I read three essays today, on the eve of my workshop class starting. The first two are collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015, edited by Rebecca Skloot (and series editor, Tim Folger).
Here are my notes:
“The City and the Sea” by Meera Subramanian, originally published in Orion.
I love how this essay allows the writing student to glimpse one of Subramanian’s writerly decisions. She has several “sub stories” in this longer essay about climate change and urban policy, but she chooses one of them to open with. Why not one of the others? What does the example of a beachfront property owner planting trees do that, say, high school kids growing oysters or the (at the time) burgeoning Staten Island Bluebelt project wouldn’t? I would ask that question, because I have been to that high school and I have gone scuba diving with those kids and so I know that they could have provided just as rich of an opening “scene”–but Subramanian chose trees and dunes. We could discuss that move, and how this particular policy piece was structured to be rich in small scenes and vibrant scenery.
“Curious” by Kim Todd, originally published in River Teeth.
I ask my students to do an exercise very early on to help them generate ideas, and it involves picking two potentially disparate ideas and thinking about ways they could be related, or could inform one another. This essay by Todd is about Suriname toads but also about how curiosity acts upon the mind, what it can lead people and other animals to do in the name of satisfying it. One thing that I find very interesting about this essay has to do with several questions Todd includes, which were originally designed to inspire curiosity in test subjects. The questions hang on the page, unanswered until the very end of the essay. I wanted to know the answers, but I wonder if I would have wanted to know more if they hadn’t been answered at all–or would I then leave the essay wondering about animals and sunburns or how sea wasps swim, rather than contemplating the boundaries and benefits of curiosity. I also like this essay because it serves as an example from a “literary” magazine of quality science writing (and selfishly because it originally appeared in the same issue of RT that I did–I wondered why it sounded familiar).
“A Hidden Superfund Site on Experimental Road” by Mary Heather Noble, originally published in Fourth Genre.
Noble does a wonderful job of scene setting, and re-setting, and re-setting in this piece. I am already planning on incorporating it into the section about describing the “stage” upon which your essay takes place, as part of the discussion threads, this section, and hopefully in the reading list, if I am asked to teach it again. If I were teaching a composition class, I might also ask students to consider how Noble appeals to readers’ emotions, and whether as readers they feel manipulated by that, or drawn in to the exigency of the home and farm owners. This one really resonated with me when she began talking about why she had to leave her former career. I spent five years working for an environmental and consumer protection lobby, and I became so disillusioned about the political process when it came to protecting people from poisons in the air and water. She says, about the work of identifying and monitoring pollutants, “Once you know, you always know, and you can’t avert your eyes.” That’s how I felt for years after working (unsuccessfully) for half a decade to strengthen the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.