Standing before a packed house at the Top Hat Lounge one recent day, Sheryl Noethe gave an energetic reading about the evolution of this creature and that beast – their color, plumage and anthropomorphized traits.
Noethe was one of several authors to read selected works on nature during the storytelling session hosted by the staff at Camas, a magazine published twice a year by the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana.
A week after the reading, Caroline Stephens and Mel Wardlow had retreated to their small Camas office tucked away on campus. The magazine’s newest edition remained a work in progress and past issues spanning the publication’s 22 years adorned the walls.
“This was born out of an event at Freddy’s Feed and Read – the old Buttercup Café,” said Wardlow, considering the magazine’s notable run. “The grad students in environmental studies got together that year to create a magazine to publish their work and share it with a larger audience.”
The nature stories told orally at the café found their way into the first issue of Camas printed in 1992. That inaugural edition remains on file in the office and includes the works of Dave Thomas, Karin Schalm and Leslie Ryan, among others.
Like the evolution of Noethe’s poetic animals, the magazine has changed over the years in voice and style to include the likes of Rick Bass, Wendell Berry, William Kittredge, Ellen Meloy and Annick Smith. The students behind Camas have stayed true to the magazine’s environmental roots, connecting people to place while exposing the relationships that flow between.
“Even though we’re specific in what we’re looking for, I think our concept of nature is pretty broad,” said Stephens. “As long as a writer is aware of that context in which things are happening – even if they’re writing about human relationships – it’s just as important to talk about and tell.”
Stephens, a Center College graduate from Kentucky, and Wardlow, a Hawaii native who attended the University of Oregon, have taken the magazine’s reins from a long line of student editors.
The two graduate students in environmental studies bring a passion for writing to the job, and they both have views on the relevance of environmental prose, be it fiction, nonfiction or poetry.
As a genre, Stephens says, environmental writing can be difficult to approach, given today’s global environment. The issues are big and far-reaching, impacting humanity on a worldwide scale.
But they insist a good writer can narrow that gap by focusing on the places and relationships that bind us. Contemplating the impacts of replacing a washed-out bridge across a creek or seeing the Lakota Sioux’s “weather doctor” in a windstorm, the writing connects readers to the ethereal world beyond the glossy pages.
“It’s difficult for people to read about those global issues and feel they have agency in them or that they have some connection,” Stephens said. “Reading stories about how individuals are dealing with these issues in their personal lives, I think that helps connect people to place more, and to each other, and it helps them understand what their place might be in this big, global context.”
Each spring, the Environmental Studies Program hosts a writer to teach a workshop. The contract also requires the chosen writer to contribute a piece to Camas, placing their experienced words alongside those of emerging writers.
The results have given the magazine a strong reputation in the genre and a faithful following – it claims several hundred subscribers in 32 states. Nonprofit partners have grown to include the Clark Fork Coalition, the Northern Rockies Field Institute and the Missoula Writing Collaborative, among others.
But in the world of the printed word, deadlines always loom. The two editors considered the mass of submissions received for the new issue, which hits the shelves in June. The publication’s theme – “flourish” – prompted 500 submissions, and Stephens and Wardlow are pleased with the quality.
“I think we did a better job this semester, where we knew people who would want to submit to us and who had material that would be relevant to our magazine,” Wardlow said. “We’re specific in our genre – the American West, environmental writing and how well it follows the magazine’s theme.”
The magazine is deeply rooted in the Environmental Studies Program, a line of teaching that creates “thinkers who can do, as well as doers who can think.”
This year, the program took graduate students to Guiyang, China, to study citizen participation in environmental decision-making. Last year, students in the program attended international climate talks in Poland.
For Wardlow, the program’s diversity attracted her attention, and her love of writing drew her to the magazine. The program’s interdisciplinary design, she said, is enriching, and it’s reflected in Camas.
“So many graduate programs become compartmentalized and you see how limiting that can be as far as perspective,” Wardlow said. “But this program really encourages students to take classes and really bring together perspectives from multiple disciplines in order to create that holistic view.”