CRAFT FEATURE // by Jason Harris
Where Systems Touch: The Self in Ecopoetry
I didn’t know what ecopoetry was until I signed up for a night class at my old university a few years ago. It was 2018 and hurricane season was well under way. Hurricane Florence had disrupted life for those living in the Carolinas and Virginia. Hurricane Michael dismantled the streets and beachfronts and avenues of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia alike. Puerto Rico still sought relief from Hurricane Maria’s damage the year before. Wildfires left large swaths of northern and southern California in ashes—for a time, when I thought of California, all I could see was orange. Three years after being introduced to ecopoetry, I still fail to explain adequately what ecopoetry is. Maybe, at its core, ecopoetry is a way of life, a consciousness that requires humility, a desegregation of the Us vs. Them binary that so much of the 21st century has been. When I step outside and look at the sky or the ground or a bird, I am reminded that there is no separation between the I of the Self and the It of the Bird or the Ground or the Sky. For anyone who has ever loved knows how rarely words capture the emotion we want them to. So here I am attempting to name a thing I love, knowing full well I may not.
Like many things in my life, ecopoetry has become a form of expression that I feel more often than I can put into words or describe. When my ecopoetics professor assigned different texts—Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [guma]—I knew immediately that it was this body of work beside which my writing aligned. This course, and its reading material, taught me that I am not the most important thing in the world, but also taught me that my being here is of importance in the world. In the past, when I considered climate change and the future of our planet, I thought of it as a problem for the future; as a social, cultural, and personal problem that those who live after me, after us, would have to figure out. This ecopoetry class encouraged me to understand my place in this world beyond thinking of my long, but brief future. Yes, I’ll be here tomorrow, I learned to say. And yes, the greenhouses gases will continue to pack the atmosphere, but what can I change to help lighten the load we send up in the sky on a daily basis? I started riding my bike more often, before the icy Northeast Ohio winters set in. I started carrying reusable grocery bags to the grocery store. I invested in a thermos and when I purchased coffee from local shops, I asked to fill my thermos instead of being given a to-go cup. I took the smallest actions I could, knowing my smallest actions may be what saves what is left of the planet, of our ecosystems.
Born in the ‘90s and raised Black in Charleston, West Virginia, I grew up surrounded by wildlife. Whitetail deer standing like statues in the front yard. Field mice scurrying through the woods behind our home. Bats electrifying the night air alongside lightning bugs. Red foxes asleep next to rolly-pollies. Wide, slow-moving rivers slicing mountains—which were sometimes the size of the sky—clean in half. The moon: sometimes a porchlight over the city; sometimes a lightbulb in a dark room; always underneath it a body moving in or out of the way of something: into the caress of a loved one’s fingers or perhaps out of the way of a loved one’s fist.
In 2008, one year before I started my undergraduate degree, Forrest Gander asked, on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog: “Can poetry be ecological? Can poetry value the ‘economy of interrelationship between human and non-human realms?’” In the blog post, Gander makes a clear distinction between ecopoetry, pastoral poetry, and nature poetry. For Gander—and to these points I agree—pastoral poetry is a type of poetry that centers the landscape; likewise, nature poetry is a poetry that centers nature. Not taking away from, but adding to, a poet’s way to understand their role in the larger world, ecopoetry, as defined by Forrest Gander, is a poetry that “investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.”
Eight years later, in 2016—the year I started applying to graduate schools—John Shoptaw wrote, in the January issue of Poetry Magazine, a nuanced but incredibly eye-opening essay on ecopoetry. Shoptaw acknowledges Gander’s take on ecopoetry but pushes it further. Shoptaw leans on insights about ecopoetry shared by Ursula K. Heise and Juliana Spahr. Heise defines ecopoetry as a poetry that is “related to the broader genre of nature poetry but can be distinguished from it by its portrayal of nature as threatened by human activities.” Following Heise’s take, Shoptaw shares a quote from Juliana Spahr’s 2011 poetry collection, Well Then There Now, published by Black Sparrow Press: “even when [the nature poem] got the birds and the plants and the animals right it tended to show the beautiful bird but not so often the bulldozer off to the side that was destroying the bird’s habitat.”
What I love most about ecopoetry is its slow but steady ability to accumulate, as we’ve seen Shoptaw do in scaffolding the definition of ecopoetry. For Shoptaw, ecopoetry is a poetry that needs to be both environmental and environmentalist. By environmental, Shoptaw means two things: “first an ecopoem needs to be about the nonhuman natural world—wholly or partly […]. The second way in which an ecopoem is environmental is that it is ecocentric, not anthropocentric.” By environmentalist, an ecopoem “represents environmental damage or risk, but rhetorically: it is urgent.”
Women and Children’s Hospital—the hospital in which I was born—sits squarely on the Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio. The river flows ninety-seven miles. It stretches from Gauley Bridge, West Virginia; down through Charleston and South Charleston and Dunbar; eventually ending its run in Point Pleasant, Ohio, where the Mothman folklore originated. Known for its salt brines, natural gas, and oil wells, the Kanawha River is also a place, in my memory field, where lack of community care and ecological disregard accumulates. My last visit home I walked along the river bank. The river was high. Brown. There were fast food wrappers and empty cigarette boxes and crumpled potato chip bags scattered across the walkway. It was grotesque, the human waste, but I was happy to be home, walking along a river I once fished in.
Two memories come to mind when I think about my relationship with the earth. In the memories, I see clearly how happy and beautiful a Black boy I was, filled with curiosity and fear—so much of what I am filled with today. In the first memory I am seven years old sitting in the front yard, just staring at my hand. The car tires on the highway across the street whistling at my back. My palm is yellow. I don’t know who taught me to do it and I don’t know when I learned to do it and I don’t know how I learned it could be done but as a child—and once or twice in my adult life, to feel a sense of joy or tenderness toward something, toward myself—I pulled a dandelion from the earth and rubbed it in my palm. In the second memory I am ten years old in a boat with my family. My mother is absent but my father is there and he is excited to have his babies for the weekend. Or maybe it was for the day. We are in a boat and we are sitting idle in the middle of the Kanawha River. We are fishing. Untrained in the art of casting the line, I reel the pole back and launch it over my shoulder. The hook catches my shirt from the back. Fear stuns my body. I am screaming and flopping around the boat in a panic like a fish. Everyone is laughing, telling me you’re okay, you’re okay—it’s just the line. I learned then that language falls short to assuage certain emotions felt in or on the body in this world.
Two and a half years after my graduate school experience with ecopoetry, a kind friend of mine introduced me to an anthology called Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Edited by Camille T. Dungy, Black Nature reaches back four hundred years to bring to life a collection of Black Americans writing about their relationship with different ecologies. In the introduction Dungy writes that “the historical scope of Black Nature demonstrates the ways in which black poets were investigating the alignment between man and nature long before the popularity of contemporary ecopoetics was confirmed.” In many of the poems, our speakers are rooted not only in their microcosmic worlds, but are also simultaneously engaged, and engaging, with the larger world. Living in a century that draws clear distinctions between what is human and what is not, what is for us and what is not, I allowed myself to think myself superior to the natural world. Black Nature taught me that I am no better or worse than the black bear sleeping in the woods or the octopus inking their way from a predator, but that I am a Peregrine Falcon: in and of both the wild and the city, existing always in the edge effect of two ecologies.
In 2008, when I started writing poetry, I longed to write about my experiences with nature—the good and the bad, the points at which a city meets a national park, the points at which a lakefront meets an expressway—but lacked the courage for it. What place did I have, a Black boy from West Virginia marked as violent or dangerous or troublesome, to talk about trees or birds or the atmosphere and our relation to those living beings? I often felt uninvited to the table when telling people the kind of poetry I wrote. What do you know about nature, they’d ask, You’re a city boy. I wish I could remember the people who said these words to me. I wish to remember them just to deliver them a copy of Black Nature. Dungy, in the introduction of Black Nature, writes that the anthology was published to provide a “crucial tool for broadening our concept of what it means to write about nature.” Black Nature changed, both structurally and characteristically, what it meant to consider myself an ecopoet, or what it meant to consider myself a writer concerned with different ecologies who is often surprised and unsettled by the actions of my fellow beings, by the actions of myself.
It can be argued, as it must rightly be, that ecopoetry has always existed. When whatever caused the world—as we human beings have known it—to begin, it brought with it the language, the framework, the genre of ecopoetry. Coming of age in a predominantly white neighborhood, I often felt displaced and labelled to behave in ways that fit the stereotype of young Black boys, instead of reveling in the self I actually was. I was a tender Black boy. I cried a lot. I felt often. I took to the woods every chance I could. In the woods, I felt safe. I could let my Black boy guard down. No one knows this but I have cried and screamed in front of trees I do not know the name of. Almost thirty years later, I understand now why the woods were a refuge for me. Perhaps some distant relative led me there, to the bramble and brush, to the thin sticks that so often would get stuck in my shoelaces. In her book Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks writes that nature is a “sanctuary […] a refuge, a place for healing wounds.” It is with ease and transparency, now, to realize what both nature and ecopoetry has healed for me: my sense of identity and belonging in a country, in a world, that has othered my Black body. Furthermore, ecopoetry has healed, in some tangential way, the eco-anxiety I felt, and so often feel. Perhaps ecopoetry is, simply, a way into healing.
My earliest memories of conscientiously engaging with the earth is the easiest way to define ecopoetry: a body of poetry concerned with the lived experiences and consequences of nonhuman and human entities. Ecopoetry, to put it another way, is a kaleidoscope of lived perspectives. Ecopoetry is an edge effect. What does it mean to be a wide slow-moving river slicing mountains? In turn, what does it mean to be a mountain at risk of having your top removed? What does it mean to be known as a roly-poly in West Virginia but as a Pill Bug in other parts of the world? Who gets the power to call a thing what it will be called? What does it mean to be a dandelion pulled from the earth by the hand of a little Black boy? What does it mean to be a child feeding a bird small chunks of bread? What does it mean to be a Black boy from Charleston, West Virginia who moved for love and found himself walking in the shadow of skyscrapers and brutalist architecture? At the heart of ecopoetry is connectedness, is an investigation of the twine upon which the beads of nature and culture, language and perception, touch.
When I reflect on such early experiences of life with and in nature, I find that I was so moved by certain experiences that it took me more than twenty years to name both as integral parts of my identity. It took me a little less than three decades to adopt the language I would need to explain what connection I felt to the earth. Having finally arrived at this point, I ask myself often: to what extent can we use language in ecopoetry? How can the language of ecopoetry lead us to freedom of expression? How many ways are there to name a bougainvillea a bougainvillea? How many ways are there to call a mallard a mallard? A marsh a marsh? When I consider the intersection between my earliest life experiences and language, I find myself resting gently on ecopoetry; a genre of poetry that has turned me into a writer operating always in a state of humility; understanding that while the act of creating is limitless, the language we use to describe lived experiences—of nonhuman and human beings alike—is limited. But still we try. For what drives ecopoetry is the attempt, and sometimes the failed attempt, at naming the point at which two ecosystems exist.