Reflections on the Reflective Essay

My cinder-block thick New Century dictionary tells me that one of the original meanings of the word ‘essay’ is and attempt or endeavor.  In this sense, it’s instructive that success or failure is irrelevant to an essay; it’s the effort that counts.  We have come to think of ‘essay’ strictly in literary terms, but its origins are rooted in action and engagement.  An essay can be seen as a kind of journeying, a seeking with or without definitive findings.  If your descriptive essay was a journey in search of images, then you might think of the reflective essay as a searching engagement with ideas and insights, or a foray into questions that might not have answers.

But it’s not as though certain places and ideas can be separated from each other, anymore than land and self can be, as we move attentively through a place.  "Wisdom sits in places," Mescalero Apache elder Dudley Patterson tells ethnographer Keith Basso.   Each aspect of the Mescalero landscape is intertwined with story.  Through a lifetime of contemplating the land, by continually entering and thinking about the associated stories, a person may "drink" wisdom from each place.

Remarking on places' capacity for triggering self-reflective musing and memory, Basso writes "Place-based thoughts about the self lead commonly to thoughts of other things - other places, other people, other times, whole networks of associations that ramify unaccountably within the expanding spheres of awareness that they themselves engender."   If we cultivate a deep, sensual regard for place, perhaps we can gather to our selves some of the richness of story and wisdom with which those places are imbued.

With Basso, I have come to believe that places, and physical objects from those places, can carry us into our own stories, into deeply personal reveries of place-self, and to wisdom beyond our ken.  While researching one of my dissertation chapters a year or so ago, I found myself in a windswept remnant of native prairie in Northeast Iowa.  I struggled to envisage the extent of pre-settlement wild grasslands (less than 1% of its original prairie remains to Iowa, though restoration efforts are ‘cropping up’ throughout the state); I wanted – needed – to believe that something of that ancient vitality and spaciousness was still available to me in the here and now.

I laid on my back, let the susurrus of gramma and bluestem whisper sweet everything’s to my imagination, and swayed to their tossing rhythms.  If I were these grasses, I too would borrow the wind to dance.  I spread my arms out at my side and sank fingertips into the loamy earth, felt down into the thicket of roots tangling 10, 15, 20 feet down.  “Could I ever be this rooted?” I wondered.  Reflecting on my peripatetic nature, the question shifted to “Could I stand to be this rooted?” as I rolled over face down to probe the dense growth around me.

As my vision adjusted to the fine-grain scale, I began to see dozens of smaller plants amid the few dominant grasses.  I crawled another few feet to my left, to a small depression in the prairie.  There were quite a few plants I’d not seen in my first spot.  Curious, I rose and strolled over to a south-facing rise.  Kneeling down, I saw yet another new association of plants.  On the north side, mere yards away, yet another new complex of threading through the ever-present bluestem.  

A mature prairie is indeed a rooted thing, withstanding all but the winds of humanity, but its stability is also earned through flexibility; flowing with the minute preferences of hundreds of plants across a kaleidoscope of changing conditions.  Perhaps, like a prairie, I might better achieve balance through a mix of deeply rooted connections made over time, and adaptive wanderings that might alter with each passing moment.  Wisdom rests in prairie places, is gathered from the wind, water and soil.   Like that prairie, I might gather my own wisdom essaying both inward and outward, inseparably engaged, searching and found.

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In a somewhat heavy-handed fashion, I’ve just modeled a few of the many possible ways to approach this assignment; delving into the etymological ecology of a word, riffing on a provocative quote, ruminating on a significant experience I had in outer nature and reflecting on its inner significance, asking myself a question I might not be able to answer in an attempt – an essay – to discover new places of wisdom, and wisdom in new places.

Reflective writing could entail one or more of the following, or something unique to your own reflective process: 1) incorporating the words, ideas or themes of other writers/theorists in your own work (one metaphor we’ve suggested: a "cafe of the mind"; a conversation between you and another writer/theorist); 2) telling the story of one's own thinking, such as the development of an idea(s) or question(s) (another metaphor: a "field walk" through an idea or question you're exploring); 3) in-depth reflection on an over-arching political, social, philosophical, ecological, etc. theme in relation to a place or your experience in a place; 4) the posing of a provocative question(s), and the evocation of the natural history or evolution of that question.

Please don’t get hung up on finding or following a recipe for reflective writing (“add one quotation, stir, and let simmer for three pages”); let the form your own reflective essay takes be true to your voice, relevant to your experience, and consistent with your descriptive range and content.  Remember that in telling the story of an idea, theme or question, you have every bit as much creative freedom to express this in your own way and style as you do when telling the story of a place or experience.