Poetry and the Enviroment

Perhaps the earth can teach us

as when everything seems to be dead in winter

and later proves to be alive.

From the poem “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda

How we use our land and resources is one of the most important issues of our time.  Hardly a day passes without a major news story about development and its impact on the low country landscape and waterways. At the national and international level, environmental issues are a subject of continual debate.  What can poetry teach us about something as intractable and complex as the planet we inhabit and all the intricate systems that sustain life?

We have been reworking our relationship with nature as far back as the industrial revolution.  English Poet William Wordsworth lamented at the time. “Little we see in nature that is ours.” Since then, science and technology have increased our mastery over nature, but with that mastery we have lost a spiritual and emotional connection with the natural world that we long for.  Now, we’re confronting rising sea levels, a changing atmosphere, extinction of species, poison air and water, and diminishing supplies of nonrenewable resources.  Poetry can help shape our cultural response to these enormous environmental changes.

Poets look to the natural world to find metaphors and meaning.  Nature inspires intense feelings of awe and reverence.  American poet Edward Hirsch wrote that this feeling of awe is the deepest spirit of poetry.  Poets pay attention to details that others may not notice. These sensory details create a visceral sense of place that is vivid and intense.  This reverent attention to nature started a very long time ago.  Haiku poems, for example, originated in Japan in the Middle Ages.  These poems were always located in the natural world, attentive to time and place (the season), and contained ideas about nature derived from the Zen Buddhist tradition.  In other words, writing and reciting Haiku was a religious practice that responded to the environment.  Language distilled the essence of an object or place, as in this poem by Haiku master Basho:

Withered branch

A crow settles on it-

Autumn dusk.

The Haiku tradition carries on.  America is blessed with numerous poets who write about the natural world.  Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver are probably the most widely known nature poets, and there are many others whose poems overtly and directly teach us to cherish the world.  This is not a complicated endeavor.  It is a matter of simply slowing down and paying attention. It is what a poet does and has always done. Mary Oliver reminds us “Before we move from recklessness into responsibility, from selfishness to a decent happiness, we must want to save our world.  And in order to save the world, we must learn to love it – and in order to love it we must become familiar with it again. This is where my work begins, and why I keep walking and looking.”

(Originally published by the Post and Courier)

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