I spent the middle of July in the white clapboard village of Craftsbury Common, Vermont attending the 2013 Wildbranch Nature Writing Workshop sponsored by Orion Magazine and Sterling College. I can sum the experience up in three words:
Best. Thing. Ever.
It’s hard to describe what made this workshop stand out. Part of it, of course, was the faculty. These are the people who set the tone for the entire week. This year we were fortunate to have H. Emerson (Chip) Blake, Editor-in-Chief of Orion and Executive Director of The Orion Society; naturalist, lepidopterist and author, Robert Pyle; poet and author Allison Deming; and poet and Orion Associate Editor, Hannah Fries. In addition to the enormous experience these folks brought to the table, they also gave themselves over to us in every possible way — their time, encouragement, enthusiasm, and camaraderie. Whether working in a classroom, lingering over lunch, or leading an impromptu butterfly hunt, they were unreservedly available to talk about the craft and business of writing, our works in progress, or anything else we had on our minds.
Adding even more color to the week were the other workshop participants. Every day I was again astonished by the talents of these writers and the breadth of their knowledge and experience. I hadn’t imagined my days being filled with illuminating discussions among wildlife biologists, poets, world travelers, ministers, journalists, novelists, organic farmers, entrepreneurs, and teachers and professors of everything from psychology to English to environmental studies. I quickly understood that Wildbranch isn’t a workshop of 4 instructors and 33 students. It is a workshop of 37 peers, all of whom eagerly teach and learn from each other.
And finally, the venue itself, Sterling College, could not have been more perfect for a nature writing workshop. What could be better than waking up to the deliriously happy song of a red eyed vireo or the contented clop clop of a draft horse being driven along the roadway? Follow that with a quick coffee and a pre-breakfast nature walk led by Wildbranch Director, Dave Brown (who can pretty much identify everything in the forest), and you’ve got an ideal start on a day of writing and talking about nature.
Yes it’s rustic, even for a college campus. Think Walden, not Banff. Simple rooms in non-air conditioned buildings; simple meals, made and served by the dozen or so summer college students who also work the gardens and care for the animals; and simple pleasures like morning coffee at a sunny picnic table. For me, it was all part of the experience. On top of that, Dave Brown went out of his way to make sure we felt welcome and were as comfortable as possible, even in the 95 degree heat. (Yay for window fans!)
One of my reasons for attending the workshop was to try to understand the relationship between nature writing and science writing. Are they one and the same? Are they mutually exclusive? Do they overlap? For some first thoughts on that and a short essay that I completed and read at the workshop, hop on over to the Canadian Science Writers’ Association Blog and see my post there.
Finally, Wildbranch class and faculty of 2013, and alumni of other years, feel free to leave your thoughts here. I’d love to hear from you.