Knowing Place Through Plants: A Week-long Series of Observational and Writing Exercises
Botanical Writing Exercises
English 316: Environmental Writing
Semester in the Wild Program, University of Idaho
Taylor Wilderness Field Station, Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness
Preparatory Group Activity
Spend two hours together in the library at the Taylor Wilderness Field Station, looking at the website Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas. Look particularly at the Plant Index section of the website and consider the kinds of physical and cultural details provided for each plant. What does the concept of “sacred plants” mean?
Group Exercise: Preparing a Plant Inventory
Using Ray S. Vizgirdas’s 2018 Field Guide to Food & Survival Plants Along Idaho’s Centennial Trail and other guides to plants in the vicinity of the research station, spend a day working in teams of three or four students to take an inventory of the plants you can identify. Note where you found each plant, take pictures with your phones, sit with the plants and carefully sketch them in your notebooks, and describe the settings in which you found them with a few sentences. The Plant Index section of Microcosms is a helpful model for the entries in your own Taylor plant inventory.
Using the Vizgirdas guide or another guide from the research station’s library, add information about the names and traditional uses of the plants you’ve found to the draft of your inventory. If the guidebooks offer information specifically about how native people from the region have used and thought about the plants, include this in your own inventories. Type up copies of your inventories and add the photographs and drawings.
Solitary Exercises: Five-Day Field Journal and Reflective Narrative
Select one plant that you find to be especially beautiful or interesting, and spend the next five days visiting this plant. Find a comfortable place to sit near the plant. Return for half an hour (or longer) each day. Write at least five sentences in your notebook each day, describing the physical details of the plant, capturing its shapes and colors, counting its branches and blossoms, smelling it, touching it. Build a succession of descriptions that capture the physical nuances of the plant you’ve selected.
At the end of the five days, write a two-page narrative about your weeklong series of encounters with the plant you’ve chosen to observe. How has your understanding of this plant changed during the course of your contact with it? Even if you have not made actual medicinal or nutritional use of the plant, what have you learned about the value of this plant—its aesthetic contributions to the place, its ecological significance? Include in your story of encounters, some reflections on how a particular plant becomes meaningful to us, perhaps even sacred, when we pay close attention to it over time and weave it into the fabric of our lives.
Scott Slovic, University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Humanities, University of Idaho.