Cultural Filters

At this point it is important to note that each of us views nature differently, however hard we try to depict it in verse. Each of us carries the filters of culture and experience that influence how we perceive and interpret the world. Rather than attempt to explain the myriad types of possible interpretations — an exercise that could fill an encyclopedia! —I'll contrast the poems of two women from different cultures and regions.

Poet Sharon Klander came north to earn a doctorate in creative writing at Ohio University. "In August 1987," she recalls, "I moved from Houston —an hour's drive from the Gulf of Mexico, where, except for a five-year stint as an undergraduate in Austin, Texas, I'd lived my entire life — to the small town of Athens, Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians.

"I was suddenly surrounded by hills covered with full, brilliant trees that blocked the sunset before the sun could reach the horizon. And while this particular landscape may have felt comforting to natives of the area, while they may have felt as safe and secure within these natural boundaries as in the shadow of the Almighty, I felt claustrophobic and more apprehensive than ever about the upcoming winter. There were no bold western vistas, no suns dipped slowly in water, no faceted, fascinating light tipping the waves. I was left to exchange all my cotton for wool, to burrow in with books, and — thank God — to write poems."

For Klander, writing nature poetry was the means to acquaint herself with Ohio. Slowly her perception and perspective began to change, and she was able to produce several poems, including this one, which melds the two different landscapes:

WEST TEXAS, OHIO

There was no rain, no relief; no wind but dust.

The sun like a burning bush pointing back.

Small wonder we fought blind in that constant glare, lost every kind word in sand and heat, in a closed hand.

For the first time we each live far from home, starting over in landscapes so different we'd believe their succulent beauty blasphemous if it weren't for the nights, this autumn sky filled with hieroglyphics of desert awe, desert faith. I've missed you. In the east the moon makes lace of what clouds are left. I go inside, read your letters come up by accident with the blankets for an early cold season.

"In 'West Texas, Ohio,' " Klander explains, "the desert landscape of El Paso, Texas, is more than mere backdrop of the problems in the relationship between the speaker of the poem and the 'you' [the man]." In part, she says, the speaker's grief is triggered by remembering a relationship and the old landscape: "her search for something — anything —in the nature of her new home." As such, when the poet leaves West Texas and ends up in Ohio, fusing the two regions in her title, she settles in for a hard winter with letters from her "unforgettable other." Her epiphany —"I've missed you" —leads to an emotional chill, which corresponds to the season, requiring blankets.

Klander advises, "An early poet and mentor once instructed me to 'look out the window and write what you see.' And I do, as I believe most poets do, most of the time."

At the heart of Klander's poem is acclimation — how she adapts to a new environment — and how that causes her to see the world in different light. Klander's cultural influences and experiences force her to come to terms with nature in a new region. Initially, at least, she does not feel comfortable in her new environs.

Native American culture treats nature much differently. Charlene Blue Horse is a published poet, speaker and teacher whose heritage is Ogalala Lakota (Pine Ridge Sioux). Says Blue Horse, "I suppose I had never thought about 'the role of nature in Native American verse.' When I think of the way Native Americans use nature, I first think Mi Takuye Oysin (All My Relations). Mi Takuye Oysin is what we say at the beginning and end of all ceremonies and at the end of all prayers. It's sort of like saying Amen, but rather than signifying the end of a prayer, or an agreement, it is a respectful reminder that we are related to all that lives and has a spirit. We are reminded that we depend on all our relations and they depend on us, for survival. When we refer to all our relations, we do not mean just immediate family, we mean all that were created by the same God."

Consequently, nature appears in the poems of Charlene Blue Horse without ornament, as part of her psyche, as this poem illustrates:

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