Ekphrasis and the Writer’s Challenge

Ekphrasis.

The term is new to me, although the meaning seems familiar. Ekphrasis refers to writing about art, such as using literature or poetry to describe a painting. Since I’ve not encountered the word, I read Stephanie Coyne DeGhett’s article “Paintings in Fiction: Ten Lessons from the Masters of Ekphrasis” with interest (The Writer’s Chronicle, May, 2014). DeGhett explores the art of articulating art. How does an author convey in words the depth and meaning of a painting, a two-dimensional creation that can hold an entire story? How to make that painting resonate and come alive in the reader’s imagination?

That, I thought, is like writing about a landscape.

But is it?

Ouzel

Ouzel

The land is full of life – including humans (or not) – that hums through the days. Sounds, scents, minute shifts in the air creating motion. A flutter of wings, a drip of water. The slight scuff in the dirt that on further inspection reveals a coyote track, a bit of narrative written in the dust. To be within that scene is not simply a physical connection. With time and awareness, deeper associations can grow. To capture in words both the physical place and that other sense is challenging.

That, I thought (continuing my solo debate), seems to go beyond ekphrasis. Maybe?

Interestingly enough, the idea of “landscape” is a fairly new concept that came from visual art. In the 1600s, “landscape” was connected with Dutch artists who started painting rural, agricultural, and natural scenes – things evolved from there. Landscape became a vista, predominantly a panorama of a mostly natural place. It was a view, putting humans in the role of a spectator rather than a participant. Such a tendency was taken to the extreme with the Claude glass, a mirror-like contraption which allowed the user to view a landscape in the scenic manner made popular through the seventeenth-century painter Claude Lorrain. With their back turned to the real land, an observer held the mirror up and was provided with a view of hues and tones that fit the ideal of a picturesque landscape. In a way, the idea of “landscape” was (and perhaps is) the mental transformation of the living earth into a painting.

The writer’s challenge is to create in words a mental image and a sensory empathy for the living earth, to portray it as a place that is not a painting and is more than a landscape.

Years ago, I wrote an essay that included a scene set along a creek in the backcountry of Yellowstone. I wrote the piece for a Creative Nonfiction class in the English Department at the University of Montana. I was enrolled in the MS Environmental Writing program in the Environmental Studies Department. The seminar consisted of several MFA students – and me. It was my first foray into the formal study of the craft of writing. I worked hard to convey the details of that scene: the dark water flowing through a winter forest, the ouzel bobbing on a rock midstream, the feel of the snowflakes as they landed on my face, the quiet. I avoided flowery adjectives and passive voice. I wrote exactly what I saw and experienced at that place at that time.

“Over the top.”

That comment remains with me to this day, a presence every time I write about my backcountry experiences. “Over the top.”

“Is there anyone here who doesn’t know what an ouzel is?” I asked of the MFA students.

Ten blank faces looked at me.  Not one person in that room was even vaguely familiar with the slate-colored bird that dips and bobs and sings in high streams – in a classroom in Missoula, Montana where mountain streams flow within sight of that very building. My next essay – which I kept to myself – was titled Death of an Ouzel, and in it, I wrote: “I have a growing fear. Is it possible that, if you don’t know what an ouzel is, than the death of an ouzel means nothing? If you have never walked in the woods, than the death of the forest means nothing?”

I wrote that first essay assuming my audience would have some shared experience to relate to my words, not aware that the world I encounter in my backcountry travels is wholly unknown to a vast number of people.

Therein lies the environmental writer’s challenge. Perhaps it really is like ekphrasis, hoping to bring to life something perceived as two-dimensional art. The challenge is to write in such a way that the landscape takes on all the dimensions that make it alive; to evoke the beauty and complexity that lies within the “scape” and to make it real. Then the reader, who may have never seen or even heard of an ouzel, will become aware. And care.

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