The Cumberland River Compact and SLANT (Student Literary Artists of Nashville, TN) are excited to publish six pieces of original creative writing from our 2020 Notes on Nature competition. Over 90 students submitted work to the inaugural competition. Each student completed one of four nature investigations and then used a writing prompt to guide their writing. A group of experts writers and scientists reviewed the work and selected six winners and ten honorable mentions.
Congratulations to this year’s winners!
Camden Andrade, 9th grade, Nashville School of the Arts
Elsie Spivey, 11th grade, Hillsboro High School
Vince Miller, 10th grade, Nashville School of the Arts
Camaya Keaton, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
Kevin Marsh, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
Oliver Sjoblom, 11th grade, Nashville School of the Arts
You can read their original writing at the end of this post.
- Avery Gardner, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
- Ethan Hemmelgarn, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
- Kynadie Adams, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
- Rose McCaslin, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
- Abigail Holland, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
- Joseph Pate, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
- Nyla Joi Spencer, 10th grade, Nashville School of the Arts
- Riley Smith, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
- Eli Hunter, 9th grade, Nashville School of the Arts
- Carter Naylor, 11th grade, Pope John Paul II High School
Read the Winner’s Writing
The Whispering Tree
I’ve always envied birds. Their wordless songs and their fluttering wings. They chirp their greetings around my head, before soaring high above to a place I can’t reach. My mother can’t stand to open a window for fear of hearing their singing mix with some far more haunting sound, so she can’t see me as I creep softly across the wet grass in the fog of the morning. She won’t notice I’m gone for some time and I doubt the forest will let her in now, it never has before.
My fingers brush the soft pine fronds, so unlike the needled ones further into the forest where my brother disappeared. Have you heard the story of the whispering tree? I have. Throughout our lives my brother and I have consumed more history of the many worlds beyond vision than we have of this one, the silvery happenings of the night spooned into our mouths by Grandfather’s soft and husky voice. The legend I heard almost every night is all I have left of my brother.
The story’s instructions were not very clear, no matter how many times I heard them: “You can’t just find the whispering tree on any day at any time in any forest. No, it is said only the spirits can choose to let you pass and even then, everything has to distort in just the right way.” What Grandfather meant, or what anyone meant in those sorts of tales, I don’t know. Legends aren’t usually very specific. My mother always said it’s because they are made up, but my brother insisted, as Grandfather had, that it was because they’d been around so long. They’d been worn down to the bones and the world was getting smaller, forcing the magic to hide in unexpected places. Grandfather told us only certain people could find the whispering tree, as my mother turned up her nose. It was a tree that held our ancestors’ voices and all our past stories – a tree that knew everything that happened since it had come to exist millennia ago when the earth was new. It could answer any question.
I guess my brother was one of those certain people, though my mother would say I’m dishonoring his memory with a child’s tales.
“Then how do you explain the music?” I’d counter. And she’d get all red and tell me I’m foolish, that she always thought I was the sensible one. I am foolish – foolish for not stopping the music from creeping its way into our little brown house, cat-footed in the night, haunting, hypnotizing. I couldn’t in the million years I don’t have connect that wind beckoning through the trees to a beat or anything a human could hope to replicate. The ghostly notes of a low voice calling out through the otherwise unsettlingly quiet air. A deep whisper.
No, I didn’t stop the frighteningly beautiful sound. I stood there, clutching the doorway as the noise vibrated though our little home and out into the world. I stood there frozen, unmoving against the melody that rippled and babbled like a creek, washing everything that wasn’t rooted to the ground away. My brother was gone before I had the chance to thaw.
There was a part of that song, that calling, that had always been at his heels even before that night. He already had that invisible hum deep inside him from the moment he came to us. I never noticed for it was all I’d known, but I know others did. They could see it in the way the weeping willow by the climbing rocks reached out towards him protectively. My mother, even though she’ll deny it, saw it every morning when the flowers by his window doubled in size overnight and even after she took them away the wind would blow open our windows at night and vines grew up the side of the house where his room was. Grandfather saw when he took us to the river and watched in awe as the minnows and even a few larger fish, their silver bodies sending rainbows dancing into our eyes, gathered at my brothers’ feet. And me, I saw when he’d stare out into the rain, his eyes full of something strange and not of this manmade world. I saw it when the music finally came and took him away. And I saw when the trees shut my mother out as she tried to follow.
I never was able to find out the reason for the hums existence or why it scared Mother so much, but one long winter night I caught her and Grandfather talking in hushed voices after I was meant to be in bed. They mumbled, too softly to be heard, until Mother exploded, raising her arms like a roaring fire jumping into the air after being fed one to many logs. She said it was Grandfathers fault for telling us the stories and bringing the illness upon us. Grandfather insisted it was a gift but before I could hear more my small feet creaked on the floor and I had to rush away before I was discovered.
It’s been nearly four months since I last saw my brother, but time slowed and stretched after he left till it seemed years had passed in his absence.
Now, I see the green sunlit world in harmony around me, singing, but not quite like that voice. Never have I heard something like that in all my life twice. If I succeed today however, I will. I’m reminded how short my time here has been as I step past an ancient oak that reaches up higher than any building I have ever seen, its spindly uppermost limbs grasping at the sky with greedy hands. Many more trees reach out to me as I walk among them, their faces coming to the surface of the bark to watch me with their somber unlit eyes. The whispering tree might not want to be found, but if it means I might get to laugh with him again, I’ll get lost here several times over. After all, the best way to find something lost, Grandfather would tell me, is to get lost yourself.
I’ve lived beside this endless forest all my life but have never ventured deep enough to where I couldn’t see the way out for fear of losing myself, only now that’s my goal. As I push deeper into the unknown, the tall pines grow closer and closer together till I’m dodging around them, scratching my arms and getting leaves woven into my dark hair. The birds get louder and louder and then, as if under a spell, the noise distances itself from me and it feels like I’ve plunged underwater. Slowly sinking deeper. Everything gets really quiet. That quiet expands, growing larger and larger-quieter and quieter till my ears start to make up sounds. The air grows crisp and cold as the trees make way for the mass of open space now ahead of me. I cup my hands and scream into the expanse.
Some faint yet unmistakable sound prickles at the other side of the field so I run, the ghosts of flowers brushing at my ankles in a sort of warning. I don’t stop. The ground seems paper thin beneath my red hiking boots, like I’ll fall through at any moment but there’s no use in turning back now.
I step towards the opposite tree line and goosebumps cover my arms when I hear the sound. The trees bend and sway to the otherworldly tune, their bodies tall and smooth like ivory. Back home they were textured and good for climbing. Here the trees look like people, talking, laughing, too tall to notice me and my intrusion on their world. I can’t interrupt their song. So, I walk carefully among them, peeking around every limb for the source of the noise, the way to the whispering tree, the way to my brother.
Whoosh I cover my head as leaves and flowers fall like rain in a thousand shades of pink, yellow, and red. The music remains distant, and the trees keep up their performance far behind me. I wonder, am I the first to see them or did my brother come this way? Just ahead is my destination, a small tree withered with age, its bows raised to the sunlight that peeks through the swallowing canopy above. It’s a willow just like the one at home only much older with silver strands hung between branches like a spider’s web.
My legs start to weaken, and my shoulders start to fall till I’m on the ground at the little trees’ feet, breathing in the sweet aroma from the small white and translucent flowers blooming in the shade of all that has happened and all that’s remembered. Grandfather called them ghost flowers; he says when they light up at night, they guide spirits between worlds. My head gets heavy. I let it fall into the trees soft welcoming arms. The bows seem to cradle me as they whisper little secrets, little moments, and finally when all I can hear is the song in the trees, the answer I came for.
A Mile into the Forest
I was a mile into the forest when I saw it. All morning, I had trekked through the undergrowth, thorns tangling at my feet, the smells of dirt and greenness and decay wafting up my nostrils as I let the trees further and further embrace me, smells that never let up. The pungent smell of a skunk had assaulted my nose a little while back, but thankfully all I had seen of the animal was its fleeing, black-and-white back. Yet I had also passed flowers, and had been tempted to stay and let their aroma float over me. However, that was not the job I had come to do.
The forest, however deep I wandered into it, did not appear to be darker, only greener as more and more sunlight became filtered by leaves or needles. The greenery around me had been stunning, vines twisting around the trunks of trees, all kinds of leaves fanning out above me, the odd, plaster-white mushroom sprouting up beneath my feet. None of them matched the sight that met my eyes when I finally arrived at the place a mile into the forest.
When I saw it, I became the only silent thing in the forest. The birds sang their melodies, whether they be lilting or harsh, they sang them. The crickets and cicadas chirped and hummed, demanding their presence be known. The occasional fly or mosquito buzzed around my ears, but I remained silent.
My hand rested uneasily on the axe I was holding. It was hard to forget why I was there.
The tree in front of me was enormous. Its trunk was firm and thick. Tangles of roots were splayed out, woven between each other like waves of an ocean, beneath my feet. Ants in single file lines marched through patches of fuzzy, pine-colored moss, into their hills, which nested inside the roots. Flies accompanied them, though the only sign of decay on the vast expanse of the oak tree in front of me was a branch high above me, its leaves brown and wilted, that had likely in the last storm fallen from its place and into the arms of its still-green brethren. The broken nutshells sat decomposing at my feet as well, a gift from the rodents above. A nest rested between two of the thickest branches, well shaded under the canopy of dark green leaves that, to the viewer below, seemed to glow as beams of sunshine popped through in rhythm with the twisting of the wind. A tangle of fine, glossy thread on a nearby knot suggested a spider, a spray of clover on the ground suggested a rabbit, and a hoofprint beside my foot suggested a doe.
My own footprints suggested an intruder. From far away, the task ahead of me had seemed so easy. Long ago, a box had been buried beside that tree, but it had been hundreds of years since then. The tree had grown around the box, but now it was necessary to retrieve it. Inside, there had been a message forgotten to time. Now, I had been told it was crucial that we know. I had been hired for a single job, yet now as I stood there among the beautiful, twisted,
knotted, roots and trunk, under the leafy green canopy that had shaded this place and given refuge to all creatures for centuries, my legs became weak. I looked up at one of the leaves that was glowing like a gem in the sunlight. Once that leaf left the branch, I knew that it would be a gem no more.
The oak was stronger than I was, and for the first time I understood why our ancestors had associated it with thunder. What would we gain in killing this magnificent living thing? A piece of knowledge we might already have? Something that was never meant to see the light again, that we would forever regret unveiling? A sentence we would never be able to begin to translate? From far away, it had seemed like such an easy task: to bring to light another secret, to illuminate the past. Now that I saw it up close, I was afraid to pluck even the smallest leaf from its branches for the fear of ruining the exquisite painting someone had thrust before my eyes.
Maybe that was why I couldn’t look away.
I lowered my axe, resting it on a nearby stump. I reached to the ground and grabbed a single acorn. I would not do it, I decided, but someone else would come, and I would have to hope that they would be as marveled as me. If not…
I fingered the acorn, smiled, then slipped it into my pocket.
Descent into the Forest of the Black Heart
It was under the shadow of the moon and the disguise of a cloak when he, the voyager, descended into the depths of Ravensworth’s Forest of the Black Heart. He had a clear goal to seize the Fléau, a mystical rose that everyone with common sense avoided. Century-old scrolls and tomes warned of who the rose belonged to, and the destruction he caused. However, it was because of these texts that the voyager wished to find the cursed flower. Anyone who asked why he wanted it would get a different answer. “I wish to destroy it.” “I wish to change its location.” “I wish to lock it away.” The voyager learned that giving people the answer they wanted to hear was the best answer he could give.
Snap! The voyager winced as he heard the splitting of the twig under his feet. It took a lot to make him nervous, but this forest was doing the trick. The towering trees, the spongy ground, and fallen leaves all seemed to sing an eerie opera into the air. Every time he stepped on a stick, his heart rate jumped.
After nearly an hour of looking behind himself, staring at the full moon, and reviewing his map, the voyager took a sharp breath as he found it– an ornamental tombstone, almost as tall as he was. Dimly lit, thin candles surrounded the tombstone in an uncannily organized fashion. The crumpled leaves that were so prevalent everywhere else were cleared away, as if to draw attention to the tombstone. The voyager shivered as he heard a group of bats shriek above him. He didn’t even need to look at his map, he knew he was in the right place. Fléau lay at the top of the memorial. He read the epitaph aloud.
“Sylvester Von Renouard. 1004–1226. ‘While a gleam can pierce the night, it is the darkness that surrounds it.’”
The voyager recited his forbidden incantation with precision and clear words and prayed that this wasn’t his last mistake. As he finished, the candles erupted in light, illuminating the forest with a ghostly glare. The rose floated in the air unnaturally, and the tombstone rumbled. As the ground cracked underneath the voyager’s feet, he smiled darkly. He was prepared for anything the rose’s owner could throw at him.
Crack! A bolt of lightning destroyed the cloudless sky and blinded the voyager, knocking him to the ground. When he regained his sight, a tall, limber man stood atop the grave, Fléau in hand. When the lightning died down, the traveler could make out the man’s ghostly, pointy face, spiked hair resembling a bat’s ears, elaborate purple suit, and red-tinted eyes. Sylvester Von Renouard was a vampire, and he had returned to the Earthly realm.
“Good evening,” said Sylvester, with a thick British accent, as he took on a leisurely stance. “It’s a pleasant night, hm? There’s a slight breeze. And there are crumpled leaves, just as I remember.” He looked down at the voyager. “I suppose I have you to thank for reviving me?”
The voyager removed his hood with a grin, revealing long, brown hair and a youthful face with an atypical marking around his unusually icy gray eyes. “That’s right. You can call me Ghost.”
“Hmm,” sighed the vampire with a soft smile. “I can tell by your voice that you’re not from around here, Ghost.”
“I live far, far away,” he laughed.
Sylvester crossed his arms. “Let us cut to the chase. I assume you’ve brought me back to life for a reason, no?”
“That’s right. All I ask for is for you to stay in your castle, and if a teenaged boy with glasses comes by, and he refuses to speak,” Ghost’s fists clenched, “I ask that you kill him.”
As Sylvester stepped off his tombstone, Ghost held his ground, but noticed that the vampire was a good deal taller than he was and was looking agitated.
“I am grateful for your efforts in reviving me. But do not mistake me for your servant. I do have a tendency to draw the line at murdering children.”
“And do not mistake me,” Ghost’s voice raised, “as someone you can intimidate into changing my mind. If you want your revival to be anything more significant than my taking another breath, you will kill that boy.”
Sylvester scowled. “What has this boy done to you to make you wish him dead?”
Ghost looked at the stars. They were far brighter than where he came from. “There’s no other choice.”
The vampire let out a scoffing laugh. “You’ll have to give me a better reason than that.”
Ghost viciously snatched Fléau out of Sylvester’s hand at unnatural speed and vaporized it into tiny red blocks, as if the plant was made of glass. His eyes almost seemed to burn with rage. “I think you better get to your castle,” his voice shook inhumanly, “before I do something that’ll really scare you.”
Sylvester backed away slowly, wondering who the supernatural threat in this forest was supposed to be. Reluctantly, he agreed to Ghost’s plans, and flew gracefully into the clouds.
Smiling demonically, Ghost looked at where Sylvester vanished out of sight. His plan was nearing a conclusion. That terrible boy would be nothing but a memory before long. Seeing as his work was finished, he made arrangements to go back to his residence.
As the rain touches the window
The drops expand into miniature drops
A dull day that makes one move slow
The sun is not present so nature does not pop
The ground is muddy
A vividly dark brown
the grass and leaves
Are the dullest of greens
A time of reflection
Where one can find out what their life means
The moist air and the smell of adventure
The rain is ready if you are
Coming in with great numbers
Sometimes with lightning and thunder
Adults run to get out of the rain
Children can play in it all day
With a raincoat, boots, and an imagination
Rain can take you anywhere on the planet
The most valuable thing for human life
Comes in a tiny drop
The farmer smiles for his crops
Plants dance at the sight of precipitation
Because they’re getting replenished that day
The rivers, the oceans, and the lakes
Welcome the new waters for their stay
An ongoing cycle
Water evaporates from water sources
Then comes down as rain
The ecosystem celebrates
The water plants, and earth’s water sources sing
All receiving refills
They can distribute out to all the living things
To drink, animals and beings
to stay, alive plants
and make food for animals, humans, and even the ants
The desert areas are surprised
For one of its peppering visits
Accompanied by the pleasant gift of rain
Like in Iquique, Chile where there was no rain for 14 years
So the ecosystem there has to manage off of stored water
The rainforest areas are used to it
The abundant days filled with rain
The gift that allows the world to maintain life
Comes in petite drops from day to night
A Trunk and her Leaves
In a forest there is a giant tree
This tree sits there overlooking the rest of the forest
However, this tree doesn’t have just one spirit
Two spirits reside inside this guardian
The first resident is the trunk
She is robust and tough
But she is also defenseless against the elements around her
The elements that plummet from the sky
Then there is the leaves and branches
Which united is one soul, the trunk’s partner
Though he seemed frail and helpless
He protected the trunk as much as the trunk protected him
When rain began to pour upon the forest
And the trunk began to fright
The defensive leaves would always announce,
“Do not worry, I will protect you always”
Likewise, when attacks came from below
And the leaves feared for his life
The sturdy trunk often reminded him,
“It is okay, they cannot reach you as long as I am by your side”
In the fall and winter the leaves would fall
And the trunk became lonely
And she would go silent without her other half
But the leaves would always return to protect her
Bijou and the Ginseng Plant
It always seemed funny to Bijou that books said the forest was quiet. It did not seem quiet to her right now. The birds, frogs, and crickets sang their songs loudly in her ears as she continued to scavenge through the brush. Her hands were now caked in mud from the ground and blood from the thorns that tore away at her skin. As much as her hands hurt, as tired as she was from running around all night, Bijou could not stop. Not yet. Her sister was more important than a couple of cuts.
Bijou loved her little sister, more than anything in the world. And although her sister was a little smaller, a little weaker, and a little less energized, she still wanted to do what everyone else did. Sadly, though, this was not a possibility for her right now. Her sister had grown sick, barely being able to sit up in their bed to drink a sip of water. The town doctor said there was nothing he could do, except to ease the pain in her stomach that kept her up all night. Sadly, Bijou didn’t even have the money to pay him for that. So, night after night, she laid in bed next to her sister, and her heart hurt as she heard the pain her sister was in.
A small glimmer of hope came, though, from the kind old lady who lived just a few blocks away. Her name was Liu. Everyone knew her, and she knew everyone. Liu was wise and knew the ways of the world, and felt sympathy for the young girls, so she told Bijou of the one thing that might save her sister: Ginseng. It has been said to help heal those who are weak and ill, and all Bijou had to do was find it in the forest and make a tea. Liu told the girl that it hides itself well, so she must look carefully.
Liu stayed to care for Bijou’s sister while she went on the 2-day journey to the forest that laid miles out from her town. And now, 3 days later, she sat with her knees sinking into the moist dirt, her hands digging through plants that all seemed to blend together, and her heart pounding in her chest. The little, bright red buds have yet to appear to her. With each passing minute, her hope in finding it grew smaller and smaller.
Nevertheless, she continued. The moist, heavy air started to feel like heavy stones on her clothes. They dragged her down as she continued to climb up. Bijou was nearly at the highest point of the forest. In the center of the thick woods was a hill. It was not nearly high enough to be a mountain, but it still hovered above everything and was too steep for many to climb. Not for Bijou. A fire was raging in her soul, telling her to push forward even though her body begged her to stop for rest. She would not stop. She would not rest.
Her bloody hands grasped at the trees as she climbed further up, and she dug her toes into the earth to ground herself. She was almost there. Bijou could feel it in her bones that she was close. Even though the shrubs seemed to clear away the further up she got, she was confident that the Ginseng plant laid at the top, untouched. She climbed and climbed, her feet starting to give out with the rest of her body. She needed food, water, and sleep. No, she needed the Ginseng plant. Sleep was for when her mission was over.
As Bijou made her final step to the top, red attracted her eyes like a light in the dark. There it was. The Ginseng plants. She tried to run, but she collapsed, her body finally giving out. But she would not stop. She crawled until she made it, and dug her hands into the soft, fresh dirt and pulled out the ginseng root. It was beautiful. It was hope.
But it did not represent hope Bijou wanted.
Because when she finally made it back to her village, clothes dirty and wet, hair knotted, and body fatigued, her home stayed quiet. Quiet like the forest in books. Her beloved sister, her precious Meili, was gone.