While I’m not arguing that we can simply switch something as deeply engrained as a way of knowing like narrative, I do think that contemporary science and writing point in directions that we might usefully explore as we attempt to reimagine our lives in order to preserve this planet. Two of these contemporary directions are ecology and the lyric, one a science concept and the other a poetic concept, which have been combined in literary circles into the term ecopoetics.
The idea of the ecosystem was pioneered by the British biologist (really, the first ecologist), Sir Arthur Tansley. Here’s a quote from Tansley’s definitive work, “The Ecosystem.” Notice how he identifies isolation as the inevitable limitation—the useful fallacy—of human thinking.
“The whole method of science… is to isolate systems for the purpose of study… whether it be a solar system, a planet, a climatic region, a plant or animal community, an individual organism, an organic molecule, or an atom.” Today, we might add a subatomic particle—after all, progress has continued to discover smaller and smaller “building blocks,” the further and further we are able to penetrate (I love the way that this inward “progress” signifies the possible presence of infinity within us, as well as outwardly around us in the universe and perhaps beyond the universe). Tansley continues: “actually, the systems we isolate mentally are not only included as parts of larger ones, but they also overlap, interlock, and interact with one another. Isolation is artificial.”
For Tansley, the key was to understand the interactions within and between systems. Tansley would not have been interested in isolating an individual’s experience within an externalized “environment.” He would’ve sought a form of knowledge that honored the individual’s participation in, coevolution with, systems.
In the literary world, contemporary lyric poetry is perhaps best suited to explore the possibilities of thinking and feeling into and with the natural world. And while ecopoetics has been studied from a variety of angles, and is explored, I believe, more and more regularly by poets writing now, I want to turn to a specific poem by A. R. Ammons which articulates, for me, the values of an ecopoetics in relationship to an environmental poetics that is rooted in narrative. That poem is Ammons’s “Corson’s Inlet.” I won’t quote the full poem, but it’s available here, at the Poetry Foundation website.
Ironically, Ammons’s poem employs some of the signature elements of narrative: “I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning / to the sea,” begins the poem, setting up the familiar linear structure of a travel narrative. And while Ammons does supply observations in a fairly linear manner, those observations don’t amount to a plotted story. Instead, they provide instances upon which Ammons reflects, and those reflections point him, and us, toward ecopoetical thinking.
“[T]he walk liberating,” writes Ammons, “I was released from forms, / from the perpendiculars / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought / into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends / of sight.” While traditional thought tends toward fixed forms, Ammons, liberated, enters a space of purer seeing—unprocessed experience, in which forms are not fit to predetermined structures, but are shades, risings, “bends and blends”—notice the verbal forms translated into nouns: things are not static, but are in motion, becoming. I think of that moment in the movie The Girl with the Pearl Earring, where the painter Vermeer played by Colin Firth asks the maid played by Scarlet Johanssen what color to paint a cloud and she, because she sees purely, says yellow, not white or gray. And we understand that this is the key to Vermeer’s greatness. He sees. His thoughts are not pre-cast, pre-formed.
Ammons is the same, and goes on descriptively in this mode.
there are dunes of motion,
organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance
in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:
but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account:
in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of primrose
more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
irregular swamps of reeds,
though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all …
I love that part. Ammons is saying look how these systems interact, dune and swamp, everything mixing into its neighboring thing, everything interwoven. And he catches himself getting carried away with the reeds thing—he’s approaching infinite regress in trying to discern among grass, bayberry, yarrow—so he just shrugs and chuckles and reverts to the good enough statement, “predominantly reeds.” I love that self-deprecating sense of humor in Ammons.
As if taking instruction from Tansely’s definition of ecosystem, Ammons goes along exploring the interpenetrating systems he encounters, reflecting both on what he sees and how he sees it:
every living thing in
siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small
white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears
the shallows, darts to shore
to stab—what? I couldn’t
see against the black mudflats—a frightened
Considering his own act of observation, Ammons admits, “I have perceived nothing completely,” and “there is no finality of vision…. I am willing to go along, to accept / the becoming / thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends.”
I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
from outside …
by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek
to undercreek: but there are no lines, though
change in that transition is clear
as any sharpness: but ‘sharpness’ spread out,
allowed to occur over a wider range
than mental lines can keep.
Systems are the functional units in ecology, and if we could recast our thinking in this way, it might be harder to see ourselves as the stable center of a story that is ours. Notice how Tansley’s idea of systems extends from the cosmos to the atom—we’re somewhere in the middle. We, ourselves are a system made of and within other systems—our organs achieving homeostasis, our breath connecting us physically with the atmosphere we’re immersed in, our body parts fitting together nicely to allow us to move in this world. Of course, when one thing goes wrong, we begin to understand the relationship of the parts to the whole. This year, where I live, we’ve had the warmest winter and the warmest summer on record. A record number of daily record high temperatures has been set. From west to east, the whole country is suffering in drought, except where it’s flooding in northern Minnesota and the Dakotas. The citizens of Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, continue their long battle with the rising water table—diking, moving houses, seeking high ground. Many suspect that prehistoric Lake Aggasiz, the largest freshwater lake in the history of the world, is filling up again.
From my friend Chris Arigo, I heard a great quote from the poet Juliana Spahr, criticizing traditionally oriented environmental poetry—it goes something like, “traditional nature poetry is irresponsible because it shows the bird and not the bulldozer.” The bulldozer is nature, too. There it is, creating and erasing habitat, itself manufactured from all-natural components—you could even call it organic. It’s irresponsible not to see this, because when we deny our own nature, we separate ourselves from the consequences of our actions.
An ecological perspective argues that it’s no longer enough to isolate the bird or the human or any individual figure. We have to understand how the systems we participate in interact with each other.
I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.