Poetry is one of the oldest art forms. The first poets wrote about nature because they lived in a world shaped entirely by natural forces. But their poems were not just observations of what they saw around them. To them, nature was alive, not only the plants and animals but the rocks, the water, the earth and sky, the sun, moon, and stars. And they themselves were not somehow separate from nature, but part of it – or to put it another way, participants in it. Poetry was one more way of participating in the natural world. Earth Poetry is about our relationship with nature.
Those first poets celebrated nature because they were totally dependent on it for food, clothing and shelter. “Mother Earth” was one of the earliest poetic metaphors. But they were also subject to predators, diseases, thunder and lightning, blizzards and typhoons, death and grief, so their poetry expressed the dark, frightening side of nature as well. Above all, nature was mysterious, complex and inexplicable, so the first poets also used their imaginations to express the human relationship with mystery. “Great Mystery” was one of the early forms of the concept of God.
The lives of early humans were full of rich relationships with all the other participants in the drama of life – not just the visible ones but gods and goddesses, spirits, fairies, demons, tricksters, and all the other creatures of mythology. Nowadays it’s fashionable to consider these beings imaginary, but it’s more accurate to say they are embodiments of the human relationship with nature’s mysteries. Carl Jung calls them archetypes. Since they exist in every culture in various forms, whether they exist independently of human imagination is beside the point. They express our need for a relationship with the mysteries of nature.
To artists and poets, imagination is not something frivolous or childish, but essential to a well-rounded relationship with the world. The earliest religions were expressions of that relationship. Poetry and the other arts originally developed as religious impulses, a response to awe and wonder. Ritual is sort of a group art project incorporating different art forms into a single act of communication with the sacred, or the divine – two names for the mystery hidden within or behind nature. Many indigenous poems are actually chants, prayers, magical incantations, or songs which came to the singer in a trance or vision during an initiation ceremony.
Although the arts eventually evolved into secular, individual activities, they remain at their core a deeply spiritual response to the mysteries of life. In a time when it’s possible to live an entire lifetime without ever experiencing the natural world, much less developing a relationship with it, nature remains one of the primary sources of inspiration for poets and other creative souls.
I’m not much of a scholar, but I learned a lot while searching for poems to share with you as examples of Earth Poetry. Robert Bly compiled an anthology for the Sierra Club called News from the Universe. He explains that in the 17th century, when the philosopher Rene Descartes came up with his famous insight “I think, therefore I am,” western civilization entered a phase we call The Enlightenment. That’s when we decided that rocks and water and stars were no longer alive, and even plants and animals were only wind-up toys in a mechanical landscape, since they don’t “think” as we do. This gave us the go-ahead to subdue nature without regard to the ancient relationship between humans and nature.
The Romantic movement in poetry was a reaction to this attitude a century later. Poets like Blake in England and Goethe in Germany saw the dangerous direction human society was headed, and looked once again to nature for inspiration. Here’s an early example of a poet grieving the destruction of nature by industrial civilization, and vowing to defend her to the death.
Poets were also at work in the Far East. Chinese and Japanese poets are famous for incorporating landscapes, seasons, weather, birds and flowers into their work. A proper Japanese haiku always contains some reference to the season, however obscure. But it’s rare to find a poem from these traditions that is purely about nature. They usually speak of nature in relation to human life and society and current events, often as a metaphor, a lesson, a comparison, or a commentary.
Modern poets have explored every possible source of inspiration. Human life, human society, human culture, human ideas tend to dominate literature these days – not surprising in an age when technology seems to have nature on the run everywhere we look. But if you look closer, you’ll see that we still depend on nature for food, clothing and shelter, and nature can still strike back with diseases, blizzards and typhoons, death and grief. The same ancient mysteries still haunt us if we glance away from the computer or the TV screen – one reason so many of us don’t.
Gary Snyder, a poet, ecologist, and back-to-the-land homesteader, writes poems about nature that often incorporate elements of mythology – those ancient relationships between nature and human imagination. Because of his training in anthropology and Zen Buddhism, usually these mythic elements are from Native American or Asian mythology.
Mary Oliver writes a different kind of Earth Poetry. Her poems are also about the relationship between nature and human imagination, but in her case it’s a strictly personal relationship – her own awe and wonder in the presence of nature’s mysteries as she wanders the woods or the seashore.
Wendell Berry is best known as an essayist who advocates returning to family farming on a small scale in order to take better care of the land. Most of his poems (and several novels) invoke that same theme.
I myself grew up in cities and suburbs. But in the summer after my first year of high school, my dad signed me up for a summer camp canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada, and I discovered the wilderness. it was truly a spiritual experience, and though I have never felt the need for a formal religion, since that summer the wilderness has been the only church I need. I write about many things, but it’s my relationship with nature that feeds my imagination and inspires me most deeply.
Write your own Earth Poetry!
The strict rule all poets absolutely must follow is: anything goes. A poem is simply anything made of words that is broken into lines, with a single exception – the prose poem. Both fictional and nonfictional prose have rules of form, structure, grammar, punctuation, etc. The prose poem can be defined as prose without any of those rules. So in poetry you are free to express yourself in any way that feels right. Poetry is anything the poet dares to call a poem. It can take any form, with or without rhyme or rhythm or metaphor. There are even famous poets who have experimented with using sounds instead of words.
Of course, some poems are better than others, depending entirely on the bias of the reader. My own standards for good poetry amount to basically three things.
1. Concrete, specific words. Real objects you can touch and see, even if they are intended to be symbolic of ideas or emotions.
2. Plain language everybody understands. Bring the reader into the poem rather than sending them to the dictionary.
3. Communication, not just self-expression – something the reader can grasp and keep, whether intellectual, emotional, or purely sensual.
Earth Poetry is not simply poetry about nature. It is poetry about our relationship with nature: reaching across the gap most modern people feel between themselves and the natural world. This can happen in many ways:
– marveling at the beauty or mystery of nature, whether a grain of sand or a sky full of stars;
– finding parallels between nature and our human lives, which are called metaphors;
– drawing insights or lessons for living from the ways of nature;
– imagining how it feels to be an animal, a bird, or some other creature;
– describing your favorite ways of participating in nature, whether it’s gardening, bird-watching, or hiking in the wilderness;
– telling a story of an experience that brought you closer to nature;
– grieving or raging at the destruction of a beautiful place you loved;
But the fundamental act of Earth Poetry is using your imagination to explore your personal connection to the natural world.
By “nature” I don’t just mean wilderness. The concept of uninhabited wilderness is a modern invention. Humans have lived in virtually every landscape on Earth. Even today, nature isn’t only found in wilderness preserves. Nature is everywhere. Weeds grow in any place we neglect to mow. Animals are nature’s representatives, even a chihuahua or a goldfish. Giving birth to a baby is nature at its most awe-inspiring. Farmers and gardeners participate in the cycles of life and death that feed us all. Breathing, eating, drinking water are as ancient as evolution.
To join the Earth Poetry tradition, simply wander outside and let the beauty of Creation whisper in your ear. Or if you prefer, pick something up outside, bring it in and sit with it. Write down any specific details you notice, whether a descriptive word or a phrase it brings to mind. If one word or phrase leads to another, follow it and see where it goes. Your poem can be as short as two lines, or even one. A haiku is only 17 syllables.
Earth Poetry, of course, really ought to contain some concrete reference to plants, animals, rocks, the moon, a cloud . . . But you’re the poet. You get to decide. Wherever inspiration leads, go for it. I’m not an English teacher. You don’t have to please me, only yourself.
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