Turn your garden notes and pictures into an ecopoem
“Perhaps if we write well enough about our endangered coasts and forests, deserts and streams, marshes and mountain lakes, we might see the world clearly enough to … protect our beautiful, wounded world and help it heal.”
— Dana Gioia in “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California,” 2018
With this statement, I think California poet laureate Dana Gioia effectively captures the ambitious and hopeful project of ecopoets. Her remark is partly in response to poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973), who turned away from writing as a form of political activism and famously concluded “poetry makes nothing happen.”
On the contrary, Gioia and other ecopoets are optimists, even though their poems often depict nature’s injuries. They believe poetry that focuses on the environment can make things happen to heal and protect the Earth, and stop things from continuing to happen that further degrade the Earth and its resources.
In “The Ecopoetry Anthology” (2013), co-editors Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura Gray-Street also discuss the potential of ecopoetry to shift the way people experience the natural world. They write, “Poetry returns us in countless ways to the world of our senses … awakening our dulled perceptions and feelings. This is the power of all poetry. With regard to the environment, it is particularly the power of ecopoetry.”
Some of my favorite poems in “Fire and Rain” feature gardens as ultra-local landscapes that are uniquely situated in the environment as part nature, part human. Our garden notes and the pictures we take can provide inspiration for writing ecopoems if we are inclined to use our close observations and creative energies this way.
For example, in “Flux,” Jim Dodge describes the merging of cool coastal air with valley heat; then he notes the effects of the thermal exchange:
And the wind comes up.
Down in the garden,
The stalks of the sunflowers quiver,
Bowed seed heads
Ready to spill.
I like the way Dodge starts off with a technical explanation of heat exchange and then ends with a poetic stanza about sunflowers.
In her poem “Tangle,” Grace Marie Grafton closely observes how plants in a woodland garden respond to the summer solstice:
To show leaves, to court
light, wild ginger’s slick
spade-shaped gleam tripling,
quadrupling above humus,
dime-sized scoops of
violet leaves, snakes of wild
grape, clinging morning glory,
bracken’s rattle, rusty-haired
fronds uncurling lewd digits.
Grafton uses enjambment — running one line into the next without punctuation — to create the feeling of entanglement in her poem.
Kim Roberts vividly describes “The Invasive Weed Syndicate” in her garden. Here’s what she writes about the ubiquitous shepherd’s purse:
A rude ring of lobed leaves cling
to the bottom of the stem, and from this stage
the actors rise in heart-shaped pods
and strip to white petticoats by the open road.
Roberts also uses enjambment, this time to embellish a sense of the weeds’ encroachment.
Whereas Roberts writes from the perspective of an overwhelmed gardener, Abby Chew gives voice to a tiger beetle in a poem written for her two daughters. The beetle beckons:
Look for me.
My bright green back and white spots.
I’m scary looking, maybe, to little girls like you,
when you see me that first time.
I am a surprise.
But I am also a gift. Just like the two of you.
I can picture Mom explaining to the girls that the gift of tiger beetles is that they eat insect pests in the garden.
Christopher Buckley writes about “Drought,” and hope, in his garden:
Winter, 80+ degrees,
all the roses cut back to sticks
as if we could forecast
some bright future,
some hopeful outcome months away.
Ruth Nolan also writes about drought, and hope, in her desert garden in “Old Woman Springs”:
Every year you keep the garden, protecting
baby rabbits from the claws of hawks,
knowing the June sun will burn the flowers
while coyotes mourn from the jagged rocks.
All of the ecopoets in “Fire and Rain,” whether writing about their gardens or larger landscapes, begin with nothing more than their careful observations, and faith that the process of writing will help them “see” more clearly what they have seen. Co-editor Lucille Lang Day writes in the appendix, “Ever since poets have been writing, they have been intuitively linking an awareness of the environment to their quest for the divine.”
Poets and gardeners have a lot in common.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.
My gardening to-do list this week
• It’s harvest time in my garden: beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, garlic, shallots and onions. My favorite crop this year has been the marble-sized ‘Champagne Bubbles’ tomatoes that I eat right off the vine.
• I try to stay inside during particularly smoky days. It’s a good time to write an ecopoem about the challenges of gardening in smoky conditions.
• I’m saving a few garlic heads to replant in the fall.
• I’ve got a nice crop of grapes this year; time to cover them with mesh bags to protect from the birds.