In 1991, Vintage Books published Sisters of the Earth, an anthology of women’s nature writing that quickly sold 100,000 copies. “There’s something about catching a wave that’s mystical and magical and Sisters of the Earth caught that wave,” says the book’s editor, Lorraine Anderson. Anderson, a writer and professor in Corvallis, Oregon, adds, “The women’s movement had motivated and inspired women like me; we were getting restless to put this together with our environmental leanings.”
Brenda Hillman, Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at St. Mary’s College says, “The women’s movement has been so good for poetry, it has given so much opportunity to keep our attention on the anti-patriarchy, the intuitive, the kind of thing that isn’t authoritarian and gives us a way to rethink.”
Sisters of the Earth is still in print. Yet, Anderson isn’t satisfied with the condition of the natural world. “There has not been as big an awakening as I’d like to see.” Anderson recently completed a five-year transformation of a “big lawn” into a garden that, she says, functions as a “lab” for learning how to “live in cooperation with nature… I learned how to observe more closely what is already happening and what needs to happen. I thought deeply about ecological principles.” Writing and listening to poetry, she says, is also a way of paying attention. “Poetry is bite-sized. A salient feature of our culture is our attention spans have shrunk.”
Poetry can be absorbed in chunks—and it lingers. A poem that starts in the writer’s recollection presses an image into the reader’s mind, like an imprint in the earth where a body has rested. Janice Harrington’s “Shaking the Grass”:
Evening, and all my ghosts come back to me
like red banty hens to catalpa limbs
and chicken-wired hutches, clucking, clucking,
and falling, at last, into their head-under-wing sleep.
I think about the field of grass I lay in once,
between Omaha and Lincoln. It was summer, I think.
The air smelled green, and wands of windy green, a-sway,
a-sway, swayed over me. I lay on green sod
like a prairie snake letting the sun warm me.
What does a girl think about alone
in a field of grass, beneath a sky as bright
as an Easter dress, beneath a green wind?
Maybe I have not shaken the grass.
All is vanity.
Maybe I never rose from that green field.
All is vanity.
Maybe I did no more than swallow deep, deep breaths
and spill them out into story: all is vanity.
Maybe I listened to the wind sighing and shivered,
spinning, awhirl amidst the bluestem
and green lashes: O my beloved! O my beloved!
I lay in a field of grass once, and then went on.
Even the hollow my body made is gone.
Harrington, a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois, explains how the poem came about. “I was between Lincoln and Omaha and lay down on the grass and started thinking about our impact on the earth. We want to believe we are so significant and of course we’re not. All of our words and actions will disappear, even our deaths are insignificant. Which sounds not very hopeful. But isn’t that the natural order and what we have to keep in mind? Ultimately, we are creatures of earth—we arrive from it and are going to slide back into it and to always keep a clear eye on our smallness.”
Hillman unifies abstraction in language with the pure abstraction of sound, including birdsong, along with the symbology of punctuation, into her poems. “The goal and heart for a writer, and for me as a woman, is to make relationships between the unknowable, invisible, unavailable world of the unconsciousness and the spirit world, and the world we can actually physically see and experience that is so amazing. I grew up in the Arizona desert and developed early on an intense love for the plants and animals and geology of that ecosystem. To me it’s such a relief to be able to go to the place where there is less ‘Brenda’ and more of that other language even though language is our great bridge in some way.”
In part of “Dioxin Sunset,” from her 2001 collection Cascadia, a star’s daily phenomenon is lifted through layers of political and personal meaning.
Pink can be proud when you see it, making conquests,
the double “) (“ of
a confident sun Drake must have watched going down (seasons of)
first as a vase, then as a pan.
The definition of nature shifts depending on audience and speaker. As scientists document more thoroughly information on non-human species, and on systems and patterns at work on the planet, ground opens up for poets, who are collectors of facts, explorers of ideas, and creators of metaphor. Women poets are excavating the possibilities for nature poems in the 21st century, based on intersections of people and places, and species.
Harrington’s poem “Possum” from Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone, alternates a human’s perception of a possum and facts about the marsupial’s life: “Fifteen baby possums fit in the bowl/of a teaspoon” with “In Vernon, a colored child is given/a possum patty from a heat-smoky skillet,/and it is salt-sweet, greasy, and generously/peppered, large enough to fill both her hands.” Harrington points out that writing is a form of caretaking. “If we’re not discussing place and the environment then it’s not seen. What I know as a children’s author is that people have barriers against lectures and an authoritative voice but we leave ourselves open to stories.”
For Anderson, poetry is “basic food,” essential as “air.” And the problems facing our ecosystem are urgent. Twenty-one years ago she wrote, “If we’re to give our endangered planet the time and space to heal, we must begin to see nature not as a backdrop against which the human drama is enacted, but as an integral part of our lives, as something we must respond to, respect, actively care about.” Today, she says, “We know so much about what we’re doing to earth and the atmosphere and we’re not doing anything about it. We’re not passionately connected to the life force—to save our species—because that’s really what’s at stake.”
In Champaign, Harrington lives in proximity to a contaminated lot, a power plant, and a nuclear power plant. “The water,” she says, “tastes nasty,” and she keeps filters on the taps. “For a contemporary poet, we can’t not think about nature because we are seeing first-hand in our country, as women, what is happening in our bodies—breast milk with toxins, early signs of puberty in girls at higher rates. A woman’s body and the body of nature are in some ways one—you have to talk about it. Concern, worry, fear of the future is always pressing in on my conscience both as a woman and a poet.”
Anderson, Harrington and Hillman hold simultaneous awareness of being women and writers, not necessarily that their work is determined by their gender but that it is shaped by their experiences as American women. “We went round and round in the 70s and 80s asking, ‘Is there a woman’s style?’ ‘No,’ is the answer. But I think that there is woman’s experience that is profound and profoundly different from men’s experience,” Hillman says. “For me, it’s been ‘How do I work with this tradition that I so love, the Romantic nature tradition, in this time in which nature is ‘fallen,’ due in part to human practice? It’s our fault. So how do we still write as if we love this thing? It’s important to not embrace the ‘fallenness’ but to include the disaster that we have wrought as part of the redemption process. It’s not our job to fix it as poets but it’s our job to call attention to things.”
Calling attention to ecological issues does not mean abandoning art. “I don’t set out with an agenda,” Harrington explains. “I always try to look at every poem in the revision process and revise for the greatest meanings. I believe it’s through the local that you get to the universal.” She adds, “We live in places that demand our attention and that attention is part of our moral imperative. As a poet we have to pay attention. We have to set our hearts on fire and hope that someone sees them.”
So, back to Anderson’s garden, and her conviction to local sustainability and community. “I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I refuse to have a Facebook page. I think they’re actually isolating. Turn off the screen and go into the backyard. Look at ladybugs,” she says.
Hillman, who has done work with hypnotherapy and the collective unconscious, finds respite in the view through her office window. “I can sit here at this desk and get so absolutely zoned by my animus trip into a pine cone. I can say. ‘I’m going to be that spruce cone and not Brenda.’ I really think that getting into an altered state and not ‘I am stuck here with this’ is very much configured with the poetic self—what Keats called ‘negative capability’—and I feel that that is still our savior. We can throw ourselves into the other and be much less stuck. And it’s not that I mistake myself for the pine cone. But that we’re comrades. I’m not dominant. Unfortunately, I do have control over whether that tree lives and it doesn’t have control over whether I live, but that we coexist: living in relation to that has to be what poetry is.”
By attending to the local, through language, women poets make connections among then and now, not-us and us, finned and furred, for all nature. Women are poised to make an impact in the 21st-century. “I absolutely believe women can do this work of bringing us into relationship,” Hillman says. “Women’s poetry is in a very exciting place. We don’t have as much of a backlog of tradition so we can break the rules and be underground agents and cross boundaries in ways that are forceful and effective.”
“Though we are small,” Harrington says, “we can still have an incredible impact to turn things around and make things better. Even if you only act in your personal life. Or if you can do more—to reach out through poetry and connect the chain of potential that’s out there.” Once it is made, and enters the conversation, each poem is both an action and a call to another action. The poet acts with intention. “I don’t know who’s going to read it,” Harrington says of her work. “I hope I’m weaving a web and something good will come of it.”
In “Hydrology of California” Hillman spins an eco-poetical alphabet that shows the freedom women have to restructure our human relationship with our shared home.
Future of poetry there’s a stream between a & b as i write this a dream
of a west that would outlast us/ is we were life which we are drops
from Trinity ice storms to Smith River & down North Coast regions
brighter seaside towns with
two waitresses named Pam
Future of poetry i saw a black-faced gull a juvenile awaiting neap tide
The poem continues:
We ran near why-worry
levees & one time one of the developers said Well you wouldn’t want
to live in a tee-pee now would you brenda Future of poetry we saw
dactylic glomerata Leaves of grasses\i don’t honestly mind the word
introduced as in introduced species between c & d dogtail grasses cynosurus
echinatus Near the Capitol
The poet employs every tool of keyboard, ear, eye, of information and imagination, to nudge sleeping souls. Women, who are born with lullabies in their hearts and have always known how to harmonize, are singing. “It’s never been more true that we need a more feminine way with nature,” Anderson says. As women and as poets, we speak for our country and our planet. “Everything seems to be screaming that we have to be paying attention to nature—everything else hinges on it,” Harrington says. “I don’t think this is alarmist. It’s not the end of America as we know it. But maybe the beginning of a better American who can think about the decisions we make and the impact on ecology.”
Poet and freelance writer Alexa Mergen lives in a well-shaded house in Sacramento. At UC-Berkeley, George Washington University, and UC-Irvine, she studied poetry, journalism and translation. After years of teaching schoolchildren and mentoring teachers, she now leads community-based workshops in creativity and poetry with an emphasis on urban wildlife and natural history. alexamergen.com