Sarah Juniper Rabkin
Sarah Juniper Rabkin is an award-winning teacher of writing and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s and studied biology at Harvard and science communication at UC Santa Cruz. She has worked as a high school teacher, workshop leader, Q&A columnist, oral history interviewer, and freelance editor. As a volunteer activist, she has helped advocate for labor fairness, civil liberties. GLBT rights, and natural history education. She lives near the shore of Monterey Bay with her husband, poet Charles Atkinson. Read more on the publisher's website.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding Home in the World for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 08/31/2011
In "Notes from the Trail," the opening essay of What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding a Home in the World, you talk about your fear of crossing creeks, and then tell the story of the young man waiting for you to pick your way across a rock-studded creek on a backpacking trip in Yosemite:
"Eventually, he said to my back—quietly and without rancor—You think too much. Just do it.' And I did."
Seems to me that's apt advice for writing and life as well! Are his words part of what impelled you to collect these essays—some written over many years—and look for a publisher for Bug Camp?
I wrote the essays that appear in Bug Camp over the course of many years—from my mid-20s to my early 50s. For most of that time it didn't occur to me that I might be amassing the makings of a book. Then sometime in 2004, eyeing my bristling file drawers, I realized that my accumulated writings constituted a sort of outward-looking self-portrait. Suddenly I was eager to present them together in a form that would say, "Here's where I've been, what I care about, how I think. What about you?" Like stepping-stones in a creek, my seemingly scattered essays began to look collectively like a bridge to somewhere.
The title essay, "What I Learned at Bug Camp," sounds like a piece of pure nature writing, yet like all of your work, it's a look at what it means to be human. In the case of "Bug Camp," the experience of learning entomology in the field leads you to consider topics like the perils of competition and the ethics of killing, and you conclude with this lovely passage on seeing the world:
"For better or worse, I apprehend the world most readily and most keenly through the eyes of an artist, a writer, a dreamer. And I can't help feeling that, like good science, these ways of knowing also contribute something essential to healing a tattered Earth."
Do you think of yourself a nature writer? If not, is there a genre that encompasses your work?
This question reminds me of a quip that ethnobiologist-poet-activist-writer Gary Nabhan used to make about "Nature Writing." "Why don't they just describe what we do as Writing," he mused, "and call everything else Urban Dysfunctional Literature?"
There is certainly great value in focusing our attention beyond strictly human preoccupations—telling stories about the earthly beings and events that sustain and transcend our own existence. Those stories are infinite, fascinating, essential. But whenever I have attempted to limit the focus of my own creative prose to concerns of the non-human world, the work has come out feeling superficial. As my artist friend Jenny points out, "If you're trying too hard to screen out the personal while you're drawing a bird, you're likely to screen out some things about the bird." I think my most resonant writing avoids distinctions between "nature" and "not nature." It draws on the whole messy, interpenetrating patchwork of life. I guess you might call it "attentive nonfiction."
The essays in Bug Camp range widely, from music therapy and dolphins to eco-erotics, racism, and body image. You had years of work to draw on. How did you choose which essays to include? Are there pieces you regret leaving out?
I left out a couple of essays whose publication might have betrayed the privacy of people close to me. I omitted other pieces that seemed dated, or whose style was out of keeping with the personal voice that lends the book unity and cohesiveness. My editor helped me eliminate two or three essays I had initially included that simply weren't as strong as the rest. I'm happy about all of those decisions.
There is other omitted work—such as a piece of explicitly erotic writing—that I was just too chicken to include, because of cultural taboos and an acute sense of personal vulnerability. I want to become more courageous about putting risky writing out there. As Nadine Gordimer once remarked during a public-radio interview (sending me scurrying for a pen), "You must write as if you were already dead, and not worry about the consequences. Otherwise you compromise that one bit of individual insight that moved you closer to the truth."
In "A Back Road Home," you write of wrestling with "right livelihood," finding the work that would serve your childhood dream of reconnecting people with each other and with the places that nourished them, and saving the landscape of your childhood from exploitation and destruction. Is that hope why you gradually moved away from science journalism to writing personal essays? How does it motivate what you are doing now?
Full-time science journalism can be a beautiful path toward healing relationships between people and places. For better or worse, it just hasn't turned out to be my path. As Annie Dillard wrote, "The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way. To locate the most tender and live spot, and plug into that pulse." Or, to quote Howard Thurman, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." My calling seems to embrace an idiosyncratic mix of creative activities, including research and writing, drawing and painting, teaching and learning, along with a fair amount of open-ended exploration.
What has surprised you most about your experience with writing What I Learned at Bug Camp?
My inaugural Bug Camp reading took place at a much-loved independent bookstore within a few miles of my home. I was moved by the experience of sharing and discussing my work with members of my local community. I felt as if I had completed one full cycle of a spiral journey—an odyssey with which other published authors may be familiar. Most of the essays in my book tackle questions that arose out of a quest to belong and contribute: as a teacher, a family member, a friend, a citizen, a creature. I use writing—a largely solitary pursuit—to work my way through such questions. I need that contemplative time away from the noise of social activity. But having labored thus in solitude to produce my book, I then found myself welcomed back into the company of other people, rewarded with the gift of this newly rich form of community engagement. The experience reaffirmed my commitment to writing as a way of making meaning.
Do you have a favorite essay from the book? One you always read at readings?
I often turn to the title essay. The topic invites lively discussion: as a friend commented, "almost nobody is neutral about bugs." I like this essay's emphasis on storytelling, and its exploratory quality. I wrote "What I Learned at Bug Camp" out of a need to resolve pressing questions—to make sense of experiences that had challenged me. I didn't know where the writing would take me until I got there. Perhaps this helps a reader (or listener) feel that she is exploring along with me.
When you need to get away and clear your head, where do you go? Why?
Ah! I've been thinking about this lately, having recently returned from one of my favorite head-clearing refuges: Oregon's Sitka Center for Art & Ecology. I imagine there are geographical locations in your own life that nurture you at the same time that they feel charged with life, energy, possibility—places that give you solace as well as inspiration. Sitka is such a place for me. Whenever I land there, creative excitement rises up through my body as if from the mossy ground beneath my feet. Established more than 40 years ago, Sitka is set on a headland adjacent to protected old-growth forest, native coastal prairie, and a rich estuary. It's a haven where artists, writers, scientists and musicians go to teach, learn, and practice their crafts. A few years ago, I was blessed with a seven-week residency there. It's where I did much of the initial work of creating Bug Camp.
What metaphorical streams are you crossing now? Do you have another book in mind?
To my delight, I do find myself pursuing a new book idea—starting to gather thoughts and material for a project that will probably occupy my creative attention for at least the next couple of years. The topic I am exploring has been percolating for a long time, but it emerged into daylight during my recent teaching stint at Sitka Center. The details are still too new and tender to share here, but I can say that this endeavor has me vibrating with curiosity and enthusiasm, and that it gives me a chance to integrate my interests in language and image, verbal and visual expression.
Thank you, Susan, for your careful reading of my book and for your generous, generative questions. I have very much enjoyed responding. I hope we'll be doing this again in a few years!