The Wyoming landscape is as utterly unknown to me as it was to Gretel Ehrlich when she first arrived there in 1976. Grieving the death of her lover, Ehrlich immersed herself in the work of sheep herding, “literally working through her loss.” (Aalto, p. 118) Her book of essays, The Solace of Open Spaces, grew out of letters she wrote to a friend during a time when she discovered that “loss was a kind of fullness.” Described by Annie Dillard as “Wyoming’s…Whitman,” Ehrlich’s prose captures the beauty of this harsh landscape.
Today’s poems are a series of haiku found in the first chapter of The Solace of Open Spaces. Any words I added are italicized.
Wyoming is…A geography of possibility:
Tumbled and twisted startled out of a deep sleep thrown into pure light
Sheep drift, surge, spill like snowdrifts or clouds billowing across open space
At the beginning of her Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Annie Dillard states that “the world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” The entire book is Dillard’s account of her search for those “unwrapped gifts and free surprises” around her home in Southern Virginia.
I have always loved the gifts and surprises nature leaves everywhere for us. And so I have always loved Dillard’s rich writing, detailing her journeys into what Kathryn Aalto describes as “the seen and the unseen–into the soulful side of being human.” (p. 110) Deciding on how to structure a poem inspired by her was a tall order. A found poem seemed a logical option, but my copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is packed away somewhere while our renovation continues. Also, the choice of lines would be overwhelming. I decided to take a walk through the woods behind my house hoping that inspiration would strike. The result is a how-to poem inspired by a line from Dillard’s poem, “A Natural History of Getting Through The Year,” which was inspired by the diary of a “19th century naturalist from Staunton, Virginia.”
“Plan of Nature Study for April”
Walk quietly into the woods; they are still waking up. Tread softly on paths the deer keep open all year.
Pause on a moss-covered rock. Notice the carpet of oak leaves, littered with acorn caps, at your feet.
Watch as a bee buzzes hopefully around eager bursts of green stretching toward the strengthening sun.
Listen to the drumming of a woodpecker echoing from the far ridge.
Continue around the pond, where frogs and turtles bask. Pass a tree stripped of its bark. Try to interpret the hieroglyphs left by a long-gone invader.
Wonder at the broad leaves of the skunk cabbage, spring’s standard-bearers, proclaiming the season’s return.
Carolyn Merchant‘s 1980 book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution is, according to Kathryn Aalto, “one of the most important feminist books ever written.” (Writing Wild, p. 102) I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of it. In her groundbreaking book, Merchant “analyzes environmental history to frame the relationship between the natural world and humanity, particularly gender and the environment.” (Writing Wild, p. 103) She also helps give rise to the idea of ecofeminism, or “a feminist approach to understanding ecology.”
Merchant’s ideas are new to me, so I needed a poetic form that could help me distill them and gain some deeper understanding. I find that acrostics sometimes give me a vocabulary for a topic and get the words flowing, especially if its a topic I don’t know a lot about. This seemed like a good place to start. And because it’s the end of a long week, it also seemed like a good place to stop for now.
Earth, mother to all, Cradles and nurtures the Organic cosmos, Fuels the vital forces of Ensouled beings. Magical traditions are Inextricably linked, a vast symbiotic Network, millenia in the making. Its equilibrium has been disrupted, no longer Sustainable, thanks to Mechanization and greed.
If you have been following these Writing Wild posts, you may have noticed the profiled authors are in roughly chronological order. As we approach the present, there are more writers I am familiar with, even a fan of. That is true today. Award-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died in 2019, is well known and widely loved. Ruth Franklin, writing in The New Yorker, states that Oliver “tends to use nature as a springboard to the sacred.” Kathryn Aalto explains that “a fusion of mystery,prayer, and presence is at the heart of all Oliver’s poetry and prose.” (Writing Wild, p. 92)
Attempting to write a poem after Mary Oliver seems like a fool’s errand. And yet I am compelled to follow her “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I have been following these directions for over sixty years, long before I’d heard of Mary Oliver. But the poetry of those steps has always been in my bones.
I decided the best approach to today’s challenge would be to use one of Oliver’s poems as a mentor text, copy it “word for word, then replace [that poet’s] language with your own.” (I posed this challenge for my critique group back in February.
Deciding on a subject wasn’t difficult. Also on my blog today is a celebration of Leslie Bulion & Robert Meganck’s wonderful new book, Spi-Ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs. I have always loved the beauty and grace of spiders. A spider I observed in my garden one morning became the topic of this poem. I couldn’t find and poems by Mary Oliver about spiders (I looked quickly; there must be one or two). The mentor poem I chose is “The Instant” (found on p. 51 of Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver). Oliver’s words from the original poem are italicized.
The Instant after Mary Oliver
Today, a small spider, pearly and round scrambled through the high grass, it
seemed desperate to get away from my invading hands but couldn’t move
fast enough. Was she swollen with eggs, impelled by instinct to protect them?
My heart ached for her, remembered a feverish boy, clutched by a silent enemy one long ago night, and with no sound at all I was gone.
“Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision– it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so.”
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne ~
As I was getting ready to host day four of the blog tour celebrating Spi-Ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs, Leslie Bulion and Robert Meganck’s terrific new book published by Peachtree last month, I conducted an informal survey of my students regarding spiders. I found very few fans. Most didn’t like them because they were afraid of being bitten or thought that spiders are poisonous. Well, an hour or so with Spi-Ku will set the record straight.
This book is bursting with facts and figures about these amazing arachnids. Did you know, for example, that there are more than forty-eight thousand species of spiders in the world?! Or that “spiders have crawled the Earth for more than 400 million years?” Neither did I! The best nonfiction not only teaches new information, it clarifies misunderstandingsas well. Virtually every child I shared this book with thought that a daddy longlegs was a spider, but Leslie clears up that confusion right away.
Leslie is a master of playful, informative science poetry for kids. Her previous work includes Superlative Birds, Leaf Litter Critters, and Amphibian Acrobats, among others. Using both poetry and informational text, Leslie closely examines these misunderstood creatures. She creatively weaves together cool details with playful, poetic language. The results are lines like “sun-shimmer silk” and “…its own family recipe/to make a fly smoothie.” She addresses all aspects of arachnid life, including:
Types of spiders and different hunting techniques
How spiders move
How they eat
Types of webs
Types of camouflage
Egg laying and care of young
These poems can be enjoyed on their own, but the nonfiction notes and back matter, including suggestions for further reading, deepen readers’ understanding of spiders. Leslie has also created a Teacher’s Guide with additional tips and activities. Spi-Ku will spark new questions and send kids off to learn more. One student wanted to know more about how hummingbirds use spider silk in their nests. Another was fascinated by the way pirate spiders lured and trapped other spiders in their own webs!
Robert Meganck’s illustrations let readers get up close and personal with these curious creatures. The whimsical illustrations show spiders on the move, capturing prey, and hanging out in webs, Another feature that will rivet kids’ attention are the pages which show the relative sizes of the spiders described in Leslie’s poems.
Nature lovers of all ages will devour this book. After spending time with Spi-Ku, all readers will learn to appreciate, if not love, our eight-legged friends.
Please visit the other stops on Spi-Ku’s blog tour:
I worry that we’re forgetting the lessons of Silent Spring, that we’ve substituted other pernicious insecticides for DDT. Fighting back against large chemical companies feels impossible. Maybe this project is really just one way for me to try.
Today’s poem if a fib. Fibs are based on the Fibonacci sequence, which predicts patterns in nature. This form seemed appropriate for a poem based on the work of a woman who wrote extensively about how “earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment.” (Silent Spring, p. 16) To create this fib, I chose words at random from page 16 and 17 of Silent Spring. Then, following a syllable count to match, then mirror, the Fibonacci sequence, arranged them into a (hopefully) meaningful sequence.
Earth, air, river alchemy supports the balance, powers earth’s enduring nature.
In 1870, Nan Shepherd’s ancestors were farming sheep in the highlands of northeast Scotland. One hundred or so miles away, on the other side of the Cairngorm Mountains, my great-great-grandparents were preparing to leave Inverness for the United States. Their son, John Stuart, eventually settled in the hills of western Connecticut, where he farmed until his death in 1955. I have lived on land that was once part of that farm, where cattle grazed and apple, quince and pear trees blossomed every spring, for the past 35 years. And although the connection is tenuous, I feel a deep affinity for Nan Shepherd and her love of the Cairngorms.
Shepherd wrote three novels and a volume of poetry before publishingThe Living Mountain. It is this book for which Shepherd is best remembered today. Maria Papova describes The Living Mountain as “a most unusual braiding of memoir, field notebook, and philosophical inquiry irradiated with the poetic.”
Choosing a form for today’s poem was a challenge, but in the end I opted for another Golden Shovel.
Vita Sackville-West, today’s featured author, is remembered by many as the lover of Virginia Woolf. Many more people remember her today because of the world-famous gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, England, which she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, created after they bought the run-down property in 1930. Sackville-West was also a prolific poet, essayist, novelist. For many years she wrote “In Your Garden,” a weekly column about gardening that appeared in the Observer.
Because Sackville-West was such a prolific author (she even has her own Twitter feed!), I decided to gather a bouquet of lines and write a cento. I may have broken the rules a bit by changing tenses to help lines fit together. These words are italicized. Most of these lines come from her poem “The Garden” or her gardening columns.
The Art of Gardening
Beneath the snowy mountains of the sky, we are watching daffodils come up in the orchards: Evidence of life. In April, the angel of the months, the young love of the year, the possibilities are really unlimited.
Soon, the morning glory climbs toward the sun, a pale blue drift, some magic in this humbler sphere. Overblown with roses, I like generosity wherever I find it.
Like recurrent patterns on a scroll, a vast mauve-and-green cobweb, quivers with its own lightness and buoyancy. Wafts of vanilla come to me, and everywhere bees go racing with the hours, eternally renewed evidence of a determination to live. As daily life accepts the night’s arrest, Autumn in felted slippers shuffles on, muted yet fiery In one defiant flame before they go.
But you, oh gardener, poet that you be though unaware, now use your seeds like words and make them lilt with color nicely flung, always looking forward to doing something better than before.
Mary Austin is today’s featured author. Like most of the women profiled in Writing Wild, Austin charted her own course in life. Aalto describes her as “an ethnographer and feminist, activist and mystic, speaker and writer.” (p. 49) In her first book, The Land of Little Rain, Austin paints a vivid picture of the plants, animals, and people of the area between the High Sierra and the Mojave Desert of California. Unlike the region she’s describing, Austin’s writing is lush and evocative: this is a place she knows and loves.
Today’s poem is another Golden Shovel. With so many rich lines to choose from, it was a challenge to pick just one, so I have woven some of Austin’s other phrases into this poem. These words are italicized.
Welcome to day 3 of Writing Wild, my National Poetry Month project for 2021. Today’s featured author is Gene Stratton-Porter, an Indiana native and author of novels and nature studies, poetry and essays. Kathryn Aalto describes Stratton-Porter as a “a fascinating figure at the nexus of early twentieth century changes in conservation and gender roles…[a] maverick.” (p. 40) Her best-known book, A Girl of the Limberlost, published in 1909, sounds vaguely familiar to me, but I know I never read it.
I was more intrigued by Stratton-Porter’s nature studies, many of which are available online. Maybe because I don’t know a lot about them, I was drawn to Moths of the Limberlost (1912). Because I could print pages from this book, I decided to create a blackout poem today. I’ve never tried this form, and finding the right page to work with was like searching for the moths themselves! I finally just picked two pages at random. And although my drawing skills are woefully inadequate, I had fun creating today’s poem.