Undergraduate Taj Hittenberger Awarded 2016 Art of Writing Prize

Student Essay Awards

The Inaugural Art of Writing Undergraduate Essay Contest was held in Spring 2016. Because it is a central principle of the program that thoughtful revision is essential to good writing, students were asked to submit the final draft of an essay alongside an earlier draft, with a reasoned account of the revisions they made.

The winner was Taj Hittenberger, a student in Conservation & Resource Studies. As an avid writer, photographer, and naturalist, Hittenberger is interested in cultivating people’s stewardship of and connection to place. He founded the project Bioregional Orientation, which offers naturalist and creative writing workshops around his home of Sonoma County, California.

In his writer’s statement, Hittenberger explains the revision process behind his winning essay:

“Initially based on a poem about collecting yarrow on the Sonoma coast, just south of the Russian Rivermouth, this narrative quickly transformed into a story about the familial bonds to an entire watershed, and an ecological and psychological account that illuminates the far-reaching effects of staying and caring for our places.”

The rough draft, rich in its own right, presented a handful of useful descriptions of the regional landscape and hydrology, yet ultimately lacked a clear conceptual direction.

As the excerpt below suggests, Hittenberger’s polished final version approaches the environment with incisive description and a restrained reverence:

When the winter rains return to the North Coast, and a tall sandbar stands between the river and the Pacific Ocean, the entire watershed funnels down, forming a lake at the mouth of the river.

Here lies the town of Jenner, a small coastal community tucked in a corner between the riverbank, ocean, and rising headlands.

It’s a pleasant surprise to learn that this part of the coast still boasts a pair of bald eagles who, despite having every good reason, have not abandoned their nest. They’re seen most readily in the early morning, quietly soaring up and down the beach. Their approach is marked by the frenzy of chirps and squawks and then a frozen silence.

To read Hittenberger’s final essay in its entirety, please visit “As the Rivermouth Breaks” (.pdf).