This past weekend, I had the extreme pleasure of attending the smallest conference I have attended to date: “The World We Have Imagined: Literature, Nature, and the Environment,” hosted by the lovely Alice Bendinelli and John Scaggs at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. Winfield is about 45 minutes southeast of Wichita and hosts about 550 undergrads on its tidy little campus. When I told friends I was leaving for Kansas for the weekend, I only got one positive response (“I love the Midwest!” a student proclaimed), but I found it to be very lovely. Wide open spaces appeal to me, as I’m from southern Idaho, a region chock-full of tiny farming communities. Kansas reminded me of the first landscapes of my memory.
I struggle with conferences. They seem like such an unaccountable extravagance: paying all that money, taking the time to travel, getting behind on grading and research, leaving your students to fend for themselves, leaving the poor husband to single-parent-it. So this time, I made a list of why conferences are still so necessary in this increasingly digital age:
- Conferences offer the room and the space to think
- Engaging new ideas, authors, theories, scholars
- Visiting new campuses / areas of the country (I especially loved that this conference at Southwestern allowed us to stay in the dorms for a very low price. Easy on the budget and while not terribly comfortable, relaxing or quiet, a great way to experience a new college campus!)
- Make new contacts and, dare I say, friends
- Work on oral presentation skills (always a tricky thing)
- Mastering the game of conferences, especially the art of inserting yourself into conversations at social events
- Learn, experience, change, grow
- Sheer enjoyment – the academic life can sometimes be quite paltry when it comes to perks. Is it so bad that we get together and party in the way academics party (good old-fashioned discussion of new ideas) every once in awhile?
I also enjoyed this conference because it was my first in-depth introduction to eco-criticism (the study of the land and of the relationship between human and non-human nature in literature). As a self-proclaimed strident feminist and strident environmentalist (I use cloth diapers! I compost! I turn off lights like a mad thing!), it’s only natural that I get into eco-criticism. This conference proved to be the generous and lovely introduction that I had hoped.
Part of its generosity and loveliness was due to its intimacy. With only about 30 presenters, the conference was so small that we didn’t even have to cycle in between rooms or choose between simultaneous panels of speakers. All the panels took place in one large conference room, resulting in the largest audience that I have ever presented to. I usually get between 5-15 people in attendance at my panels. At a small conference in Puerto Rico, I had the extremely uncomfortable experience of being the only attendee at a panel of three presenters! When the Q&A time came along, all three heads swiveled my way!
So, I will continue to sing the praises of small conferences. I made some excellent new friendships, and had the space to really enjoy these new people. We had a lovely wine and cheese evening at a local B&B the first evening: http://www.bluestembedandbreakfast.com/. The B&B was accessible only by several seemingly-abandoned dirt roads – we thought we were lost numerous times!
The conference dinner was held at whimsical Bartlett Arboretum in nearby Belle Plaine (http://www.bartlettarboretum.com/).
After a brief tour, we dined by candlelight on homemade lasagna, salad and decadent desserts in a barn-like room strung with twinkle lights. There was plenty of wine and the small room positively resounded with laughter and merry conversation. It was one of those lovely moments in life that you just want to hold on to. I would argue that this sort of Woolfian “moment of being” simply does not have the space in which to flourish at the larger conferences; at least, not in my experience.
So here are some of my conference takeaways, in much reduced form: things that interested me, questions I have, books or authors or ideas to explore further. These thoughts are preceded by the speaker name if they occurred in the midst of a presentation, or if they are taken directly from a presentation (as is most often the case).
Jenny Morse – how does language work to control our habits in landscapes, and our perceptions of them? Different linguistic systems interact with nature differently (there are very different words for concepts of colors, for example). (Jenny and I commuted together from Colorado, and I consider her a dear friend, despite our lack of navigational abilities!)
Khimen Cooper – how do characters reflect their environment, change because of it? Read Maze Runner – a dystopian Young Adult text
John Badley – Jeremiah 4 echoes creation in Genesis 1, but Jeremiah’s is an undoing of creation meant to strike fear and horror in readers. In the Bible, the landscape reflects the health of the relationship between God and humans. Blighted landscapes like that in Jeremiah showcase the “decreated instability” of the world outside God’s order. (After bonding over our mutual love of Jesus, John gave me a hand-written note at the end of the conference listing key works of Biblical scholarship and calling me “brilliant and delightfully extroverted.” Love that John.)
Elizabeth Dodd (keynote speaker) – the idea of different forms of time: ecological, deep, human. She spoke of her time at Siccar Point, an ecological wonder in Scotland, and of Scotland’s generous land rights, which allow Scots to access all land (private or public) from midnight to noon. In the accompanying literature for these land rights, the word “enjoy” is used 33 times, while the word “resource” is used only once. After her presentation, I asked her about her favorite ecological spots in America, and she told me Canyonlands National Park (Utah, near Moab) and Canyon of the Ancients (Colorado’s four-corners region).
Linda Smith – humans must have a sense of place to care about the environment. There is a great need for “ethical obligation to the land.” She encourages all of us to devote just one class each semester to nature: getting our students out in nature, in silence. (It is largely thanks to Linda that I’m conceiving of my next semester’s classes, Masterpieces of British Literature, as organized around nature and the environment in lit! I’ll expand on this in subsequent posts.) She introduced me to Aldo Leopold, and two great organizations for teachers: The Leopold Foundation and the Aldo Leopold Project: http://www.aldoleopold.org/programs/lep.shtml . As a class exercise, she tacks up Leopold quotes around the room, then students walk around, choose their favorite, and write about why it resonates with them. I love the movement of this exercise and plan on using it in my own class. She also spoke of an essay assignment in which students observe and take notes on some environmental issue, writing about why it’s important and who is affected by it, and using all-important field observation techniques. Linda inspired me to ask my children to describe things in nature more often: twigs, stones, trees. Just taking a few moments to observe and reflect on their twigness, stoneness, treeness is an incredibly important and life-affirming exercise, I think.
Kim Perez – Tommy Anne and the Three Hearts (1896), by Mabel Wright (1859-1934). A whimsical book for kids rooted in nature. Because children naturally anthropomorphize nature and animals, the Victorian era used animals and plants as teachers.
Brenda Craven – Once in August – a documentary following Margaret Atwood in nature. “People really like to create poison” – Atwood. Ethics of environmental engagement: what are they? What should they be? How can we reconcile the two?
Sharla Hutchinson – Can a writer ethically represent the non-human world?
Pedagogy ideas (can’t remember whose presentation this is – sorry) – begin class with mindful meditation – also see article in The Chronicle. Use SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) to begin a class. The importance of silence for our undergrads, who are always plugged in. Show a movie like Food, Inc. – get them angry. Take them on a walk and have them list all the things they observe, then have them write an essay, poem, haiku, etc. The essentialness of being in nature, where you can be at peace in not being in control of every little detail of your environment (vs. controlling everything about our environment all the time).
Lucia Novaes – women are only supposed to gain power in certain spaces – “rejection of domestic space.” (Lucia is from Rio. Love her.)
Margaret Borders – solitude is a human construct. The idea of raising offspring you haven’t created/generated and collective parenting.
Margaret Kramer – Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” – the main character’s name is Sylvia (my daughter’s name)! How do characters travel – linear or otherwise? Who stays? Who wanders? Who speaks? Who is silent (aligned with “dumb” nature)? What represents the outside world in a text? Which character is becoming more—more human, more other, more what he or she is supposed to be? Wendell Berry – people do not have a sense of place.
Iván Iglesias – what does it mean to be human? Material determinism and place attachment – the place makes the man/woman. To have or assert a truth, you must be in the world. (Iván, from Colombia, is simply fabulous.)
Nino Rapin – we are powerless in the face of nature in ourselves – it washes all away (Nino is from Germany. His presentation on Robert Frost’s poetry was wonderful, and I wish I had more notes from it! I was too busy drinking it all in, I guess. I do have a great line up on my chalkboard in my kitchen now: “Spring is the mischeif in me,” from Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.”)
Alice Bendinelli – “I distrust any statement of identity,” as it is founded more in absence and lack than in presence. Animals do not possess that which is proper to man: language, morals, ethics, concepts of right/wrong, yet they prompt strong ethical responses in humans. Citing Bentham, the question is not if animals can reason, but if they can suffer. Language should exist in a network of experience: music, telepathy, somatic experience – all forms of shared discovery. What is it to be human? What is the role of the human in nature?
Maria Kochis – she presented a bibliography of essential nature reading. The ones I jotted down to read or revisit later (I am a complete novice in this area) are:
- Life on the Mississippi (Twain)
- Walden (Thoreau)
- Anne Dillard
- Wendell Barry
- The Solace of Open Spaces
- Gary Snyder
- Dwellings (Linda Hogan)
- Wonderful Life (Gould)
- Sand County Almanac (Leopold)
- I would add Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance to this list – one of my favorite nature books
Kase Johnstun – he read a creative non-fiction account that seamlessly linked the blighted landscape and a man dying from cancer. My favorite line: “we drank too much wine and never regretted what we said.” (Kas and I both have Lucases that are almost two. Kase was, and is, delightful. I’m so glad we met.)
My own questions: What is the link between landscape/environment and reproduction? How does pregnancy/reproduction reflect/inhabit landscape? What is beauty, nature, and what is our role in them? Is there a “poetics of responsibility” in other discourses aside from ecocriticism?
My “Conference Essentials” takeaways: Be succinct. Offer concrete examples. Do not gloss the plot. Use visual aids. Read slowly. Ad lib if you can. Engage your audience at all costs. Present clear ideas, simply. Showcase your argument and your new ideas. Make sure the audience can follow even if they are unfamiliar with the text. Use pointers like, “I will focus on four main ideas…”
I have many more notes, but this entry is already long enough. After typing all of this out, I can see the tremendous takeaway value of this conference for me. Thank you, Alice, John, and Southwestern College for a lovely weekend, and major thanks to my husband and my mom for holding down the fort in my absence!