Class Portrait – Current Readings in Natural History


For the past five years, I have worked with Prof. Kurt Caswell and the students in his Spring Semester class. I teach them how to conduct research in a special collections library, select boxes of manuscript material from the Sowell Collection that will show them the wide range of materials we have from each writer–from photographs to drafts of major books to correspondence–and present short biographical talks on the writers, I focus each semester primarily on writers who will be presenting at the Sowell Collection Conference held near the end of the semester. This year the writers were Susan Brind Morrow and Gary Paul Nabhan. The students also read the work of Barry Lopez, and when he is on campus, he visits their class.  This photo shows some of the students from the class, visitor Barry Lopez, and Prof. Kurt Caswell.  Usually Barry attends the Conference, he has always been a special guest and participant, but this year his schedule did not permit him to be with us.  Nevertheless, he visited with the students earlier in April, speaking to them about the joys, trials, and responsibilities of being a writer.

Pictured: Kathryn May, Barry Lopez, Kurt Caswell; Garrett Dewbre, Emma Foster, Hunter Bullock

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To See the True Beauty in Nature is to be Thankful

The manner in which John Muir describes his surroundings made me realize how little I paid attention to mine. He saw wonder and life in the places I would have seen monotony. Muir saw an opportunity to be thankful for the wildlife surrounding him, where I sometimes saw a burden in it. The constant noting of the beauty of nature is the dominant trait in My First Summer in the Sierra, and the reason it has such a charm.

My First Summer in the Sierra is written in a style that gives a reader a sense of wanderlust for his or her own backyard. It is a book which made me realize I don’t need to go too far to find a reason to have my breath taken away by nature, because all I need is a change in perspective and an appreciation for every tree, leaf, flower and creature that I come across.

Liberty Cap, with Vernal and Nevada Falls MagnificentSilverFirs(Mr. Muir in foreground)  WhiteMariposaTulie(Calorchortus albus)

I also took a keen interest in Muir’s style of writing because it is unlike anyone else’s when it comes to describing nature. Muir does not care to describe his interaction with nature, nor does he take the time to explain what he learns from his surroundings. Instead Muir lets the environment speak for itself. The language Muir gives nature is the language of description. Muir gives the smallest of details–the pores of a plant, the shadow a rock creates, the sound of the stream rushing by, the height of the trees—to depict to the reader what it truly means to find beauty in everything. It is the manner of the description and his constant gratefulness that allows for a relationship to form between the reader and what Muir is describing.

Muir does not only have an avid passion and gratitude towards nature, but he is also a devoted scientist. The curiosity of a scientist parallels his harmony and unity with nature, evidently seen when he writes, “One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of nature, – inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.” Muir molds science and nature so effortlessly it is difficult to note where one of his passions ends and the other begins. I found this to be incredibly interesting, since it is not common for many scientists to think of nature in that manner.


My First Summer in the Sierra impacted me in a way that made me take a step back and realize that I was not living with nature, but rather I was merely living in it.  I took for granted the sound of a bird’s song, never thinking about what it would be like if I woke up and day and didn’t hear nature outside. I took for granted the opened acorns, not realizing that it did not matter if I stand still or move, life still goes on around me. It was this realization that led me to see that I should slow down and take my surroundings in. I must sometimes stop and admire the creations around me. I must also stop and realize how small I am compared to a tree, and how much I take for granted. Muir also taught me that I cannot understand nature’s beauty until I can fully appreciate its splendor.

Ana Navarrete is a senior Environment and the Humanities student who plans to attend law school in the fall of 2015, with the aim of  pursuing a career in environmental law.  She is a member of Texas Tech’s Honors College from Houston, Texas.

Plates from My First Summer in the Sierra: Liberty Cap, with Vernal and Nevada Falls; Magnificent Silver Firs (Mr. Muir in foreground); White Mariposa Tulip (Calorchortus albus).

My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir.  Boston: Houghthon Mifflin, 1911.  This book can be read in the Holden Reading Room of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University.  A digital copy of this book, and others by John Muir, is available in the SWC/SCL’s digital collection ( in the Natural History and Science Collection.

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Among Giants: Interning at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

I am lucky enough to be one of the first Texas Tech University undergraduate students to present an essay at the Sowell Collection Conference.  Presenting at the conference entailed researching, editing multiple drafts, and practicing the essay over and over.  Our essays were about a writer whose manuscripts are housed in the James Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World.  It was such a nerve-racking experience, knowing that I would be giving an essay about a book whose author was sitting right in front of me.

Prof. Kurt Caswell and students researching in the Holden Reading Room

I prepared for the conference for an entire semester.  It was a class that turned into something so much bigger than in-class lessons.  It became an experience only I and 15 or so other students shared out of the 30,000 students at the university.  It started as an assignment in which we learned about some of the authors in the collection — Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, and David Quammen — looked through their boxes, which contained of drafts of their works, photographs, journals, and other personal items and picked something that interested us.

Some boxes from the Bill McKibben collection before they were processed and ready for researchers.

Some boxes from the Bill McKibben collection before they were processed and ready for researchers.

The next step was writing an essay, and we had complete writing freedom.  We could choose what to write, the only guideline was that the essay must adhere to something or someone in the collection.  It was a daunting task, looking through a plethora of boxes to find one thing that interested me.  I thought it would be impossible.

It turned out to be one of the most exciting and fulfilling things that I have done in all my classes.  I wrote my essay over Gretel Ehrlich’s book, This Cold Heaven.  In it she describes how the Inuit people of Greenland interact with others — family, friends, significant others — and how the cold is the driving force behind their way of interacting. I focused on the Inuit people’s relationships and how they differ from Western culture’s relationships. I read my essay in front of the authors Barry Lopez, John Lane, and David Quammen, whom I had come to admire and respect. They made up part of the audience and were listening to my words, not because they had to, but rather because they cared about what I had to say. It was really empowering, and a feeling that I have strived to get again since then.

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

This feeling was the reason I was so excited to work at the Sowell Collection again and why I wanted to put together some type of collection that would have all of the past conference papers from past undergraduate presenters. It was important to me that people who would visit the collection in the future would know about the conference and its presenters for years to come. The feeling presenting at the Sowell Conference gives a student matters, the conference matters and a record of it must be made.

Student panel at the Sowell Collection Conference 2013

Student panel at the Sowell Collection Conference 2013

I began to intern in the collection in the fall semester of 2014. I took a tour of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, which is bigger than I ever imagined, so I could get to know my learning space more intimately. I read books by different authors whose work resides there. I had conversations about the authors’ books as well as about how they affected me. I dove into the collection, but I didn’t expect for it to appeal so much to me.

I will be putting the papers from the former TTU student presenters in order, from the first year and the first presenter, to the present year and last presenter. It will reside in the Sowell Collection, accessible to anyone who wants to know about the conference and read the essays written by the students who were affected by the authors and their writing. The essays will all be in one place, permanently part of the collection, because when we presented the essays during the conferences, we also became writers in the collection.

Ana Navarrete is a senior Environment and the Humanities student who plans to attend law school in the fall of 2015, with the aim of  pursuing a career in environmental law.  She is a member of Texas Tech’s Honors College from Houston, Texas.

The Next Sowell Collection Conference will be held April 16-17-18, 2015, and will feature Susan Brind Morrow, Gary Paul Nabhan, John Lane, and Toni Jensen.


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I Know a Place I’ve Never Seen: Reading Susan Brind Morrow’s The Names of Things

I have an overwhelming sense of wanderlust that became a life companion after I traveled to Europe for the first time on my own. To see other places in the world became a necessity. I loved the cities, the good and the ugly all the same.

Names of Things

For this reason Susan Brind Morrow’s Names of Things really spoke to me. Her travels to Egypt were infectious, and her lust for the unknown was contagious. Egypt becomes one of her passions, and as she writes about her time there, she describes it with very realistic language, not once romanticizing the qualities Egypt has to offer. She describes the people, the places she visits, and her surroundings exactly as she sees them, leaving no ‘ugly’ part out. Morrow fell in love with the place and its people for what they had to offer her, not for what it was supposed to be like, and I fell in love with her vision of Egypt. It’s a harsh land to conquer, and my favorite part was that she didn’t try to conquer it. Instead, Morrow simply adjusted to it and found humor where other people normally wouldn’t, for example in the case of the Jeep. She drives a jeep while she is in Egypt, because it is reliable for the sand dunes, but unfortunately it frequently boils over. In a situation of stress and frustration, Morrow instead finds this time as useful and turns it into spare time to make herself a cup of tea with the heat of the radiator. It was a small necessary reminder that the situation remains the same, whether you stress or not.

The book deals with language, culture, and openness for change. Morrow welcomes change with open arms, and understands that staying still is impossible. Morrow writes, “All refuge I find is at best temporary…somewhere in the process of learning this, in the heat and exhaustion and the harsh openness of sand, rock and wind, my resistance gave way.” The truth of her words resonated with me, and applied in situations that had nothing to do with Egypt.


Expired passport with stamps for Egypt. In the Susan Brind Morrow Papers.


My favorite part of her writing was her unromanticized sentences. She leads the reader to intimately know and understand the place as she does, without altering Egypt’s scenery for a more romanticized idea, because she simply accepts things as they are. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths, because the reader can also fall in love with a place, rather than an idea.

This blog entry was written by guest contributor Ana Navarrete.

Ana Navarrete is a senior Environment and the Humanities student who plans to attend law school in the fall of 2015, with the aim of  pursuing a career in environmental law.  She is a member of Texas Tech’s Honors College from Houston, Texas.

Susan Brind Morrow Papers at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University:

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Susan Brind Morrow’s Journals and Notebooks: Reading and Discovery

Susan Brind Morrow will visit Texas Tech University as a featured speaker for our fourth annual Sowell Collection Conference to be held April 16-18, 2015.  In preparation for her visit and for talking to undergraduate students about Morrow’s books, I recently re-read The Names of Things: A Passage in the Egyptian Desert, her first book about her travels and studies in Egypt.  Early in the book, Morrow describes an ostrich feather fan that she has saved:  “I spread the feather fan across my face and inhale it.  Its smell is vague and fading now, like the scent of my journals from that time…”

I had supervised the processing of Morrow’s manuscript collection, housed now in the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, and I remembered the students listing boxes and boxes of journals and notebooks.  With this passage as my inspiration, I requested those boxes and spent days with them, notebook by notebook, page by page.

Drawing of grass plant, from Box 7, folder 25.

Morrow’s handwriting flows, almost like water, with barely a ripple to distinguish consonant and vowel, but I came to be able to read many of the passages.  I came to see each page as a work of art, beautifully and carefully crafted, as well as a journalistic entry.

From box 8, folder 8.

In her journals, as shown in the section above, she reflects upon the difficult task she has set herself: “I guess I am just trying to understand that exotic adventures do not matter so much.  It is only how well you write–at this point for me it is only the writing– [?] go from writing snippets to writing a book” (box 8, folder 8).

I could never find a particular notebook or journal with the scent of old feathers, with the scent of Egypt–neither the Nile nor the desert–still clinging to the pages.  But it must be there somewhere.

Susan Brind Morrow Papers at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University:



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The Brothers K by David James Duncan


I was intimidated by David James Duncan’s novel The Brothers K.  It sat on my bookshelves for years, always on the “I’m going to read it someday” list.  My copy is a thick paperback, almost 1 ½ inches wide, and I knew that with that width came lots and lots of pages (645, to be precise).  Experience has taught me that I can’t read a book of that length in the short reading slots I have available in my regular life.  And the title, The Brothers K, seemed to mean that in order to appreciate all the nuanced layers and allusions, I really must read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov first. But Russian novelists also intimidate me, so it was a double whammy of dread and regret every time I scanned the shelves for something to read, putting my finger lightly on that thick spine with the large blue K.  Someday, I told myself, I’ll read this one.

That “someday” came just last month.  First, thanks to BBC radio, I listened to The Brothers Karamazov in five one-hour programs.  Secondly, my husband wanted to go swimming.



He especially wanted to go swimming at Bottomless Lakes State Park, a three hour drive from our home in Lubbock.  We were going to make a quick trip, spending the night in Roswell.  We’d been to Bottomless Lakes many times before, well worth the drive for a wonderful day of swimming in cold clear water.  My husband can swim all the way across, while I go out a little way and then float on my back, wearing my sunglasses so I can look up at the bright blue sky.  I envisioned a day of swimming and floating, interspersed with some serious lounging with a good book and some picnic food—bread, cheese and olives.

The lakes are sinkholes, formed when the roof over a subterranean river collapsed, so the water is always fresh, cold, and somewhat salty.  There is a bathhouse and pavilion built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of those sturdy stone buildings that I so admire.  The lakes are called “bottomless” because years ago cowboys tried to measure the depth with ropes dropped over the side of a boat, but the current kept the rope from ever reaching the bottom, amazing and confounding them.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The day before we left, I started in reading The Brothers K.  I was hooked.  Then, while at the lake, I had hours of reading time.  I passed page 300, passed page 400.  I swam, I got sunburned, I swept little striped bugs off my arms and legs when they distracted me from the world of the novel.  I was still reading when we returned to Lubbock, and though I had to put the book down once because I couldn’t bear to read any more, I was so distraught over the characters’ plights and terrified for their safety, and then again the next night because I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, I finished the book.  I loved it.

I’m not going to describe The Brothers K in any great detail.  I’m afraid I’ll say too much and perhaps spoil something for future readers.  Read it yourself.  Don’t be intimidated.  You don’t even have to read The Brothers Karamazov first.DJC_Award

A bit about The Brothers K:  This novel describes three decades of the life of the family Chance, beginning in the family living room in Camas, Washington, and coming to a close with the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  There are brothers, four of them, and their young twin sisters.  Their father supports his large family by working in the paper mill, their mother runs the household, but takes her strength from her Seventh-day Adventist church.  Baseball, religion, family, set in the Pacific Northwest.  My kind of book indeed.

Duncan says of the title: “In statistician’s lingo, a K is a strikeout–a personal failure.  And the struggle to come to terms with personal and national failure is a huge part of the novel.”  An Interview with David James Duncan, by Clark Munsell.  The World & I, Oct. 1992.

Images:  Book cover; Lea Lake, New Mexico; “Notes taken interviewing a drunk & stoned Vietnam vet for the VN scenes in BK” from Box 4, folder 19 of DJD Papers; Casey Award nomination for best book about baseball, from DJD Papers.

David James Duncan Papers at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University:


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Robert Michael Pyle’s Writings from Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

During the Sowell Collection Conference held in April 2013, our book signing events brought us all some unexpected joy and gratitude.  When Robert Michael Pyle prepared to come to Lubbock as a featured speaker for the Conference, he packed his suitcase with copies of his chapbook, Letting the Flies Out, and each evening he presented them, with thoughtful and kind inscriptions, to other conference participants, including a host of TTU undergraduates. In addition to sharing his chapbook with us, Pyle also presented a talk with slides on his Mariposa Road year, played the harmonica to accompany David Taylor’s talk on and singing of the Texas River Song, sat attentively listening to the other presentations.  He joked and laughed and talked to everyone.

Work_SowellConference_Snow_etc 234

When I read this book, perhaps more than any other he has written, it’s like having him right in the room again.

Letting the Flies Out includes two short stories, two essays and fifteen poems.  One story, “Runaway Truck Ramp,” was runner-up for the High Desert Journal‘s Obsidian Prize in Fiction in 2011.  Gretel Ehrlich served as judge.   In it, Jude Murray, a woman who drives big trucks for a living, has had a long fascination with the sandy upgrades of runaway truck ramps that appear with regularity on the West’s dangerously steep mountain roads.  The runaway ramps embody, she says, “that irreversible choice–you can’t take it back.”

As for the poems, this one I think just might be my favorite:

Pyle_Letting (2)The Watermelon

Too ripe! Leaking in the bottom
of the fridge. Take it out, put it
on a stump.  Cleave it four ways
with a very serious knife. Cut
out the center.  Eat it in cubes,
four days and nights.  Delicious!
Put the rest out in the sun.
Someone will eat it: the calliope
humming bird, butterflies, beetles.
Or bees.  One morning, all gone.

And to think I was just going to toss it!

Many of the pieces were written during Pyle’s Werner Writing Residency at Fishtrap in Billy Meadows, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in the northeast corner of Oregon.  His descriptions of the animals he encountered and observed are carefully unsentimental, while showing the naturalist’s appreciation for each species and its connection to all others in the meadow.  For example, these stanzas from “The Elk Come to Billy Meadows”:

We listen for an hour or more, afraid to wreck
the peaceable kingdom of bugle, huff, and chew.
Small owl slides by, back and forth, as I make out
antlers, dark mantles, all those big white butts.

Cold and sleepy, we take to the cabin. Wapiti pay
no mind at all. Early morning, rise and go. I walk
down to see what all that grinding’s wrought: pellets
everywhere, blue butterflies coming to sip.

Billy Meadows residence - Wallowa-Whitman NF Oregon

Letting the Flies Out, by Robert Michael Pyle.  Enterprise, OR: Fishtrap Inc., 2011 (first printing), Gray’s River, WA: The New Riverside Press, 2012 (second printing).

Photo of residence at the Billy Meadows guard station by Ian Poellet from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Watermelon” used with the author’s permission.

  Continue reading

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