I recently attended a wonderful writer’s conference near Bend, Oregon sponsored by Women Writing the West. One of the most memorable sessions of the conference was a workshop on “Landscape as Character” led by two Colorado writers – Dawn Wink and Susan J. Tweit. For anyone writing about people and places in the West, the landscape looms large. But Wink and Tweit say that no matter where you live, paying attention to small details is the best way to understand the big picture.
For example, plant biologist Tweit says that in the modern age we tend to use our sense of smell the least, which is a shame because it can evoke some of our most powerful memories. To help us tap into our non-visual senses she had us close our eyes for five minutes and write down what we experienced. No surprise, it was much easier to tune into the sounds, smells and physical sensations of the room once we’d turned off the “video.”
Try it yourself. Take out a pencil and paper, set a timer and close your eyes. Don’t worry. You’ll still be able to read your scribbles when you’re done. Were you surprised by what you smelled, heard, touched and tasted?
Another helpful exercise came by way of a worksheet Tweit provided. Take out another sheet of paper and answer these questions as best you can.
- What watershed is your place part of? (Note: A watershed is the area where all the water under it or off of it drains to the same place. Mine is the San Francisco Bay. To find yours go here.)
- What bioregion is your place part of? (Great Basin, for instance, or Cascade Range)
- What is the name of the closest prominent local landmark?
- Name ten plants characteristic of the place:
- Ten birds:
- Twenty animals/fish/insects/reptiles:
- Name ten historical figures whose lives or actions shaped the story of the place:
- Which Indian groups lived in the area? What were their names for the place?
After I’d answered these questions to help with the revisions on the early chapters of my novel-in-progress set in northern Switzerland I felt like I should have been awarded a merit badge (or at least a bar of Swiss chocolate.) It was a very helpful exercise and one I’m excited to repeat for the San Francisco Bay Watershed where I live now. As well as the Henry’s Fork Watershed in Idaho where I grew up and the Bear River Watershed in Utah where the rest of my novel takes place.
Even if you’re not a writer but would like to have a better understanding of where you live, answering these questions–and engaging your senses as you do so–will enrich your life. Especially if you indulge in some locavore chocolate when you’re done.
Have you found ways to learn more about your landscape beyond photographs?