Art & Culture

Wild About Nature Poetry

A pod of orcas surfaces. Mountains can be seen in the background.
Orcas passing Portland Island, Southeast Alaska. Gillfoto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere, there are orcas.

Jarod K. Anderson, the Cryptonaturalist, wrote those words as the opening to his poem Orcas. Four simple words that convey hope and wonder and something bigger than ourselves. 

If poetry is a niche form of literature, then nature poetry might be the niche within the niche, like other forms of landscape and wildlife art, poetry about nature is not usually regarded as edgy or cool. Yet, despite this, poets continue to write and share words about our appreciation and interactions with the natural world around us. 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver might be the best known of the modern nature poets. Her words can be found on mugs and tea towels, severed from their original source, the human reflection of her poem The Summer Day, excised from her words about the natural world. But the number of people who want observations about grasshoppers printed on coffee mugs is limited. 

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

There is a deliberate naivety in some of Oliver’s poems, as if she is forcing the reader to view the world with a childlike wonder filled with long summer days exploring streams and fields and discovering nature’s plants and animals for the first time. Yet Oliver often superimposes a darker world on top of this sense of wonder.

The ripe, floating caps 

of the fly amanita 

glow in the pinewoods. 

I don’t even think 

of the eventual corruption of my body. 

(Death at a Great Distance)

In some ways, nature poetry exists at the intersection of wonder and grief as though it’s impossible to feel awe at the world without mourning its end. This cognitive dissonance is undoubtedly present as we grapple with our ecoanxiety and the increasing terrors of climate change. 

We could ignore the natural world as a way of avoiding the pain that comes from seeing the effects of our actions, but that would also mean turning our backs on the solace we gain.  

When despair grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things

Poetry gives us the chance to rage, to grieve, to mourn, to love, to capture the weight of a moment in a way that no other form of writing can achieve. So it makes sense that those of us who are mourning the irreversible changes we’re seeing in the natural world would use poetry to bear witness. And if poetry lets us share a sense of wonder at the world, sometimes that disbelief is turned towards our fellow humans, as with Matthew Olzmann’s poem Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America

He begins: 

Tell me what it’s like to live without

curiosity, without awe.

Only to finish by marking his own sense of incredulity:

To take it all in, and then,

to reach for your knife.

The small moment Olzmann captures is applicable to our larger reaction to the state of the world as a whole. Now is the time we should put down the knife.