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Meditations on craft: A review of What I Learned at Bug Camp

 

What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding a Home in the World
By Sarah Juniper Rabkin
173 pages, softcover: $15.
Juniper Lake Press, 2011.

Twenty-some years ago, University of California, Santa Cruz, writing professor Sarah Juniper Rabkin banished us from the classroom and told us to write outside, under a redwood. The assignment left a lasting impression on those who'd grown up within the cement confines of cities. Even now, when writer's block strikes, I curl up under a Douglas fir with my notebook.

Reading Rabkin's collection, What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding a Home in the World, reminds me of her classes. Wonder and generosity play equal parts in pieces that explore the mysteries of entomology, marine dolphins and Amanita mushrooms against a background ranging from Monterey Bay and California's Central Valley to an arid Nevada rest stop.

"To test my own attitudes repeatedly and find a way to new ground is for me the most rewarding aspect of essay writing," Rabkin notes in her introduction. Craving intellectual challenge, she enrolls in a summer-long program at U.C. Davis to study insects. The experience becomes the collection's evocative title essay, in which she concludes, "Those of us who peer at the scientific enterprise from a slight remove, with a mix of admiration, skepticism, and fascination, have our own work to do. Our job is to stay humble and keep learning."

In Bug Camp, Rabkin investigates the benefits of singing and sketching, the chemistry behind romantic love, the motivations behind cosmetic surgery. Readers looking for a unifying theme beyond joyful curiosity may question her choice to follow a sexy meditation on the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers with some provocative commentary on how to create inviting urban spaces, and then with a lyrical meditation on music therapy. But the unusual juxtaposition works.

Writers and artists will appreciate the book for its meditations on process and craft. As a college teacher, I found my approach to grading student papers changed by Rabkin's essay on the subject. These days, I pay more attention to the job, reframing my negative comments as positive suggestions and taking time to point out successful passages.

Recently, I lost my decades-old reader from Rabkin's class. Fortunately, with Bug Camp in hand, I'm inspired once more to take my notebook outside and "find a way to new ground."