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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
The cycle of the seasons prefigured in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century)
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:
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);
“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,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
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:
learn the flowers
~ 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...
For the Earth,
* 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.