thanksgiving, the first tree to have its leaves would be the first to lose them. The tree looks lonely without its leaves, so bare.

—IZllmi Miyahara, seventh grade

I like how Izumi is alert not only to the physical details of the tree in front of her building, but to how those details change over time. She uses similes and metaphors to convey not only the way the tree looks, but also her own emotional connection to it. And she leaves us with the powerful image of the lonely, bare tree, reminding us that nature is not always a pleasant, regenerative force, but can sometimes be harsh and unsparing.

Sleeping

Sleeping is one of the best things I love to do (next to swimming). What I like about sleeping is… that it smells like fresh roses, it feels like I’m cool and I am in heaven, it looks like I’m in a garden with roses all around me, it sounds like children laughing all around me, it hurts when something bad happens in my dream, and it helps when I have good dreams. Once I wake up it is very different from my dream. It smells like my sister’s bad breath in the next bed, it looks like I’m sick and in bed, it sounds like my sister snoring, it hurts me that I’m not in Wonderland, and it helps me that I’m with my family.

—Swan Echeadia, sixth grade

The two things I like most about Swan’s piece are the odd originality of the subject—given that this was a nature writing assignment—and the variety of sensory imagery, especially the smells. I also like the way she organized the piece, with one paragraph on sleeping followed by a contrasting paragraph on waking. But I do think her way of describing the different sensations of sleeping and waking was a little programmatic: if she had told the story of her dream rather than just making a list of things she smelled, saw, and heard, we readers would have a more complete picture of her dreamworld.

My Backyard

In my backyard I have an old, shattered, worn-down porch. When I stand up there and look down I see my cemented back¬yard, old and gray. I see the swings that hang down from the porch with the blue ropes just like this ink. They have white bot¬toms to sit on, like this page. One of them has a hard bottom and the other one has a hard bottom but flexible and rubber. Behind the cemented ground is my garden with all different kinds of plants, including the roots of my rosebush that hovers over the wood fence that separates my backyard from my neighbors’, as if it is going to eat it. The thorns are short, thick, and SHARP. Next to the rosebush is the grapevine, which seems to be dancing, going in all directions, instead of eating the fence. Then there’s the path that leads to the front of the house…

On the other side of the garden is a patch of some kind of plant that grows short and green, with little white flowers in the middle. Next to the path is a pile of old, old logs that I used to pretend the pioneers collected to burn for firewood. And then there are the steps back up to the porch.

—Emily Parson, sixth grade

I like the big stones of Central Park. They thrust out of the ground like great jaws of a beast. I like the way you can climb up them, and stand on a ledge with the sun beaming on you, and you feel like a god. I like the way you can climb up their jagged rock and slide. I like the bike road that slithers down the side of the river, where I can stroll up the misty brownish water where it glops on top of the small, sandy shore full of soggy wood logs from the devoured dock that the water had eaten up. It smells. It smells like sea water—salty. You can also smell boat fuel from small motorboats. I love that smell, and the calming sight.

—Charlotte Blythe, sixth grade


In my ninety-minute lesson, I was mainly interested in getting kids to be attentive first to their surroundings, and then to the language they use to describe those surroundings. Since this was a journal-writing course, a descriptive passage of prose suited my purposes. But there’s no rule that says you can’t write a poem in your journal. So the next time I teach urban nature writing, I plan to ask my students to write a poem instead of a piece of nonfiction . As a model poem, I’ll use “Millinery District” by Charles Reznikoff:

The clouds, piled in rows like merchandise, become dark; lights are lit in the lofts;
the milliners, tacking bright flowers on straw shapes,
say, glancing out of the windows,
It is going to snow;
and soon they hear the snow scratching the panes. By night it is high on the sills.

The snow fills up the footprints
in the streets, the ruts of wagons and motor trucks.
Except for the whir of the car
brushing the tracks clear of snow,
the streets are hushed.
At closing time, the girls breathe deeply
the clean air of the streets
sweet after the smell of merchandise.

One of the things this poem is about is how people who live in cities have their own unique way of experiencing a natural event like snow. Like the opening paragraph of “The
Rivermen,” “Millinery District” is abundant in sensory information. How do city workers know it’s snowing? They “hear the snow scratching against the panes.” How do they measure how much it has snowed? By how high the snow has piled up on the windowsills, and by how quickly the snow has filled up
footprints and the tracks of wheels, and by how it muffles the usual sounds of the city. I like that opening simile, in which clouds resemble merchandise, and the way that the poem’s last line seems to assert that if all you do is compare nature to merchandise, you’re not being fair to nature.

My writing assignment would be:

1. Describe a very particular kind of weather (a snowstorm, a thunderstorm, a hailstorm, the first warm day of spring, the first cold day of autumn, a summer day of unbearable heat and humidity, etc.).
2. Describe how people in a very particular part of the city notice the weather and react to it.
3. Include, as Reznikoff does, at least one simile that compares something usually considered natural to something usually thought Of as artificial (“the chunks of hail were as big as foot¬balls”).

Since I would be asking the students to write poems based on memories, I’d have them close their eyes for a moment before they started to write. I’d do this to help them remember details about what happened on the day of the dramatic weather event in question. Where were they? Who was there with them? What did the sky look like? Smell like? Sound like? Did anybody make any memorable remarks? How did they feel? They could then use these remembered facts as raw material for the poem.

I offer these few ideas—on how to lead a discussion on nature in an urban classroom and on how to give an urban nature writing assignment—simply as examples of one approach to a huge topic. I am not, as I said, a scientist or a science teacher. But a language arts teacher certainly could join forces with a science teacher to teach nature writing. A lesson on the Joseph Mitchell passage about the Hudson River could be combined with a lesson in marine biology, and a lesson on the Charles Reznikoff poem about snow in the millinery district could be combined with a lesson in meteorology. The nice thing about nature writing is that it links creative writing with science, and offers students an imaginative way to make a personal investment in scientific facts.

This essay is dedicated to James Hairston, Betsy Pratt. and Joe Ubiles.

Bibliography

Bateson, Gregory. “A Theory of Play and Fantasy.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Mitchell, Joseph. “The Rivermen.” In Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Random House, 1993.

Reznikoff, Charles. “Millinery District.” In Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. Edited by Philip Lopate. New York: The Library of America, 1998.