Pondering structure

January 5, 2012

Here’s what a freewrite might look like:

Kishkan, T. 2011.  Pinus ponderosa:  a serious waltz. pg. 131-154 in Mnemonic:  a book of trees.  Goose Lane Editions, Fredricton, New Brunswick.

This chapter is a meditation on Ponderosa Pine and the role that this tree has played in the author’s life. The essay consists of an introduction, a travelogue where the author describes a collecting trip that she took to gather Ponderosa Pine needles throughout the interior of BC, and a description of her learning to handcraft a basket out of pine needles.  Throughout these three distinct sections, Kishkan weaves stories–both her own as a child and as a mother camping in Ponderosa Pine forests and those of other people and organisms (such as the mountain pine beetle) that have interacted with pine trees.

There are many parts of the essay that I enjoyed–first and foremost is the author’s ability to convey scientific content with lyrical stories.  For example, on pg. 141, she provides the life cycle of pine beetles not with a textbook description but with a story of a beetle that she saw on the deck of her home.  By giving me a detailed description of the beetle she saw–its colour and shape, I was enticed to be more interested in how beetles such as these reproduce.  On pg. 133, she allows us to gain a sense of the range of pines as a genus not with a formal description but rather with a description of what species of pine you might use for basket-making if you lived in different parts of North America.  On page 137, she takes a slightly different approach to embedding dense scientific information when describing the mountain pine beetle.  In the first paragraph on the page, she adopts an imperative approach,  “Consider the beetles themesleves….Read these glyphs like a text….Run your hands along a standing tree….Smell your hands.”   The imperative structure in this paragraph, and repeated again on page 149, allows her to make complex scientific explanations more immediate.  For me, the imperative tone compels me to commit to the description.  The evocative images embedded in what could be dry and dull reading are sweet treats for following along.

The other aspect of the essay that drew me in is that Kishkan embeds her journey of learning into the essay.  She allows us to understand how she learned about the history of the scientific description of pines;  she gives us a description of learning to weave a pine needle basket.  In doing this, she explicitly avoids setting herself up as the expert and instead invites us along for the journey. The sentence on page 139, “Already I’m making assumptions about something I know almost nothing about” casts her further into the mode of inquirer rather lecturer.  I found it interesting that her essay demonstrates that she actually knows quite alot–most importantly, she knows how to ask questions–but I never felt like she was beating me over the head with all that she knew.  Instead, I felt  welcomed on her journey as she made connections and drew a larger story from her learning.

Overall, Kishkan’s writing inevitably pulls me in through her lyricism.  A few sentences stand out.  “Those waking moments, when the landscape changes, are portals, green with branches.” (pg. 132)   “I’ve often followed our route home in my heart by tracing the Fraser River below with my finger on the glass.” (pg. 135)   “…dead trees stand like mortuary poles.” (pg. 136). “It’s a kind of a dance, the slow waltz of turning and holding.” pg. 145

As I pick out the sentences that I love in her essay, I have to stop and look up the definitions of simile and metaphor.  And then I look back at the sentences that I have copied here.  All of the sentences are either metaphor or similes.  They are the music that propels the piece along.  Interestingly, this helps me understand the inclusion of other little bits of information that puzzled me at first.  For instance, on pg. 136, she includes a definition of a dog show that is going on in a rec area where she has stopped on her road trip.  I did not begin to read an essay on Ponderosa pines expecting to read about “high-stepping standard poodles,” yet the inclusion of of these very specific details grounds the overall piece.  I’m still not 100% sure that I would have included it, but now I am appreciative of it. It has transformed Ponderosa Pine trees from an abstract idea into concrete entities that are living and dying amidst poodle shows and shopkeepers singing along with Patsy Cline.

Finally I have to stop and think about what the larger story of the piece is.  I find myself going back to the sentence on page 153, “As I work, I think of how a basket is more than a sum of its parts, as anything marvellous is.”  With a focus on the pine beetle epidemic, this essay has strong overtones of mortality, of death and dying–but it feels also like a meditation on living.  We come and go, people and pine trees, and there may be little left of us when we are gone, but perhaps it is enough to be remembered.

Okay–so that’s my response to the example essay.  I want to articulate what I think it is important to include.

1.  First, start with bibliographic information.

2.  Provide some sense of the structure/organization.  Our readings will vary widely over the semester–some lyrical (as this one), some scientific and its important for you to crystalize a summary of the intent/purpose.  If it is a chapter in a book–you might also say that.  Is the reading part of a larger/longer argument?

3.  What’s the essence of the story?  Use one paragraph to summarize.  DO
NOT use the author’s exact words to summarize.  Use your words.

4.  Say what you liked and didn’t like.  I happen to love this essay and found it very hard to find anything I didn’t like. The most important aspect however, is to back up what you are saying.  If you want to say, “I found the author’s writing lyrical,” provide specific examples.  Notice that not only did I copy the sentences but I also included the page number where the sentence could be found.

5.  If the reading has an argument–say whether you agree or disagree with it.  And WHY?  No broad statements without explanation.  This essay was not an explanation of some phenomenon (as some of the readings will be), so instead I sat back and thought about what the overall story was–I’m not sure the “lesson” I learned from this essay is the one the author intended but it is my authentic response.

Okay–so what about the comments.  You are required over the course of the semester to provide comments on 5 different students’ blogs.  Your comments should meaningful engage what the blog author has written.  Agree-disagree (all respectfully, of course), it doesn’t matter, but back up your statements!