Jeannie Ott Harsha grew up wandering the wilderness around Mancos Hill.
And she’s still wandering – and bringing her nature forays alive through poetry. The Mancos High School and Fort Lewis College graduate recently published her second book, “Wandering Off: Nature’s Notable Nourishments,” a collection of poetry alongside photos from her friend Tricia Nickerson.
“We’re both inspired by nature and we’re both healed by nature, so we just wanted to share that with others,” Harsha said.
Harsha grew up on 100 acres along Mancos Hill, with five brothers and one sister.
“We had this freedom to just wander,” she said.
Her parents brought them to the mountains every weekend, she said, and it was here that she learned to appreciate and love the natural world. Their father was a forester, and so she also learned the names and ways of animals and plants in the area.
“I really remember this awakening of wonder one time when my brother and I were sneaking up on the beaver pond at night, when we were out camping with the family,” Harsha said. “Seeing them, and they didn’t see us.”
After graduating from Mancos High School in 1972, she went on to Fort Lewis College. She and her husband worked for the National Park Service, which took them all around the country, before they ended up in California around Yosemite National Park, where she taught elementary school for over 25 years.
Harsha said she would always jot down poetry in a journal during outdoor ventures. But the thought of publishing her work never occurred to her until she took a creative writing class as a young adult, and the teacher encouraged her to share her poetry publicly.
“I sent something off, and it won second in a contest, and then I started getting things published here and there,” Harsha said. “It kind of surprised me, but it just went on from there.”
She published her first book, “But First, Can You Tie my Shoe?” in 2010, a collection of poems inspired by watching her two children grow up.
Her favorite type of poetry to write is free verse, allowing her thoughts to flow unrestrained. She will bend to a rhyme for her rhyme-loving husband, though, and enjoys practicing a limerick or couplet occasionally.
Her writing delves into nature-related themes of all sorts, and ranges from honing in on a quail or mountain stream, to larger, deeper conversations. One of her goals with poetry is to remind readers of the world’s beauty and inspire a shared appreciation for it, rather than “bashing heads.”
“We’re all a part of this incredible beauty, so let’s move forward together,” Ott said.
As a teacher at Oakhurst Elementary School, she also sought to inspire her second and third grade students with an appreciation for nature. She recalls one field trip when a few students – taking a break from leaf rubbings and turtle-watching – presented her with poems of their own, bringing tears to her eyes.
“This is my goal,” Harsha said. “To get them to appreciate nature at an early age, and just realize how nurturing it can be.”
About five years ago, she and her photographer friend Tricia Nickerson decided to collaborate and combine their respective talents.
“We’d get together once in a while, and say, ‘Oh so this poem fits this picture, but I need you to go take a picture of a marmot because I have this marmot poem,’” Harsha said. “Or she would say, ‘I really want to use this duck picture, so can you write a poem about a duck,’ or a great blue heron or something.”
Finally, they decided to publish their work. They found an eager publisher last June, and this past October, “Wandering Off: Nature’s Notable Nourishments” was published.
The photo-poetry pairing also can allow more people to access her writing, Harsha said.
“Any way you can bring more poetry to people,” she said. “If it’s through photography, then that’s great.”