Issue 1, Spring 2008
Words and Woods Kicks Off
Its Fourth Season of Workshops
Every human language secretes a kind of perceptual boundary that hovers, like a translucent veil, between those who speak that language and the sensuous terrain that they inhabit. As we grow into a particular culture or language, we implicitly begin to structure our sensory contact with the earth around us in a particular manner, paying attention to certain phenomena while ignoring others, differentiating textures, tastes, and tones in accordance with the verbal contrasts contained in the language.
– David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous (1996)
Words and Woods kicked off the spring semester 2008 with one of its most exciting events yet. On January 17th, Jonathan Gilligan, Senior Lecturer in Earth and Environmental Sciences, inspired a crowd in Alumni Hall with a talk on two topics: the role of rhetoric in the climate change debate and the role of nature and place in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Gilligan is adapting for the stage in an ongoing collaboration with his mother. Professor Gilligan stressed the dif iculty faced by environmentalists and concerned scientists in generating a sense of urgency about a problem like climate change, which unfolds over the course of several human generations. This dif iculty contributes to the strategy behind many of the images and rhetorical moves that dominate media portrayals of climate change, Gilligan explained, including reminders about retreating glaciers, calving ice shelves, and trees and lowers blooming out of season. These images of beautiful places changed by global warming aim to generate an emotional response in their audience, to express the dramatic consequences of a process that might otherwise seem remote in time and space.
Professor Gilligan’s discussion of adapting The Scarlet Letter for stage moved our considerations of language, space, and place into exciting, new territory. As Professor Gilligan reminisced about hiking the same trails in Massachusetts that Hawthorne had hiked over a century before, read aloud from The Scarlet Letter, and performed lines from his own play, he offered the audience in Alumni Hall the opportunity to consider Hawthorne’s and his own use of natural imagery to affect our understanding of social and moral issues. After attendees spent some time writing in response to Gilligan’s presentation, a lively question and answer session followed in which audience members traced out the connections between political and literary rhetoric.
Words and Woods is a series of place-based writing workshops dedicated to exploring the ways that language shapes our understanding and appreciation of the natural world. These workshops were initiated in the fall of 2006 to support the mission of the Writing Studio to foster interdisciplinary conversation about writing at Vanderbilt. To this end, all Words and Woods workshops offer the opportunity for written re lection and discussion. Past workshops have included a visit to Chris Drury’s exhibit Inside Out/Outside In at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, a guided tour of the campus arboretum with Steve Baskauf, Senior Lecturer in Biology and creator of the Vanderbilt online tree tour, and an exploration of the environmental aesthetics of haiku. This fall, Words and Woods took its irst trip off-campus, collaborating with Vanderbilt’s Outdoor Recreation program to take a group of students backpacking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Out itted with cameras, journals, and a copy of Edward Abbey’s 1972 collaboration with photographer Eliot Porter, Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains, we set off into the northeast corner of the park to enrich our experience of the outdoors through words and images. Participants hiked the Low Gap trail, wrote poetry and chased butter lies at lunch, photographed lowers and caterpillars, and camped out near a babbling brook, whose language we tried to translate into our journals on the inal morning of our travels. Images from the trip and excerpts from participants’ journals are posted on the Writing Studio Web site under “Events.”
Two workshops remain for the spring semester. On April 14, Steve Baskauf will return with the leaves for another tour of the campus arboretum. Then in early May, Words and Woods will take a second trip to the Smokies with Ed Abbey. This time we’ll spend four days away from campus, long enough to hike to the Albright Grove, one of the last remaining stands of old-growth forest in the East. Keep an eye on the Writing Studio Web site for more information about these exciting opportunities.