Ideas About Nature and the Environment

Ideas for nature and environmental poems surround you —literally—no matter where you live. The first step is to concentrate on objects and images that you normally overlook in your everyday activities. Once your perception has sharpened, your perspective — how you opt to view nature and the environment — should develop and help you generate ideas. Try these exercises:

1. Go outdoors to your favorite spot or just wander until you arrive at a place. Stop and observe all its natural characteristics — weeds, insects, flowers, animals, trees — whatever you see that has not been made by a person. Now look for the manufactured objects —sidewalk, house, skyscraper, garden, pop can. Contemplate the relationship between human and nature in that setting.

2. Wander to your least favorite spot outdoors and do the same exercise.

3. Return to your dwelling and look out the window. Describe what you see that is natural —not manufactured by a person. Now go outdoors to the scene that you viewed through your window. Describe what you see that is natural and manufactured. Contemplate how, if at all, your perspective changed between viewing the scene from your window and from the outdoors.

4. Conduct a tour of your dwelling. Inspect it closely for rocks, plants, insects, animals (not pets) — anything ordinarily found outdoors that hasn't been touched by a person. Describe those objects or living things. If viewing an object, touch and contemplate it. If viewing a plant, inspect it closely. If viewing another living thing, imagine touching it and contemplate how you or it would feel or react. Interpret the experience.

5. Walk out of your house and look at the largest and the smallest living thing. If you live in a suburban area, that may be a tall tree and an ant. If you live on a farm, it could be a cornstalk and an ant. If you live in a city, it could be a blade of grass and an ant. Imagine how the tallest and smallest would view each other if they could. Imagine how each would view you. Assess how you viewed each of these entities, if at all, before the exercise and how you view them now.

To inspire your muse, let's preview nature and environmental poems in the mini anthology:

• In "Vespers," poet and professor R.T. Smith focuses on the lone image of a bird. "One of my students once asked me why I write so much about birds," he says, "and the answer is threefold. As a former countryman now moved to town, the birds are the only features of the old landscape that I've been able to stay in touch with. Secondly, birds fly and sing, the two gifts I've spent a life trying to approximate. Finally, the old practice of augury haunts me, the belief that somehow the secret of things is contained in birds."

Smith has this to say about nature poetry: "The natural is, for me, Yeats's 'whatever is begotten, born, and dies.' That passage, in all its beauty, pathos and instructive radiance, is the nature that insists on occupying my imagination."

• In "On the edge," Charlene Blue Horse depicts nature in the tradition passed along to her by Elders, who in this poem, make an appearance.

• In "Sand and Blue-Green Algae," Seattle poet Michael Spence got his environmental idea from a documentary. "I'd been watching some nature film about reefs and blue-green algae, and how the algae made not only the reefs but a good deal of the very air we breathe. And I got to thinking how important so many small things are to our basic existence on this planet, and how most often we pay no attention or denigrate such things. And it seemed to me then that the only time we acknowledge something is when it's so huge, so physically overpowering or unignorable, that even the most arrogant of us has to confront it on its own terms."

• In "Redwings," William Heyen writes about the experience of seeing a flock of these birds burst in flight. He calls this "witnessing a primal act of the natural world," underscoring our ecological relationship. Heyen notes that when he saw the redwings "there was a surprising moment when they flared into essence and vanished. The speaker seems to hold to this as truth and perhaps as prophecy."

• In "Reflections on the Sherwin Williams Can," Debra Kaufman uses an urgent voice — "environmental poetry has a nitty-gritty edge," she says —to express her concerns about Earth's future.

• In "The End of Science Fiction" by Lisel Mueller, a poem written in the 1970s, aspects of the human-planet relationship are no longer prophecy but fact.

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