This fall EN126f American Environmental Writing Since Thoreau: The Story of People and Nature

This fall EN126f American Environmental Writing Since Thoreau: The Story of People and Nature focused on broad themes such as observing, exploring, working the land, and dwelling in place, we thoughtfully and critically engaged American environmental writing since Thoreau. As part of the course the students wrote This I Believe essays. Below are three exceptional essays from that class.

Awakening Anima, Ben Semmes

I believe in cold water.

I rest on firm bedrock: stable, safe, staring out at the white bubbling, watching the swirling current carve around rocks and fall from small ledges. Water finds the path of least resistance. Drips join drops, and trickling streams follow. I can smell the brook in the air. It is not a murky-mucky stagnant smell, but rather a clean and continuously renewed cold. A question arises as I gaze into the depths. Light penetrates the stream’s surface, but the bed is never fully illuminated. Shadows shift, reflections glimmer, and the always-moving chain of cold water continues. The answer I seek isn’t visible, but it is perceivably near. I believe the cold water holds a secret. There is mystery in this sentinel way of seeing the water, even meditation for some, but I believe there is an easier pathway to glimpse ephemeral enlightenment.

As I drop below the surface sound is extinguished; my skin tightens and I am fully present. I believe that nothing puts me more in the moment than the awakening reality of cold water. Rising to the surface, I take my first breath. Like a child at birth, a lusty lungful pulls life back into my body. Anima, in the true Latin meaning of the word is the soul, mind, life force, and breath. The breath feeds the body, the heart keeps beating, and the mind is clear. My cold-water reunion casts me back on dry land, returning to the warmer air of terrestrial life renewed, refreshed, and alert to the life force within.

I believe in the invigorating and grounding powers of this black brook. I believe in its cold water’s ability to awaken something forgotten yet long awaited. I say, jump off the cliff into the blueblack flowing unknown. Slip into these exhilarating emerald pools. Shiver and shake, let your teeth rattle, and celebrate it! In cold we reach a heightened state where some primordial memory half returns. Cold is not uncaring, and emotionless. Welcome these grounding moments, and embrace them with your whole being. Thoreau writes that most men live lives of quiet desperation. When we surface from the cold waters we cry out in shock; the soul is yelling, “I am alive, I am alive!”


Bacteria, Birds, and Me, Tomas Abt

I used to be sick. Not a little sick, like a persistent cold or allergies, but really sick. Like being in my bed for a year or two or three because I just didn’t have the strength to lift my head. That kind of sick.

Before, I would often go outside, go hiking, cover myself in mud and dead leaves and hide in the bushes, climb trees, or explore the stream. This made me happy, really happy. When I knew I could go outside whenever I wanted, I felt free and limitless. I was in control of my life! But when I got sick with Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection I probably caught on one of those amazing outdoor days, everything I knew# fell apart. I lost the world around me, I lost my friends, I lost my family, I lost nature, and I lost myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore and didn’t know how to find who I had been. I thought my life would amount to nothing more than forever in my bed, unaware of the world around me, unable to participate in even the most menial aspects of society. Perpetuity in my personal world of misery seemed to me the only reality. For the three best years of high school, I felt hopeless.

Unbelievably, I recovered my physical and mental health. I didn’t do it on my own. It took support from multiple sources before I could haul myself out of that mental and physical abyss.Now, when I recall my healing process, I realize that nature showed me the path up those steep walls. Without its championing me, I would still be home, in my room, perpetuating my personal world of misery.

There was a window in one of the offices I went to for treatment that I constantly gazed out of. Outside of this window was a bird feeder, and on that bird feeder were birds. During treatment, I lay on my back and watched those birds: cardinals, ravens, titmice, downy, hairy, andred-bellied woodpeckers – and European starlings, too – all flitting about, calling, cawing, and competing for food. You know, birds being birds.

This avian display was precisely what I needed. This energy, this primal life force, was exactly what Lyme disease had stolen from me. Over many months, the birds gradually restored my self-confidence and my will to live. Those birds reminded me of who I had been, and who I could become. I have a full life to live ahead of me! I believe in those birds on the birdfeeder, calling, cawing, and competing for food. And because of them, I once again believe in myself.


Make Room for Silence, Hannah Kwasman

Classrooms, work places, city streets, and restaurants are filled with noise. The clicking of a pen, the ticking of a clock, out of tune brakes screeching to a halt, and forks clanking on plates make up the noise that people are accustomed to in every day life. Distractions come from every direction as sound upon sound is layered on top of one another. The noise of the fan barely drones out the noise of your neighbor’s dog, which is only interrupted by the buzzing of your phone on the table and the notification noise of an outgoing email. To focus solely on one task is nearly impossible in today’s day in age. I believe in silence.

The muffled sound after a recent snowfall. The sound of my footsteps beating against the forest trail. The sound of a paddle dipping just beneath the surface of a still lake. This is my escape from the noise of every day life. The outdoors; time spent in nature. A time spent away from the constant clicking, ticking, beeping and screeching that is so hard not to hear.

I have always been the quiet one in my family. Perhaps it is because I like sitting aside listening to and observing others, or perhaps it is because I’ve always had my older brother absorbing the spot light. Maybe it is because I have found that my most meaningful experiences have been ones where the ringing of a phone or the honking of a horn does not interrupt my thoughts. Although absolute silence does not exist, quiet spaces are essential in absorbing experience and learning from one’s surroundings. Silence gives perspective. It gives room not only for observations and critical thinking, but also for meditation and random ponderings. It gives room for me.

Whether I decide to wake up early on a weekend and get first tracks on the mountain, or simply choose to go for a run through the woods, my time spent in nature is my time to be silent. I opt out of being “plugged-in” and leave my headphones at home. The sound of ripping through powder, my footsteps on the trail, and my own laborious breathing are the only soundtrack I need. In a world filled with noise, I make room for silence.