Environmental and Nature Writing: An Interview with Laurie Lamon

by Emily Donnel

Dr. Laurie Lamon lives in Spokane, Washington and is currently a professor in the English department at Whitworth University, where she teaches classes on creative writing and poetry. Dr. Lamon’s poetry has appeared in many well-known journals and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Ruminate, The Literary Review, The Colorado Review, Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture, Feminist Studies, Primavera, Poetry Northwest and Northwest Review.

Emily Donnel: When did you first start writing poetry? I’ve talked to a lot of people about why they write poetry and everyone seems to have a different answer, so why do you write poetry?

Dr. Laurie Lamon: I’ve been writing poems since I was young. Writing has always been connected to my love for Art and Architecture. I started out as an Art major in college, and wanted to go into museum curatorship. I can’t answer the question, “why do I write.” It’s a cliché that writers say to students, but it is often very true: I can’t imagine not writing. It’s not just an act of ‘doing:’ it’s a way of being. Everything about my experience of the world is sensory. Art is one way of drawing it to the interior, of knowing it in one’s interior.

ED: How did you first become interested in environmental/nature writing?

LL: I don’t think there’s a distinction between environmental writing, if that term encompasses a political and personal commitment to stewardship and conservation, and nature writing. I know we need terms to name our classes, and environmental/nature writing serves a purpose of designating value and subject and investment. To me, nature is the subject which underlies everything. If I write a poem triggered by the sound at dusk of bird calls back and forth between trees in my yard, the poem isn’t “about” that. Poems aren’t “about” things or ideas. They are translations, in a way, of the experience. The bird calls at dusk are first of all, a beautiful haunting sound. They are part of the closure of day and entrance into night. They suggest mystery—they are apart from us, yet they deeply move us.

The poem can’t explain why or how. The poem, like the experience itself in time and space, is an “is.”

ED: How do your experiences in the natural world influence your writing, teaching and worldview?

LL: My constant awareness of the natural world is connected to my constant awareness of the political world. It impels me to educate myself. It impels me to be a conscious citizen. It impels me to appreciate what I have as a westerner. All of these things connect to the classes I teach. I think every professor on this campus would say the same thing about his or her classes.

ED: I think one of the big barriers for students attempting nature writing is breaking down what we perceive as polar disciplines: natural sciences and creative writing. In Nicole’s class, we are constantly searching for the balance in “creative nonfiction”. Do you ever struggle to depict nature through poetry or does it come naturally to you?

Laurie picLL: One of the tools of the writer is research. A Japanese poet who was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s says: “If you want to know about the pine, go to the pine.” Don’t leap to stale metaphors for the pine. Really notice details about it. Examine it as a habitat for birds and insects, moss. I don’t see a struggle for balance between science and art. I know that might sound strange, but to my mind the writer needs to know something about the wings of a dragonfly, or the eyes of the dragonfly, if there is a dragonfly in your poem. Not everyone would say so, or need to do so, in her poems. Scientists acknowledge mystery. Mystery and “wanting to know” drives science, as it does art. How can we know something only through words? Emily Dickinson says

“Not Revelation t’is that waits

But our unfurnished eyes.”

Both art and science move us to inwardness, or revelation.

ED: In your opinion, what does nature writing accomplish? What does nature poetry communicate better than other forms of writing?

LL: Walt Whitman speaks beautifully of the necessity to leave the city and go to the solitude of nature as an essentially human physical and spiritual need, and ecstatic pleasure.

For Dickinson, who was an avid and acute observer of nature, her vision was more scientific and epistemological. Nature reflects time and space back to us, cycles, life and death, beauty, terror, the unknown, the exhilaration of the new. Seeing a landscape, a body of water, a whale moving through the water, hearing the whistling of geese…all of these moments, small and enormous communicates everything of what it means to be human in the physical world.

ED: You mentioned that your way of working with nature (through poetry) may be different from the way CNF approaches nature. Could you elaborate on where you see prose and poetry handling the subject of nature differently?

LL: I haven’t written essays using nature as subjects to explore so I can’t address this question. But I would say that both genres range from overtly political to intensely personal, religious, and sacerdotal. I don’t think the writers’ visions are very different—the genres themselves offer enormous ranges of personal identity, social and political consciousness, and private artistic sensibility.

ED: What is your favorite place in Spokane? Why is it your favorite?

LL: One of my favorite places is Manito Park. I’ve been walking my dogs there for over 20 years. Li Po, one of my first Scottish Terriers, was unofficially the Manito Park Scottie. We were there almost every day, and he would pull me up trails, greet children, and roll in the grass at every opportunity. I taught him how to stay out of flowerbeds. My husband and I were married there, and he was our “recessional escort” out of the formal garden. It was one of his proudest moment!

I’ve had many poems nudge into existence while I’m there. I love the days during the week when it’s less heavily visited.

ED: What advice do you have for burgeoning writers?

Read contemporary voices. If you love essays, read essays and poetry. Read science journals. Read art history. Read the news. Read a broad spectrum of viewpoints.

I think to work with nature as a writer, one has to be environmentally aware of what is going on. Right now things are moving so rapidly in terms of environmental roll-backs of protection of species and resources, fossil fuel production and consumption, international agreements, one has to at least try to keep up. It doesn’t mean this rhetoric is going to make it into your essay. But the real pressures on the environment, in one’s own state, and further away, need to be part of one’s intellectual currency.

The writer isn’t consciously thinking about this as he’s hiking, or kayaking, or sitting in a chair watching snow outside his window. But it has enlarged and heightened his vision, his judgement, and his very being. “What we love is near and far,” a poet wrote. The older we get as writers and thinkers, both what is near and far comes closer, respected, and loved.

Emily Donnel is a junior Environmental Studies major at Whitworth University.  She loves the environment and writing and hopes to cultivate both of those loves in creative nonfiction. She can be found cavorting with her dog along the Spokane River or in Whitworth’s Kipos Community garden.

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