Eco-Lit: Sense of Place

Click to see more of Gunnison National Park’s photos of Black Canyon

a column exploring the intersection of literature and ecology
by Maryka Gillis

A few weeks ago, I found myself directed up the last hill leading to a primitive campsite overlooking a canyon. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is small at just under fifty square miles, but it is one of the closest National Parks to my residence in Colorado Springs. Yet I had never heard of it till I was driving up the steep hill that lead to the lot overlooking a part of the winding canyon where we camped that night.

My roommate collects postcards with recreated prints of old silk screen posters the National Park Service released between 1938 and 1940; so the morning after entering the park, I found myself in the gift shop of one of the ten least visited National Parks in the country. Scanning through field guides and cheap postcards, I came across a small anthology of western poetry. I stood for a while with the book in my hand. As a frugal college student, I thought it wise to put the book down and instead read one of the many unopened collections of poetry waiting on my shelf at home. But this book struck me: Of course there are abundant poems about the American West, but it never occurred to me that there would be anthologies dedicated to western poems. So I flipped through it and twenty minutes later I was reading a poem about Wyoming in southern Colorado on the backseat of a car with Massachusetts license plates following another boasting plates from California.

As a New Englander at my core, my transition to the West was not as smooth as it was for many of my peers. While they reveled in the ample sunshine, snow capped peaks, and red rocks, I missed trees, weather, and the ocean. I struggled to breathe on my first few hiking trips and experienced allergies for the first time. I think in part because it was such a sudden shift, I had a hard time connecting to the physical differences in my new home. Rather than picking up books featuring local ecosystems or the history of the region, I resumed my childhood habit of reading to get away.

Books had always been a means of escape for me. Growing up, I used literature to break out of my small town and travel across time and space without moving more than the mile between my childhood home and the bookstore. At the time, it was a powerful way to explore when in a familiar place. Whenever I felt idle, I could read about places I dreamed about going, or places I had never heard of. I still think this is an important function of reading; literature has the capacity to excite and stimulate when we feel circumstantially stagnant, and it is a powerful tool to change a perspective from feeling stuck to unstuck.

It wasn’t until I got home from taking time off of school to re-center myself that I began to read about places relevant to where I was living. I read Notes from the Shore by Jennifer Ackerman, which helped reacquaint me with the beauty of the beach and the shore as an ecosystem, not just a place to play. I read books about farming and hiking in the eastern United States and found that rather than narrowing my scope and focus, it allowed me to examine the particulars of place more concretely and thoroughly. By opening me to the intricacies of my home before returning to Colorado, I discovered how much more intimately I was able to acquaint myself with a place and establish a connection while reading about its native species and their interactions with the land.

When I returned to Colorado in the fall, I began to reach out and read more about the West. Books like James Galvin’s The Meadow and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire informed my sense of place in concrete terms. I flipped through field guides and took an ecology class. I became familiar with common western species and felt more at home when exploring.

In poems about the trees I leaned against, as well as the soil I sat on while reading from the anthology in the San Isabel forest the night after leaving Black Canyon, I was reminded of the initial struggle I experienced in adjusting. I was reminded, too, of how far I had come because of my interactions with the land and what I learned and read about it.

On that particular evening, I stumbled across a poem I discovered a few months earlier that I hadn’t read since. This poem is relevant from any mountain lookout, and it has served me well in the time since discovering and rediscovering it. I encourage you to follow the link to read it for yourself:

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout by Gary Snyder

Maryka Gillis is a Junior at Colorado College studying Creative Writing and Ecology. She will be working in the White Mountains of New Hampshire this summer, conserving trails and writing verse. The Editor in Chief invited her to launch this column as part of Folded Word’s ongoing sustainability efforts.

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