writing prompt

On “Saving Trees”

by Jacqueline Doyle

“Saving Trees” by Jacqueline Doyle appears in ROOTED: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction

This essay started with an article I read about Japanese forests specifically designated for shinrin-yoku, the stress-reducing activity of “forest-bathing.” I read more about shinrin-yoku. I talked with my son (who majored in Environmental Science and Public Policy) about trees and global warming. I began to think about not only the necessity to save trees from extinction, but also (as the Mary Oliver poem suggests), how trees save us. We live in California and I have always been fascinated by the age of the trees in the national forests here. I researched the actual ages of the trees, and read John Muir on the national parks. I wrote some about the three years I lived in Germany, where families took Sunday constitutionals in perfectly planted forests. I wrote about my childhood, and exploring the woods with my brother. I wrote about the trees in our yard. The first draft was probably three times the length of this one. It only gradually became clear to me that it wasn’t about “forest-bathing” at all. It wasn’t even about forests. The emotional center was my brother and I and our tree fort in the apple tree in our back yard. Finding the center made it much easier to prune the unnecessary branches away, including the research I’d done on “forest-bathing.”

Emily Dickinson spoke of “flood subjects,” the subjects that preoccupy, even obsess you.

Writing Prompt: Choose a flood subject and read. Read widely and at random. Read whatever interests you. Follow tangents. Let your reading settle for a while. On two pieces of paper, make two lists. First, a list of facts that have stayed with you and seem emotionally resonant in some way. (You can fact check the specifics later.) On the second page, a list of memories or personal experiences associated with your flood subject. What is the autobiographical subtext for this research? Why does this subject fascinate you?

Read over the two lists. Find the emotional center (which may be one memory or experience in particular, or a cluster of memories) and circle it.

Working from that emotional center, braid together facts and memories in a segmented lyric essay. Emphasize emotional rather than logical coherence. Let one section suggest the next. Don’t worry about where you’re headed. Wait and see where you arrive.


Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in South Dakota Review, Waccamaw, Southern Indiana Review, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. Her essays have earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays 2013 and Best American Essays 2015. A version of “Saving Trees” originally appeared in the Catamaran Literary Reader.