On Alum Creek

Our boots slide on the solid creek, frozen waist-deep water. A sycamore is dying, its branches of white horn fading in the sun. The roots trail to the creek edge, where each day ice gathers around the nubs, surrounding and breaking and forming again.

We are one man and one woman. It is the shortest day, the solstice, and already we feel it passing on: the flickering of sun, the colder absorbing air disguised as breath, brushing our faces, our ankles. You glide far onto the ice, onto the deep shadow of the sycamore, walking stick discarded on the bank. Your breath follows you, floating up as you shout, "Come on, the water's fine!" I edge out, uncertain, my stick tapping its tattoo before me. Heavy yellow boots anchor your feet as the sky presses down, the ice trembling beneath you, water rushing through the crust when the creek turns its corner. Even when we came this way, a fading wind washed over the fields. The bare crust of snow broke beneath our boots, the numb earth rose in tufts of brown grass and leaves as we followed a dry gully down.

I stand ready to hear your cry, to reach out when the ice divides against you. I know you will fall. I can see it in the slow ripple of the crust each time you turn, push off, slide; even as the ice cracks you drift away smiling, daring me to follow.

One can argue that nature is mere background in this poem, that the man and woman are testing their wills along with the frozen waters and as such symbolize the implied dynamics of a relationship: commitment. That is one interpretation. If you only identify nature poems as ones that contemplate or celebrate the outdoors, then Townsend's poem belongs in the love category.

But take a closer look. Her poem is as much about nature as human nature. The setting features a sycamore tree along Alum Creek, whose waist-deep water appears frozen. The time is winter. The exact day is the solstice —the shortest day in December —and the snow plays a leading role in the drama's theme that not only pits man against woman but both against nature. Thus, Townsend's poem also involves four traditional elements of nature poetry: the setting, the season, the solstice and the theme.

In the end, Townsend's poem is a nature poem broadly defined. Let's attempt such a definition:

A poem in which nature plays an integral role, emphasizing terrain and life (including humans) in a natural setting, season, metaphor, symbol, situation or theme.

Here are a dozen basic types:

Tribute to the Season. The nature poem also is the oldest in the canon. Verses have been offered up to nature for millennia, usually welcoming the season or asking the season to be gentle, joyous or fruitful. Consider this excerpt by an unknown poet from one of the oldest lyrics (circa thirteenth century) in English:

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