As the students hiked up into the Santa Monica Mountains toward Eagle Rock, they stopped to study the rocks, the clouds and a horned lizard, the size of a quarter, that could have starred in a movie called "Honey, I Shrunk the Stegosaurus."
From time to time, a student dropped behind the rest of the group, pulled a journal from pocket or backpack and scribbled a paragraph or two. One student wrote a mini-essay about life and death, inspired by a patch of dead buckwheat. Another noted that the mountain trail was "as wide as a sparerib."
The 16 students were taking an unusual interdisciplinary course being offered for the first time this summer by Santa Monica College. Called "Writing About Nature," the double-credit course is an introduction to physical geography and a beginning composition course. Co-taught by geographer Bill Selby and poet Jim Krusoe, it requires students to learn how to use both a sling psychrometer and a simile. Those who succeed get credit for both Geography 1 and English 1.
Although the teachers' disciplines diverge dramatically, Selby and Krusoe say they have a common goal--to teach students to observe closely and to record their observations with precision. "So many of our students have lost the ability to observe things that aren't fed to them," Selby said. "You have to be a good observer to be a great writer, and there's never been a great scientist who wasn't a great observer."
During the six-week course, the students learn something about maps, weather and climate, geology and the plants and animals of Southern California. They work their way through a text called "Modern Physical Geography." Classroom lessons are supplemented with a weekly field trip, such as the recent hike to Eagle Rock in Topanga State Park. As the students are learning what an inversion is and why Los Angeles has this smog-trapping weather condition, they are also studying nature writing and learning how to string together their own words about the natural world.
"Essentially, they have to learn to write in six weeks," Krusoe said. "It's a killer."
Krusoe exposes the students to model nature writers as disparate as Romantic poet William Wordsworth and contemporary environmental activist Edward Abbey. According to Krusoe, Sue Hubbell's book, "Country Year," is especially useful to beginning nature writers. Hubbell is "an immaculate writer," he said, and her book, best known for its section on bees, is "about someone staying at home, paying attention."
In critiquing students' journal entries, Krusoe is quick to praise evidence that they are paying close attention, whether observing an alligator lizard barely visible in the dust or a distant cluster of homes that look like a beehive when viewed from the mountains. "The funny thing about paying attention," he told his students, as they perched on Eagle Rock, moments after displacing a raven, "is that when you really see something, sometimes it's even better than just using your imagination."
Krusoe said that students tend to "get too pretty" when they first begin to write about storm clouds and life cycles. Krusoe's reading assignments for the course are examples of writing about nature without verbal genuflection. The assigned writers have "natural voices," he said.
Sometimes those voices are downright peevish. Among the handouts for the class is one of Krusoe's own poems, titled "Nature," which includes the non-reverential lines: "Well why shouldn't he hate nature? / What's it ever done for him? Or me for that matter?" The poet said most of his work has an "urban feel." Krusoe said he wanted to teach the course with Selby in order to learn more about physical Southern California and "to learn how to write nature poetry that would interest me."
As a geographer, Selby said he is repeatedly shocked and saddened at the lack of widespread knowledge about weather, the rock cycle and other natural phenomena. "It's scary to know that so many people know so little about the world we live in," he said.
Resting with the students on Eagle Rock, Selby talked about the materials--mostly sandstone and conglomerates--that formed the outcropping and the natural forces that created it and continue to shape it. Geology lessons are much more vivid in the wild than in the classroom, he noted. "You can't stand here and see the rock cycle, but you get a feeling for how the rock cycle is changing the landscape," he said.
Student Evelyn Batiste, 26, said she had taken the course to fulfill a science requirement and because she thought she would benefit from the writing component. After the first class, the Inglewood woman recalled, she was able to identify the stone in the campus parking lot as shale. As a result of the course, she said, she can think about things that she never even noticed before.
Batiste has also become a seasoned hiker. On the first couple of outings, she was startled by every dive-bombing dragonfly. "I've really gotten better," she said, undaunted by the slither of a lizard in the dry grass.
After Selby's geology lesson on Eagle Rock, Krusoe asked the students to read their journal entries aloud. Frank Kianfar, a 23-year-old business major, began: "The live oak trees drop their leaves, and they are dead even before they hit the ground."
Krusoe had good things to say about all of the students' brief essays. Like a conscientious parent, he tries to teach his charges without battering their self-esteem. "On a really good day," the poet said, "I feel my compliments are as creative as anything I've ever done."