Humorous Environmental Writing
I’ve been teaching so much that I’ve neglected this blog; my butt’s been out of the chair more than it’s been in it. However, I’ve been thinking about writing–about humorous environmental writing, in particular–because I’m developing a two-day nature writing workshop for the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology this summer. While people are welcome to write serious essays about sobering environmental topics in this class, they’re also encouraged to examine their subjects with wit.
In several of my essay and memoir writing classes over the past few months, I’ve asked the question,”Why aren’t more people writing humorously about the environment?” The responses are always the same–someone in the audience smirks, someone else executes a droll eye-roll, and finally, one participant says, “because nothing about the environment is funny.”
I beg to differ. Anyone who’s taken the time to study earthworm sex (may I recommend the chapter on earthworms in Patricia K. Lichen’s book Passionate Slugs and Hollywood Frogs: An Uncommon Field Guide to Northwest Backyards) knows that nature provides us with marvelous levity to balance out the very real doom and gloom. We’re all aware of climate change, of species under attack and going extinct, of wild places paved over. But while we have an obligation as writers to report on these travesties, there’s more than one way to educate readers and inspire them to work toward change.
I’ve just finished reading a marvelous memoir called Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. The author strikes just the right balance between grave observations on the effects of humanity upon our natural world and humorous observations on topics like the dead birds preserved for posterity and examination in her kitchen freezer.
If it’s true that we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (and by the way, a little honey on a paper lantern makes an excellent flytrap), then maybe humorous essays about the environment offer people the energy and enthusiasm to commute to work by bike, cultivate a neighborhood garden like my fabulous colleague Marisa Howard, or–as Lyanda Lynn Haupt does–walk to the store with binoculars and a magnifying glass to better study the world just outside our front door.
Want to try your hand at some short humorous environmental pieces? Here are a few prompts:
- Describe the first time you encountered a wild (read: no cats, dogs, or chinchillas) animal.
- Describe your first hike (if you haven’t gone hiking, now’s the time to get yourself a pair of boots and a topo map–it’s called “immersion journalism”).
- Buy a cheap magnifying glass and study the moth on your bathroom ceiling, the lichen on a fir branch in the street, or the petals of a cherry blossom. Do some research on what you’ve examined and write about it with delight.
- Write about an event in the natural world that shocked you.
This last prompt evoked several hilarious responses at my talk for the Mid-Valley Willamette Writers earlier this month. A man called “Boots” spoke of participating in a burial at sea, only to discover that the deceased had washed up on shore the next day. And my good friend Debbie Williamson Smith related a story about going camping with her friends who have a toddler. The couple remembered the marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers, but forgot baby wipes and even a washcloth. Thus, when their 30-month old had a messy accident on the beach, the distraught mommy and daddy were forced to scrub their child’s behind with a hunk of seaweed.
I was that mommy. And yes, I’m mortified. But it’s going to make a rather funny essay. Maybe I’ll title it “Butt to Kelp.”