I know there are quite a few poets who read my posts, and even more poetry lovers. I’m not a poet (I only write poems when I’m falling in love) but I am always looking for new poetry, in particular, poetry that grounds humans within the earth community, that connects humans to the rest of the natural order, that reminds humans that we exist as interconnected and interdependent creatures, not apart from the eco-systems of the planet, but integral to them. For lack of a better phrase at the moment, I’ll use nature poetry to include the work of a Mary Oliver, say, or a Michael Glaser, or a Joy Harjo.
The risk, however, of lumping nature poetry together is this: some nature poetry does in fact serve to make the connections of human to place, human to the rest of the earth community; some nature poetry does just the opposite.
I think the clearest way into this conversation is to borrow two quotes, one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the other from Edward O. Wilson.
Emerson, the leader of the 19th Century Transcendentalist Movement is considered a naturalist as well as essayist, and wrote a great deal about nature. But he was never quite of the natural order, seeing instead the natural world as the symbol of the divine (aka God).
Adopt the pace of nature, he wrote, Her secret is patience.
Emerson writes of nature as an entity of sorts, admirable yet distinct and separate from himself. To speak of nature as Her, sets up the distinction: there is Emerson (human) and there is Her (nature). I think of it as the we/they or we/it syndrome.
Compare this to Edward O. Wilson, naturalist and biologist, fondly known as the ant man. Wilson wrote his first novel, Anthill, at the age of eighty. Of Raff, his young protagonist, Wilson writes,
In time he understood that Nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists . . . within it.
Wilson places the human species well within the planetary eco-systems, and with Raff, continues to explore what it means to be one of, not apart from, and certainly not superior to.
I’m hoping that these radically different approaches will serve as the sound bites to introduce the conversation about nature poetry.
Consider this portion of Rebecca Baggett’s poem Testimony (for my daughters).
you to understand that you
are no more and no less necessary
than the brown recluse,
the ruby-throated hummingbird,
the humpback whale,
the profligate mimosa.
Baggett understands perfectly her human place within the natural order.
By contrast, consider this line from Mary Oliver’s poem Fall Song.
This I try to remember when time’s measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
By disconnecting the us (humans) from autumn, the risk is that we forget that we humans are autumn, participate in autumn, in different yet also in similar ways that the rest of creation participates. And the fact that we forget that, that we continue in our patterns and habits as though nothing has changed but the light and the temperature, serves to separate us from our proper place within the biosphere.
(It’s important – to me, anyway – that I redeem this particular poem. Mary Oliver also writes, in What Can I Say
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it and it will never end until all ends.
I am hoping you will notice here the care and intricacy with which Oliver weaves the human species into the web of all creation.
Why is this important?
I can think of a couple things right off the top. First, language is formative, it shapes us, shapes how we think and act. Language that serves to separate humankind from the rest of the biotic (and abiotic) world forms and shapes us as a species other than. When we are a species other than, we can do pretty much as we wish, and have.
That alone has implications in how we teach, how we think, how we behave, how we medicate, how we destroy.
Second, it raises for me, the issue of greening and sustainability, both of which have positive value, yet carry the illusion that our recycling efforts, and our products made from recycled things like plastic or glass, can in fact even begin to address the ecological crisis that is not only at our doorstep, but in our living rooms.
Here’s my take. Unless and until humans can even begin to fathom that we are an integral part of a vast, interconnected, interdependent and sacred living web of biotic and abiotic participants, we cannot yet begin to understand our role within the natural order.
Why start with poetry? I suppose I could start anywhere. If you were to peruse my older posts, you will find the same message. Language is formative; shapes the way we think. Our good deeds in the green world don’t even begin to address the trouble we’ve caused.
And yet . . . and yet. All that’s required of us is a change in perspective. It’s the source of our hope. It sounds so easy. But a change in focus, a change in perspective, has everything to do with healing of the earth community, and here’s the thing . . . that healing includes the humans.
What I am saying is that no healing is possible – of the earth community including ourselves – until we humans understand our place within and not external to . . . and certainly not superior to . . . the systemic health of the whole.
It’s not as though the humans get healthy first. Can’t happen.
This is what I believe. Diversity is healthy, and human diversity can only emerge from a healthy biodiversity. Social justice is good, and human social justice can only emerge from a healthy eco-justice. It’s the health of the earth community from which the health of its species, including the human species, can emerge. We’ve had it backwards for so long, yet it’s the only possible direction.
I choose poetry for this conversation because it sinks so deep within us. Unlike sound bite media, poetry is an enduring tribute to the human soul, and as such, to the soul of the earth community. So it matters whether the poetry we read serves to connect or disconnect the human reader from the living web of which s/he is an integral part.
The organization called The Center for the Arts serves the Sunapee Region of Central New Hampshire, and the organization’s newest “arm”, The Literary Arts Guild, held it’s first event Friday, May 4th. The venue was perfect, a gathering room in an old NH house, the deck of which overlooks Sunapee Harbor – would have been perfect, anyway, if it hadn’t been raining, and if the fog hadn’t obscured the water altogether. Still, it was a great night, of art, poetry, story telling, and music. Six poets were selected from a significantly wide field, whose poetry augmented the theme “Earth, Water, Wind, & Fire ~ The Elements of Spirit” and the artwork, which included both painted canvas and marble sculpture, served to heighten the theme as well. It was a particularly memorable evening for my musician husband Jim and me; I had been invited to offer the keynote talk, Jim, to accompany the talk with guitar and vocals. Eventually, we plan to recreate this partnership of Word and Music in order to film it, which video I’ll post on this site, but for the moment I hope you will be content with the talk itself and the barest of indicators of the music woven through, a hint for what’s to come.
In Half Moon Bay California lives an aging Cypress tree, old enough and weathered enough to have lost its lower branches to the gales coming in off the Pacific, leaving only nubs, the nubs themselves worn smooth by the years of wind and rain, perhaps even other tree-climbers, human and non-human both.
My then teenage daughter Heather introduced me to this magnificent testimony to age and beauty, to resilience, to generosity of habitat, and . . . above all, to its mystery. By that very mystery, a person like myself could stand at a distance from this magnificent tree – at one moment utterly appreciative yet separate – and at the next moment, one with the tree as I was once one with all trees, one with all life, the boundaries disappearing between that which we held in common, the tree and I – water, sunlight, stardust, dirt, and air, but even more – the resilience, the generosity, and – although I don’t necessarily attribute this to the Cypress – my own hope and a longing to find myself once again at home in this world, with purpose, with compassion, and at peace.
Here’s how it happened; Heather made me climb it. I was, at the time, fifty-three years old, and I already knew this was not going to be an adventure that my orthopedist would have been willing to sign off on. Yet, possessed of a cellular memory of my tree-climbing childhood, and still willing to embrace a challenge, I followed Heather up the tree.
I placed all my weight on the nubs of the fallen branches, climbing the tree like a ladder, and resting without apology or fear on the arms of what had lived and let go even before my own birth, three inch staubs I couldn’t know were there until I needed the next one, and mystery again – the mystery of the universe – the next one was always there. I’ll confess, though, just because I can participate in the mystery of so much that I don’t understand, doesn’t mean that I wasn’t scared witless. In fact, in telling the story later, my own peers made it pretty clear that they DID think I was witless.
Suddenly there was no Heather; she had disappeared into the uppermost boughs of the Cypress, and try as I might, I could see absolutely no way through. In a flash I knew intimately every one of my fifty-three years, because I had just seen them parade by. I couldn’t go up, and I couldn’t go down. I wondered how long I could stand there on three inch nubs, my arms wrapped as far around the Cypress as I could reach. In fact, being hypoglycemic, I wondered when I had last eaten, and if someone would might be kind enough to bring me dinner that night.
The canopy was clearly impenetrable, yet Heather had to be up there somewhere. She had assured me that the Cypress was altogether willing to
open its mystery, but apparently, something more was required of me. Like an adventuresome amoeba with its retractable pseudopods, I coaxed my limbs into doing things they would never attempt under any other circumstances. It grew very dark, no light above me, no light below. I snaked my way through the branches that formed the crown of the tree, negotiating perhaps six or eight feet of canopy. I am five feet eight, and there was canopy above me, canopy below. So impenetrable was this maize of a green so deep it was almost black, the silence was complete. I was frightened.
Suddenly the crown of my head poked through the last of the branches. At one moment the utter incomprehensible density of the Cypress canopy, at the next, the same blue sky above me as the sky I had abandoned when I took that first step up the tree, seemingly hours ago. My head broke through, and then my shoulders and torso, there was Heather, flat on her back, her fingers linked underneath her head. She was cradled by the branches as though she were in the arms of the universe. She was. I lay down beside her, shaking with fear and exhaustion, not believing for a moment that the branches would hold me in the way they were holding Heather, but they did. Of course they did!
Having suspended all notion of time, we lay there, secure in the arms of the Cyprus, and as solid as the earth which anchored its network of deep roots held tight.
We were bathed by the wind coming off the ocean, the same wind whose thermals brought the hawks, and gulls, and terns so close to us, that we could see the the interplay of their secondary and primary feathers from the underside. If they knew we were there – and I imagine they did – they paid us no heed; it seemed as though we could stroke their underbellies as they flew overhead.
Below us the swells of the Pacific rolled with the incoming tides and smashed against the coast line, sending spray skywards. When the orange rays of a now setting sun caught them just right, they looked like beads of rainbows before they dropped to caress our cheeks and arms, and then disappear.
We stayed until the sentinels of brown pelicans, one battalion close on the tails of the previous, pelicans heading for the rock of their namesake, to roost for the night. I didn’t want to leave that place, place of mystery, place of magic. Only then did I understand what had been required of me. To say yes to a live encounter. No matter how difficult, how inconvenient, how busy I was with my “real” work, all that was asked of me was the live encounter.
Earth, water, wind, and fire . . . That afternoon and early evening, I knew myself to be of one substance with the universe, distinct yet of one being. And because I know myself as a spiritual being, made of earth, water, wind, and fire – I am of them, and they are of me – I have come to name these the Elements of Spirit.
It may be that the book by which Joan introduced me was born on that day, because its foundational premise – and the foundational premise of everything I’ve written since – practically formed itself: humans cannot – I mean it’s not possible – humans cannot do the healing work on behalf of the earth community until we know ourselves to be of and intrinsic to the planetary eco-system(s), not outside them, and absolutely not endowed with human privilege and entitlement, which entitlement we tend to assume, as though we humans were the apex of all creation.
Jim Sings Made of Water
In 1988 Tom was the co-founder of an on-going annual ritual called the Patuxent River Wade-In. This was the unscientific and very popular response to a law-suit, brought against the state for its refusal to do the work of healing the Chesapeake. The Patuxent is one of the major rivers that feeds the Bay, and its degradation from chemical pollutants mirrors that of the great Chesapeake itself.
Picture this. On the second Sunday of every June, the people of Southern Maryland congregate at a spit of land called King’s Reach; they hold hands and wade into the River to the point where they can no longer see their feet. Whether they wade deeper or not, one year to the next, is a measure of the success or failure of the clean-up efforts.
June 2009 marked the twenty-second year of the Wade-In, and for Tom, the man who inspired the ever-evolving ritual, it was his last. Later that month Jim and I were among those who gathered with Tom in the living room of his old farmhouse to reflect on the event. Tom’s eyes focused slightly beyond us, eyes holding years of remembering. “For a brief moment,” he said softly, and to no one in particular, “a moment which might have lasted a lifetime, I could forget about the river.”
At that my head shot straight up. What did he mean? How could Tom forget about the river? We all knew what the river meant to Tom, and we knew that the Wade-In was the most significant ritual of his year. “When ritual is live and imbued with meaning,” he went on, “it makes me one with the river in such a way that I can forget about it. I lose awareness of the water itself for the sake of the . . .” he struggled for a word. “Communion, I guess. I couldn’t tell where I stopped and where the diatoms and the blue crabs began.”
As Tom found the words to describe the experience, he shared with those of us around the table that the ritual had dissolved the separation between himself and the river. “The separation is of the ego,” he said. To claim no memory of the distinction between self and river is to release the egoic piece to become one with the water, of one spirit.”
Not only are the elements in spiritual relationship with each other, but they are in spiritual relationship with every animate and inanimate life form that exists now, has existed previously, and that will exist in the future. When Oliver Wendell Holmes uttered his often quoted remark, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity,” this is what he’s talking about. If we humans could even begin to understand the simplicity on the other side of complexity, the simplicity of one body, one spirit, Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and all creation, animate and inanimate, we could not – it would not be possible – to inflict the damage we do. To pollute the air is to pollute our lungs. To pour toxic chemicals into our waters is to poison our blood. To remove whole mountaintops is to amputate our limbs. To eat food raised on antibiotics, growth hormones, and re-arranged genetic profiles is to degrade our very cellular structure.
Jim Sings Blue Green Hills
“Go inside a stone. That would be my way,” writes the poet Charles Simic. “I am happy to be a stone. Cool and quiet. Unperturbed.”
We are stone, formed and shaped in the crucible of the sun. Charles Simic shares with us what it means to say yes to the live encounter, and I want to say again what I said earlier. No matter how busy, how difficult, how inconvenient, how messy, all that is required of each of us is the live encounter within this creation, from our proper place as a part of – of the same wind, the same earth, the same water, the same fire – not outside, not of more privilege, not entitled, and certainly not imbued with primacy. What is asked of us is the live encounter, because it is this encounter – not the science, not the environmental activism, not the oughts and the shoulds, but the live encounter – that forms the foundation of all that needs to follow. First, we change our hearts, and it’s this live encounter that allows us to fall – once again – head over heels in love.
We are wind, and water. We are earth and fire. We are of each other; we are of everything that exists. I do not think it’s possible to understand these interrelationships without embracing the spirit nature of all creation, the spirit nature and the spiritual connections.
I do know that many people balk at hearing this kind of language, but I use it without apology. I know no other language to connect us in this way. It is the language of healing, the language of love, the language of peace. It’s the language that allows us to return home in joy to the blue and green and brown and red of earth, water, wind, and fire.
Many of us are intimately familiar with Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. Before I ever lived in the Washington D.C. area, I visited my friend Elizabeth who dropped me off at the entrance to the memorial and pointed me in the right direction. It was not until what Lin refers to as “the pages of this book” had reached the level of my shins – I had been wading into the memorial and not even realized it – that I came to realize that my experience paralleled our entry into the war. We waded in. I wept that day, as I found the name of our local town hero David Hackett. I traced the letters of my cousin Farwell Long. I wandered through page after page of names until I arrived back where I’d started, subdued and shaken.
Maya Lin is the creator of another memorial – she claims it’s her last – every bit as powerful and troubling as the Vietnam Memorial. It’s called “What Is Missing?” In a multi-media installation that made its debut in San Francisco, Lin not only introduces us to mammals, birds, amphibians, and myriad creatures gone extinct or nearing extinction, but she matches them with their haunting and unique voices. Lin was interviewed on WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook’s On Point, and the interview itself is worth hearing. I invite you to spend a little time with her on her website.
We all know the reasons that the world’s creatures are disappearing at such an alarming rate: habitat loss, chemical threats, climate change, over-hunting, and more. We hear about the reasons, and we hear about them often, but seem to have become inured. Seem not to put faces and voices together with the reporting. This exhibit is haunting. It makes real what humans, in a blindness born of our human-centeredness, have come to see as normative behavior – what we want, we get, no matter the consequences.
I also want to introduce you to a blog devoted to creatures going extinct. Simple and elegant.