By Keith Taylor
On May 23, 1971, the great Beat poet, Lew Welch, walked out into the forest that surrounds Gary Snyder’s isolated home in the High Sierras. He was never seen again. That has become the Legend of Lew, and it’s a strong one, so strong we often forget what he wrote. Early in Ring of Bone, his Collected Poems, he draws a beautiful circle with a calligraphic brush, and below it writes:
Step out onto the Planet
Draw a circle 100 feet round.
Inside the circle are 300 things
nobody understands and,
maybe, nobody's ever seen.
How many can you find?
I have often used this little poem to motivate both poets and creative nonfiction writers, particularly if they imagine themselves to be nature writers. It takes the poets out of their personal concerns or places those concerns within a context that is outside the purely personal. For both poets and prose writers, it forces observation and makes them learn about the things of this world. Oftentimes interesting things can grow there.
Let's Get Started
1. Step out onto the planet.
Go somewhere where the human world fades a bit—a garden, a seashore or beach, deep woods if you can get there, but even a backyard will do. Find something that you know nothing about; that is surprisingly easy, even for folks who spend a lot of time outdoors. The thing you find works best if it’s organic (leaves, a root system, seeds), although the inorganic (rocks, stones, pebbles, sand) can do the job too.
2. Study that thing for at least an hour.
Really focus on the thing and write down detailed descriptions of it. Yes, you can write your reactions to it, too, if you want to. But force yourself to keep looking, keep writing, for an hour. This is the hardest part of the whole process.
3. Now try to shape those notes.
Either into lines or sentences. You could even impose a little narrative on them if you want to. You can do this while you’re still outside, but I give you permission to come back to your study if the weather has turned nasty, if night is falling, or if the mosquitoes have gotten bad.
4. Try to name the thing you looked at.
Check out field guides, the internet; ask an expert or a knowledgeable local if one’s around. Or simply make up a name. Try to figure out where the name came from and why, whether real or imagined. The scientific name often adds a whole new dimension. Then see if this information changes or adds to the piece you’ve begun to shape in Step 3.
Ketih Taylor has authored or edited 17 books and chapbooks. His last full length collection, The Bird-while won the Bronze medal for the Foreword/Indies Poetry Book of the Year. His poems, stories, reviews, essays and translations have appeared widely in North America and in Europe. After a series of stupid jobs, he worked for most of 20 years as a bookseller. After that, he taught for most the next 20 in the writing programs at the University of Michigan. He was able to quit a couple of years ago.