Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

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Bio 345

Nature Essays


Bio 345 (Nature Essays) is an interdisciplinary course taught approximately every third year. It serves as a seminar elective for the Biology major, and as a categorical elective for the Environmental Studies and Environmental Science majors. Students from diverse majors have taken the course in the past.

Purpose of this Web Page

The College Catalog description for Bio 345 briefly summarizes the course's purpose and content, but does not offer a sufficient perspective on what we really do. The supplemental information on this web page is here for you to explore more of what the course is all about.

Course Themes & Writers, Study Guide

The course's primary aim is to explore what some of the best American nature essayists have said about the multi-faceted, ever-changing aspects of our relationship to the natural world. We study the elements of successful essays and how they are used by various writers. We learn about the writers themselves - their backgrounds, experiences, motivations, and their standing among their peers. But the primary purpose is not to dissect the writings and the writers. This is not a course in literary criticism. The purpose is to inspire interdisciplinary awareness and understanding, especially of the relationships that link us to the universe and to home on earth, and for you to become a more accomplished writer.

We read ~60 essays from more than 25 writers, such as Annie Dillard, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, John Hay, and Scott Russell Sanders.  The readings emphasize central themes about our relationship to nature in the environmental age, including "Awareness & Perception", "Space & Solitude", Extinction", "Place", and "Biophilia".  We focus on one theme and 1-2 essays per day. A comprehensive Study Guide is provided to students at the beginning of the course. In the Guide, I introduce the day's theme with a brief essay of my own that sets a contact for the theme and the selected essays. I also provide questions for each essay to focus and stimulate student reading and class discussion. 

Class Atmosphere & Discussions

The class atmosphere is very relaxed and positive. The essays and discussions are no pushover, though. We dive deeply into some fundamental, multi-dimensional questions about who we are as humans, how we perceive and value nature, and how and why we struggle to live sustainably on earth. I enjoy all the courses I teach, but I have a special place in my heart for Bio 345 because of the ways in which superlative essays by outstanding writers have inspired our classroom discussions.

Weekly Field Trips & Workshops: A Special Feature

The course is unusual for a "seminar" because it includes not only twice-weekly discussions of readings, but also a full afternoon session each week devoted to interesting field trips (see photos and captions for examples) and writing workshop exercises. The field trip destinations include (1) local natural areas like Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, Tucquan Glen Preserve, Chickies Rock County Park, and Millport Conservancy, (2) places that exemplify differing legacies of human presence in landscapes (Safe Harbor, Mount Gretna), and (3) less natural places like Park City Mall (!) to highlight weekly themes of the readings. We also use some of the Wednesday afternoons for writing workshops focused on essay structures, perception, description, styles, etc. The workshops typically do not last the entire afternoon. Spending additional time on field trips and workshops means we meet for more hours per week than a typical readings and discussion course. However, I can't imagine teaching a course about nature essays without ever going out into nature (!). Many Bio 345 students in the past have commented on how much the field trips and other activities added to their experience and enjoyment in the course.

Student Evaluation

There are no quizzes or exams. The grade is based on discussion and five diverse writing assignments. Most of the assignments involve creative writing.
Being an accomplished writer is not a requirement for this course, but Bio 345 may be especially appealing for writing creatively or developing writing skills overall.

Final Thought

Nature Essays have exercised an important influence on modern society, particularly on the environmental movement and on the public's understanding of science.  The best nature essays are beautiful examples of interdisciplinary awareness, exploration, understanding, and expression.  They are superb models of the liberal arts ideal in literary form, models that you can take to heart as you develop your appreciation of the value and uses of liberal learning.

I hope the information and photos have piqued your interest in Bio 345.  Please let me know if you have any questions about the course.  I'd be happy to talk with you about Nature Essays any time. 

Prof. Sipe
LSP 354D

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Observing migrating snow geese and tundra swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Tens of thousands migrating waterfowl pass through this area and use MCWMA twice a year.


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Reflections on space and solitude at Chickies Rock County Park, bordering the Susquehanna River.
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Thinking about time, human interactions with nature, and landscape legacies in the "ghost" of a former iron mill town at Safe Harbor, PA, now an arboretum.



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Class members standing in a remnant cellar hole from one of the iron mill town's houses.




Exploring community amidst nature in the thriving hamlet of Mount Gretna, southern Lebanon County, PA.  This beautiful area was set aside in the early 1900's as a recreational area for employees associated with the Coleman iron industry, but has also housed a United Methodist camp meeting site, an enormous hotel (now gone) above a small recreational lake, and Chautauqua events.  The narrow streets and "cottage-like" homes in the heavily forested town give it a unique atmosphere.


Standing inside the outdoor tabernacle at the camp meeting site, home now to concerts and plays in addition to religious celebrations.

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The "Hall of Learning" - one of the buildings erected during the Chautauqua era that is still used for community events.




Visiting the Wolf Sanctuary at Speedwell Forge in northern Lancaster County, PA, thinking about wild animals and human attitudes toward them, and learning about how the 20+ wolves are cared for by a small non-profit organization after they have been rescued from inappropriate situations and given the opportunity to live and hunt as social groups in open habitat.  They began to howl shortly after this photo was taken.  Cool!

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Visiting Millport Conservancy near Lititz, PA, a beautiful stream valley with diverse habitats set aside as a nature preserve for education and conservation by the Wohlsen family in 1969.  Millport was given to F&M in 2008 and is used for courses, research, and public education.

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