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Into Something Better: How nature and poetry transform us By Marie Marchand, Ellensburg Poet Laureate




Everybody who’s anybody longs to be a tree

                   -Rita Dove, “Horse and Tree”


One of my favorite things to do is take my well-worn William Wordsworth book of poems on a hike in the wilderness and read aloud one of his most famous poems known as “Tintern Abbey.” Grounded on the fertile earth, I bask in the fragrance of pine as gorgeous lines of nature poetry wash over me: 


Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth;…

well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.


Poets harbor a deep affection for nature. The natural world invites observation and keen attention while minimizing artificial distractions, thus creating the perfect inner landscape for poetry-writing. Nature provides rich imagery, offering an array of potential metaphor, a literary device commonly used in poems. For example, the way the climate changes with the seasons mimics the undulating fluctuations of our lives: winter is hibernative while spring feels footloose. In the blossoming of flowers, we can sense parts of our inner lives coming alive. In the vastness of the sky, we see reflected the infinity of our minds. In the running water of rivers, we mourn/honor the passage of time. Yes, nature is ripe with lessons. Through witnessing one season turning and giving way to the next, we learn to let go of the past, to surrender. For me, this is the number one thing I learn from nature: how to let go. Autumn teaches me this. Then I learn how to open up, how to bloom. Spring teaches me that.


Lucille Clifton’s poem “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” is a poetic anthem about nature and the art of letting go:


the leaves believe

such letting go is love

such love is faith

such faith is grace

such grace is god

i agree with the leaves


Many contemporary poets cling to and enflesh other metaphors within nature. Nicholas Trandahl touches on the divinity that can be found on mountaintops. In his poem “Purgatory,” written on the summit of Hesse Mountain, Wyoming, Trandahl writes: 


Didn’t you know / you can’t get closer / to God 

by climbing / higher / and higher? 

God’s already / luminous / within you.


And why / have you come up here / alone?


Didn’t you know / holiness / isn’t easier to find

in solitude?


Didn’t you know / the only holy thing / is love?


In her poem “Liturgy, Nooksack River, North Fork,” Luci Shaw writes:


Something sacramental speaks 

in the rinsing of hard stone by mountain run-off

that pours, like a solvent, in and out of season,

teaching me what humility feels like,

and the fierce mercy of absolution. 


For CWU Professor Maya Jewell Zeller, a deep love of the wild world infuses her poetry. In her poem “The Insomniac Speaks in Winter,” Zeller writes:


Tomorrow my love will hold me

and show me the orange

glow of morning,

show me the sungleam

sparking the river.

I think that I will want

to go there

and walk into those waters

where trout float like bees from the darkness.  


I recently had the thrilling pleasure of seeing one of my favorite poets live on stage. Bono’s song lyrics often connect nature to humanity, reminding me that whatever I am looking for can be found in nature and expressed through poetry. This human seeking for transformation is epitomized in U2’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”:


I have climbed highest mountains

I have run through the fields

Only to be with you

Only to be with you


Poetry is often considered a solitary act. During my term as Ellensburg  Poet Laureate, however, I have rediscovered poetry as a communal act. A number of events have taken place in wild places in the shrub-steppe, like Snow Mountain Ranch and the Yakima River Canyon. These experiences of reading, writing, and sharing poetry surrounded by beauty, connect us. Poetry and other art forms, including music, take us deeper into ourselves and higher beyond ourselves simultaneously. Through poetry, we share vulnerabilities, and by opening up with honesty, we connect with others. We learn about ourselves and others. Ultimately, the salvific function of art mimics that of nature. 


Last year, KEEN’s Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe was part of the Big Reads series of community events with Ross Gay that featured his book Catalog of Unabased Gratitude. In his poems, Gay intertwines his love of nature with gratitude. In his poem “Thank You,” he writes:


If you find yourself half naked

and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,

again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan /…

Say only, thank you.

Thank you.


This year, KEEN celebrates its 25th Anniversary of Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe with a theme of “celebrating community resilience.” Nature’s resilience constantly astounds me. Every year around this time, I wonder if my slight, adolescent ginkgo tree has survived the winter. I wait for the first signs of life. And, every year, the buds emerge. Nature is full of miracles! So, too, is human community capable of resilience and full of miracles. I hope you will join KEEN’s weekend of events celebrating community resilience and consider joining me on Saturday, May 11th for Spring Sonnets, as we amble through the awakening shrub-steppe reading spring-themed poems and writing sonnets in an alcove near the pond. 


In closing, when we return to nature, we remember our deepest connection, and we are, in turn, remembered. Here is Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem “Sleeping in the Forest”:


I thought the earth

remembered me, she

took me back so tenderly, arranging

her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds. I slept

as never before, a stone

on the riverbed, nothing

between me and the white fire of the stars

but my thoughts, and they floated

light as moths among the branches

of the perfect trees. All night

I heard the small kingdoms breathing

around me, the insects, and the birds 

who do their work in the darkness. All night

I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling

with a luminous doom. By morning

I had vanished at least a dozen times

into something better.



Citations:

Hartman, Geoffrey H. (Ed), The Selected Poetry and Prose of Wordsworth, Penguin Books (1970)

Oliver, Mary, Devotions, Penguin Books (2017)

Shaw, Luci, Harvesting Fog, Pinyon Publishing (2010)

Trandahl, Nicholas, Purgatory (2024)

Zeller, Maya Jewell, Rust Fish, Lost Horse Press (2011)



Learn more about KEEN's Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe here https://www.ycic.org/giss

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