Observer’s Credo

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Defining ecopoetry, I would begin as follows, defining not in terms of form but as an observer’s credo:

To say that I am an observer, a participant, not the end of a process of design but merely a momentary slice of time that’s wearing skin—

to begin at the assumption that I am no more important to the cosmos than a tube worm or a wood duck—

to derive my understanding of myself from what I observe and experience in the world around me, rather than to derive my understanding of the world around me from what I observe and experience in myself.

To say that a poem about the little woodswallow of Australia—one that documents and calls attention to its habitat, behavior, and appearance, gives the reader a nonfiction introduction—is of more value and significance than a poem about my own hopes or fears or discomforts, successes or failures.

To suspect the horse “knows” more about grass than I do,

to recognize that the dog’s capacity to read history and news about what’s happening now and has happened here is more developed than mine, that she has skills and information available to her that I do not.

To wonder about the decline of the golden-winged warbler, wonder how much is due to human-induced loss of habitat, how much to interbreeding with blue-winged warblers—

to learn all I can and know that I do not know—

I do not know if the interbreeding is preparatory to better traits to survive weather and environment shifts, or preparatory to extinction.

To acknowledge not-knowing,

to try to create as little disturbance as possible,

to understand more.

To view the human species as one of many,

to acknowledge that, to a greater extent than any other species, our waste products are more often toxins than nutrients, that we can rank ourselves “above” other species only in this: we are the most venomous and deadly, taking as our prey, unthinkingly and unknowingly, everything within our reach.

To recognize that, as a member of this species, I am probably a sociopath by both nature and nurture.


In response to Dave Bonta’s “Statement of Ecopoetics” and the resulting Facebook discussion.

Statement of Ecopoetics

red-tailed hawk close-up

red-tailed hawk close-up

An editor asked me for a “statement of ecopoetics” to accompany a poem in an as-yet unpublished anthology. (More on that if/when it becomes a reality.) I’m not normally given to these kinds of academic exercises, but I did in fact have such a statement that I’d written back in 2010, and I initially thought it was good enough to use again, because I still agree with its premise: that poets should add extinction to our roster of the great subjects, right up there with love and death. But it didn’t say anything about the sort of nature poetry I most enjoy reading and trying to write — not to mention what, if anything, might differentiate ecopoetry from traditional English-language nature poetry. So I’ve just come up with the following new statement which, believe it or not, represents me being as concise as possible.

For ecopoetry to become more than a simple re-branding of nature poetry, it must begin with an avoidance of easy pieties and recycled myths. It must be grounded not only in the writer’s felt contact with the non-human world, but also in actual knowledge of that world and its inhabitants and processes. It will share with science a passion for careful observation and discovery and a full awareness of the tentative nature of human understanding. For models, it will look less to Ovid, Wordsworth and Gary Snyder than to Lucretius, John Clare, Kenji Miyazawa and Pattiann Rogers.

Ecopoetry should be humble, recognizing that humans are far from the only makers; other species are also capable of tool-making, habitat-shaping, empathy, deception, and art. Most of all, it should abandon the traditional Western dualistic understanding of nature. The Mandarin Chinese word for nature, ziran, literally means “of-itself thus,” and it’s this sense of a world with its own laws, of beings with their own integrity and trajectories that also lies behind our word wild (a cognate with willed, according to some). Nature poetry may be pastoral, but ecopoetry is always wild.