top of page

Poetry of Nature | Early Summer | Geoff Oelsner

This is one of two letters available monthly to Poetry of Nature subscribers.

For full access to the Poetry of Nature letters please subscribe to the program on the membership page.

A photo of a very vibrant Flame Skinner on a thin reed-like plant.

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 The Shephearde’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:

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...


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.

A photo of six blue flowers on the end of two branches with red and green plants in the background with text reading: Summer Stars     Stretched through my dusky roots/I rise into the forget me nots/they are not that different/from the stars, their universe/organized from the inside/out--into points of light/and a center, where bees thrum/then dance/so others may sip stars     --NanLeah


bottom of page