My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Every year, if one’s lucky enough to call themselves a Composition instructor she is tasked with the Herculean challenge of hooking classrooms full of incoming freshman into the written word. We feel as if we have one shot and one shot only to bait and reel these squirrely minds into the power of language. The bait used this fall was the Sierra Club’s latest collection A Leaky Tent is a Piece of Paradise: 20 Young Writers on Finding a Place in the Natural World, edited by Bonnie Tsui. From exploring the Maori folklore of New Zealand eels in James’ Prosek piece, “Eelian Thinking,” to tracking the seasonal cycle at a Brooklyn Farmer’s Market in a beautifully lyrical work by Liesl Schwabe’s “The End of Strawberries, The Beginning of Peaches” each appealed to my students and earned rave reviews. There was something for everyone. Even the students who didn’t consider themselves nature lovers were able to relate to at least one of the essays.
As much as the essays pay tribute to the environmental movement, some of the thornier issues may still prick readers, particularly the fact that many of these writers come from privileged Euro American backgrounds, people, who, like most green activists and adventure-explorers can afford to take a three months trek in the Arctic or a cross-country road trip, shrugging off family obligations without a care for economic worries. Its a class and cultural thing. The two writers, Lilith Wood’s “God in the Cannery” and the earlier mentioned Schwabe, connect with nature through working class labor and reveal a completely different insight from the ground level looking up. Their relationship to the wild is unwieldy and rattles the nerves in the most profound and necessary of ways. Students struggled with these works because their meaning wasn’t so obvious. That’s a good thing!
Though sometimes the humor in many of these essays can be distracting, overall each piece reveals sincere, wise, and exquisite voices. Crammed with humor and spiked with profound insight, the best non-fiction weaves priceless gems of facts, curious information, anecdotal bits of history and lore as the personal narrative pulls readers forward. A Leaky Tent is an excellent demonstration of clear, engaging, and vivid writing. Definitely a keeper. I’ll be using this collection again for composition classes to come.