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Creative Writing, Women, and the Environment

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One of the items on my bucket list has been to teach a creative writing class. I had earned an MFA in that discipline during the previous millennium, well prior to earning my doctorate, but I’d never really taught creative writing during my sojourn in academe. More than anything else I wanted to teach a class where I didn’t have to assign a letter grade at the end, a class where students could decide on their own what the level of rigor should be.

I’m teaching that class currently, and it ends this evening. It’s called “Writing Nature,” and has taken place around the “Point No Point” seminar table at the Hugo House in Seattle for the past ten Wednesdays. I’m loving the class because, among other factors, there are a couple of grandmothers in it. Grandmothers! During my twenty-one years in the classroom, where I mostly taught kids in their teens and early twenties, I’d never once had the opportunity to teach somebody’s grandmother. Thank goodness this is no longer the case.

There are no grandfathers around the table, unfortunately. Indeed, of the fourteen names on my class roster, only three are male. Three. That’s a whopping twenty-one percent of the students, and it reminds me of at least one other course I taught over the years.

During my twenty-one years in the classroom, where I mostly taught kids in their teens and early twenties, I’d never once had the opportunity to teach somebody’s grandmother.

A few years ago Cornell University Press was kind enough to publish Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez, which largely chronicled an undergraduate Santa Clara University course I used to teach in Baja natural history. The class ended with a ten-day sea kayak expedition in the Isla Espiritu Santo archipelago, where we would camp out on the beach every night. The participants were mostly from my own department, Environmental Studies and Sciences, and the Biology department. A popular offering at the upper-division level, it capped at sixteen students. For many years, however, I was lucky to get four or maybe five males to join in. Over the course of a decade, enrollment averaged slightly more than two females for every male student.

Fast forward to my next book, Nature Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field, which Cornell UP will be releasing next Monday. The new book contains my field notes from visits to five field stations up and down the west coast, from Santa Cruz Island to the south, up to the North Cascades Institute. During my six months in the field, I was able to participate in long-term ecological studies with numerous grad students, research assistants, citizen scientists, wildlife biologists, and naturalists. And guess what: younger practitioners in the field were overwhelmingly female.

In the book’s afterword, I wrote:

Patriarchy will change over time. People who trained in male-dominated forestry, geology, and zoology departments in the sixties and seventies are slowly being replaced by people who never learned to associate the word “scientist” with a specific gender. I can report with confidence that females were a particularly vibrant force among the interns, research assistants, grad students, and postdocs with whom I’ve associated these past six months. In some cases, the males were overwhelmingly outnumbered, like the solitary male among the six GGRO interns. The four males within the cohort of fourteen WWU graduate students represented a ratio more typical of what I was seeing in the field except for postdocs, who seemed more evenly split between gender.

My findings were not the result of scientific study; I’m merely reporting informal observations, from the field, that women seem to be connecting to nature in greater numbers than men these days. As someone who can finally call himself a creative writing instructor, I find this encouraging. If the grandmothers and granddaughters of this world can lead us out of the environmental mess we’ve gotten our planet into, I’m all for it.


A lifelong student of literary natural history, John Seibert Farnsworth taught environmental writing and literature at Santa Clara University. He is author of Coves of Departure. See all books by this author.

*Featured photo by Damir Bosnjak on Unsplash.

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