Artful Sentences: In the Woods

Last week I took an online workshop with Frances Peck, a friend and fellow writer/editor, on sentences and syntax. It’s rare to have a workshop on the granular details of writing—you’re more likely to have workshops on the personal essay, or the structure of your memoir, or writing scenes. Sentence-level work is definitely underappreciated. Frances’s workshop taught me a number of things I didn’t know about sentence structure, and made me keen to test my sentence skills in my own work.

Sentences can be powerful, something Montana’s Poet Laureate Chris LaTray makes clear in his newsletter. Every so often, he shares a series of sentences, one for each day of the month. They might capture a single moment during the day, or the zeitgeist of the day itself. But they’re like poetry—little nuggets of time eternalized in a single sentence. LaTray has even published a book that contains some of these sentences: One Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large.

As Virginia Tufte writes in Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, “…it is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms and emphasis, to carry meaning—of whatever kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place.”

I thought I would put the information from Frances’s workshop to work, along with what I’ve learned from reading LaTray’s sentences, and share my one-sentence thoughts about my walks on Cobble Hill Mountain. As an aside, two weeks ago I wrote about mountains, and Cobble Hill Mountain isn’t a mountain in the true sense of the word, it’s really a hill. But it’s the highest point in the community of Cobble Hill, so we’ll stick with ‘mountain’ for now.

I’m cheating a bit, going back through my notes to create sentences after the fact, but it’s good writing practice, and also good for determining what’s most important about a particular time and place.

4 Mar—I rarely see people on the trail but today I heard them, the faint tinkling of a bear bell on a dog collar.

7 Mar—Discovered a perfect photo composition of a fern leaf in front of a concrete cube that had moss growing down it like water; glad that my photographic eye is making itself known again.

15 Mar—The sun streaming through the trees and my footfalls quiet on the forest duff.

18 Mar—I hear birds rustling in the underbrush and calling from the trees, drops of sound in the hushed silence of the forest.

21 Mar—Sometimes I smell barnyard, the scent of horses on the trail, but all I see are small piles of dried up manure; it must be the memory of horses that fills my senses.

24 Mar—There’s an ankle-high, hollow tree stump in the middle of the trail, filled with small pebbles as though waiting for something to sit on them until they hatch.

26 Mar—Passed a group of four women going up while I was coming down; each had a baby strapped to their back and I was impressed by their abilities even as I downplayed my own.

30 Mar—I make an awful lot of noise huffing and puffing while climbing the switchbacks along the side of the mountain, but have realized that my exercise-induced asthma is to blame—my inhaler is essential to help me breathe.

1 Apr—The trail is strewn with fluorescent green catkins, like bells on a stick or Brussel sprouts on a stem, except they’ve been dislodged from the maple trees by wind and rain.

3 Apr—Stopped to take a photo of polypores (shelf fungi) poking out of the end of a log like grouse tails, patterned in grey, tan, and cream.

5 Apr—Today I startled a pileated woodpecker and it flew over my head to an adjacent tree, waiting and watching to see if I would go away before it started pecking at the bark.

7 Apr—A blackened tree lying on its back, its remaining branches curving protectively over it like a ribcage.

9 Apr—Coming suddenly into the sun as the forest canopy gives way to a mini-meadow of grass, moss, and salal.

11 Apr—Noticed a log rolled over with its decomposing underbelly exposed and immediately thought “bear!”, but saw no other sign of one.

13 Apr—My anxiety is acting up again, making me worry unnecessarily about wiping out on the trail where it’s gravelly, or where the drizzling rain has made the bedrock a bit slick.

15 Apr—A robin kept appearing on the trail in front of me or on a branch beside me, making me feel like it was checking in on me as I walked, even though I knew each was a different bird.

I’ll keep collecting sentences on my hikes, observing the forest changing around me as spring advances into summer. Maybe I’ll see a bear, or a cougar, or even make my way up the switchbacks a little bit faster.

Share your own artful sentences in the comments!

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