For thousands of years, poets have written about the outdoors. Sometimes, they praise scenery and wildness; sometimes, they compare humanity to nature.
Poets from Hesiod and Homer to Basho and Chaucer have found inspiration in flowers and mountains, trees and rivers; in English language poetry, William Wordsworth’s writing about nature is important. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, industrialization started to put a squeeze on Wordsworth’s England and the hills and glens of his beloved Lake District.
The beautiful river Wye, along which he’d walked and mused, got more befouled every day from factories, mills, and denser population. Thus, when he wrote of the “tranquil restoration” that nature gave to him, he was doing so with anxiety that the “beauteous forms” he so loved might soon be gone.
He lamented this loss because his poems don’t just praise nature, they make a radical proposition: nature should be of value to us not only for its beauty and resources but for how it develops our “moral being.”
Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, and Robinson Jeffers are more recent voices that have explored our encounters with the out-of-doors. As have I. Like many readers of this page, I’ve hiked and ran through woods with the uninhibited joys of youth – for me, it was the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York, when I was young.
For my children, it was in our nearby mountains and forests – up at Skookum Lake, by the shores of Sullivan Lake, in the deep forests of Upper Priest River. We’d find mushrooms and see deer, occasionally stumble on big piles of bear scat, fish and paddle and collect wood for camp fires that we’d sit around, sometimes talking, sometimes listening to the crackle of flames and the sounds of a night among trees and stars.
I don’t know if our moral beings were made in those moments, but I do know that we talked to one another and we learned the names of some trees and flowers. We slowed down and settled toward a pace that on most days seems elusive, what with the cacophony and hurry-flurry of cars and emails and text, text, texting!
I asked several local writers to share a few poems with me – different works, different poets, different visions of nature. The poems included here, and several to follow in coming weeks, speak to our lives on this beautiful part of the planet.
Tod Marshal is Washington’s poet laureate.
Back to the Wye
Excerpt from “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798”
By William Wordsworth
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: – feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: – that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, –
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
English poet William Wordsworth lived 1770 to 1850.
Larger than life
Author’s title: “Because the Mountain Dwarfs the Grove, the Sky the Mountain”
By Robert Wrigley
Some botanists have proffered a theory
that a stand of aspens – what we call a grove –
is in fact a single organism, and that therefore
the largest living thing on the planet must be
just such a stand of trees, much like the grove
I am at this very moment lying in or on
or among the many ringed arboreal embodiments of,
each of which, because it is late October,
is ablaze inside its typical quaking, in the annual
gold of its slow descent into dormancy,
and many of which are even now letting such gold go,
so that reclined as I am upon it or among them,
I am, within no more than a few minutes myself
made golden, blanketed by their or its spade-like leaves
even as a million more quiver elegantly above me,
as though, though I know otherwise, it or they approve
of my presence and consent to cover me
as must be my wish, since I do not rise
but, rather, blow away the occasional one fallen on my eyes,
so that I might see them, each delicate hand
of them or it above me – although the leaves will not all fall
this afternoon, and already the autumn cold
has worked its way through my jacket and into my limbs
and bones, as I peer upward into the last light
of the setting sun and shiver, just as they do.
Robert Wrigley is a prolific and award-winning poet; he also likes to fly fish.
This Thin Road
By Polly Buckingham
The reflections of furled lily pads
fall across a black pond. Marmots
weave across the path and water
drops through basalt cracks.
I gather rods of light in a basket
of grass and sing along this thin road.
A chatter of geese and squirrels
joins the invisible choir. Coyotes
laugh across ponds and rocks,
and the moon cuts the sky
with its crooked smile.
Time is a little star
waiting for night.
Polly Buckingham lives in Medical Lake and is the author of “The Expense of a View” and “A Year of Silence.”
By Paul Lindholt
Among pebbles of the streambed
it dips and prods,
now underwater, feathers stretched
for balance against the flow,
turning over stones
where small insects hide,
darting there and there
after them, clutching the bottom
as though on a vertical slide,
swept back then climbing
forward again, a liquid shuttle
grooming the streambed,
loosening debris that swirls
into the current, still underwater,
still prying, a squat
gray genius of balance,
voiceless and single-minded,
never stepping twice
on the same stone,
dipping to seize larva, always
bobbing and searching
for food in the flux
of its home, the current
sliding past thin and clear
and insistent, the beak probing
between toes, wings clinging,
now breaking the surface to light
on a trembling spruce branch
where it rests and drips the wings.
Paul Lindholdt is the author of “In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau;” he teaches at Eastern Washington University.
Author’s title: “Executive Order to Ratify the Paris Agreement”
By John Eliason
What difference is 2 degrees,
When the fox is encased in a block of ice
Found by a farmer, pulled from a river
She had seen other animals frozen in time
The water will come again this spring, down from Silver Valley
Secrets in sediments: Super fund, super fun
When an ocean rises
How come I cannot see it closing in on me
I wring my hands for environmental protection
They are chafing, cracked, and wrinkled like a sun-struck mud
Smeared to form striations on the great basin of land
Remind me to keep watching those markers
Then again, when I notice frost settled, it has already been striking at night
In between the warmth, we feel cold
We shudder and shutter and wish
Away with coats of separation, away with it all
Fix a gaze on the stars and stand naked in that frost – just for a minute
Then hide. Go back inside (but remember vast and frigid places),
And, too, that globe of vulnerability
We do this over and over, always running out.
John Eliason lives and writes in Spokane and teaches in the English Department at Gonzaga University.
Lost in the moment
Author’s title: “In Blackfeet There’s No Word for ‘Wall’ But You Can Say ‘Climb Up’ ”
By Roger Dunsmore
We pick our way across eons of scree
mountain goats have traversed
toward a thread of water – molten silver
flowing to gray-orange rock
to green forest to Medicine Grizzly Lake,
far beyond the mooing cattle of Cut Bank Creek.
The night sky had been strangely luminous,
a trace of aurora?
Later, hours of solid rain
puddle inside our worn-out tent.
We had seen the storm move toward us,
late afternoon, boots off, sitting easy
in a large dish of warm grass,
out of the wind
beneath Triple Divide Peak.
We pass a flask of whiskey,
pour some into the ground,
blow the conch to each of the three oceans
(the flow of this mountain’s snow melt),
softly ring the temple bells,
say words to move the skin around our ﬂesh
the ﬂesh of this high place,
three glorious marmots
in hairy mop-coats astride the rock slides.
Walking out, the Peak at our backs,
waterfall sounds whisper canyon walls;
we sing any old song we can remember
“Jimmy Crack Corn and I don’t care…”
around blind corners, keep turning back
to slow, ocean-mother mountain
imprinting across the hairs of our necks.
We are not just dwarfed, bent, swallowed here
by great, acre-gasps of space
enclosed by even greater walls of rock,
we are disappeared.
Roger Dunsmore taught Humanities and Wilderness Studies at University of Montana from 1963-2013: his 5th volume of poetry, “Crew Boss: New and Selected Poems,” will be published in 2017.
The Passion of Pacific Salmon
By Laurie Klein
Neither salt nor squall can hold us.
Forsaking the sea, our bodies
bleach to the color of rapids,
an ancient quest, where time funnels:
magnetic pull, lip to tail, the headlong
breach. Submerse, surge –
virginal, hungry, let each brood over
particular stones, the rightness of silt,
the natal source, where we meet
our tattered match – encore as love
in the amber shallows,
finned to froth by glints of scale,
frenzy suspended for
grace, fanning its tender gills.
Laurie Klein’s debut poetry collection about the natural world is “Where the Sky Opens.”
By Nance Van Winckel
I could not resist it.
It could not endure me.
Had my treks along its edge
not hung so hard to the last
and best of its damp,
I might have slipped out
through a warm red mud –
same as I’d come in.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently “Our Foreigner,” winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize.
Larch Needles Dancing
Author’s title: “Gold Larch Needles Are Dancing In A Cold October Wind”
By Terry Lawhead
Gold larch needles are dancing in a cold October wind.
The river runs low and clear over white boulders
Dropped by ice thousands of years past.
Everyone is hard at work elsewhere,
Ducks float on the water here.
I could walk to Yukon and be better off for the hardships
Than succeeding at any goal.
A window in a small room in the mansion of my heart has opened.
Terry Lawhead works in community and economic development for rural Washington; he was a logger, rancher, farmer and farrier.