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.
Rural Hours, Susan Fenimore Cooper’s best know work, captures the daily rhythms of the natural world in early-nineteenth century Cooperstown, NY. Her entry for March 22nd describes “the return of the robins.” Since returning robins are still a sure sign of spring, I took this line for the title of a week’s worth of observations of this beloved bird.
“The Return of the Robins”
Flash of red against blue sky: the robins have returned!
A riot of robins patrol dormant hay fields: the borderland between winter and spring.
Welcome to “Writing Wild,” my National Poetry Month project for 2021. A few months ago, I came acrossWriting Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World, by Kathryn Aalto. The title immediately drew me in, and I have been savoring this book, which “celebrates 25 women whose influential writing helps deepen our connection to and understanding of the natural world,” ever since. Many of these women were very familiar and some I had heard of, but others were completely new to me. Aalto highlights an additional 47 women whose work is also grounded in the natural world. I soon realized that I could spend the rest of my life reading all of the books written by these trailblazing women. I also realized that these women were a deep well of inspiration. And so this project was born.
My goal this year is to use the writing of each of the 25 featured writers to inspire a poem. (I have chosen 5 of the highlighted authors to round out the list to 30.) Originally, I thought I would do a Golden Shovel every day, but because words and ideas often suggest the appropriate form, I think I’d like to leave my options open.
All of the writers included in Writing Wild pushed back against the expectations and/or restrictions society placed on them. The first featured writer, Dorothy Wordsworth may have been eclipsed by her famous brother, William, but, Dorothy also wrote poetry, letters and kept journals, recording her keen observations of England’s Lake District. Aalto states that Dorothy “wrote so well that both her brother and Coleridge are known to have lifted phrases from her journals.”
And so I begin National Poetry Month with a Golden Shovel, using the following lines of Dorothy’s from “Grasmere–A Fragment:”
“…to wander out alone. Lured by a little winding path…”
You can discover more National Poetry Month projects by visiting Susan Bruck at Soul Blossom Living.