Environmental Literature Challenges

Excerpt from syllabus by Colin Irvine for ENL 270

Challenges: During the term, you will be invited to participate in a number of challenges designed to encourage and, perhaps, enable you to think more deeply about the materials we are studying and, as importantly, about your relationship to the texts and to the landscape (literal and literary) of which they are a part. Put another way, the intent here is to help you learn to “think like a mountain” (Leopold).

Challenge #1: Becoming a Budding Phenologist (pun intended)

Your task is to select a plot of land you can visit two three times a week for a few minutes at a time (it can be on campus, near the river, near home…wherever, as long as it’s outside). You will spend time there in that space/place observing, recording, and reflecting one what you find/hear/note/think. You are welcome to be as creative as you like in the way that you handle this task: you can simply record your observation in a notebook; you can create a blog; you can mingle pictures with reflections, whatever, just as long as you carefully observe, record, and reflect on what find and think in that place.

Challenge #2: This One’s for the Birds

Twice each week, I will post on Moodle a bird from the Birds of Minnesota Field Guide. Your challenge will be to learn to identify these birds, sometimes by their physical characters and at other times by their calls. On the midterm and again on the final, I will provide a matching section which will involve matching a description/picture with a name or description/call with a name. If you think this is unreasonable, you can give me a bird if you wish. http://www.holoweb.com/cannon/birds.htm

Challenge #3: Stop Frittering Away Your Life

“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.” Thoreau. The challenge, five days straight in the same outfit: why waste precious time and energy (real and figurative) picking and wearing and wearing clothes when you could be reading something wonderful or writing something amazing or, better yet, doing nothing outside?

Challenge #5: Bear Grylls has Got Nothing on You

By the end of spring break, spend 24 uninterrupted hours in Minnesota’s great outdoors. Log your experience through reflections and photos; report back to the group one where you went, what you did, what you saw, and what you learned. (Yes. I am assigning a camping trip. You’re on your own. Go when you want, where you want, and with whomever you want. Enjoy.)

Challenge #6: Going Off the Grid

You will be asked to go off the grid for three days—a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Though there are many reasons tied to this course that I am presenting you with this challenge, here are four of the most important: first, when we are plugged in, we are often tuned out to the natural sights and sounds specific and central to this course’s focus on landscape; second, when we are off the grid, we are more inclined to sync with those around us, an important consideration given the emphasis in this course on communities; third, unplugging means consuming less and thus preserving/conserving more (if I need to explain this further, I will, though I hope it’s not necessary); fourth (though not finally), much of today’s communications-based technology reinforces the idea that having instant access to information in small bits represents progress—I am hoping we can explore the counter idea that long, sustained, complicated ideas earned through persistence and focus might likewise be worth pursuing when one is trying to wrap her/his mind around something as involved as the biota and something equally complex as the problems besetting it (one doesn’t learn to dive deeply by taking short breath; one must instead train the body and the brain).

Challenge #7: Can I Borrow Your Book

You will note on the calendar that the last book we will read for the course is Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. You likely already noted that it’s not available in the bookstore. So, here’s the deal: you need to borrow it from somebody (perhaps a stranger), and you need to convince that person to let you give it to somebody else (even though it’s not your book). Good luck.

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