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Finding yourself in nature

When you think of ancient Greece and the School of Athens, chances are you see Socrates reclining beneath a tree as he tells his pupils how the world works.

So it was.And so it is.

Writers conferences, university courses - even high school classes - are looking for a breath of fresh air these days. And more often than not they're finding it outside under those trees.

"Teaching in the outdoors is on the upturn," said Guy Lebeda, literary director for the Utah Arts Council. "One reason is that many environmental groups are getting involved with teaching now. I compare it to the life-drawing classes that I remember from college. Those classes changed the very dynamics of art. The same thing happens when you get students writing outdoors. A little explosion happens in their imaginations. There's an awakening."

Today, "Entrada," a writers conference in Torrey, Wayne County, specializes in outdoor classwork with its "Writing from the Land" series.

The Canyonlands Field Institute in Moab holds classes in the outback with its "Desert Writers Workshop" and other venues.

And the Utah Arts Council has sponsored literary events in state parks, such as last year's Goblin Valley candlelight retreat that one participant described as "very wild."

But the buzz in the literary community this winter was about the "River of Words" conference at Brighton High School. Each year Pat Russell, the writing instructor there, sets aside a day to take students to Red Butte Gardens for intense workshops.

And just to get the blood flowing, "River of Words" is on one of the chilliest days of the year. This year it was Feb. 6.

It's cold, there are a hundred distractions, and the acoustics aren't the best, but something in the frosty air jars students awake. They work, they pay attention, and they remember. And though the young writers may find it tough to grip a pencil in the icy breeze, the work they produce is often crisp, fresh and full of snap. They love to be there.

Along with exercises in writing, the students are given classes in bird lore, plant identification and animal tracking. Margaret Pettis came down from Logan this year to teach a class in watercolors, using weeds as brushes. Linda Hogan and Pattiann Rogers, nationally prominent poets, taught about nature poetry and several local instructors showed how to use nature in other ways, such as backdrop and metaphor.

Russell's event has been so successful, in fact, that last year she was named Teacher of the Year by the national "River of Words" program.

"This is our third year with "River of Words,' " Russell said. "And I think it would be great if we could do it several times a year on a smaller scale. The kids love being outdoors. It makes what they're writing seem more real. You're not going to get young people invested in the preservation of the environment unless they get out in it."

Russell's last point is well-taken. Many times the most important part of an outdoor class isn't the information taught; it's the impressions and attitudes that are formed there. A lot comes in through the "backdoor" of the mind while students are focused elsewhere.

Nancy Takacs and Jan Minich know that. Both teach at the College of Eastern Utah and have seen subtle transformations in the character of the students they've taken into the wilds.

"Even though we live in Utah, I was surprised to learn how many of my students had never seen a real river," Takacs said. "They'd never noticed the color of the earth, the trees, the pools. My personal philosophy is that you find out who you are by naming the things around you. And by observing and writing, you make yourself even more observant. Once my students began establishing a relationship with nature and began making connections with the natural world, they formed a bond that will last the rest of their lives. They will want to protect the environment because they have a personal relationship with it."

Poet Wendell Berry said, "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are." And writing instructors from around the state agree that the Intermountain West - especially Utah - is one of the finest places around to be found.

From the "River of Words" outing to the "river trip classrooms" that the College of Eastern Utah has sponsored in the past, students who find themselves out in nature are students who usually find themselves.