We’re introducing you to the creative, intelligent and environmentally savvy scholars leading us on our adventures (register for one here). Our scholars will help infuse the humanities into each excursion by facilitating interesting conversations that connect environmental literature, nature and the past, present and future of Hoosier stewardship. Be sure to check the blog throughout the summer to “meet the minds!”
Jason Goldsmith, English Professor at Butler University.
What excursions will you lead?
What drew you to Next Indiana Campfires? How does it connect to your professional or personal interests?
In 2005, I took a job as an English professor at Butler University. While I enjoy the job, moving to Indiana left me and my wife disconnected from family and friends. Exploring the landscape has helped ground me and make this place feel more like a home. The Next Indiana Campfires series seemed like a great way to share my love for the environment and literature.
What author, book, essay or poem first awakened an interest in environmental writing? Tell us a little about when you read it and how it impacted you.
While I had always read books on the natural world growing up, my real interest in environmental writing was sparked by the work of a nineteenth-century English poet, John Clare. Unlike many of the writers I was studying in graduate school—William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, P.B. Shelley—Clare was poor, self-educated, and sustained himself working the fields around Northamptonshire. Like his peers, he wrote poems celebrating nature, not sublime mountains but the small rural patch he called home. He wrote of fens and wheat ripening and yellowhammers and pettichaps. Clare’s work emerged out of intense, direct observation. And it was rendered in a language that seemed to spring from the very fields he described. In the poem “Winter Fields” he describes a shepherd heading home in the evening:
For fields are mire and sludge – and badly off
Are those who on their pudgy paths delay.
There striding shepherd seeking driest way,
Fearing night’s wetshod feet and hacking cough
That keeps him waken till the peep of day,
Goes shouldering onward and with ready hook
Progs off to ford the sloughs that nearly meet
Across the lands …
While this may at first seem outdated and difficult to comprehend, when I look past the rhyme and the meter I recognize a strikingly modern relationship to the natural world, a relationship based in close physical encounter and intimate local knowledge. These are hallmarks of contemporary environmental writing that I find in writers from Thoreau and Muir to Annie Dillard and Scott Russell Sanders.
Where’s your favorite place to spend time outdoors in Indiana? Have you discovered a hidden gem that more Hoosiers should know about?
I am a big fan of the White River. This might be cheating because it runs some 362 miles from its source in Randolph County to where it drains into the Wabash near Mount Carmel. I love how much the river changes. I’ve seen it in flood and in drought. I’ve traced it to where it begins as a run-off ditch on a farm field. I’ve paddled sections of the West fork that feel remote from civilization. You get to see the backsides of farm fields. You glide through cities. Since it flows through Indianapolis and right past Butler, I can visit it daily. Here, just minutes from my house I’ve seen newly hatched northern black snakes undulate in its ripples, sighted coyotes on the opposite bank trotting upstream in the middle of the day, and watched a red fox unwisely harry a great blue heron.
What’s the focus of your scholarly research / creative practice? How does it relate to nature and the environment?
I am currently writing a book on nature writing. I am an artist, as well. Not a terribly skilled one, but I do enjoy painting and sketching. I find the process of making art more interesting than the final product. Drawing offers me a way to see the world more intensely. It is a form of meditation, I suppose. When I sit down with a sketchpad, my mind quiets, the world contracts as my attention focuses around a single object. As the artist David Hockney put is, “Drawing is an enhanced way of looking.” I’ll probably have my sketchbook with me on these excursions and I encourage others to bring one along as well. Writing and sketching complement one another quite well.
As for a hidden gem, I’d say the Scott Starling Nature Preserve on the north side of Eagle Creek Park, a small but rich parcel of various habitats including wetlands, prairie, steep wooded ridges. If you like birds, this is a great place to visit during migration season.
Is there an environmental humanities topic or text that you love teaching? What is it, and why do you love using it in the classroom?
Uhm … just one? That’s tough. I could mention classic works like Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac or Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, both of which always lead to dynamic and engaging discussions. But I guess the one text that I find myself coming back to again and again is Wallace Stevens’ brief poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It isn’t necessarily an environmental text, but it lends itself to the kinds of issues that I find when I think about our relationship to nature.
Okay, just for fun! If you could have a bobble-head of any Hoosier living or dead, who would it be and why?
Axl Rose or David Lee Roth. Rock & Roll.
Next Indiana Campfires is a unique way to connect nature, literature and Indiana’s Bicentennial. The program is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires. Indiana Humanities is supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the National Endowment of the Humanities.
This post is part of the weekly blog series devoted to the initiative. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about Indiana’s great environmental literature, find out interesting facts about Hoosier stewardship, get all the latest program details and more.