Impromptu #4 — A Scavenging Field Trip

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On a recent walk with my dog, Clover, I found the object depicted above, located at the gate that separates our back yard from the rest of the neighborhood, a house lawn’s width away from a sidewalk leading to the elementary school. I knew Clover and I would travel back through the gate, and I didn’t want her to slurp up the thing while I wasn’t looking. So, I plucked the nearly round growth (can you make out the odd contours of facial features?) from the ground and pocketed it.

Later, when I’d returned home and Clover was occupied with something else, I took it out to examine it. I was convinced it was a mushroom, but I knew that one could never be sure about random backyard growths without some training. My father taught me that some things resembling edible mushrooms were poisonous.

I let it sit for a day, leaving it on a chest of drawers, hiding behind something so that a wandering Clover wouldn’t find it and eat it. When I remembered to show it to my husband, I told him about my urge to slice into it. He recommended that I do that on the front porch rather than in the house. What would emerge? A noxious thick fluid? A baby mushroom?

I decided to save the mushroom-like orb for a few more days so I could show it to my friend and assistant, Joan.

I knew that it was a find. A major find. Perhaps I should write about it, as I’d written about so many other finds over the years.

The whole experience helped me to remember that one of my favorite types of writing prompts involves a scavenging field trip.

This prompt, like many of my favorite prompts, is a) an amalgam of several ideas rolled into one, and 2) a prompt focusing on objects. The prompt can be separated into two parts – scavenging items and writing about the items.

Scavenging Items: Choose a Method and then Choose a Venue

Choosing a Method

Method A: If you have a reliable, charged cell phone and like to keep your hands clean, use this photo option. Go on a walk and take ten pictures of things you see along the way. Make sure the photos you take are close ups, capturing lots of good detail. I am continually amazed and impressed by the minute details I see on others’ Facebook pictures – the water droplets on a flower’s leaf, the translucence of an insect’s wing, the angle of a buck’s antler as it juts upward, intersecting the rays of the moon.

However, keep in mind that your photos do not have to capture only beautiful things. They can be photos of half-torn pop labels, rusty car parts, or a pile of cigarette butts. You have the liberty of selecting the ten subjects of your photos.

Method B: Go on a walk and find ten items that you can BRING HOME to use for your prompt. As Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus show would say, “Get Messy!  Make Mistakes!” The key here, however, is safety. We need to be careful about sharp edges of objects and/or potentially poisonous objects. For this reason, I encourage you to WEAR GLOVES! Take a doubled bag (paper within plastic or vice versa) along with you.

Choosing a Venue

This step is a little tricky because it depends on where you live. Ideally, you would be able to do your scavenging in your neighborhood. Neighborhoods have such strong associations for all of us, so making discoveries right near your home can be powerful. But some neighborhoods are admittedly much cleaner than others. If you live in a neighborhood or town where everyone is always on top of their litter, rejoice!  This is a positive in so many ways!  Your neighborhood my not yield the best kind of items about which to write, however.

An alternative is to plan a field trip in advance. This kind of adventure can add to the fun of the writing prompt. I live near a lot of suburban things; in addition to living near an elementary school, I also live near a major state university (Michigan State) which is built around the banks of a river. River banks can provide some good scavenged material. But so can strip malls. And beaches. There are just so many possibilities, as long as you make sure to be safe.

Writing teachers like me often use objects for writing, just as artists use objects for still life portraits. But part of the inspiration for this version of the exercise is an assignment my daughter’s AP History teacher gave her class related to found objects and collages created of such objects. We know that anthropologists and archeologists learn a great deal about earlier cultures simply by examining their tools, their refuse, the scraps from their daily lives. So, think of your items as historical finds.

The Writing

Once you’ve found ten objects that you like, give yourself freedom to work with them. You don’t have to create a story that uses all ten objects (unless, of course, you want to do so). For me, association always arrives in my brain first, so I naturally think of riffing on one or more of the objects. But you can establish your own pattern. For example, pick three items, and use them to trigger thoughts for a brief imaginary tale. Or find a way to put the items in categories that you make up (red things, sharp things, circular items left on the side of the road) and create a piece by working with those titles.

Give yourself twenty minutes to write about the items you’ve found, unless you want to keep going. But save a few ideas for another writing session; there should be lots to work with.

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When Joan came over a couple of weeks ago, I brought out the ball-shaped mushroom thing. Joan is a nursing student who also works as a medical scribe, so she has that intense scientific curiosity about living things. We decided to dissect the thing together. I got out a paper towel and a knife.

Then I cut in.

Yes, the experience was, as we anticipated, a bit anti-climactic. No spiders crawled out, which is what Joan had secretly been hoping for. No blood came out either. No noxious, thick fluid. The mushroom ball wasn’t hollow at all. It was solid, made of the same spongy material that appeared on the outside. Maybe it was a real mushroom, after all!

But to be cautious, we wrapped it up in the paper towel and gave it a trash can burial. I washed my hands and the knife.

It was a good, Bill Nye sort of day, even if we didn’t figure out anything revolutionary.

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