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Experimenting with the new block editor and am re-blogging this with a few updates!

The Adventures of Fen Fatale ~ Ecoheroine

The Marriage of Tarot and the Empath

On the heels of the beautifully aspected Taurus full moon, my dreams lately have had me thinking a lot about empathy. Recently, I taught a series of workshops for Windham-Raymond Adult Education on folklore, astrology, palmistry, tasseography, and my favorite–cartomancy, the art of reading everyday playing cards for divination. I first began working with the Tarot, astrology, and cartomancy in 1992, while I was a teen-ager. Prior to that, around 1991, before I entered high school, a friend of my mother’s gave me a set of Celtic Tree Oracle cards–a system of divination with a guidebook and cards created by Colin Murray and Liz Murray, illustrated by Vanessa Card (1988). I still have my original deck and guidebook–even though there’s a little bit of tree sap on some of the cards from using them outside 20+ years ago. (I experimented with aeromancy, allowing…

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Come write flash nonfiction with me this winter (January 2021) in this unusual hybrid-genres workshop series hosted by Westbrook Adult Education (Maine). We’ll dip our toes in the literary works of the Lake Poets but we’ll really electrify our brains (and imaginations) looking at elements of dark Romanticism and life writing in the literary lives, loves, and works by Romantic women writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley.

Experiment with hybrid genre in this online workshop with Leah Stetson

Write by the flash of lightning–or candlelight, or the flicker of your woodstove fire, –or your desk lamp, and respond to writing prompts that come directly out of dark Romanticism. If you are the sort of person who likes to forage moss in the fall to make a moss garden (for the home and kitchen, or your writing room), why not think about moss as a writing prompt? Moss grows on the walls of castles in dark Romantic fiction that we’ll read in this workshop series.

Blarney Castle grounds, Co. Cork, Ireland. Stetson photo

There’s just something about Mary. But it’s not just about one writer. My love for all things darkly Romantic goes back to my childhood obsession with castles–medieval castles for the most part–and those are a distinctly Gothic element in dark Romanticism, especially in works like Ann Radcliffe’s novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. (Click on the link at left to see a brief preview of the course content.) Have you ever seen a castle? I grew up next door to a castle in coastal Maine. But last summer, I traveled to Co. Cork, Ireland, where Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her first novel, Mary, A Fiction, one of the short novels we’ll read in this workshop–and I visited Blarney Castle. Personally, I loved the gardens, the grounds, and the mossy, secret tunnels and hiding places outside of the castle like in the photo I took (shown above) on the Blarney Castle grounds near its fern garden. This is the kind of thing that inspires my writing. What about you? Do you like castles? Gothic motifs? Then this workshop is right up your alley.

My Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster-themed jack-o-lantern (a previous Halloween) Stetson photo

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has captured my imagination since I first read her 1818 novel–a work of Dark Romanticism, the combined or hybrid genre of Gothic Romanticism, in high school. I’m not alone. Many other writers, like Kiersten White, who wrote the contemporary retelling of Frankenstein, the New York Times bestseller, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein (2015), which I really enjoyed. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of the heroine, Elizabeth Lavenza, for decades, the idea –which Mary Shelley’s various heroes–the Monster and Victor Frankenstein–discuss and debate–of a theoretical “mate” or “bride” for the Monster. My imagination twirled into the idea of “what ifs?” and I wrote the feminist tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (last year), “The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, on the Eve of Her Wedding,” which was published in BONED Literary Magazine (and their editor, Nate Ragolia, included my poem in the 2019 Anthology — Boned Every Which Way. But what has truly electrified my imagination has been my research into the literary lives, loves and works of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe. I’ve noticed elements of their “life writing” in their works–even “fictionalized memoir.” Could Frankenstein have been partly fictionalized memoir?

A sneak preview of this workshop

Did you know that Maine’s first novelist was a woman and that she wrote gothic novels? Yes! Sarah “Sally” Sayward Wood wrote works of dark Romanticism, too, and her first Gothic novel, Julia and the Illuminated Baron (1800) has been compared to Dan Brown novels. How unexpected! Sally Wood is my ancestor by way of marriage to my great-great-great-great grandfather, General Abiel Wood, who was her husband. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Sally Wood was a pioneer of early feminism in Maine at the turn of the century. She and a friend started the oldest women’s organization in the country–the Wiscasset Female Charitable Society (of Maine) of which I am a member. In fact, I grew up in the same house where she lived and wrote (for part of her life). She lived in Lincoln and York Counties, Maine (even before Maine became a state). I want us to look at her novel Julia and the Illuminated Baron, or her novel, Tales of the Night, in this workshop, if participants are interested. Wood’s sentimental Gothic style might very well be in alignment with themes and motifs we find in British Romantic-Gothic novels, like those by Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft, who pioneered early feminism in the 1790s.

A Scene from Mary Shelley’s novel, Mathilda. Watercolor painting by Leah Stetson

Currently, I am a graduate student in a tenacious pursuit of dark, Romantic ecology of water and wetlands at University of Maine. I’m studying remotely and that’s why I’d like to take this opportunity to offer this workshop online (for participants, who like me, have been practicing social distancing.) Additionally, I taught college-level English classes for Southern Maine Community College 2007-2017, and in that class, I taught literary analysis; some of the students chose to read Frankenstein, and so I can say that I’ve taught classes on elements of Romanticism in the past. I’ve also led creative nonfiction workshops at several public libraries including Walker Memorial (Westbrook, Maine) and Windham Public Library (Windham, Maine), and a blog-based writing workshop at Raymond Village Library (Raymond, Maine). I belong to the Lakes Region Writers Guild in the Sebago Lake Region of southern Maine. I’m really excited to offer this workshop and I hope you can join me to experiment with hybrid genres and read excerpts and works by Ann Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sally Wood, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This class starts in January 2021. Visit Westbrook Adult Education’s website to register.

In the meantime, please feel free to check out this short preview video in which I discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel, Mary, A Fiction, which she wrote while living in Co. Cork, Ireland in the mid-to-late 1780s. (It was published in 1788.) I hope the short video gives you an idea of the kind of course content offered in this course.)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
painted by Samuel John Stump
oil on canvas, 1831 (National Portrait Gallery)

Romantic Women Class PostUpdate: Due to the pandemic and school closings and schools’ switch to online learning, this workshop was postponed. Hopefully I may be able to teach this in the fall of 2020, but it’s not definite yet.

I’m hoping to offer this in fall of 2020:  I have been asked to lead a workshop series for Westbrook Adult Education (Westbrook, ME) with the theme of women writers of the Romanticism period, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley.

Travel back in time 200 years to the Romanticism period (1780s-1820s) and explore the lives and literary works of at least three Romantic women writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. Pioneers of early feminism, Gothic literature, and the inventor of the famous “Frankenstein’s Monster,” these women writers influenced the work of other writers of their time, and for two centuries—as we still have books today on the New York Times Bestseller list that are contemporary retellings of Frankenstein, or that invoke the spirit of the Gothic, or 1790s botany with storytelling.  “Life writing,” known today as creative nonfiction, grew in popularity among women of the Romantic period. We will read from a selection of their works, discuss aspects of their “life writing,” and ask why it was important for women to tell their stories.

In this class, students will have an opportunity to write short memoir pieces in the form of short ‘experiments’ in life writing. There will be at least one in-class writing activity, and several take-home writing prompts. Genres may range from first-person narrative creative nonfiction, travel narrative, or short fiction. We will experiment with hybrid genres, such as short-form nonfiction, otherwise known as “flash nonfiction.”

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The short-form nonfiction essay form has been around for two centuries but became more popular in the mid-19th century.  We will look at examples of short-form nonfiction essays that offer a new approach to memoir writing from contemporary sources. We will also look at some of Mary Wollstonecraft’s and Mary Shelley’s travel writing, which contained personal life history (memoir). I’ve developed a unique writing exercise that’s inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–but we will also experiment with other in-class writing prompts on occasion (probably only once per class session), or there will be a take-home writing prompt as an optional experiment. For our last class in May, we will choose a nice place to sit and share our writing pieces, once everyone has had a chance to write a piece they feel comfortable sharing with the group. We may hold our last session at Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook, Maine. Times and dates TBD, but it will most likely be in fall 2020. Possibly online options.

Historically, classes focused on William Wordsworth and Percy B. Shelley, and this workshop won’t ignore the male Romantics; but we will focus our attention on the works by Romantic women writers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We will read excerpts from Maine/New England women writers from the period, too, to notice how the works of the British writers influenced those living and writing here in the northeast.

This class is open to anyone who likes to read and is curious about these Romantic women writers; all genders and perspectives are welcome! This is ideal for those who have an interest in writing short creative nonfiction and/or short fiction in the theme of “life writing.” It is highly recommended that each participant bring a notebook, writing utensil(s), and if possible, a laptop. Participants, ideally, will have access to a computer to write and to read online materials, or to view the occasional short video. Dates: Thursdays, 6-745pm starting March 19th running through May 14th      

For more information and/or to register, please click here. Seating is limited to 8 participants. Please call to register, or register online.

 

For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been taking a course to further my journey toward becoming a certified English teacher. “Methods of Teaching Secondary English” is a required course for teachers in Maine. For the class final project, we were assigned to design a lesson plan that is “original, inspired (or inspiring) and presented using some type of technology, which might be out of the comfort zone of the author.” I am not accustomed to making videos or movies of myself using iMovie or Youtube, other than the occasional cat video that I make in my living room. (Note: I never subject others to these little movies about whatever funny thing my cat did. I think the Internet has plenty of these gems without my contribution.)

First, I had to learn how to use iMovie. I started by calling my best friend, who seems to know all things related to whatever issue I’m having on my Mac. Then, I watched tutorials on Youtube, started practice filming for a different assignment earlier on in the course. I made the dorkiest iMovie, trust me, including action shot of me, weeding my garden as a metaphor for how English teachers have to cultivate the “constant gardener,” or “constant writer,” in their classrooms. Then I set up a Vimeo account, which was fairly easy. I may be the last person to do this (have you done this yet?) Next, I had to edit my iMovie, patching together many, many pieces of footage, or “clips,” and record voice-overs for certain parts, attempting to sound professional without sounding like the authoritative Catholic school nun from the 1980 “Blues Brothers,” scolding my audience, well, without the ruler.

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I made a video for my final project. I designed an original lesson plan called, “The Writers Cafe.” Also, I had to do a rain-dance in my dining room, wait patiently for 22 hours while the video uploaded to Vimeo and “converted,” whatever that meant. It was such a long wait that I thought I had done something wrong. And I had selected the “high” quality resolution but not the best quality/professional resolution. I made it with the recent-most version of iMovie on my MacBook Pro. So far I have received some great feedback from my instructor and classmates on my lesson plan. The video is no longer available for viewing.

Literary analysis and figurative language are among my favorite subjects to teach my students in English Composition. While other teachers might find these akin to “pulling teeth,” I thrive on the challenge. I like to create original hand-outs for my students for each assignment, or in some cases, multiple worksheets. My teaching persona might be considered “the Hand-out Queen,” if there are such things. (What’s your teaching style? Aren’t there quizzes in magazines for this?)

Literary analysis, also known as literary criticism, is a tool that writers use to examine elements in fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry. When a writer uses this tool, the objectives of the essay might include answering some of these questions about the literature:

  • What is the story or book (or collection) about? (this does not mean that you write full plot summary or a book report)
  • What is the problem or conflict in the story, book or poem?
  • What points is the author or poet trying to make about society, love, religion, war, culture, or some other important topic?
  • What’s the main idea of the poem or story?
  • What symbolism is used? Analogies, central themes?
  • What lies beneath the surface? Is there an underlying tension?
  • What kinds of emotional response does this piece of lit. bring about for the reader? Does it bother you? Did it affect you in any way? Any elements of surprise, suspense?

The above list is just the beginning. Of course, I start with the basics, including an understanding of metaphor, point of view, character development and how to write a thesis statement. But my students still appreciate seeing some additional examples that dig a little deeper. I offered this lesson to be helpful. Maybe others will find this useful, too.

Revising & Strengthening Literary Analysis Essays

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My dining table has become the “grading station”

  • Make sure to have a clear thesis statement in your first paragraph (or the opening sentence of second paragraph). This thesis statement will direct the essay.
  • Make sure to have quotes from the literature you’re analyzing (quotes from the text) —These quotes will range the gamut from short phrases to longer “block quotes,” which you must indent & center (and format single-spaced).
  • Make sure to correctly identify whether it is a novel (fiction)—and identify which genre, e.g. detective/crime story, suspense/thriller, Victorian gothic, science fiction fantasy, novelette, which is a short novel, such as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle); or a creative nonfiction book such as a memoir, travel narrative such as Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, science and nature memoir, such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; or short story, such as “The Open Window;” or an essay.
  • Make sure that you have correctly identified the type of narrator (e.g. omniscient (all-knowing), a named character in a novel (whether a protagonist or minor character), the author (if memoir), and kept that distinct throughout your essay. Be careful not to confuse these.

If you have selected to analyze an entire book, for example, a memoir—imgres-1let’s say, John Berendt’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated creative nonfiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1995), there is a LOT to analyze in a full book. However, in a short literary analysis essay, you’d be wise to focus your thesis statement on one concept or two themes, and dig into that idea, or parallel ideas, from a multitude of angles. For example, you might notice a lot of scenes, conversations between people in the book and references to “house-proud Savannah” and the pride of the residents in the Georgia city. You might also notice how Berendt uses contrast to depict envy among the same people. As a reader, you could step back and look at “pride” as a positive and “envy” as a negative; go further, and we look at “good and evil” as “pride and envy.” Or, as another example, you might be more interested in the theme of what it means to be “a true Savannahian.” Whatever grabs your interest is likely to work well in an essay that you craft.

Then we can skim through the book, and hopefully you have thought to annotate the text with sticky notes to color-code your favorite quotes. If not, you’ll have to go through the text again and find passages in the book that mention “jealousy,” “envy,” “pride” or “proud” (or “house-proud,”) or any characterizations that speak to these concepts. Select 4-10 quotes. You want a combination of short phrases, any special terms coined by the author or a character, location-specific phrases that are relevant to your analysis/thesis statement, a longer quote that you will indent to create a block quote. See below for a few examples of a phrase, a sentence quoted in the body of your paragraph an indented block quote. If you have a long quote and you want to use only parts of it but to keep it mainly in tact, use a […] << like that within the quote and within the body of your paragraph. This keeps it sleek. Nothing in quotes should appear in your essay unless it is a direct quote from the text. In other words, don’t put something in quotes if it is from your brain; it will confuse the reader.

An exception to the quote rule: if you’re quoting a literary critic, who has made a comment on the text that you’re analyzing, in which case you’re quoting that critic AND you must then cite that source and attribute that concept to the literary critic. Hot tip: if you quote a literary critic, keep that reference to a minimum and put it in one paragraph. You don’t want to confuse your reader and have quotes from literary critic(s) mixed in with quotes from the narrator and quotes from the characters or real people in the text.

Here is my example.  This is a snippet of a literary analysis essay I wrote about John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil:

In “house-proud Savannah,” the reader quickly sees the lush lawns and elaborate porches of the prominent homes “north of Gaston” (Berendt, 48). But what most visitors may not realize is that there are rules in Savannah. These rules dictate socially acceptable behavior for a “true Savannahian.” We know that the narrator and author, John Berendt, is a writer from New York, not a native to Georgia. He meets Joe, who explains the rules of Savannah living. Joe says, “Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. […] That’s when you find out everything you want to know.” Throughout the story, John attends a number of cocktail and dinner parties, and he engages in lively conversations with colorful characters—all real people living in Savannah. One thing he learns: locals are more forthcoming with him after he has earned their trust and they have had a few drinks together. It is during one of these parties that he sees the shadow-side of a prominent figure in the community and learns the truth about a crime, a murder.

Joe’s discussion of “the Rules” continues— “Rule number two: Never go south of Gaston Street. A true Savannahian is a NOG. ‘NOG’ means ‘North of Gaston.’ We stay in the old part of town.” The reader is permitted entrance into this tightly-knit, exclusive community—Savannah—and through Berendt’s writing, gains the privilege of learning these local secrets, or rules, for society, or at least, for Savannah. We learn what it means to be a “true Savannahian,” one who sticks around for one more drink, stays “north of Gaston,” and finally, “observes the high holidays,” such as St. Patrick’s Day and the annual football game (Berendt, pg. 48). We later learn that there are consequences for breaking the rules of Savannah living, or repercussions for failing to be “a true Savannahian.”                                                                         ~LCS

The GirlAnother example. Fiction.  Looking at “coming of age” and peace/purity versus darkness/devil (or fear v. wonder) themes in Peter Benchley’s short novel, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982). Notice the use of an indented block quote in an excerpt of my essay:

Peter Benchley’s novelette is a magical story with elements of suspense, not unlike his famous novels, Jaws and The Deep. However, unlike those other full-length novels, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is a coming-of-age story. Paloma is a girl of sixteen, whose name means “dove,” a symbol of peace, purity and of “the Holy Spirit.” She lives in a village beside the Sea of Cortez and thrives on her saltwater swims and boating expeditions into her own world of magic and sea life. By 16, Paloma has encountered many sea creatures, including sharks and barracuda, and she has indigenous knowledge—partly taught by her late father and partly by her brother, Jobim, also known as Jo. Her brother’s knowledge of geology and marine life had come from his elders; Paloma prefers to learn by observation and first-hand experience. She embraces fear and curiosity equally—but above all, maintains a sense of wonder about the sea world.

“Paloma looked up. One behind another, a procession of hammerhead sharks passed overhead in a parade. Their silver-gray bodies were as sleek as bullets and the sunlight touched the ripples of moving muscle and made them sparkle. Paloma loved the hammerheads, for they seemed somehow to focus her thoughts about God and nature.” (Benchley, 26)

                     Paloma considers that if there were any animal that were “particularly blessed,” it would be the hammerhead shark. Sharks had been “critical to the island’s survival” and yet, the hammerhead species had survived there for millions of years. (Benchley, 26) Most 16-year-olds would be terrified to swim with hammerhead sharks, which are known to attack divers in other parts of the world. But Paloma understands the sharks. She admires them. She understands them. She uses her fear as a tool, as she might a fishing knife or piece of rope within her diving bag. By contrast, when she encounters a giant manta ray for the first time, she faces a new type of fear and must conquer that fear. The manta ray, known locally as a “Manta Diablo,” or “black devil fish,” symbolizes the very antithesis, or opposite, of the young pure-of-heart Paloma.

As the story develops, Paloma explores the Sea of Cortez, puts herself in close proximity with the “Manta Diablo” and compels herself to conquer her fear. She finds a deep resolve within herself and gains a profound understanding for the nature of things, and more importantly, her identity as she becomes a woman. Benchley illustrates her sea adventures as if each one were a rite of passage, which Paloma herself has invented. No one is telling her to seek out the “black devil-fish,” let alone ride on top of the ray, in fact, her brother and the others warn her to stay away from the mysterious creature, a thing of myth and mystery. Despite those warnings, Paloma swims with the manta ray and rides on its back. She conquers her fear, comes to know herself more confidently and enriches the local knowledge and understanding of the manta ray’s behavior and biology through her observations. ~ LCS

In 2007, I joined the adjunct faculty at Southern Maine Community College in the English Department. Prior to that, I led creative

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At Willard Beach, SMCC

writing workshops and taught Adult Education classes. Over the years, I have developed some course materials and ways of teaching the building blocks of essays, and have geared these lessons for college freshmen. My students tell me that they haven’t learned this material in their high school English classes.  While I am sure that their capable high school teachers introduced rhetorical modes such as “cause and effect,” “defining a term,” “process analysis,” “description with figurative language,” and “literary analysis,” I package these a little differently. I enjoy teaching young writers the craft of creative nonfiction–and that is how I put it to them: they are writing personal narrative essays, rather than “homework” or “college papers.” It seems to fly.

 

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Grading papers by the pond

Since I’m an adjunct professor, and I don’t have an office on campus, I meet with my students in local delis, public libraries and the Adult Education office at the high school. I give my students the option of meeting with me outside of class to go over their drafts, discuss revisions and research papers. I grade papers outside on the patio, on a picnic table by the pond, and at my dining room table–an ongoing project all semester. Sometimes my dog serves as my T.A. On several occasions this fall, it has been so warm and lovely out, Sophie-Bea and I walked at Chaffin Pond in Windham, Maine, and took my students’ papers to grade at one of the picnic tables in the preserve.

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Sophie-Bea watches the ducks while I grade papers

I started the semester by assigning my students a “sense of place” essay that uses descriptive writing. At first, my students struggled with the very concept of “description.” I asked them to describe camping in the Maine woods. One student suggested, “bears.” I asked for more details. The same student said, “I’ve got nothin’.” The rest of the class remained silent, perhaps horror-stricken. For all of the Facebook and Twitter and Instagram posts with emoticons, which do the work of describing their emotions and experiences for them, my students had either lost or forgotten how to describe something with adjectives. And forget about figurative language! I had my work cut out for me.

 

 

I arrived at the Department of Mysteries’ Center for Occupational Prophecies, where I attended a required workshop–after one hour of sleep last night. Because I’m not used to city parking situations, I got a little lost between the garage and Department of Mysteries building (but my wand, er, smartphone, led me in the right direction.) I’m not too proud to say that I also got lost on my way back to the garage but by then, I was under the influence.

The man leading the workshop smiled like he was full of smelly cheese a la Professor Slughorn as he loaded his PowerPoint. Posters with backward lettering, apparently motivational spells, clung to the wall with Scotch tape. A smoky haze of cigarettes, marijuana and fire-breathing dragon breath immediately enveloped me in Conference Room B. (The Death Eaters were in Conference Room A, thank goodness.) Most of the attendees gruffed and puffed over the necessary paperwork. Most of us had filled out our Star Trek logs prior to the workshop. I held my breath in between moments when I could not contain myself and blurted out: “Is this the workshop where we learn how to write an ‘effective resume’ or is that next week?” and “Wait, is that an example of ‘what to do,’ or ‘what not to do?’ Both are grammatically incorrect.” *Shudder* Apparently grammar is a matter of opinion. Not surprisingly, it was followed by a bulleted list of tips: 1) Use correct grammar, 2) Maximum 1 page (etc. It really only got worse from there.) Here’s an example of a resume that the Workshop Wizard liked:

John Smith
15 Plain Road
Anyplace, ME 04099

Tools I Know:

Drive tractor. And 4-Wheelers.                                         Compressers
Cutting tools                                                                    Electric discharge machine
(Etc.)                                                                                 Misc. tools

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At the 10:30am break

Clearly, the Workshop Wizard prefers the functional format, which hiring managers have practically outlawed. When I overheard some guys in the back row grumble, “Here she goes again,” and moan any time I asked a question or made a comment, trying to help the innocent, I clammed up. I wished I’d brought my invisibility cloak. Or, at least magic ink so that my SS# and contact information wouldn’t be visible on the sign-in sheet as it was passed from person to person at an alarmingly sluggish rate, especially in the back row.

After the workshop, I fled on my broomstick into a nor’easter. It’s the kind of snow that splinters your eye balls with miniature ice picks. Wind blew long curls into my mouth and I walked awkwardly along the slushy side-walk, swearing and muttering. People avoided me. I probably looked like one of those “Lost Souls” from the Lakes Region. (We don’t get off the Mountain of Doom very often.) By the time I had circumvented the block twice and changed direction (my eye glasses fogged into a cataract-glaze), I was dazed and confused like Liv Tyler. I felt hot under the collar. My pretty blue wool coat smelled like college days and frat parties. Finally, I found the parking garage and climbed the stairs to the 4th floor–but my sea green Subaru was not there! Did I get towed? Oh, no! I scrambled up the stairs to the 5th, then the 6th floors, horrified to see giant mounds of snow I hadn’t seen before. Merlin’s beard! I’ve been towed! I knew this public parking garage–albeit inconveniently located but only at a $2/hr rate was too-good-to-be-true! Argh! In slight panic mode, or more realistically, an allergic reaction to Conference Room B in the Department of Mysteries (Miseries?) I took the elevator down to the ground level and found a nice parking attendant who was willing to look for my car (on the 6th, 5th, 4th and finally, 3rd floor), while I had an neurotic breakdown, probably breaking out into hives by this point. (I tipped the helpful fellow and thanked him profusely.)

Then, as I warmed up the car, relieved it had not been towed, I listened to a new voicemail: “Leah, you have been selected to attend a required workshop next Thursday….” (in addition to the one I’ve been selected to attend on Tuesday.) When am I supposed to practice casting the Patronus charm? When I am supposed to study for the OWLs? When am I supposed to fight evil and save the world?

Tomorrow night’s the full moon in dramatic Royal-Leader-of-Meltdowns-and-Billowing-Manes-Leo. This blast of energy lasts 10 days.

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At the lake I love

After years of telling myself I would “never teach,” I began teaching college students in 2008.  A community college hired me to teach English Composition to college freshman. At the same time, a local Adult Education Program, in concert with the college, asked me to create a new curriculum for a college transitions class called “Success in College.” Through teaching both classes for a few years, I mentored fire science technicians and education majors, marine biology students and nurses, as well as nontraditional students, who wanted to change careers. They gained confidence in their writing and their ability to communicate–two skills in high demand for any job, no matter the field. A trend I’ve noticed among recent college graduates is a lack of patience in approaching the job market. In our fast-paced social networking-driven society, it’s easy to get impatient.  Searching for a job is more like casting a line over the water.  You try different bait. You move around to different spots. You get your feet wet.  You relax. You have to be patient.

My cousin, Owen, a Pisces like me, loves to fish at Little Sebago Lake, where we all grew up swimming.  About six months ago, I encouraged my cousin, a civil engineering student at University of Maine, to create a LinkedIn profile for himself. At first, he wasn’t sure if that sounded like something he needed to do, but he mentioned a friend of his who had gotten a job, or learned of a job, through LinkedIn. My cousin created a profile on LinkedIn, added his work experience (a local hardware store) and his skills, including transportation, geotechnical engineering, groundwater modeling, surface water hydrology and hydrology, flood control and civil engineering. I’m super proud of my cousin, Owen, for receiving an offer for a job at a widely known engineering firm, and for all of his accomplishments. While in college, he joined the American Society of Civil Engineering.  I’m sure that helped broaden his network, too. He attains his Bachelor’s of Science in Civil Engineering this spring.

When I graduated from College of the Atlantic with my Bachelor’s in Human Ecology in 2001, I researched organizations where I wanted to work, then approached them. I didn’t take a wait-and-see approach. I took a pro-active approach.  My first post-college job was a year-long position as a Lands Protection and Administrative Assistant at Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a state-wide land trust. Part internship, part professional position, the job allowed me to get my feet wet in conservation. Several of the conservation and lands protection directors at MCHT mentored me; one served on my graduate thesis committee, while I researched land trust collaboration as part of my master’s degree work in conservation and sustainable business at College of the Atlantic. My job at MCHT had not been advertised–it wasn’t a position they were looking to fill. I expressed interest during an informational interview and they created a position for me. The position blossomed into a full-time professional responsibility (May 2001-July/August 2002).

Squaretop Mtn WY

Squaretop Mtn., Green River Valley, WY

In July 2002, I traveled west to Wyoming, to meet my cousins. I also interviewed ranchers and land trust professionals about western approaches to land conservation. It opened my eyes. Wide. That trip–including an experience riding two rodeo horses at a ropin’ event in Big Piney, WY, broadened my horizons. It also helped me conquer fears of failing.  Or, at least, it quelled my fears of falling off a horse that dives and darts, charging toward the corriente steer at the end of an arena.

Energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to step into a role with a high learning curve are all “must-have” qualities in a green–or “entry level”–college graduate today. The next two jobs I held while a graduate student, in similarly unconventional ways, were not positions that my employers had advertised. One opportunity led to a two-year contract as a park ranger and multi-faceted position at Acadia National Park, where the position was unique to me. No one had held the position prior to me; no one replaced me, since it was a special project. I loved working at Acadia NP and gained valuable experience in conservation, communications & marketing, management and graphic design. And I earned an award for it, a nice little feather in my cap. The program I started in 2003 is ongoing.  That’s my idea of success.

Today’s college graduates seem unsure of the job market.  I belong to several listservs, such as Ecolog-L, and I’ve noticed the countless emails that college graduates have submitted to listservs in the hope that someone will bite. They want a job. They want advice. They have an opportunity to approach the job market in new and different ways than that of previous generations. For one thing, LinkedIn did not exist when I graduated from college. I had to use old fashioned networking–knocking on doors, asking for informational interviews or meetings. There is nothing wrong with asking for an informational interview at a company/firm/organization, where a college graduate would like to work. Ask someone who works in your dream profession–“what projects are you working on now?” Find out if those projects are collaborative in nature–do they involve partner organizations? Do any of those partners have volunteer or internship opportunities? Is there a way you can volunteer on a short-term project to get experience?

Northeast Creek pic by French Hill Pond

Northeast Creek Watershed. French Hill Pond photo

Look locally.  Serving on a local planning board or conservation commission may help to gain a foothold in a network that leads to an environmental job in a field that excites you. Even local government boards, such as conservation commissions, sometimes tap into regional, state-wide or national networks. When I was in graduate school, I volunteered on a groundwater study conducted by USGS hydrologists. My GIS class offered me a way to contribute mapping work to the larger study, commissioned by the Town of Bar Harbor. Sure, it wasn’t paid.  And it took me a year to create the maps analyzing wetlands and development patterns in the Northeast Creek watershed. And I embarrassed myself by storing two maps in the trunk of my ’86 Volvo, which filled up with freezing rain during a nor’easter–effectively turning my trunk into an ice block with the maps inside. When the ice melted, the maps disintegrated. And I had to redo them. A lesson learned!

Many years later, I wrote articles about wetland mapping as part of a project for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. I wasn’t new to wetland mapping since I’d had the experience of digitizing maps, plotting out wetlands and surveying land conservation areas in a watershed for various internships and volunteer projects after college. For those recent college graduates looking for work, I encourage them to CREATE positions for themselves, when they haven’t found a more traditional position immediately. It takes time. In the meantime, have fun exploring projects at the local, state-wide and national level. You don’t have to be a human ecologist to be multi-disciplinary. (My cousin, a civil engineering student, is multi-disciplinary in his approach. As a water-loving Pisces, it’s no surprise he was drawn to hydrology.)

Be open to unusual and unforeseen opportunities.  Step into a role that you (and a future employer) create just for you and your multi-disciplinary skills, talents and abilities. Offer a fresh perspective on a project that no one else wants to do and find that you can make a name for yourself, even while entering the job market. Create a sense of serendipity.

Grampa

Bob Chaplin

I grew up visiting my maternal grandparents in rural New Gloucester, Maine.  Their yellow farmhouse, barn and a hilly pastoral land, rich with streams, wetlands, meadows, fields and forest, was a wonderful place to play and explore.  As the eldest grandchild, I got to spend a lot of time there in (late ’70s-’90s). My grandfather tinkered in his barn and workshop, and when I was lucky, he built things I designed as a little girl, like a wooden key and lock for an imaginary mansion, a mossy ledge hidden in the woods beyond the upper field and vegetable gardens. (I still have this wooden lock and key.) He took my hand-drawn designs on scrap paper and made the wooden key and lock with his skill-saw, taking this sort of request seriously. Then I took this colorfully painted lock and key, and used it to enter magical worlds of moss and meadow. A perennial stream meandered between fields, along with vernal pools and a freshwater marsh, near land he later gave to his son (my favorite uncle) a little ways down the road. The 30+ acres beheld a wellspring for inspiration. (I’ll have to hunt for some photos of their land and add those later.)

A tall, athletic Scorpio, Grampa was a multi-talented Navy man and 32nd degree Mason. As an engineer, he wrote the book on metal removal technology. He was interviewed in Cutting Tool Engineering Magazine in 2005 about his book, Metal Removal Technology, which has since been integrated as a text book in mechanical engineering programs. I remember when I was in grade school, and my Grampa was drafting early versions of his book. He let me play with copies of his draft, thinking I’d be interested in drawing pictures on the blank side. To his surprise, I was far more interested in the side with charts, diagrams and formulas—all that he had devised for teaching employees at General Electric and engineering students in universities. I liked to take these “metal removal technology” spreadsheets on a clipboard with me to elementary school, where I told my classmates I was “working for my grandfather’s company,” and used a highlighter to “go over the numbers.” A few of my third-grade classmates asked me if he was hiring.  I shrugged and told them, “it depends on your qualifications.”

As a long-time musician, he encouraged all of his grandchildren to take up an instrument (or two). I fear I may have disappointed him, as I could never get the hang of the trombone, clarinet, piano or guitar. (Poetry turned out to be my instrument.) Long before I came into the picture, my grandfather led a band, the “Bob Chaplin Orchestra,” which performed throughout Massachusetts in the 1940s. He played lead clarinet. There wasn’t a musical instrument he couldn’t play, and he taught music for many years in Portland, Maine. Several of his students went onto join metropolitan philharmonic orchestras. He composed music in the jazz and Big Band Swing genres in the ’40s and later, composed chamber music for churches in Maine.

Bob Chaplin, or “Grampa,” as I called him, also served on his town’s planning board over the years (late 1960s-early 1990s).  In the 1980s and early ‘90s, he chaired the Comprehensive Plan Committee in New Gloucester, not far from where I live and work. The comprehensive plan cited the “single most important issue was the protection of brooks, streams, wetlands and groundwater,” based on surveys conducted in 1982. His committee’s emphasis on protecting water resources in the rural town only grew stronger in the decades that followed, and more of the town’s wetlands and floodplains were mapped. In this sense, he and his committee were visionaries.  As I become more involved with local projects for my town’s conservation commission, I’m realizing that this civic interest might be inherited. Aside from a passion for protecting wetlands, I also inherited my grandfather’s love for music. Earlier today I posted a piece on classical music, inspired in part by Suzanne Nance’s morning classical music program on Maine Public Radio.

As a side note, I was thrilled that Suzanne Nance mentioned my blog and ASWM this morning (Jan. 18, 2013) on her program. She dedicated this morning’s program to “Leah Stetson and her Strange Wetlands blog,” –and this morning’s theme on her radio show was “Warmer Temperatures and Wetlands.” She played several of the pieces that I wrote about in my blog post, including In the Fen Country, a symphonic impression composed by Ralph V. Williams (1935). See Strange Wetlands: Lutes & Lily Pads: Classical Music Inspired by Wetlands. 

Working on a new essay. The assignment? What writing means to me. I still struggle with this type of assignment. Taking a stab…here are bits.

Sheepscot R. Maine Natural Heritage photo

Estuarine life, and my love of writing, spawned at the mouth of the Sheepscot River. From a young age, I participated in writing groups. Over thirty years of writing, I have grown accustomed to recognizing new and seasoned writers. New writers like to talk about writing as a process, what writing means to them and their identity as a writer—flexing and focused on it like a newly-muscled limb on a lithe and growing body. These writers flush pink at the mention of their love for the craft. Seasoned writers dive off the deep end of the writers’ group: they read or share their pieces without preamble. They cut to the chase, as if following Raymond Carver’s rule for writing: “Get in, get out, don’t linger.”

I found my voice early. Long before I learned how to write with a pen or pencil, I understood how to record and narrate. I lugged a heavy tape recorder around the house when I was little. I found a quiet room, plugged it into an outlet and pressed the chunky “play” and “record” buttons together. The blank tape hummed, an insect buzzing as the tape wound ‘round in the radio. I talked into the microphone, a bull’s eye that saw and heard my stories.

For a seasoned writer, the writing process is a solitary act, for the most part. I belong to two writers groups (one in-person, one online).  Writers foster a creative and supportive community with one another but the act itself, I’ve always observed, is best to do in private. Writing is right up there with installing obnoxious curtain hardware or eating sandwiches too big for one’s mouth, dripping with caramelized onions. There’s always the off-chance that I might have a witness, but the writing process is not performance art. That would be the most awful—and embarrassing—act to sit through. Scene: Writer is lying face-down on the living room carpet surrounded by pages, presumably doing “nothing.” Audience reads program and it says, “Revision.” Revising can look like a very bad hair day when things are going well. I like to work at my writing desk, an antique trestle table built by my great grandfather. The dented, dark mahogany wood grain is as soft as blotting paper and smooth as driftwood.

Jackson

One of my favorite authors, Shirley Jackson, is considered “a writer’s writer.” That means she appeals to writers rather than readers of other vocations. When I read Jackson, I feel like she’s sharing an inside joke with me—and I get it. I understand because we both walk the path of the writer. Sometimes this is a solitary, unpopular path; other times, we’re suddenly the popular girl at the party with the best stories. I look to Jackson’s writing as a set of teachings. Her novelette, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for example, reads like a creepy fictionalized (and maniacal) version of my childhood, complete with children’s taunting of an eerie, imaginative narrator. It’s a brilliant plot twist.

Wading into eel grass, I trudged into tidal waters off my favorite swimming rock, where no one else but my hardy grandmother liked to swim. I came of age skimming a rocky bottom, strewn with sea glass and broken beer bottles.  I parted the itchy blades, sharp as steak knives, and numbed my skin to the frigid temperature of the river. Kicking against the current, I tread water under trestle bridges and soaked my senses with that saltwater. It seeped into me, semi-permeably. I write to channel that energy, the teachings of my spirit guides and favorite writers, and the passionate impulses of my imagination. I don’t write because I want to be a writer. I am compelled to write because there’s always material.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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