Poetry and the Soul of the Earth Community
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.
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