From Megan…

You want the scales of a pinecone to be soft and delicate as a flower’s blossoms; at least, I always do, and despite the brittle wood pieces which make up this strobile scratching against my palm, I wonder what would be if it were soft. Yet the edges of a pinecone are rough and seemingly invincible with its softness bubbling to the surface through the crusted sap coating the resin flakes. They flower as buds do growing up a vine.

This pinecone is larger than the length of my forearm, the reverse of the one my five year old neighbor whom I’d known his whole life gave me before he moved away. On the day before his move, he looked up to me with his blue doe eyes because regardless of the fact I stood on my knees, I was still a head or two taller than him, and he is respectful enough to look those he speaks to in the eyes. He smiled up at me, the classic gap between front two teeth showing as his chubby and red cheeks lifted up.

“This is for you, Miss Megan.”

In his palm, he lifted a pinecone the length of my pinky, the span of his grip. The reason for their move is a sad one, though he seemed to be coping with the death of his father in the best way any young child could possibly process. Besides a shorter temper and speech therapy, he kept the sweet lisp, adventurous smile, and grubby fingers I’ve known for his whole life.

I took the pinecone and closed it into my fist. It was fairly malleable, so I was gentle with it. A bit of sap still lined the edges. Josh ran away from me, back to where, towards the edge of manicured lawn into forest, there stood a tree which split in two fairly close to the base. Burnt needles covered the roots of the tree and he pushed them all aside, trying to find more gifts.

Josh still found nature to be enigmatic and valuable. Living with one hundred acres of conservation land for a backyard can do that to some. Branches often fell across the paths and holes in the ground after thaws tended to be deep, yet Josh was still able to find this small pinecone and deem it significant enough to bestow upon me. I like to think he and that pinecone have similarities. I found nature to be enigmatic and valuable, enough to keep that pinecone on my dresser for a year.

The memories we attach to bits of nature have always interested me. Now, the moment I see a pinecone, all I can think about is the last time I babysat Josh –– the feeling of the sap’s stickiness inching about the skin of my palm, Josh’s twinkling and slightly gap-toothed laugh, his father.

All my small pinecone has done is still on my dresser and bathe in any sunlight that may stream past window panes on particularly sunny day. I guess this is more interesting than anything it may have done, but I can’t help but wonder the path which brought such a small thing to be; the same goes for the large pinecone of the classroom. Perhaps, with these memories twisted into ideas of objects, that empathy is formed, that connection. Each time we see the object, the empathy grows. The pinecone laughs with Josh’s laugh, bringing a melancholy happiness into my grasp. It is more tangible than it could have been otherwise.

I saw my first snow when we lived out west; I believe we had been in the redwoods. I can not remember any of this.

The snow fell in the dry snow kind of way: large flakes, softly and slowly, and with a powdery look. I was wrapped in a marshmallow pink snowsuit, complete with a hood wrapped around my red cheeks. My father must have picked up a pinecone at some point during our trek, and if it came from the redwoods, it had to be large. Perhaps it was as large as the one which sat on my desk in the classroom.

Although I can not remember my first snow, I know for a fact that it happened, and I know where. The rest follows with the visual of a pinecone such as one which could be found from a redwood. It all comes seeping from memory, though not all sweet. Different objects from nature, isolated, help to create a stronger narrative in one’s consciousness, contributing to a connection felt towards the land itself. Pinecones now, to me, are snowfalls, Josh’s laugh, and the memory of Tim.

-Megan Smith


The Messenger…

For our optional Friday night green film series, we kicked off with Su Rynard’s The Messenger, a sobering glimpse into the myriad influences on declining songbird populations. After seeing the film together, professor emeritus David Weber and I discussed the possibility of bird tape on the library windows as a preventative measure against glass bykill (just last week, a Cedar waxwing dropped dead at my feat upon exiting the library). Check out the link to learn more about the film.



Welcome, 2016


Day 1. Fresh snow.

Well, it’s the time of year again and we’ve come full circle since L&L 2015 finished their final projects at The Word Barn last spring. We’ve grown to TWO sections this year (!), which means that our fleet of Crazy Creeks has also doubled (a fine blue set to compliment last year’s forest green). C block discovered the handwritten letters tucked in the back zippers of their chairs from last year’s crew (minus a few of you miscreants who neglected to complete that assignment before slipping away into the ether of your graduations). A-format this year wasn’t quite so lucky, so they’ll have to pioneer a new set of letters for the 2017 second section to read on their first day of class.

This spring bodes well for another splendid experience. We have a variety of new Walks set up, including a night hike and a visit to the Exeter Farmer’s Market, as well as returns to some of our favorites from last spring–Mr. Hiza’s Orchard, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson’s Farm, and Apple Annies. We will return to our observation spots along the Green Trail on the Exeter river.

Other developments in the works: We’ll be hosting the debut Environmental Humanities Institute at Exeter, a secondary school teacher institute for environmental humanities courses like ours. The likes of Scott Russell Sanders, John Elder, Mark Long, Clare Walker Leslie, and Jennifer Pharr Davis will all be in attendance, working with our teachers to pioneer and refine their courses. And both ORION Magazine and The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) have sponsored our work. Super exciting stuff.

Lastly, I wanted to let you all know that this year’s students will be keeping their own writing blogs. They’re in the process of getting them up and running, but you should be able to see new posts soon under the page “Who We Are” at the top of this blog.

That’s it for now. More highlights to come…

-Mr. Bre



Visitor: Dr. Mark Long, President of The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE)

In class today, we hosted Dr. Mark Long, President of ASLE and professor of English at Keene State. I first met Mark in the summer of 2006 in Juneau, Alaska when he was teaching for the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English M.A. program in which I was enrolled. We shared our mutual interests in hockey, mountaineering, and environmental lit, and he introduced me to ASLE, where my mind just about imploded at the discovery of a whole institution (!!!) dedicated to the study of the body of work I love above all others.

When I discovered that I would be teaching EN453, I rekindled my conversation with Mark, who invited me to his farm in Keene, NH to brainstorm ideas for the course. Mark is more knowledgeable on this particular discourse than anyone I know, and I remember scribbling notes, furiously trying to keep pace with the titles he referenced and the incipient ideas they sprouted in my mind. Mark’s good at the kinds of conversations that elevate your intellectual heart rate, that stimulate ideas and that send you tumbling down the rabbit hole of possibility. And, in addition to a brainload of new thoughts, I left his farm that day with an armful of fresh-cut garlic heads from his garden.

Mark shared with us his reflections on the work of John Muir and its influence on the environmental movement. Mark told this story through the lens of his own encounter with Muir during his climbing and mountaineering days in the high Sierra in the early 80’s. According to Mark, Muir is responsible for a legacy of ideas that flows through the environmental literary canon, and Mark’s central premise emerged that there exists a crucial relationship between experience and ideas…that one without the other is somehow incomplete.

Mark traced for us how Muir’s own work emphasizes this truth by pointing out the dialogue between Muir’s firsthand experiences in the Sierra and the ideas they inspired. Mark described his own confirmation of this relationship where, steeped in the words of Muir and in the geographical actualities they describe, Mark discovered a fountain of his own thinking. The granite to which Mark clung 1,000 feet off the valley floor infused Muir’s words with three dimensionality they lacked for him sitting at a desk. In this way, Mark suggested a synergy between the kinesthetic and the cerebral.  The internalized life of the mind becomes endowed with life and breath in the torque of muscle and the visceral encounter with rock and wind. Mark showed us photographs of Mt. Ritter as he searched for the apocryphal location of Muir’s “near miss,” when he almost fell to his death, but was saved by a surge of atavistic energy that forced him to contemplate our place on the human/nature continuum. He showed us photos of pocket glaciers where Muir first posited their influence on shaping landscape. He showed us myriads of alpine flowers, growing from precarious mountain perches. It was here where Mark discovered what he deemed his “mature writing voice,” here where his environmental and literary vision crystalized.

Above all else it is this truth that I hope you glimpse this spring: that the dialogue between the lived and the read can create magic where before there was none. May you let the land itself and your encounters with it breathe life into the texts you read in new and energized permutations of thought.

-Mr. Bre

The Plan for Walk #4: Vernal Pools…

L&L, here’s the plan for tomorrow:

We’ll meet at 8am at the bus, which will be parked in front of Peabody. Keep your eye on the weather, but it looks like rain, so you’ll want to pack your rain jackets in addition to your notebooks and your Elder and Price handouts. Bring your Crazy Creeks, too, so we can find a spot under a hemlock to Harkness afield.

Remember: Paper #2 is due tomorrow and, Brian, you’re on for a blog on tomorrow’s walk.

Looking forward to being out with you all in the morning!

-Mr. Bre

A Saturday Walk…

Exeter Walk FlowerToday, I headed out with Rosie and the stroller for a walk out past the mill buildings on the east side of the Squamscott. Heavy clouds encroached from the west, harkening rain, but we ventured out anyway, thinking we had just enough time before before getting wet. A crisp north wind. Slanting light emanating from cloudbreaks.

Pairs of small birds sliced through the air low over the water. Sharp wing angle, iridescent backs, light bellies. Clare Walker Leslie lamented the absence of tree swallows on her visit and she’d be glad to know that in the intervening days, they’ve returned.  If you’ve never watched tree swallows in flight, it’s a true pleasure. Mini stunt pilots they are, all g-force and bravado, sometimes their wingtips carve thin grooves in the surface of the water as they dart for hovering insects.

A solitary male redwinged blackbird swayed in the breeze, balancing on a cattail stalk along the reservoir, baring his red and yellow shoulder badges. He let us approach to within ten feet before flitting away. 50 yards farther, we came upon a great blue heron wading shin-deep in a tangle of reeds; he took flight upon our approach, and with two or three wingbeats, glided to the opposite bank. We’d meet him again as we circled around.

Other beauties: a cottontail browsing a brush edge, clusters of cackling starlings, gulls winging aloft. Bunny

On the return side of the reservoir, past our second brush with the heron (he crossed back over to his original spot!), a man with a telephoto lens flagged us down, pointing down a steepness of bank where a large round object rested on top of the reeds. “Snapper!” While the man entertained Rosie, I scuttled down the bank, closer, for a (poor) iphone picture. I thought of the time when I was six when I lost a hooked bluegill to a dark monster rising up from the muck. I can still see a thickly clawed reptilian hand (what do you call a turtle’s foot, anyway?) slashing my fish in two, leaving me with a dead-eyed hunk of flesh dangling on the end of my line. Or the time my dad thought it would be a good idea to pick up a cornered snapper by its stegosaurus tail, only to have it’s head shoot around lighting-quick from it’s shell in a defensive maneuver. I still don’t know how my old man has all his digits.

Today’s snapper was large (though I know the picture doesn’t do it justice). 24 inches snout to tail. Snapper

-Mr. Bre

Clare Walker Leslie Visit Preparations

L&L, some thoughts as we prepare to meet Clare Walker Leslie (hooray, yippee, wahoo!!!) on Monday and Tuesday of this week.

1. Ms. Walker Leslie will be available in our classroom on Monday night at 7:45pm. Your attendance here is OPTIONAL, though if your work is done and you have the inclination, it would be so good to have some of you there to welcome her to Exeter. This will be a time to interact with Ms. Walker Leslie in a small, intimate gathering, to listen to her thoughts and story as they speak to our exploration of environmental literature and the environmental movement.

2. We will meet on Tuesday morning at 7:40am in front of Elm Street to head into the field with Ms. Walker Leslie. Please have your Crazy Creek, your Write in the Rain notebook, a pen AND pencil, and your copy of Abbey. An IMPORTANT NOTE: it will be really, really, REALLY wet, muddy, and generally sloppy out there. It is imperative that you dress appropriately. Rain or muck boots are recommended (if you don’t have a pair, try and borrow some). 

Ms. Walker Leslie is excited to field your questions. She specifically asked me to have you think about and write down some questions for her, and I’m including this LINK to her website to offer you further insight into her work and passions as you frame those questions . Three or four apiece should be plenty.

See you soon.

-Mr. Bre

Of Eagles and Otters…

I checked the weather app on my phone compulsively this morning, watching the mercury steadily climb, climb climb for the first time in six months. 50…60…62. At 65 degrees, I told myself ok, this is it, handed Rosie to Ms. Simmons, and headed down to the basement to pump up my mountain bike tires and don some spandex. After a long, long, long and sedentary winter, this fleeting initiative was no small success! My own inner spring rustlings felt alive!

As I pedaled across campus, the soggy grass soaked up my momentum and sapped my speed. My tires skidded and slid through patches of slush-covered trail, threatening to tip my handlebars far enough aside to put me on my side. I managed to stay upright, though, out past the stadium, across the Exeter River spur berm, and into the hemlock grove where the shadows grew heavy and the snow on the trail thickened in a wall of cold air. Soon enough, it was too deep and slick to maintain traction, so I turned around and traced the swollen river back in the direction I came. I noticed the banks reaching deeper into the woods where they had overtaken a stretch of trees growing on a flat, their trunks stretching up from roots submerged in inky swell.

As I exited the woods, I caught a glimpse of peripheral movement sliding through the air and glanced up to see two bald eagles not thirty feet in the air–level with the tops of adjacent maples–winging by directly overhead. I caught a glimpse of silvery underplummage in the bright morning light, yellow, grizzly claw beaks, one or two ruffled feathers. The second bird, just behind, was immature, mottled as a giant speckled hen. So close. So immense. So surprising that they were upon me and gone before I could hit the breaks to take them in.

As I slowed my pace in their wake, reveling in the unexpected delight of such a gift, I downshifted and pedaled lightly back toward the stadium, breathing in the smell of soggy grass and mud. I banked left at the sagging lattice fence of the dog park and rolled to a stop at the crest of Cobb’s bridge. I wanted to watch the water slide by where not five days ago it still held icy static. As I looked south, almost immediately I caught sight of something in the water. I thought log, for it stretched long and thin, tapering at the downstream end, and drifted with the outside current’s bend. When the taper curled upstream, across the current, my mind began to rearrange itself…plastic bag I thought. Some detritus caught on the river bottom and reshaping itself with the downriver pull. As it drifted closer, though, I recognized the flat head and chin resting in line, split horizontally by the water’s surface, the sleek, moose brown back, the forearm-thick tail tapering to a downstream point. Otter. At the moment of apprehension, she tucked her chin and rolled underwater without a ripple. Gone.

All of us, out and about in incipient spring, the eagles and otter and I.

-Mr. Bre

The Melt…

Today, the snow slumps sodden and wet with melt. It looks like cold lutefisk under poor light. Treewells sink downward, pulled into the earth, drunk up by the roots of their trees while snowmelt runnels slide along pavement toward storm drains, their concentric arcs bending like the belly scales of upturned snakes in the sun.

I hear the dull thud of rain on snow, the wetness of it all, the saturation of the season. It smells like dirt. The grass lies brown and matted, pressed into the dirt by the accumulated weight of a twelve-week snow, now exposed to the sun and air where the snow has pulled back its gums. Once snow-trapped debris litters the grass–prehistoric bodies regurgitated by receding glaciers: A limp and molding orange; a capless pen; a blue bag of dog shit tossed aside by some bastard too lazy to carry it to a can.

Later, back in the classroom, I ask, “Which way is north?” and my students catch each other in a crossfire of points before settling in a general direction the way one starling shapes the murmuration of an entire flock with a subtle wing dip. North.

-Mr. Bre

Welcome to Lit and the Land


Dear L&L Crew 2015,

Welcome to Literature and the Land, a field-centered Harkness class.  Before we begin, I want you to know that by taking this course, you are aligning yourself with a line of Exonians who took this course during the 28 years it was taught by longtime Exeter English Instructor, Peter Greer. This course was one of the first of its kind in secondary schools, and is responsible for inspiring many, many Exonians to a more deeply connected relationship to the natural world. As we look backwards this term to contemplate the scope of human engagement with landscape (and how we fit within that compass), it strikes me as important to recognize our place within the history of our own school, that when we notice the final melting of the river ice and the arrival of the Red-Winged Blackbird, we see along with those who have taken note alike before us.  Our stories and theirs, entwining. I sense a power in that truth.

Mr. Greer passed away last year. Before he died, he and I shared a lunch at Front Row during which he shared with me how much this course meant to him during his career and how much it meant to him to know that it would continue to inspire Exonians.

This class invites you to reflect upon your own relationship to the natural world. It asks that you slow down and observe. It asks that you begin to learn the names of the trees and plants and birds and mammals of seacoast New Hampshire. It asks you to pay attention and that you render yourself open to the natural details around you.  This course takes place during a pivotal moment in the arrival of spring, what Donald Culross Peatie deems “the slow turn of the seasons.” Most obviously, the ground still holds a foot or more of snow on this first day of class. On the last, the trees will bear full summer’s verdance. Our task together, will be to bear witness to this magic as it unfolds around us beautifully, myriadly.

This class is going to be different from most Harkness classes you know in that a portion of our conversations will occur during transport to our various excursions and activities–on the bus, for example, to Mr. Hiza’s orchard, or as we walk together to our observation spots in the campus woods. It means that I’m going to ask you to be opportunistic Harkness learners; that is, during our field trips and excursions, I invite you to invoke the readings, to make connections between what you’ve read, what you think, and what you see and do. Mostly, though, I invite you to create a community of learners together, to laugh, to get to know each other, to bring your disparate passions and identities to this course–your music, your art, your wit.

It would be impossible for me to be more excited for our time together this spring.

Sincerely, Mr. Bre