Storied Landscapes: 21st-Century Nature Writing

Spring 2018 — Meeting time: TR 11:30-12:45 EST

Ken Cooper, SUNY Geneseo (

—Zoom office hours: TR 1:00-2:00 EST, and by appointment

Joe Wiebe, University of Alberta, Augustana (

—Zoom office hours: TR 4:00-5:00 EST, and by appointment


What stories do our landscapes tell us? And how have those places themselves been transformed as a consequence of climate change, digital spaces, and biotechnology? This is why it’s so important, while acknowledging a long tradition of writing about nature, to think and write about our world right now. How we experience the environment owes a lot to inherited narratives. Writing about reconfigured ecologies—all their terrors and beauties—help us to inhabit storied landscapes.

Participants in this course will join the endeavor of 21st-century nature writing. Working in teams, you’ll map out local places through archival research, fieldwork, and reflective writing. You’ll expand the toolbox of nature writing via digital tools and articulate your own visions to a wider audience via our COPLACDigital project site.


Students taking this course will…

  • Develop a familiarity with diverse methods and processes of digital liberal arts and utilization of technological resources in research and presentation
  • Work together cooperatively and creatively
  • Conduct research in a variety of settings and media
  • Demonstrate application of critical analysis and communication skills through oral presentations and the public website
  • Gain an introductory understanding of the nature writing genre, and constructively synthesize it with their research

Students are expected to attend all class sessions (or view the class sessions online), to meet with the professors as required, read all assigned texts prior to class, and participate constructively in discussions. Students also are responsible for submitting all blog posts, project drafts, and their final product by the due date. Assignments are considered late if posted any time after the appointed due date.


Because of the unusual nature of our class, participation is very important and includes activities beyond simply showing up and contributing to conversation during online sessions. Participation also includes consistent blogging, drawing upon classmate blogs in discussion, and responding to classmates’ requests for technical help or research advice; it includes providing articulate, thoughtful and thorough oral updates on team progress throughout the semester. In other words, it means acting as a supportive colleague. You can see a simplified diagram of your semester’s work here.


Each team will draft a contract that outlines both the goals for their final project website, as well as each participant’s obligations necessary for achieving those goals. Teams will draft their own contract, negotiate the terms of the contract, and monitor their progress on contracted obligations. It’s important to learn about the process of creating realistic goals, communicating progress on those goals to one another, and reassessing those goals at regular intervals—please do not flake out! We’ll work with you to help format your proposal and final contract; for now, you might have a look at this basic template.


—Class Participation, including blog posts            20%

—Assignments (5 x 4%)                                                 20%

—Proposal                                                                             10%

—Contract                                                                               5%

—Project Website                                                              30%

—Final Project Presentation                                        10%

—Self-Assessment                                                             5%

Week #1: Introductions

January 16, 18

Tuesday — Introductions and Course Overview

Assignment #1

  • Begin to customize your individual blog (change the theme, title, subtitle, etc.; consider categories, tags, menus, and widgets). If you’re new to WordPress, help is available at this set of Tutorials.
  • Write and publish first blog post by 8:00 PM EST Wednesday, 1/17: Introducing yourself by way of a place that’s important to you, that you know well, and can describe using a lot of vivid detail. Try to write in a manner that engages with the issues raised by MacFarlane, i.e., about how the Anthropocene impacts your understanding of this familiar place.
  • In consultation with your partner, set up a meeting with your college archivist

Thursday — Thinking About Natural and Digital

Week #2: Spatial Humanities

January 23, 25

Tuesday — Deep Maps

  • Reading: William Least Heat-Moon, from PrairyErth: A Deep Map (1991), pp. 1-56 (available in Google Drive)
  • Have a look at the Archival Resources for your institution and area
  • Discussion: Deep maps as a spatially bounded inquiry. How historical documents can be used for time-present environmental writing. Approaching different aspects of a place as “layers” of a map.

Assignment #2

  • Meet with your college archivist, having prepared some questions ahead of time. Examples might include: What are the available archives? What kinds of sources are held in these archives (special collections, images, diaries etc). For an environmental history of this area, are there any especially unique / promising sources? If you have a location already in mind, are there adequate archives to support that project?
  • With the assistance of your college archivist, come up with a list of at least four local sites (i.e., ones you could revisit several times without major hardship). Spend some time discussing the possibilities and challenges presented by each location: What kinds of archival sources will be available to you? How will they translate to a digital humanities project?
  • In consultation with your partner, carefully discuss all four of these possible sites—even if there already seems to be one clear choice. What intrigues you about each place? If a site is relatively well-known, how will you not simply regurgitate “local lore”? How is each location best-suited to address some contemporary environmental concern? Narrow your list to two locations.
  • Write and publish a blog post by 8:00 PM EST Wednesday, 1/23: An account of your meeting with your college archivist, the different possible sites you discussed, and your reasons for deciding upon these two locations.

Thursday — This Must be the Place

  • Read the blog posts of other participants in this course
  • Discussion: Shared thoughts on choosing a storied landscape. Different sorts of archival materials; expanding our conception and use of the archival. Thinking of archival materials as temporal layers for a Deep Map.
Week #3: Archives

January 30, February 1

Tuesday — Responding to the Stories in Archival Documents

  • Reading: Lauret E. Savoy, from Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (2015), pp. 115-160 (available in Google Drive)
  • Discussion: Canonical histories and landscapes; the role of storytelling to reframe them. Intersections of personal memory and public history; landscapes as a shared contact zone.

Assignment #3

  • Each collaborator should choose one or the other of your sites
  • Locate three historical documents or artifacts associated with your chosen site
  • Create a shared spreadsheet for citation (project management and organization)
  • Create either a TimelineJS or a StoryMapJS presentation, using the three documents you have collected. Consider which application will work best with your documents.
  • Write and publish blog post by 8:00 PM EST Wednesday, 1/31: Embed this presentation in a blog post that describes your experience. How did the archival documents change your conception of this location? What possible uses do you foresee for the digital application?

Thursday — Digital Tools and Storytelling

  • Read the blog posts of other participants in this course
  • Discussion: Kudos and tales of woe. Troubleshooting KnightLab digital applications.
Week #4: Fieldwork

February 6, 8

Tuesday — Nature Writing as a Technology

  • Reading: Kathleen Dean Moore, “The Rules of the River” (2015); Amaris Ketchum, “Urban Foraging” (2016); William Thomas, “Birdhouse Treasures” (2016); Sierra Dickey, “The Lives of Plovers” (2016). All are available in Google Drive.
  • Discussion: The technology of writing in a digital age. First-person presence, reflection, juxtaposition, and narration. Details needed to describe a place. Focusing upon particular features of the landscape so as to tell a story.

Assignment #4

  • Switch site locations with your collaborator, each of you arranging a time to spend at least an hour at this second place
  • Bring along a notebook and do some informal, on-the-spot writing: What does this place look like and feel like? What kinds of flora and fauna can you (not) identify? What can you infer about the history of this place, and its human uses? What sorts of borders / transitions do you see?
  • Without feeling any obligation to describe everything about this site, use it as the basis for a freestanding essay to be read by someone who’s never visited there. What the essay is “about” depends heavily upon your own memories, ideas, metaphors, and first-person presence. Why are you telling your reader all this?
  • Write and publish blog post by 8:00 PM EST Wednesday, 2/7: A nature essay of no more than 500 words, as vivid and as interesting as you can make it.

Thursday — Thinking of Yourself as a Nature Writer

  • Read the blog posts of other participants in this course. Identify a favorite moment in each essay, and be prepared to explain why.
  • Discussion: Nature writing in relation to your experience with other forms of writing. The genre’s unique challenges, frustrations, gratifications. Becoming self-aware of voice and tone in your writing.
Week #5: Reflection

February 13, 15

Tuesday — Synthesizing Research and Nature Writing

Thursday — Synthesizing Research and Nature Writing II

Week #6: Proposals

February 20, 22

Tuesday —


  • In consultation with your partner, decide which site will serve as the location for Storied Landscapes project
  • Articulate the goals for your Project Website. What archival materials will you use? How will nature writing figure into your undertaking? To the extent that you’re able, sketch out the basic structure of your project site and its features. What milestones / deadlines will guide you? What roles will each of you assume? Use this Template as a rough guide for your proposal.
  • Email to Ken and Joe a draft of your project contract
  • Write and publish blog post by 8:00 PM EST Wednesday, 2/21: A narrative version of your project proposal that doesn’t sound like a contract.

Thursday — Presentations

  • Presentations to the group of no more than 7 min.
  • For designated responders: identify what you see as the most original and promising aspects of this project; potential problems with focus; ideas for contents and possible tools.
  • Discussion: Where we stand now. How the profs can help you most going forward.
Week #7: Contracts

February 27, March 1

Tuesday — Mechanics

Thursday — Contracts Due by 5:00 PM EST; no class meeting

Week #8: More Tools

March 6, 8

Tuesday — New Forms of Representation

Assignment #5

  • Strategically select some aspect (or section) of your Storied Landscape project that almost certainly will involve writing and digital presentation. You’ll want to coordinate this with your partner.
  • In addition to nature writing, use another tool to convey some distinctive aspect of this place: photography or a 360-degree Scene; a short video; audio integrated via SoundCite; an historical map integrated into JuxtaposeJS; a hand-drawn map or chart; Google My Maps; or something else.
  • Be sure to think carefully about the integration of your writing and this digital tool...they should complement each other.
  • Write and publish blog post by 8:00 PM EST Wednesday, 3/7: A first try at something we’ll hopefully see in your project website!

March 8 — Show and Tell

  • Read the blog posts of other participants in this course.
  • Discussion: Tales of victory and despair. Constructive dialogue about integrating prose and digital apps.
Week #9: Project Updates

March 15

Thursday Share progress on projects

Week #10: Project Updates

March 22

Thursday Share progress on projects

Week #11: Rough Drafts

March 27, 27

Tuesday Rough Draft of Project Website up by 5:00 EST

  • Have a look at all project websites and be prepared to contribute meaningfully
  • For the project you’re assigned, write a short assessment as to what’s working and constructive suggestions for improvement (a bulleted list is OK). Email this to both team members, and to Ken & Joe by 5:00 PM EST Wednesday, 3/28.

Thursday Readers Reports

Week #12: Project Updates

April 5

Thursday Share progress on projects

Week #13: Project Updates

April 12

Thursday Share progress on projects

Week #14: Launch

April 17, 19

Tuesday Final version of project website up by 5:00 PM EST

Thursday Presentations & Self-Assessments