A nearby garden becomes an idyllic classroom for a nature writing workshop
By Megan Walsh-Boyle
When many classes went online during the pandemic, one course went outside—to Stoneleigh, a 42-acre public garden just a stone’s throw from Villanova. Stoneleigh’s living network of songbirds, bees, and foxes—and the habitat that sustains them—inspired a creative writing class.
"There's something about writing out-of-doors, eye-level with pitcher plants or hidden in the pergola, that awakens imagination,” says Catherine Staples ’86 MA, a poet who writes about the natural world and teaches Honors and English courses at Villanova. “The company of trees along with readings by the likes of Thoreau, Kimmerer, and Tracy K. Smith, inspires students to find their own clear voices.”
The Nature Writing Workshop is designed to immerse students in a writer’s habits and develop new perspectives. Assignments involve writing non-fiction, poetry and fiction. Professor Staples helps her class, which is typically made up of 15 students of all majors, practice and improve their observation skills and become more curious about what’s around them.
Required reading, which includes works by American nature writers Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Robin Wall Kimmerer, J. Drew Lanham and Tracy K. Smith, are studied—paying particular attention to imagery, imagination, metaphor and sound. Under a massive catalpa tree, the students listen to a TED Talk by the Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard about the remarkable ways trees communicate with one another. The course is punctuated with science lessons on agroecology, sustainability and wildlife. There’s even the chance to act as citizen scientists by doing some hands-on bird banding in cooperation with Willistown Conservation Trust, a local nonprofit organization trying to collect data regarding migration patterns and habitat use.
Mickey Wilcox ’25 CLAS credits the course with making him a more informed writer. “I learned to pay attention to the specifics of my environment,” says the English and Classical Studies major with a minor in Creative Writing. “Being in nature helps to ground me and being surrounded by so much life puts my own into perspective.”
“Because of the exposure to Stoneleigh, the students have a much wider view of the natural world than I could offer alone,” says Professor Staples. “This is such a marvelous place to imagine, dream and learn.”
Professor Staples teaches a second course at Stoneleigh titled Reading and Writing Children’s Stories & Myths, which is a one-credit poetry workshop for honors students that encourages them to be inspired by nature’s wonder.