Jul 3, 2022
For early summer I’m sharing two poems that have been constant companions and medicine for my heart.
Dear Poetry of Nature Friends, What Kind of Times Are These There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted who disappeared into those shadows. I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here, our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, its own ways of making people disappear. I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods meeting the unmarked strip of light— ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise: I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear. And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these to have you listen at all, it's necessary to talk about trees. ~ Adrienne Rich (Listen to Adrienne Rich read What Kind of Times are These)
For early summer I’m sharing two poems that have been constant companions and medicine for my heart. The first is“What Kind of Times Are These”. Adrienne Rich was a fierce feminist, and her poem and question feel so relevant and urgent for me. We need Rich’s fierce poem, her energy, her voice. For me, it feels deeply appropriate as I witness an all-out assault being waged on women, Nature, and the Divine Feminine. I feel like Rich’s poem gives us permission. We can take heart in her courage and speak our own truth and questions about the things that are troubling us, like climate change, our government, capitalism. And especially the assault on our mother, Earth. What are these lawmakers afraid of? What are they hanging on to? What are they buying? What are they selling? And who and what are they disappearing? “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” - Chris Maser This month I want to talk about the trees. I have to talk about the trees. I have an experience, a discovery, a reflection to share.
“Have you ever thought that greens are greener on an overcast day? Isn't that a tremendous idea?” The Sunday before my Heart Sister Annette and I journeyed to the Old Growth Hemlock, our talented writer friend, Michael, posed these lovely, serendipitous questions. I really appreciate what he saw, and that he shared it! In our hearts and souls Annette and I completely agreed with Michael. There is nothing finer than the saturated greens of a cloudy day, like the Hemlock in the photo above. And it was the solace, silence, and stillness of that green that we were seeking in the Old Growth Forest. On May 25, 2021, I introduced Annette to the Old Growth Hemlock forest, a Nature place my husband and I have held close, sacred, and dear for many years. Annette and I agreed that since our last trip we’d both been feeling the siren song of the Old Growth Hemlock. We were longing for the misty chuckle of the Skokomish River blended with the breath of the forest. It was a divinely cloudy day, resplendent with the rich greens of early summer. It sang to us. As we traveled, “What Kind of Times Are These” resonated in my mind, heart, spirit. Because as we journeyed Annette and I began to sense life out of balance. We found ourselves shaken and trying to make sense of what we were seeing. We were filled with indescribable loss. We had to talk about the trees. As we headed up the slim dirt road, hundreds of conifers carpeted the forest floor. Both sides of the road were lined with downed trees. Like accusing fingers, the trees’ crowns pointed east. I felt like the giant hand of the west wind had swept down these long miles of trees. Our hearts broke. The once silent and dark sacredness of the canopy, “the dark mesh of the woods”, was now haunted by great swathes of light, occupying newly opened canopy and our thoughts. I was reminded of the matchstick forest still laying around Mt. St. Helens. The sacred forest, the green, was fundamentally changed in a way that defied our imaginations. Foreboding settled into my heart and bones. Annette's heart was filled with the tenuousness of the forest. What happened? We wondered aloud about the circumstances that weakened these trees and the power of climate change.My first feeling was that it was one of our winter cyclones that roll in from the Pacific Ocean. Rich’s words, “the edge of dread” were on my heart and mind when we arrived at the trailhead into the Old Growth. For a mile, we wended our way. Strewn along and over the trail were Douglas Fir and a few young Hemlock, also all pointing east. We found ourselves wading through Douglas Fir crowns and young Hemlocks. We climbed over and scrambled beneath them. The forest was spicy with their ghosts. It was a mirror being held up. It was a nightmare. These lines from Rich’s poem especially stood out for me: this is not somewhere else but here, our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, its own ways of making people disappear. ...and Nature, I thought. Her last four lines are powerful: And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these to have you listen at all, it's necessary to talk about trees. We must speak about the trees.
"The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life and activity; it affords protection to all beings.” ~ Buddhist Sutra * * *
In his Early Summer letter, Geoff shares a compelling question: “I’ve been considering the topic of nature poetry and living with this question: what does it mean to me to be a nature poet during this dire time of accelerating environmental degradation?” Indeed, what kind of times are these? I have been living into Geoff’s question. It’s a good one. I find that I have more than one answer. One answer is that I must witness the trees! As a possible prompt in this letter, I invite you to get still. Give yourself the gift of 10 uninterrupted breaths. Feel into Geoff’s question, hold it in your consciousness. In your neck of the woods, what is true for you about our changing climate? What changes are you noticing? What does your body say to you? What does your heart know? What is “Here”? I invite you to take as much time as you need with Geoff’s question. Each of you will answer his question in your own ways. And you may discover more than one answer. Please be ever so gentle, kind and compassionate with your sweet self. Let your reflections inform your poem. * * *
“Anywhere which is in a forest, that’s my zen place.” - Raveena Tandon
Annette and I hiked a mile in to our Nature spot, an overlook of the Skokomish framed by Old Growth and the river’s canyon. Skokomish mist rose and mingled with the forest’s breath. Here, we nestled into the moss at the base of a Hemlock, grateful for a soft place to rest in the wilderness. Across the river a cloud lolled on a peak. The sharp ridge next to it still held a smidge of snow. We lengthened out into our Zen place, into the forest’s early summer rhythms and green stillness. Here, through our animal senses, we communed with the forest and each other. A Swainson’s Thrush ethereal song spiraled out of the silence. Robin’s joyful chirrup joyed the air.
Serendipitously, the camera lens I needed for landscapes stopped working just after I took the above photo. I wasn’t surprised. The loss and imbalance I was trying to process felt like the ultra-low frequency that accompanies earthquakes. I was reminded of the Hopi word koyaanisquatsi, which means “life out of balance”, a term I learned from the prescient 1982 visual, non-narrative film Koyaanisquatsi: Life Out of Balance. At this “Here”, I felt, no lens, no photo could hold what had shaken Annette and I to our cores. * * *
Lost Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you. ~ David Wagoner
(Listen to David Whyte read “Lost”.) Wagoner’s poem is based on a teaching story from Native Salish elders to their children. It's one of my favorites. Every time I read or hear it, I am transported back, saying “Here”, to this Old Growth Hemlock forest I find so dear and precious. As I consider both poems, I appreciate how Rich and Wagoner both bring “Here” into their poems. Rich says: this is not somewhere else but here, our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, its own ways of making people disappear. Wagoner says: Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. Wagoner’s poem speaks to me of such a deep respect and witnessing of the forest. It holds the forest’s sacred stillness and comfort within it. Indeed, at the beginning and end of his poem Wagoner reminds us, “Stand still.” To stand still when you are lost, when you feel like panicking, feels so counterintuitive and paradoxical. And I know this is where balance is found. I love how Wagoner speaks of and from the forest’s point of view. How it breathes and answers, how the forest knows you, if you stand still. I particularly love the bird's eye view Wagoner takes in his imagery: No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. This poem also feels like good advice for this “Here” now, as I speak about the miles of downed trees, and about the loss of the forest for which I feel deep dread. I fear we are lost, and we need to stand still. We must pay attention to where we are now; to be “Here” with awakeness and awareness. We must change with our climate. To heal, we must turn and return to the voice of the forests, the land, our selves, and our Mother. For me, this too, feels like an answer to Geoff’s question.
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” ~ Hermann Hesse
All of us, in our own ways are affected by climate change on spiritual, physical, psychic, and intuitive levels. Where do you sense it? What do you know? What do your bones say? Your soul? In this “Here” now, what is on your heart and mind”? Perhaps it’s changes to your neck of the woods, your Nature spot? Perhaps it's your family, and friends whose lives are impacted. Maybe you experienced something on a recent trip you took? It could be a book you read, or a documentary you’ve seen. It could be the 24/7 news. Where do you sense life out of balance? In light of these questions, I invite you to be mindful of Geoff’s question. What changes are rearranging your life? What sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels are you experiencing? I invite you to take what you know, whatever this is and create a poem. If your energy is tugging you in another direction, please honor that! Please treat yourself with kindness and compassion. (I’ve already asked this. But I ask the above questions in case they elicit more.) I invite you to further this discussion. You can post about this in our virtual community. Please feel free to share your poems, feelings, thoughts, and experiences. In coming together as a community, what can we learn and know collectively? How can we begin to move forward? As my motorcycle instructor taught me, all ways, "look where you are going.” His is some of the best advice I’ve ever received. None of us knows the future. But as humans, we can look where we are going. I find this, too, to be an answer to Geoff’s question. * * *
“It's about protecting even things that are close to us ... because each of those things has a unique way of experiencing the world, that is worth learning about, worth cherishing and worth protecting. “ ~ Ed Yong
Last month I shared about Beauty. Even as our world changes, and I think especially because of these changes, there is the possibility of experiencing heightened sensitivity to the great beauty all around us. Beauty brings me to presence, and from there I can begin to hope. As a poet, photographer, and poetographer my job is to keep shining beauty and hope at the forefront in these times. That’s what it means to me share my gifts "during this dire time of accelerating environmental degradation”. * “TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” ~ Howard Zinn
What gives you hope right now? When have you experienced moments of sacrifice, courage, and kindness? What are you choosing to emphasize? What is “Here”? Please read on for Geoff’s letter. He has so graciously traced a lineage of Nature poets for us. Please let his question flow through you. Wishing you green blessings, and hope. NanLeah
“Close contact with Nature through poem-making will strengthen your awareness of a healing connection to the earth. This healing relationship will help you create beauty in your life.” ~ John Fox, Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem Making, pg. 193 * * *
Geoff Oelsner’s Ponderings
Dear PON Friends, I’ve been considering the topic of nature poetry and living with this question: what does it mean to me to be a nature poet during this dire time of accelerating environmental degradation? In doing so, I’ve traced the poetic lineage of nature poets and writers in the western world, and have gleaned a few quotes from some of those poets I find particularly meaningful. I offer the below as explorations, points of arrival and departure on a vast map of the topic and of the territory—our planet— which is now undergoing enormous life-threatening changes. Setting aside millennia of magnificent nature poetry from China including the Book of Songs, (tenth to fifth century B.C.E.) and Japanese haiku—among the literatures of so many countries in the East—here is a very incomplete listing of great nature poems and nature writers in our Western Canon: The Canaanite mythical Poem of Aqhat (15th century B.C.E.) takes the seasons as an essential focus Hesiod’s Works and Days (8th century B.C.E.) treats agricultural methods Theocritus’s Idylls (3rd century B.C.E.) and Virgil’s wondrous Eclogues (c. 30 B.C.E.) both honor rural, pastoral life The Old English poem “The Seafarer” and the Middle English poem “Cuckoo Song” [“Sumer is icumen in / Ludhe sing, cuccu!”] The cycle of the seasons prefigured in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century) Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580) and Edmund Spender’s TheShephearde’s Calendar (1579), both specimens of Renaissance poetry that idealized the pastoral John Denham’s poem “Cooper’s Hill” (1642), an example of seventeenth century landscape poems that offered intricate descriptions of topology James Thompson’s The Seasons (1730), permeated with this important poet’s sense of God’s presence in the natural world [“Chief, lovely spring in thee, and thy soft scenes / The SMILING GOD is seen; while water, earth / And air attest his bounty.”] William Wordsworth’s worthily worded, monumental body of work, including the justly famous nature poem “Tintern Abbey” (1798) The 3500 plus poems of the rural poet John Clare (1793-1864) a tragic and brilliant country man who I love dearly [“poets love nature and themselves are love.”] Turning to America now, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature(1836) Henry David Thoreau, perhaps the foremost American nature writer in Walden (1854), and poet and one of our earliest naturalists Emily Dickinson’s (1830-1886) garden poems The unsurpassable, transcendent Walt Whitman in so many poems, including the oceanic threnody “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1860) And now picking up speed, these poets come to my mind as we consider modern literature in America: Robert Frost; the bleak, prophetic work of Robinson Jeffers; Theodore Roethke’s mystical, vegetative poems; the immense overlooked work of Vermonter Hayden Carruth; A.R. Ammons’ ecologically informed poems; the ghostly here-and-gone landscapes of W.S. Merwin, who was also a very important horticulturalist in Hawaii; Edward Abbey's prose; Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), the poetry collected in Susan Griffin's Women in Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978); the Kentucky farmer, environmental activist and I would say sage Wendell Berry; and Gary Snyder. “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” ~ Gary Snyder As I wrote earlier, I list these among others too numerous to mention. But of these moderns, Jeffers, Berry and Snyder have been especially conscious of the deadly toll we humans are taking on the planet. More than any other single poem I’ve unearthed, this extraordinarily far-sighted poem by Gary Snyder from his book Turtle Island (1969!!!) stands out as an example of a nature poem that is aligned with the exigencies and emergencies of our transitional era: For The Children The rising hills, the slopes, of statistics lie before us. the steep climb of everything, going up, up, as we all go down. In the next century or the one beyond that, they say, are valleys, pastures, we can meet there in peace if we make it. To climb these coming crests one word to you, to you and your children: stay together learn the flowers go light ~ Gary Snyder Feel welcome to dig into any of the above poets’ earthy work, and to explore where your own approach to the poetry of nature may take you as we go forward into summer and into a most uncertain planetary future... together. For the Earth, Geoff
* Update to this letter: I reached out to the Forest Service to inquire about the miles of downed Doug Fir and Hemlock. A man named Brian explained that the trees "took a beating" from the winter snows we had during the holidays, which broke all records. The weakened trees were then blown down by one of the January windstorms. My intuition about the west wind was true.