Against the back wall, the heater hums through the silence of the room.
Janisse Ray, Kittredge Visiting Writer in Environmental Studies, glances around the room, takes a breath and begins. She talks with a slight southern drawl, her Georgia roots apparent with each passing word. She uses her hands for emphasis — the gestures casting shadows on the wooden panels beside her.
Her audience of 45 watches, completely immersed in her poems. It’s a Thursday night at the University of Montana FLAT studio, and the crowd is gathered for the weekly Wild Mercy reading, sponsored by the environmental magazine Camas.
“[Wild Mercy] is a reading series that happens every spring, where environmental studies graduate students, as well as environmental studies alumni or visiting writers come and read,” Caroline Stephens, a UM graduate student and Camas co-editor, said.
The event has been around since 2003, born out of an Earth Day reading by environmental students on the Oval, said Phil Condon, director of the environmental studies program. On February 13, Ray came to read a series of poems, focusing on love and the connection between human and place.
According to Stephens, this concept is the essence of environmental writing.
“So much of it has to deal with our relationship with one another, and our relationship with a place, and learning to care for other people, and a place,” Stephens said. “Telling of stories about places and about people is environmental writing to me … It creates meaning and that makes it relevant and important and worth caring about and worth defending.”
Despite its label as an “environmental reading," Melissa Wardlow, UM graduate student and the other editor of Camas, said she hopes this flexible definition allows for a larger variety of people to enjoy the Wild Mercy readings.
“Having this known as a nature writing series, or an environmental writing/reading series, that almost detracts from the meaning of what it is,” Wardlow said. “It can alienate some people who don’t feel a part of an environmental community, or don’t resonate with them, [but] really at it’s core that’s what it is — storytelling about people and places. It’s a way to hear intimate stories about how people connect to each other and to places, that’s what [Wild Mercy] is at its heart.”
Wild Mercy’s importance stretches further than just a place to hear a story, according to both Wardlow and Stephens. It’s a place to practice listening, and to become completely enveloped in someone else’s world.
“When you sit and listen for about an hour, it’s just so funny because you don’t do it very often,” Stephens said. “Listening is a critical skill and learning what are the needs of the environment and the needs of other people and how can we respond to those things with our actions and our culture and our words [is important].”
Those who read at Wild Mercy get a different type of experience than those sitting in the audience. Both Wardlow and Stephens have read at Wild Mercy, this year and last.
“I’d be reading and then realize that there is just this group of people just sitting, listening so intently to me,” Wardlow said. “I think it’s a really good practice in taking up space and allowing your voice to be heard for what it is.”
When Ray finished her own reading, she let out a gentle breath and took a sip of water from her Mason jar sitting on the wooden podium. In the crowd, an older woman in the front row bowed her head and whispered “beautiful.”
“Janisse's imagery, her poise, and the compassion beneath all her words stopped time, even if only for a little while,” Condon said. “And that's always enjoyable for me.”