Next time you cross the bridge on University Drive, Tom Cull hopes you’ll look below and look around. Take in your surroundings – the river, the trees, even the beaver you might see, crossing the bridge at dawn as you head to your morning class.
This is at the heart of a class Cull is teaching in the Department of English and Writing Studies. Asking students to engage with their surroundings in order to engage in creative writing is the purpose of You’re a Strange Animal: Writing Nature, Writing the Self – a third-year elective course open to all students at Western.
“We tend to think of nature as something ‘out there,’ that thing we see when we go camping once a year. But our campus has this amazing space that has animals, plants, habitats that we interact with all the time. It’s so important to take that in,” said Cull, London’s Poet Laureate who teaches in the American and Writing Studies programs.
“How do we pay attention to nature? How do we think about nature in an urban context? How do we think about nature in a moment of real threat of environmental collapse? I’m introducing these larger questions about global issues, but we are looking at very specific, local ways we can think about this and engage with nature,” he added.
Much of the learning for Cull’s course takes place outside of the classroom. He assigns weekly readings, covering the history of nature writing and the genre itself, but students spend much of their time outside before sitting down to write poems, fiction and non-fiction works about the nature they encounter.
Biology professor Nina Zitani gave students a tour of Western’s Sherwood Fox Arboretum. Students go on regular river and nature walks. Later in the term, they will tour the zoology collection in the basement of Biological and Geological Sciences.
Award-winning author and English PhD student David Huebert, whose works focus heavily on the connection between humanity and the natural environment, has worked with Cull’s students, as well. Erik Mandawe, BA’17 (Music), London’s first Artist in Residence, spoke to students about nature writing and notions of land from an Indigenous perspective.
Students are taking photographs, engaging in graphic mapping, filmmaking, journaling and comic sketch exercises. The assignments are meant to encourage thinking and creative writing inspired by the natural world, Cull added.
“Every week, we’re writing exercises and prompts that engage with questions of the natural world, animals, the relationship between ourselves and the land, ourselves and nature, environmental degradation, climate change,” he said.
“We’re talking about big issues, but we’re focusing specifically on campus. We’re out of the classroom every day. It’s getting students to engage in creative writing and thinking and the environment they live in and connect with.”
With the rise of environmental movements, led in large part by Indigenous people around the world, issues affecting the environment are becoming more and more of a concern, Cull continued. Overpopulation, overconsumption and degradation of habitat are prevalent.
What makes the course particularly exciting is the multidisciplinary learning happening as a result of the diverse makeup of his classroom. Because the course is open to all, English, Science and Business students are coming together and approaching these issues, and their creative assignments, from different perspectives and insights.
“And that’s a real bonus, besides just getting outside the classroom walls and engaging in learning in a different way,” Cull said.
“I am always looking for different genres and ways to engage students, to get a taste of each genre and find where their interests and creativity lies. I’m really excited about the course and that excitement is being rewarded with the students’ excitement. We’re having a lot of fun and covering a lot of ground,” he added.
“It has nice parallels with what I’m doing with my work as the poet laureate. This past weekend, at Museum London, I did a walking and writing tour as part of these talks the museum organized. I run a grassroots river cleanup organization called Thames River Rally and I see activism and nature writing as interlinked, at least in my practice, so I want to share that experience with my students. As part of the module on nature writing and environmental activism, we’ll be doing a campus river cleanup.”