The Shepherd’s Journal is truly the marriage of writing of the natural world and prose/poetry writing. My writing group created a Shepherd’s Journal a couple of times during winter writing retreats, so many years ago now. Here is an example from one year. Our little group emerged in part from Sunbelt Writing Project fellows; others, invited writing pals. Some of us teachers, others not. The journal is easy enough to do: students in your classroom would choose a month of the year and compose thoughts about the natural world and create a poem or passage. The shepherd, historically, and yet today in many countries, followed the natural signs of each month; lives depended upon watching closely.
To make this a lower risk writing task, have student groups work together!
To make it lower risk–have students “find” poems or passages in prose that reflect the months. Not necessarily to find a poem titled, “January,” but to find a poem or passage that creates images of that cold month that launches a new year.
Here is ours—-(Except for mine, all last names of the contributors have been removed…all rights reserved–please do not copy text; please do use the idea!)
Our Shepherds’ Journal
22 February 2003
Cold-cold-cold this month does bluster and blow
With wintry gleaming sun sharp crystal
As the icicles adorning the houses’ eaves
With snow and ice outlining each forest limb
And lonely tombstones’ epitaphs as if
To recall the Winter’s tale that January weaves.
It is the stories of the Dead we read …
The solitary voice of our hinterlands
Whose echo and countenance haunts and stalks
Under cover of dark-hearted Winter’s cloak
Our buried longings and distant dormant lives
Are revisited in the evening embers then reborn with icy morning walks.
Some February days in Alabama the soft wind’s a caress, whispering “spring, spring” on hurried, pale winter faces. Strong rains strike on tornado-dark days. Outside my bedroom window the trees are brown tracery against gray sky, the same as January, the same as December—not a green edge of dogwood or sycamore leaf, still. Each time I take my wool winter dress coat out of the closet, I wonder: The last time? . . . before spring cleaning and the sultry months that even now—Suddenly, a 70o day!–are building steam.
Pines sing, the sun’s hot. Bright-white clouds, only their undersides gray, sail across sky deepened by just a tinge of cold, a graver blue than the skies of summer. The surface of Lake Martin, the trees on its opposite edge, and that sky dance in a palette of silver grays and gray blues, shifting, transmuting in the now-warm, now-cold wind. Where I sit, on a rough wooden picnic table just dry enough to let us write outside, Andy’s fingers dance on the keys of his laptop. We’re sharing the picnic table top, the multiple-personality wind, the caws and honks of occasional birds and rush of passing cars woven into the sssshssshsssh of the pines. Andy speaks lines to himself, a quiet sound as writing-companionable as the waves of pinesong. Kim’s at the next table over, legs stretched out, soaking in the winter sun, the page of her writing tablet brilliant-white, Vanna White’s teeth white—in the midday winter sun. We’re alone together, in our clean-skied Lake Martin winter-into-spring.
Magical March brings warmth for which our souls long…like medicine to cure the colds of winter. March winds whip away frost, sweep away leaves, and blow in the beginning of spring, reassuring all creatures of a new season. Birds come home and begin singing us awake before the alarm clock. Lovers come together and begin kissing before breakfast. Parents prepare picnics, plant flowers, and begin working on spring projects. Kids fly kites, sail toy paper boats, and begin planning for a week out of school. Lonely souls awaken to the idea that life is about living!, and the lucky ones find a way to start.
Oh glorious days of constancy!
The fickle winds of winter
Are truly gone as April
Spreads its warmth.
The birds sing rejoicing
Songs to celebrate spring.
Reds, yellows, greens, and
Browns swoop down to
Alight on fence posts and
Preen in the warming
Glow of the sun.
The beauty of a world
Reawakening to growth—
Flowers bursting with color,
Children chattering as they
Shake off their winter’s blanket
And emerge, open and alive.
The throaty neigh of a galloping
Horse as she kicks up
Grass seeds all
Over the field.
Life, reborn and free,
Celebrating every day
With unabashed glee.
The sun shines down in streaks of gold between the castled clouds of gray.
The wind at first comes blustering, then like a mood it softly fades.
The greening of the earth begins and flowers bloom and children play,
A melody that’s soft at first bursts forth in joyful song.
Animals move into the light to warm the winter chill away
And ducks come sailing down to rest upon the glassy lake.
The forest strummed by gentle winds plays songs of celebration then
Like the skilled musician, it pauses and it plays again.
I came upon a meadow filled with lavender and white,
A delicate gown of buttercups dancing in the light
The sun shines down in streaks of gold and breezes gently sigh,
Then one good puff turned the buttercups into a million butterflies.
It’s May and all across the land the earth bursts forth in green,
And sings in celebration at the coming of the spring.
If you love the outdoors, you find reasons to be out there.
June is good enough reason.
In June, you feel new and rich and important.
And, if you have the habit of keeping a daybook, it will fill with wonders in June.
Your pen forgives and forgets the impetuous temper of spring and journeys boldly
and confidently into June—who stands as a sentinel, guarding the promise of summer.
You find words for June mornings. You say the morning sun shakes you gently and whispers you awake—
you also tell of it shouting your name, impatiently calling you into the day.
And, you take a brush and capture June’s sunlight with soft, proud, yellows in broad, lingering strokes.
Storm clouds of spring give way to fat chubby cumulus clouds
And you notice that the words in your daybook hide your cares and free fall through blue skies.
As June’s days wane, your words ride mare’s tales across the horizon.
New landscapes emerge in June, in the planned structure of gardens and in surprise-filled fields of
The words in your daybook dot the landscape of June.
You welcome, no, you need, the promise of birds in June.
You build and you fill feeders and delight that feathered friends choose your habitat to visit.
In your daybook, you write: “June 15th –a pair of cardinals seem to be warming up to me.
Still skittish, they abide my presence today…” In June, the songbirds balance your busy life.
Your June daybook memories recall moonless nights on a northern lake where lights from thousands of stars
illuminate the tree-line across the lake, and you, in a small boat, are enveloped in a warm summer night.
In your daybook you note how once in a while on these moonless nights, a shooting star would stream across
the sky, adding some movement to what seemed like a magnificent painting of the night sky.
Your only hint, you write, of the world we live in, is a few slow-moving satellites sneaking through the stars.
And, you marvel that you are not sure how it is that you are so fortunate to be out in this small boat listening
to the water gently slap its sides, and gazing up at a night sky so beautiful that it reaffirms your belief that
the best of this life cannot be earned, but is given freely to those who watch closely.
Yes, you write, if you love the outdoors, you find reasons to be out there.
And June is a good enough reason.
July is sluggish in summer’s heat
Sun takes over the land
Grass withers and browns beneath our feet
Cats and dogs lie limp on the porch
And children toasted and tired
From long hours of play
Reluctantly wave goodbye
And run toward Mamma’s cooling treats
Flags wave across the sky
Banners of our freedom
Moon looks down upon us all
Smiles and closes another day
With a satisfied sigh.
Strong, full of fire,
August roars in.
The sun mercilessly beats down
On the sun-baked people,
Whose souls are truly touched
By the burning warmth.
The heat’s only reprieve is
the afternoon rumbling
Of thunder and rain.
The blue quickly covers the sky
Again when lazy, puffy
Clouds float toward the evening.
The parched grasses steam in
Relief as the afternoon rain passes.
The dewy moisture evaporates
Quickly as the sun takes back
Dogs dig in the dirt scrounging
For the cooling moisture the
A somnolent twitch of
the ears or flick of the tail
Urges nosy flies on
The only creatures truly
Active in this month are
the insects: flies, mosquitoes,
Moths, dragonflies, ants
Immune to the heat, they
Go about their business of
The stillness of a summer day gives way to season’s change,
When once again the wind returns to chase the summer heat.
The ducks come by again and pause to rest along their way,
Following the sun to where the land is still at play.
Grassy fields of golden hay dance the winter in.
The sun grows cool and chills the air as evening comes too soon.
And when the air begins to move, the forest sings again
And animals fuss about their nests beneath a sanguine moon.
New flowers bloom, their colors bright, but overnight they fade,
Like stars against the darkened sky give way to light of day.
The forest fills with orange and gold, the air is filled with leaves.
That plant their seeds within the earth until the rains of spring.
It’s fall and all across the land the earth lies down to spend
A winter waiting for the spring to bring it life again.
Once I heard one wizened say “nothing…nothing gold can stay”
Another described what’s best – Time, Friendship, or Emotion-
By sighing wistfully “Ahhhh! It was golden”
Which only goes to verify the all-too-truly-true
Nothing-gold-can-stay Frostian and philosophic notion.
But then we have October turning…returning…
Revisiting earth with rolling gold a’golden…
A thousand gilded gourds and glistening maple leaves
Pilgrim geese V o’er grateful farmers -gathering ripened ears and sweetened bales
As once they harvested in ancient Autumns olden .
Samhain in mystic smoke billows up the sky from ritual
While Nature’s flames burst harvest homeward
Amid green leaf and scarlet berry whilst wanton elements
Fire and Earth and Air and Water shift shapes and
Crisp footed old Jack frost sweeps o’er morning meadows
Call All Souls for October’s closing to come forth to make our mischief merry!
Signals the year is tired and old
Tree stand bear, with no protection
Tiny rabbits scurry and cuddle
Ashes from last night’s fire grow cold
We need a spark to perk us up!
From winter’s dark depression
Inter family gathered ‘round
Table bearing tradition
Our stories fill the evening hours
And send us off to happy dreams
And restful sleep
Under Mamma’s loving quilt.
December delights in delivering closure on another year of life’s blessings. It invites the cold of winter to nestle just outside the warm circle around the fireplace. The cold teases our toes and tickles our nose—like the gentle kiss of an Eskimo. We begin getting used to layered clothing, wool socks, and warm scarves when we leave our abodes. Birds have said their goodbyes. Forest animals are moving, busy, busy, busy before harsh weather moves in. Pets are allowed inside to make a bed for cozy nights, tucking themselves beside the ones they love. Eyes of young and old begin to dance as the season’s sparkles tantalize. God sends gifts of time with family, memories of those not with us, and promises that our hope is not in vain.