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Matt Dickerson: Delight, wonder and outdoor writing

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a reading and lecture by poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I was intrigued by the title of the talk: “The Importance of Writing the Outdoors with Wonder.” I especially appreciated the notion of “wonder” — but I’ll come back to that.
It dawned on me recently that I’ve now been writing this biweekly column for more than two decades. When Andy Kirkaldy first asked me to write a once-per-month summer fishing column, I had no idea that 20 years later I’d still be writing, and it would have turned into a twice-per-month column in the broader category of outdoor writing — that the little stint at summer fishing writing at Andy’s invitation would actually turn me into an “outdoor writer.”
In the fall of 2014 I was invited to join the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). This invitation had me pondering the genre of “outdoor writing.” I read enough to convince me to pay the OWAA dues and join, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 when I attended an OWAA conference that I encountered the breadth of possibilities within the category of “outdoors” as well as the category of “writers.”
“Writers,” it turned out, included not only editors and writers of newspapers, magazines, books, and websites, but also photographers and videographers and scriptwriters. The category of “outdoors” was equally broad and included media related to traditional outdoor sports like hunting and fishing as well as skiing, canoeing, backpacking, and mountaineering. Not surprisingly, the “outdoors” category includes many writers with a strong interest in conservation, preservation, and environmental issues. For many, that is the central focus. As my newspaper column writing expanded to magazine stories, essays for journals, and books about trout, the environmental thread became more central to much of my nonfiction writing.
Thanks to my narrative nonfiction writing that grew in part out of that fishing column, two weeks ago I received the exciting news that I had been named an Artist in Residence for Glacier National Park for June of 2017. I will be spending the month living in a cabin in the park and writing about the outdoors.
(This means that readers of this column will likely get stories in June and early July about Glacier National Park, at least one of which will focus on the wild and native west slope cutthroat trout that inhabit the rivers on the Pacific Ocean side of the park.)
And this brings me back to the lecture by Nezhukumatathil on “The Importance of Writing the Outdoors with Wonder.” Even without the final two words, I would have been drawn to the talk. In a way, the “outdoors” is under attack like never before. National forests, wildlife refuges, wildernesses, and other public lands, including even national parks, are under threat of either sale or of being opened for exploitation. Not only are the diversity of these public lands and protected places of wildness under attack, but basic notions of (and protections of) concepts like clean air, clean water, clean soil are endangered, as well — protections that are far more important than might be implied by concepts like “outdoors.” Writing about the outdoors seems to me to be an increasingly important task.
Several of Nezhukumatathil’s main points resonated with me. She spoke of writers being attentive to what is around us: of careful observation, and sitting still, and watching and listening. She spoke also of writing that is informed. As the child of scientists, for her that meant in part having her writing scientifically accurate. While she might take liberties in how she tells a story, she would never write about a plant or animal in a way that was scientifically false.
But what really stuck out was the importance of writing with a sense of wonder. I have often used the word “delight.” I find delight in the things I write about, whether it is the movement of a trout chasing an emerging caddis fly, or the way snow melts and slides down the branches of a spruce.
But I think Nezhukumatathil’s concept of wonder is an even better one. Wonder includes delight, I think, but it also implies both awe and curiosity. These are features of writing that I think help readers care not only about her writing, but (perhaps more importantly) about the things she is writing about. And when we care about something more, we are more motivated to work to protect it.

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