Nature writing is something I have loved since I was young. Throughout elementary school, I went on many nature and poetry walks, where I loved being outside and reflecting on what I experienced through writing. Since elementary school, nature writing has been something I have only pursued outside of classroom settings; I was very excited to participate in this course so I would once again be able to work on nature writing in class. I was also excited to participate in the fieldwork and research components of the class, and to do so with my dear friend as my project partner.
Reilly and I began our project with the proposal to research Craggy Gardens, a location in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is famous for its annual floral blooms. The mission for our project, which involved identifying and tracing human and ecological narratives within the Craggy Gardens “storied landscape”, is something that I am incredibly interested in. I was also interested in exploring the different metaphors we used in our project proposal. The primary metaphor we developed in our proposal was based on William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep map” as a method of exploring place. In our proposal, we also touched on the idea of human and ecological narratives as having been woven together into a single story, which uses fabric as another metaphor for a storied landscape.
I was very excited to begin researching Craggy Gardens and to explore these different ways of understanding place, but was also a little nervous about how our project would unfold. I was concerned that we might have undertaken a project that would be broad and difficult to develop, and was unsure of whether we would be able to find our own voices while writing about a location that had already been well documented. Snow and wintry weather also kept me from visiting Craggy Gardens for the first few weeks after we had decided on our project site.
In the meantime, I took several trips to UNCA’s archives and another trip to the archives of Asheville’s public library. Researching Craggy Gardens through archival sources was a wonderful way of exploring the landscape that helped me understand not only how the landscape had changed overtime, but also how it had meant many things to different people and shaped many people’s lives. I had not travelled to Craggy Gardens before beginning this project so, when the snow cleared and Reilly and I were able to travel to Craggy Gardens, I had a deeper appreciation for the history of the landscape than I would have had before
Our first visit to Craggy Gardens inspired us to reshape of our website. The hemlock and wildflower layers of the deep map of Craggy Gardens combined into a “vegetation” page. A “landscape” page, which we had considered including in our initial project contract but had not added up until that point, became the fifth layer of the deep map of Craggy Gardens. With the vegetation and landscape layers, we were still able to explore two ecological narratives of Craggy Gardens, but were able to do so more broadly. These pages also worked well as physical layers — sky layered over vegetation layered over landscape. We planned to combine these layers with human narratives, which we explored through archival research in the Blue Ridge Parkway and historical activism pages.
After we finalized the layers of the deep map of Craggy Gardens, we began to fill them in with a combination of information from archival sources, information about ecology and personal writing. I hope to be a biologist in the future, and felt that this quote by Robin Wall Kimmerer really encapsulated how I feel about the connection between science and the natural world:
“We measure, record and analyze in ways that might seem lifeless but to us are the conduits to understanding the inscrutable lives of species not our own. Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity with the more-than-human world. Science can be a way of forming intimacy and respect with other species. It can be a path to kinship.” (Braiding Sweetgrass)
Science, as a discipline, also has its limitations, as it relies on hard facts and testable data as its primary source of information about the world. While scientific disciplines give us a very thorough ways of studying and learning, they lack many other equally important sources of information, such as traditional knowledge as well as one’s personal, intuitive experiences of the world. I was grateful to be a part of this class because it allowed me to explore other ways of knowing a place, which include history, stories, intuition and personal reflection. Robin Wall Kimmerer has more thoughts on the intersection of science with other disciplines, which she writes about in Gathering Moss:
“In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that a thing cannot be understood until it is known by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by body and interpreted by mind. In order to tell the mosses’ story I need both approaches, objective and subjective. These essays intentionally give voice to both ways of knowing, letting matter and spirit walk companionably side by side. And sometimes even dance.” (Gathering Moss)
Throughout this project, I felt that the intersection of these disciplines — science, archival research and nature writing — complemented each other so beautiful as methods for exploring place. I loved this class because it gave me the opportunity to travel and write in the mountains with my dear friend. I learned a great deal about using digital tools and integrating those tools with nature writing, and about conducting archival research. I am so grateful to Ken, Joe and Leah for making it possible and for all of their help throughout this project!