Texas Tech University

On National Parks Centennial, Sowell Family Collection Brings Nature to You

Glenys Young

October 13, 2016

Sowell Collection

Texas Tech’s nature-writing archive unites highly acclaimed authors and their works.


How far away do you have to go to find nature?

It's an interesting question with many possible answers. Even if you want to look only at places the National Park Service has designated, you have plenty of options. Within a four-hour drive of Lubbock, you could see the magnificent caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the red bluffs of the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument or the majestic wilderness of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Within five hours, you could see the dome of the long-extinct Capulin Volcano, hike through 150 miles of Big Bend or travel the same trail used by prospective miners during the Gold Rush.

As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday, it's worth noting that more than 30 national parks, monuments, trails, historic sites, memorials, preserves, recreation areas and one national seashore are within eight hours of Lubbock.


But you don't have to go that far. Thanks to the James Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World, you can find more nature than you probably imagined at Texas Tech University.

"Our national parks offer so many opportunities for us to learn about our country's varied ecosystems, and for many of us, they are places where we go to enjoy the natural environment," said Diane Warner, librarian for the Sowell Family Collection. "Many of the Sowell Collection writers have written extensively on the natural world, from the polar regions to the deserts of Arizona. Their descriptions of the animals and plants encountered in these different regions give readers a greater understanding of the importance of wilderness and protected wilderness areas for our country's future."

The Sowell Family Collection

The collection contains the personal papers of some of the country's most prominent American writers on the natural world. With drafts of novels, essays and poems; copies of the published pieces; personal and business correspondence; the journals and diaries many writers kept from their early years; photographs pertaining to their work or their personal lives; computer files; audio recordings and films, it's truly a comprehensive assortment.


It all began in 1998, said Kurt Caswell, director of the Honors College's environment and the humanities program. A small group of Texas Tech faculty and administrators were excited after reading the book "Consilience" by Edward O. Wilson, who promoted bringing together the sciences and the humanities. The group's excitement spread to Texas Tech alumnus Jim Sowell, who was chairman of the Board of Regents at the time and a major donor to the university. He vowed that if Texas Tech could bring together the papers of a group of writers who took care with both science and humanities and who cared about the natural world as much as about human communities, he would support the project. Because no other university was assembling a similar collection, Texas Tech had the opportunity to be both the first and the best.

Texas Tech reached out to National Book Award-winning writer Barry Lopez, whose inspirational papers could anchor the collection. Lopez was initially unsure, so Texas Tech asked others – William Kittredge, Annick Smith, David Quammen and Pattiann Rogers all said the same thing: they would join if Lopez did.


After a visit to the campus, a tour of the university's state-of-the-art archival resources in the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library and a meeting with Jim Sowell, Lopez signed on and the Sowell Collection was born.

"From the very start, I felt that this was going to be the best collection of its type in the world – exactly what the people who started the collection hoped for and intended. And I think it is," said rare book dealer Ken Lopez, who helped Texas Tech acquire many of the papers in the collection. "There's no focused collection I can think of that covers this kind of material and this kind of literature as well as it is covered in the Sowell Collection. And I've always thought that's been true, practically from the inception of the collection.

"For Barry, it was important to have a woman in the first group, and Pattiann was especially important because she is a poet and could in no way be mistaken for a 'nature writer,'" he added. "It was very important, early on, to establish this was not some sort of nature writers' ghetto, but an inclusive collection of literature rooted in both community and in understanding and exploring our place in the natural world."

Eighteen years later, it has grown significantly. From those initial five writers, the collection has expanded to include works from more than 20 writers, such as Gretel Ehrlich's travels with native hunters in Greenland, Rick Bass's award-winning fiction and David James Duncan's works on environmental issues, spiritual problems and fly-fishing. There also are supporting collections, including the Orion Society Audio Visual Collection.

"I think having this collection here exemplifies Texas Tech's commitment to being a top research facility in the humanities as well as in the sciences and technology," Warner said. "The writers' topics or themes can be summarized in the collection's name: their writing has great literary merit; many have won national awards for their work; they share a vision of a global community and family; and they often write about things happening in nature, in the natural world."


Part of that sense of community is embodied between the writers, not just in their works.

"When I talk to students here at Texas Tech, I like to point out that the writers in the Sowell Collection have strong personal and professional relationships," Warner said. "They know each other, so it's not a random collection of major American writers; it's a group of people who write to each other, meet and travel together, comment, critique and praise each other's work."

The works of Pushcart Prize-winner Lisa Couturier are the most recent additions to the collection.

"It's a huge honor to be a part of this group of writers," Couturier said. "In all my life I never thought I'd be a part of something like this. I didn't have a chance to go to those writers' retreats where a lot of writers go; you know, a month away from it all to think and write. I've always had my children to tend to and now my horses. So to be included in the Sowell Collection is, well, a dream I'm still dreaming."

Nature writing

The importance of nature writing, Couturier said, depends upon how it's defined.

"If you define it in the old way – men going out on adventures and such, or even as Thoreau in his little cabin, a man in his woods, and Emerson, too – I think that view is limiting," Couturier said, "especially now as the field has long been growing to include women and minorities and their lives and thoughts that are so different from those of Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs and Emerson."

Warner agreed the genre is growing in diversity.

"Nature writing as we have collected here at Texas Tech includes poetry as well as prose, fiction and essays based upon specific scientific research," Warner said. "The importance of any individual piece comes from the author's ability to make what may be complicated facts and relationships come alive for the reader. The best work adds to our knowledge of the world and our ability to appreciate and value the great variety of organisms that exist alongside us."

Couturier added it's not just about the animals and plants around us.

"It's funny, when someone says nature writer, I am quick to point out that nature writing includes humans, too," Couturier said. "In that way, nature writing is about the world and not just about what's outside, such as the woods or the fields, but what's inside us as well and how those sides of us interact and grow and change and become. I think the collection contains writings about the communities we all live in.

"My entire life has been lived in the megalopolis that is the Northeast Corridor – from Washington, D.C., to New York City to Boston, and I have lived in all three cities. You can see, then, that nature to me includes these vast human landscapes. In this way, it's probably the case that my work reflects a more urban viewpoint. But that's what's so wonderful about the Sowell Collection: there is an inclusiveness of different writers and our different natures – rural and urban, human and nonhumans."

Despite its status as the most acclaimed 18-year-old on campus, the collection is not as widely known as Warner would like, particularly outside the nature writing community.

"I think the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service is a good time to introduce the Sowell Collection to a wider audience: the values that precipitated the creation of the National Park Service are the same values the Sowell Collection embodies: respect for the natural world and our place in it, and a responsibility for caretaking it not just for ourselves but for future generations," Ken Lopez said. "In the widest sense, the community that is referred to in the Sowell Collection's formal name is not just a community that crosses national boundaries but one that also exists through time. Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau are part of that community, and countless unknown, unborn children of the future will be part of it, too."

Getting the word out

To introduce the collection to a wider audience, Warner gives two or three presentations about it each semester and collaborates with Caswell and his students in environment and the humanities (EVHM) courses, as well as a few other professors on campus.

Caswell said the collection is a major focus of one specific class he teaches: EVHM 3306 – Reading from the Archives, where students focus their work on three or four writers in the collection.

"The collection is immensely important for the students in the course because, through it, they track the life and work of a writer and experience first-hand the kind of investment required to write an essay, a story, a poem, a book," Caswell said. "The collection demystifies the work of a writer and reveals that one of his or her primary assets is not talent, but hard work. Talent is problematic because you have to be born with it, and in our culture we idolize people who are 'born special.' But hard work is available to anyone, and that, more than anything else, is a pathway to achieving personal goals. Not all students in the class want to be writers, but they may apply this simple concept to any chosen field."

A bonus is that after students study the writers, they get to meet them in person at the annual spring conference Warner organizes.

"I have found the collection is a strange territory when students first begin to work with it, but it becomes a treasure chest by the end of the semester," Caswell said. "Students come to know the writer through their published work, through their papers in the collection, through their own writing process and in meeting these people at the conference."

Warner said that's one of the ways the Sowell Collection is unique.

"This is really unheard of for most conferences," she explained. "Usually the keynote speakers come in for their talk, sign some books and leave. Our speakers interact with the audience – primarily Texas Tech students – throughout the entire conference. It's amazing."

Warner also sponsors an essay contest in which a small monetary prize goes to the two students who write the best essays about a writer in the collection.

"As a librarian responsible for this collection, I realize its influence is limited by how many people use it today," Warner said. "The people whose work is included in this collection are writing about, considering and researching, some of the major problems we face today, such as climate change, respect for other cultures, the social consequences of disease and disease transmission."

Couturier said her papers tend to focus on animals. Even while working in women's magazine publishing in New York City, she frequently asked to cover animal-related topics, such as the tuna fishing industry's harmful effects on dolphins.

"I wanted those women readers to be treated as the intelligent, curious, empathic people I knew them to be, and I wanted them to read about animals and the hardships they were facing, and still are facing, around the world," Couturier said. "Now, of course, I no longer work in the magazine industry, but I hope my essays and poems reach out in the same way: to be a voice for the voiceless. I think the collection as a whole speaks in this way – whether that be for the landscape, the oceans, the animals, the people, what have you. Nature is the community we live in, the nonhuman and the human, together. Though I think surely the nonhuman could live without us, we could not live without them. I think the Sowell Collection speaks to this interdependence."

Because that interdependence colors our understanding of the world, Ken Lopez said the collection is incredibly important, and he's proud to be associated with it.

"There is no other collection I know of that is so clearly focused on such basic beliefs and values as those concerning our place in nature and the role of our human societies in protecting our environment and safeguarding it for the future," Ken Lopez said. "The Sowell Collection writers all have those concerns intertwined throughout their writings, and their work ennobles all of us, I think."

The writings hit readers in a very visceral way, Couturier added.

"When I read their work, there is a physical response in the body. A punch to the gut, if you want," Couturier said. "You don't often get that sort of reaction from reading about the beauty of, say, a mountain, as beautiful as mountains are, of course. You get that bodily response because something someone has written has touched a deep place in you. Maybe what you've just read occurred on a mountain, but it was the emotional forest that resonated in you. You know it. We've all felt it. If you want to feel this consistently, read the writers in this collection. They take you to the real places, inside and outside and inside."

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