A poet and a scientist walk into a bar. Or onto a sand bar. Or maybe just onto the deck of the Director’s Cabin at UMBS with a famous Douglas Lake sunset brewing over Grapevine Point.
However it began, by 2006, the poet – Keith Taylor, a lecturer in the UM Department of English Language and Literature, and the Scientist – UMBS Director Knute Nadelhoffer, had created a new class that turned heads. Environmental Writing and Great Lakes Literature was an odd listing among the station’s usual biology and ecology courses. But Taylor and Nadelhoffer saw great potential in offering a humanities class at a science field station.
“We thought it would serve two needs for students,” says Nadelhoffer. “It represented an opportunity to bring some humanities students to the station to take this course and to meet their natural science distribution requirement by enrolling in an additional field course. And it was also an opportunity for science students to take a humanities course.”
As the course title suggests, students read poems, fiction and essays about environment and the Great Lakes region, and explored writing forms and styles in their own journals and more formal, shared works. Mackenzie Myers, an alumna of the class, grew up just a few miles from the Biological Station, but never realized people wrote about the area until she took Taylor’s class. “Up until then, literature was far off places and exotic islands. I was able to take what I read in the class and apply it to things in my own back yard.”
Taylor likes to note that when he created Environmental Writing and Great Lakes Literature, it was the only class he could find with Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac on the syllabus. Now the book is required reading in courses across LSA majors and beyond.
The Literature of Place
In keeping with the immersive learning ethos at the Biological Station, Taylor constructed his class with a large field component. Over the years, students have visited the Two-Hearted River, referenced in the Ernest Hemingway short story “The Big Two-Hearted River;” Drummond Island’s alvar shore where fossils from the last great extinction lie exposed and make a dramatic backdrop for discussing Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction;” and Hartwick Pines, to search for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler and an understanding of fragility and recovery.
The field trip many students remember best is going to Walloon Lake and looking across the water to Hemingway’s childhood cottage. The cottage and several other local landmarks feature in Hemingway’s “The Nick Adams Stories.” Michaela (Bosshard) Gokhale took the class its first summer. She says the field trips were fun and gave her a “more personal connection” to the region. “You relate to the books and you’re out having these field trips in these different places. We read the Nick Adams stories and then we went to his summer house and saw where he lived.”
Gokhale is now an elementary teacher at Ann Arbor Learning Community. She says Taylor taught more than just writing. “He makes people feel good about themselves. He got to know us as individuals. He valued our ideas.” She says she learned from Taylor’s example not to be afraid to show and share her passions.
Myers agrees. “I always knew I wanted to write, but Keith really opened the door,” she says. “I didn’t know nonfiction or nature writing was a thing.” Myers got an M.F.A. in creative non-fiction and works as a reporter for the Mountain Democrat in Placerville, California.
2017 marked Taylor’s final year teaching the class. He is retiring from the University at the end of April. Although Environmental Writing and Great Lakes Literature is on hiatus for the time-being, the station is is excited to carry this momentum and legacy into a new partnership with the English department: the Great Lakes Arts, Cultures, and Environments program (GLACE).
An English outpost on Douglas Lake
Modeled on the 40+-year-old New England Literature Program (NELP), GLACE will be a 6-week immersive experience in place, identity and environment. A team of four faculty, led by U-M Lecturer Ingrid Diran, will teach courses in American Culture, Anthropology, English and Native American Studies.
As the GLACE website explains, “The four classes each approach in a different way the problems of place and experiential learning, with topics and activities ranging from studying the interconnections between life, land and waterways in Michigan and practicing the basics of ethnographic fieldwork to crafting prose writings about self and space and exploring the philosophical basis for our personal self-location in body and spirit.”
GLACE represents an evolution in form of humanities instruction at UMBS. Perhaps this shift is inevitable at a place that studies natural change over time. But no one is turning from the original goal of mixing humanities and natural science. Says the poet, “I'd like to think that the scientists have a sense that the work they do can inform and inspire artistic work. And, of course, there is always the hope that the big imaginative leaps made by science are the kinds of things understood most clearly by art.” The scientist counters, “It was always good to hear a poem, an essay, some kind of experiential interpretation in our end-of-session student symposium.” He says faculty and students alike valued Taylor’s presence in camp, whether to share poems, lead an all-camp book study, or captain a canoe trip to the Upper Peninsula.
Taylor will be returning to camp this summer as the Station’s first artist in residence. He says that while he hopes UMBS will continue to think about and provide information to the non-scientific community, he “will be happy if literary types and scientists simply continue to find a space in common.”