Robert Hass remembers the exact moment when his poetic imagination and love of nature came together and caught fire. It was 1959 and Hass, who would go on to become Poet Laureate of the United States, was a sophomore in the Integral Program at Saint Mary’s. One day, his professor sent him and his classmates to Lake La Salle to observe birds.

“One of the first things I did was to go out to the lake, lift a pair of binoculars and see a Caspian tern, this immense white bird, great fisher of the bird species, sail over the lake, open its wings like a paraclete and plunge into the lake and come up with a fish. It was just a moment of heart-stopping beauty.” He felt he’d been given “a new pair of eyes with which to see things,” he said. “It was a gift that I tried to give back.”

In his books of poetry, from Field Guide to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Time and Materials and beyond, Hass has returned that gift many times over. But one of the most far-reaching ways he has passed it along is through River of Words, a program he and writer Pamela Michael cofounded in 1995 that encourages children to find their own inspiration — and their inner artist — in the natural world. Last fall, with a little help from Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Studies Chris Sindt, River of Words found a new home at Saint Mary’s as the first project of the College’s new Center for Environmental Literacy, a program based in the School of Education that explores ways to integrate nature and the arts in the classroom.

The heart of River of Words is an annual international contest that inspires children in kindergarten through 12th grade to go out into their local watersheds and create poetry and art that captures their unique surroundings. “The world’s children are perhaps its most truthful and sensitive observers,” said Michael, who is the director of the Center for Environmental Literacy, the editor of The Gift of Rivers and a former member of Wild Writing Women, a Bay Area travel writers’ group.

Around 20,000 contest entries pour in to River of Words each year. The most promising are reviewed by a panel of judges, including Michael, Hass and children’s book illustrator Thacher Hurd, who select about 100 poems and artworks as finalists. A dozen grand prize winners and a teacher of the year are honored at an annual ceremony at the Library of Congress Center for the Book in Washington, D.C., and the children’s work is published in an anthology sent to thousands of classrooms across the nation, so their creations can inspire other youngsters. “We have to do this for the sake of our children, for the sake of our land, for our imagination and our future,” said Hass, who taught at Saint Mary’s for 18 years. He sees watersheds as a lens through which we can understand our environment and, ultimately, become better stewards of our world.

“We can’t take care of something that we don’t understand, and we’re not going to get interested in understanding it unless we come to love it,” he said. In order to fire young imaginations and carve out a new vision of how to live on the land, Hass believes, we need to bring together science, literature and art. “This generation is going to have to deal with a whole series of environmental problems,” he said. “They need to have a language for what they care about.” The project grew out of a germ of an idea and a stroke of synchronicity. “I woke up one morning with the phrase ‘river of words’ in my head,” said Michael, who was then working as a consultant for International Rivers. She conceived an idea for a poetry contest about rivers to coincide with the first National Poetry Month in April 1996. Around the same time, a friend introduced her to the new Poet Laureate. Coincidentally, Hass was working on a large gathering of environmental writers at the Library of Congress called “Watershed: Writers, Nature and Community.” The two visions coalesced into River of Words, which now oversees the largest youth poetry competition in the world.

Happy Chinese New Year“Its true genius is its simplicity,” Michael said. “We believe that the joy of discovery and investigation excites children and that learning should be fun.” Along with the annual contest, River of Words publishes a detailed “Watershed Explorer” curriculum, which encourages teachers to draw on many disciplines, including history, math, science, social studies, geography and the arts, to help children understand the natural world. Michael believes River of Words will be a catalyst for collaboration at Saint Mary’s, too, bringing together students and faculty from the schools of science, education and the arts. Already, the center is sponsoring four publishing internships for MFA students and working on an orientation app for iPhones and iPads on the cultural and natural history of the College. Together with Education Professor Raina Leon, Michael is also planning a weeklong summer camp for Bay Area eighth-graders that will be called the Saint Mary’s Explorers Club. The youngsters will explore SMC’s 400 acres, including the Legacy Garden, the observatory, the swamp and the Redwood Grove, and create an online guide to all the trees on campus.

River of Words nourishes imaginations — young and old — in many ways. Some of the young writers and artists even find their calling through the contest. Rebecca Givens Rolland, a 1998 Grand Prize winner, has continued to develop her passion for poetry while earning degrees in English from Yale and Boston University. Her work has won a number of awards and her first book of poems, The Wreck of Birds, will be published next year.

Givens Rolland, now a doctoral student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said the award “gave me confidence at a young age in the power of poetry to express emotions and thoughts, and made me feel connected to a broader community of writers and to environmental issues.” At the College’s reception last fall for River of Words, Tobi Earnheart- Gold, a former finalist who recently graduated from Stanford, spoke to the audience about the moment when “poetry found him.” “River of Words instilled in me a sense of place and a relationship to art that later became a refuge,” he said.

The audience listened with delight as two teenage contest winners read their poems. In each work, a sense of place, closely observed, gave rise to a delicious sense of discovery of the world — and of the child’s own nature. Standing at the back of the room, Bryn Garrehy, a student in Saint Mary’s MFA program listened, enraptured, as Caroline María Woods- Mejía, a 2009 Grand Prize winner, recited her poem, “Misunderstood,” which begins “In a sacred place, a creek is alive…” “It’s wonderful how this connects poets like Robert Hass and writers like me and these young poets,” he said. “It really is like a river of words that keeps flowing through time.”

The 16th Annual River of Words Youth Creativity Awards Ceremony will be held at the Library of Congress on April 23, 2012. Saint Mary’s will host a California ceremony in the Soda Center on April 28. In addition, to celebrate the new program, the SMC Museum of Art will display artwork by the 2012 contest winners from April 15 to June 10, the College library will feature River of Words artwork throughout April, and a Words Into Music Symposium will be held in Hagerty Lounge on April 27. To learn more about River of Words and the Center for Environmental Literacy, see stmarys-ca.edu/row. To donate to the Center for Environmental Literacy, contact Robert Smriga at (925) 631-4787 or donate online at stmarys-ca.edu/giving/make-a-gift-now by designating the center, listed under the Kalmanovitz School of Education, as the beneficiary.

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