Poetry and Ecology

Amphitheatre track, Morton National Park, Bundanoon

[The following is an introduction to something I am working on called ‘Allegories of the Uncreated World’. The photo was taken by our guest Inana von Hoessle].

Poetry and Ecology

Poetry and ecology share an interest in the whole, in interrelationships and interdependence. Perhaps poetry can be read as the linguistic exploration of inner nature, inner ecology, and ecology as the scientific exploration of outer nature, the ‘earth household’ (oikos), the practical and spiritual implications of which often touch on the downright poetic. Ecologically, the hare, the hawk, the swoop are one dynamic whole or interdependent system; in the best poetry they are as well, albeit usually with an awareness of the human mind embedded and observing or constructing this dynamic oneness as well. We remember, for example, Wordsworth’s well-known ‘sense sublime’

Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

Sometimes this sense sublime, this ecological awareness becomes quite explicit in its ultimately mystical implications, as in sixteenth century poet Thomas Traherne’s guide to proper enjoyment of the world: ‘You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars’, or late nineteenth century poet Francis Thompson’s aphoristic version of post-modern chaos theory’s ‘butterfly effect’:

Thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.

As these quotations may already indicate, in their common insistence on organic interrelationship and universal resonance, poetry and ecology also share certain metaphysical affinities. Because poetry deals with inner and outer nature, it is inherently, even in its most secular and post-modern forms, never very far from the spiritual, in the widest sense of that term. This is so even if the contemporary poetical voice may in fact be speaking in the more likely form of avoidance, negation, ironic longing or implicit despair at spirituality’s absence. It is of course overt in the great romantic tradition of nature writing which, in in English, may include nineteenth century poets like Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Clare, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and continue into modern writers like D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas, Robinson Jeffares, Ted Hughes, Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Judith Wright, Les Murray, Robert Gray, Mark Tredinnick.

Ecology, being the science and ‒ as the applied ecology of land management -, art of total planetary interdependence or ‘oneness’, is also inherently ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ in its ultimate implications. Unfortunately both these epithets have become suspect, and for good reason. The former often connotes an other- or even anti-worldly transcendence, and the latter may smack of the regressively occult and/or anti-rational New Age cults. In contrast, the science and practical art of ecology can provide a healthy, eminently rational base for ancient spiritual experience and knowledge, potentially and dialectically overcoming the common false alternative of dead scientific reductionism versus romantically regressive primitivism. So can poetry.

Perhaps both ecology and poetry can thus provide an important component of the poetic yet ‘rational mysticism’ and new global spirituality which, I would argue, is probably needed to save the planet and humane civilization in our axial age of ecocide and climate chaos. At this point in the great human wandering, ecology – the explicator of the ‘laws of the earth household’ (oikos-logos) ‒ can potentially provide if not specific blueprints then at least basic guidelines and principles. These, of course democratically debated and contested, could help in the great tasks of social restructuring, the Way and reaching of an ecologically sustainable Home that we as a species need to undertake if we are to avoid widespread ecological and social collapse. And this is the case even if, as German social philosopher Ernst Bloch argues, the Way must necessarily include getting lost and ‘Home’ may be in no way self-evident, even when arrived at:

Ein Mensch nimmt sich mit, wenn er wandert. Doch ebenso geht er hierbei aus sich heraus, wird um Flur, Wald, Berg reicher. Auch lernt er, buchstäblich, wieder kennen, was Verirren und was Weg ist, und das Haus, das ihn am Ende empfängt, wirkt keineswegs selbstverständlich, sondern erreicht.
(A person takes himself along when he goes wandering. Yet he also gets out of himself, becomes internally richer in fields, woods and mountains. He also learns, literally, to recognize what ‘getting lost’ and what ‘the way’ means, and ‘the home’ that will receive him at journey’s end seems in no way self-evident. Rather: it is reached.)
– Ernst Bloch, Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie, Vol. 1, p. 63

In helping us recognise the innate kinship and bonds our bodies and souls have not only with all other humans but with plants, animals, soil and the elements, both poetry and ecology ‒together with other exciting sciences working at the shifting edges of deep cultural change like micro- and macro-physics, chaos and fractal theory, epigenetics etc ‒ will necessarily form an integral part of the larger story we now need to tell ourselves as humans in order to humanely survive on this beautiful small blue planet. Beneath our modern neo-cortex, and in healthy communication with it, lie the older poetical realms of our ecological bondedness which we may, individually and collectively, choose to reinhabit:

We know that we are not limited by the accident of our birth or the timing of it, and we recognize the truth that we have always been around. We can reinhabit time and our own story as a species. We were present back there in the fireball and the rains that streamed down on this still molten planet, and in the primordial seas. We remember that in our mother’s womb, where we wear vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. We remember that. That information is in us and there is a deep, deep kinship in us, beneath the outer layers of our neocortex or what we learned in school. There is a deep wisdom, a bondedness with our creation, and an ingenuity far beyond what we think we have. And when we expand our notions of what we are to include in this story, we will have a wonderful time and we will survive.
– Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self, p. 192


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on August 3, 2012.

3 Responses to “Poetry and Ecology”

  1. What a fantastic piece. I’ve never been quite able to get into poetry, but your insight into the similarities between ecology and poetry, of their emphasis on relationships, is fascinating, as is the comment about both possibly serving as tangible and rational foundation for an appreciation of interconnectedness.

  2. […] Poetry and Ecology « memengineering […]

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