When you get off the freeway, the world cracks open. Mountains that look dead from a distance are full of life—horned lizards, jackrabbits, shiny-black beetles, owls that burrow into cacti, and flowers that blossom the same shade of setting desert suns. And, the more you see life, the more you understand how much we miss when we stay on our busy, asphalt-lined paths. This is an exercise in taking detours, whether it is a physical detour or a detour of the mind. It requires only an adventurous spirit and a desire to better understand the places we speed past.
Complete this exercise while traveling or taking a day trip around your home. If you are heading to a specific destination, I highly recommend visiting national or state parks as these often host informational placards about plant species, animal inhabitants, or geological formations.
As with all writing exercises, there are no rules, but I believe in letting your mind take detours of its own. Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, advises that we pay attention to the difference between a “triggering” subject and a “real” subject. The triggering may start the poem, but a poem, like a journey, often moves us towards something unexpected. That unexpected is often what the poem is really about.
Let's Get Started
1. Take a walk or a hike.
This can be with a guidebook or along a nature walk path in a national or state park. As you go, absorb as much as you can, whether this is from the guidebook or from your surroundings. Pay attention to things that have special interest to you, whether its animals that have long fascinated you or tree branches that grow in spirals—seek to understand as much as you can. (Where does the jackrabbit live? Why are there lizards on this part of the trail but not on another? What are those marks in the granite? Lightning?)
Don’t worry about looking everything up as often the act of puzzling out answers works best. Also, don’t worry about memorizing anything—there will be no quiz at the end of the walk! The goal is to let your curiosity guide you. If you are with a friend, share these thoughts and information aloud.
2. Spend 15 minutes writing down your thoughts.
This can be when you reach your destination or if you simply find a good spot to sit and rest. Don’t worry about forming this into a poem. Start with describing and remembering what you thought about, saw, or learned (what Hugo would refer to as the “triggering subject”). If your writing moves away from your environment, let it! Think of this as a massive brain dump to catch all the thoughts and experiences you can.
3. List every plant, animal, tree you can.
At the end of the freewrite, list every plant, animal, or tree you can. Identify the streams or mountain peaks (maps are helpful with this). List, too, other things that happened along the way—something someone said to you as you walked, or, if you are alone, something you thought. As you do, consider the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound) and include at least one item from each sense. Make the list as long as you can.
4. Later, sit with your notebook and shape these scratchings into a poem.
This can be the same day or weeks later. Sometimes the poems may come out whole inside your notebook.Other times, they’ll need reshaping. Don’t feel like you need to include everything (or anything!) you wrote in your notebook. And don’t limit yourself to what you wrote either—the poem might want you to go elsewhere, and if so, follow it! The experience was a launching place, so be open to wherever the poem takes you.
Tip: In place of a guidebook, nature walks often offer pamphlets or post signs that teach you much of what you might want to know. Many national or state parks also have inexpensive booklets you can buy or borrow for the day. And, for those who are information junkies, before you go, you can also spend time getting to know the history of the place, whether it’s the history of its wildlife, its people, or its weather patterns. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to understand what you see.