J. Scott Bryson
Seeing the West Side of Any Mountain:
Thoreau and Contemporary Ecological Poetry
The needles of the pine,
All to the west incline.
--Thoreau, "The Needles Of The Pine"
We know from his journals that during the latter part of 1841, a year that proved to be his most prolific period as a poet, Thoreau was simultaneously considering abandoning poetry as a form of expression. According to Elizabeth Hall Witherell, Thoreau consistently "harbored fundamental doubts about both the vigor of poetry as opposed to prose and its suitability to his own temperament and particular talent."1
These doubts sprang from his conviction that, while certain supreme artists like Homer had created poetry worthy of praise, most of what Thoreau called the "effeminate" lyrics of his contemporaries were vapid and impotent in their attempts at conveying the wildness of the natural world. Similar responses have increasingly been offered over the last century and a half, as poets have found traditional nature poetry lacking in its ability to respond to contemporary understandings of the natural world. My purpose here is to use our knowledge of Thoreau's disillusionment with his own poetry and that of his contemporaries, to help us better understand the response that has taken place within late-twentieth-century nature poetry. My central claim is simple and two-fold: 1)that the factors that led Thoreau to forsake poetry are quite similar to the factors that have driven contemporary nature poets to produce poems much different from their romantic forebears; and 2)that by understanding these factors, we can better understand what it is that contemporary ecological poets are doing in their work.
It is generally acknowledged that Thoreau's skill as an essayist far outshined his talent as a poet. It is also widely accepted that most of Thoreau's decision to move away from poetry and toward the natural essay as his primary mode of aesthetic expression was due to his recognition of this same fact. In February 1851, for example, he wrote, "The strains from my muse are as rare nowadays, or of late years, as the notes of birds in the winter,-the faintest occasional tinkling sound, and mostly the woodpecker kind or the harsh jay or crow. It never melts into song." 2 However, as Witherell makes clear, much of Thoreau's decision to forsake his poetic impulse resulted not only from his doubts concerning his own discordant muse, but also from his disenchantment with what were believed to be the greatest poems of his time, and with the ability of poetry in general to convey the true "Poetry" (in the Emersonian sense) of the natural world. For example, in late 1841, when Thoreau visited the Harvard College Library in order to select poems for an anthology he planned to edit, he experienced a deep disillusionment in respect to the work he discovered there in Cambridge. He writes of "looking over the dry and dusty volumes of the English poets," and of his astonishment "that those fresh and fair creations I had imagined are contained in them. . . . I can hardly be serious with myself when I remember that I have come to Cam. after poetry-and while I am running over the catalogue, and collating and selecting-I think if it would not be a shorter way to a complete volume-to step at once into the field or wood, with a very low reverence to students and librarians" (30 November; J1, 337-8). 3
This type of reaction, preferring the "field or wood" to the "dry and dusty volumes" of civilization, is one we hear throughout Thoreau's work, both prose and poetry. Consider, for example, these lines from his poem "Nature," where he directly addresses the natural world:
In some withdrawn unpublic mead
Let me sigh upon a reed,
Or in the woods with leafy din
Whisper the still evening in,
For I had rather be thy child
And pupil in the forest wild
Than be the king of men elsewhere
And most sovereign slave of care
To have one moment of thy dawn
Than share the city's year forlorn.
Some still work give me to do
Only be it near to you. 4
We perceive in this passage familiar Thoreauvian themes-his preference for being a lone "pupil in the forest wild" rather than a ruler in civilization; his re-definition of expected emotional states, where city-dwellers, not the speaker in the "unpublic mead," are the ones who are isolated and "forlorn."
Yet in spite of penning lines like these, Thoreau apparently found little in his own verse that was much more effective at rendering the wildness of the natural world than he discovered in his disappointing journey through the Cambridge library. The undomesticated quality he searched for was largely absent from both his own work and that of his most talented contemporaries. As he wrote in a journal entry from early 1851, "The best poets, after all, exhibit only a tame and civil side of nature- They have not seen the west side of any mountain. Day and night-mountain and wood are visible from the wilderness as well as the village- They have their primeval aspects-sterner savager-than any poet has sung. It is only the white man's poetry-we want the Indian's report. Wordsworth is too tame for the Chippeway" (18 August; J1 321). This frustration with the inability of "the white man's poetry" to celebrate the "sterner savager" characteristics of non-human nature serves as a major contributor to Thoreau's ultimate abandonment of poetry. As Witherell puts it, Thoreau was "surprised to find that so little of the poetry he had imagined to be great was actually inspiring to him, and . . . this failure undermined his own sense of poetic vocation." 5
While Thoreau was experiencing these doubts concerning poetry, the genre itself-especially poetry dealing with the natural world-was also undergoing a significant revolution. For centuries, what had loosely been termed "nature poetry" had dominated English literature. From Beowulf to Blake, much of the literature produced by English-speaking writers contained heavy doses of natural subject matter and imagery. Yet as Robert Langbaum has pointed out, by the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, what was considered an overly romantic nature poetry had lost credibility, largely as a result of nineteenth-century science and the drastic changes in the way Westerners envisioned themselves and the world around them. Darwinian evolutionary theory and modern geology would hardly allow readers to accept a poem that unselfconsciously anthropomorphized non-human nature or celebrated nature's intentional benevolence toward humans. By the early part of the 20th century, therefore, anything sounding like the old romantic nature poetry was rarely written, and if it was, it was even more rarely taken seriously. 6
However, in response (and opposition) to this older, romantic vision of nature, a new form of nature poetry began to emerge, produced primarily by such anti-romantics as Frost, Jeffers, Stevens, Moore, Williams. And in the latter half of the century, proceeding out of these modern poetic voices, a whole new generation of poets have taken up the theme of nature in a manner quite different from that of Wordsworth and Longfellow. In the work of these contemporary poets-writers like Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, Joy Harjo, Pattiann Rogers, A. R. Ammons, Leslie Marmon Silko (the list goes on and on)-we get a perspective on the human/non-human relationship that delineates them from their nature poetry ancestors and marks them as what I will call "ecological poets."
Consider, for instance, Snyder's "Front Lines":
The edge of the cancer
Swells against the hill-we feel
a foul breeze-
And it sinks back down.
The deer winter here
A chainsaw growls in the gorge.
Ten wet days and the log trucks stop,
The trees breathe.
Sunday the 4-wheel jeep of the
Realty Company brings in
Landseekers, lookers, they say
To the land,
Spread your legs.
The jets crack sound overhead, it's OK
Every pulse of the rot at the heart
In the sick fat veins of Amerika
Pushes the edge up closer--
A bulldozer grinding and slobbering
Sideslipping and belching on top of
The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes
In the pay of a man
Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic
And a desert that still belongs to the
And here we must draw
Our line. 7
On coming across poems like this one, from Snyder's Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island, we intuitively perceive, whether we have considered the reason or not, that we are reading a new and distinct type of nature poetry. While it retains many traditional romantic conventions and perspectives-the reference to the wintering deer, a frustration with the technology-produced human/non-human division, a gaze toward non-human nature as refuge from encroaching civilization-the poem in several ways is markedly different from that produced by earlier nature poets. For one thing, within the poet's voice a desperation can be heard, an intense dread of the disaster looming if we neglect to draw "Our line" and resist the edge of the cancer encroaching into what is left of the wild. In addition, there is the sympathetic reference to Indigenous peoples, the Piute, emblematic (in the poem) of an earlier time when humans and non-humans existed in a more interdependent, symbiotic relationship. Perhaps the most glaring difference is the political rhetoric employing current inflammatory "ecospeak," as in Snyder's militaristic title, his analog pointing to the rape of the land, his classification of the developers as a "cancer," and his metaphoric equation of American culture with a heart attack destroying the health of the ecological body. 8 While in any ways "Front Lines" and other ecological poems clearly fall in line with such canonical nature lyrics as "Contemplations," "Intimations of Immortality," and "Ode to a Nightingale," they just as clearly take visible steps beyond that tradition, steps that are strikingly similar to the ones Thoreau took in his prose writings (as I will discuss below).
Compare, for instance, the way the clearing of a forest is treated by two U. S. nature poets from different eras, Walt Whitman and W. S. Merwin. In his "Song of the Redwood Tree," Whitman's speaker, walking through a "northern coast" forest, hears amid the "crackling blows of axes sounding musically driven by strong arms," "the mighty tree its death-chant chanting":
Farewell my brethren,
Farewell O earth and sky, farewell ye neighboring waters,
My time has ended, my term has come.
The speaker explains that even though the "choppers" and the "quick-ear'd teamsters and chain and jack-screw men heard not," "in my soul I plainly heard" the message, which was a "chant not of the past only but the future." The redwood's chant continues:
You untold life of me,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O the great patient rugged joys, my soul's strong joys unreck'd by man,
(For know I bear the soul befitting me, I too have consciousness, identity,
And all the rocks and mountains have, and all the earth,)
Joys of the life befitting me and brothers mine,
Our time, our term has come.
These lines seem to be setting up their audience for a lesson in ecology, in wise stewardship of the earth, or at least in recognizing the dangers of regarding non-human nature as nothing more than inanimate natural resources. In fact, up to this point in the poem, with its espousal of ecological interconnection and its speculation on how sentient non-human nature may actually be "unreck'd by man," the poem sounds as if it could easily make the short-list for quotes likely to appear on a Sierra Club fundraising letter. In many ways, it sounds like it could have been produced by Harjo or some other American Indian poet.
But the lines that follow the redwood's mystical and ecological pronouncement alter the poem dramatically:
Nor yield we mournfully majestic brothers,
We who have grandly fill'd our time;
With Nature's calm content, with tacit huge delight,
We welcome what we have wrought for through the past,
And leave the field for them.
For them predicted long,
For a superber race, they too to grandly fill their time,
For them we abdicate, in them ourselves ye forest kings.
Thus the poem turns from what sounds like an environmental-movement manifesto, to a propagandistic justification for the cutting down of centuries-old redwoods, which are portrayed as willingly yielding to humanity, abdicating their thrones so that a "superber race" can "grandly fill their time."
Now compare Whitman's treatment of the topic with Merwin's in "The Last One," a poem that also narrates the cutting down of a forest but speaks out of a much different vision of the world. The opening lines set the tone for the entire poem as they describe the humans who approach the forest:
Well they'd made up their minds to be everywhere because why not.
Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.
They with two leaves they whom the birds despise.
In the middle of stones they made up their minds. They started to cut.
Well they cut everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.
Here we receive a portrayal of humanity much different from the ones for whom the trees so willingly and lovingly abdicate their thrones in Whitman's "song"; here, rather than a "superber race," humans-"they whom the birds despise"-are portrayed as antagonists, even tormentors, of the natural world.
As the poem continues we notice that, like in Whitman's poem, human and non-human nature interact. But instead of offering a benign natural world that cares for the advancement of the human race, Merwin's parable attempts to render the consequences we can expect from cutting down "the last one," the final tree in the forest (which is emblematic of numerous natural "resources," myopically wasted and destroyed). As the final tree falls and the loggers haul it away, its shadow remains. The men try to remove the shadow by covering it up, by shining lights on it, by building a fire on its roots, by pouring stones into it. But the shadow remains and begins to grow. It eventually begins to take over all with which it comes into contact:
It went on growing it grew onto the land.
They started to scrape the shadow with machines.
When it touched the machines it stayed on them.
They started to beat the shadow with sticks.
Where it touched the sticks it stayed on them.
They started to beat the shadow with hands.
Where it touched the hands it stayed on them.
Eventually, the shadow covers everything within reach, and an ambiguous conclusion tells us that some people were able to escape and that these were "[t]he lucky ones with their shadows." 9
What becomes clear in the examination of these two poems is that while both "Song of the Redwood Tree" and "The Last One" can technically be labeled "nature poems," their approach to nature is drastically different. One endorses the cutting of trees by giving them a voice that not only absolves but even celebrates humankind for its actions; the other takes as its starting point a condemnation of humanity for the same deeds, then spends the majority of the poem rendering the disastrous consequences. While I find the rhetoric of Merwin's narrative much more persuasive than that of Whitman's, my argument here is not that one poem is a better or worse nature poem, but that the visions offered in the poems are different, and extremely different at that. A poet working from an ecological perspective on the world would not be able to present the poem as Whitman has; an ecological poet, in order to continue to write poems of nature, necessarily must alter his or her poetics.
We can perform the same exercise on any number of different canonical nature poems. Recall, for example, Wordsworth's "Nutting." From a synopsis of the poem, which ends with the "sense of pain" the narrator experiences as a result of his youthful "ravage" of the silent bower, one could easily mistake the lyric for a contemporary environmentalist poem. But the closing line of the poem leaves no uncertainty as to the source of the narrator's guilt: "there is a Spirit in the woods" that has been disturbed. In other words, the speaker has realized that his primary transgression has been committed against some sort of transcendent essence, rather than against the specific and physical natural entities he has ravaged.
Wordsworth's position is similar to Anne Bradstreet's, who in "Contemplations" praises the natural world for its beauty but cannot, according to her worldview, leave it there. Rather, she must assert that "If so much excellence abide below, / How excellent is He that dwells on high." She marvels at the oak, at the thousand winters it has seen, then says that even these centuries "eternity doth scorn." Then addressing the sun after describing its beauty, power, and glory, she remarks, "How full of glory then must thy Creator be, / Who gave this bright light luster unto thee?"
As a contrast, consider Wendell Berry's "Planting Trees," which concludes with these lines:
Let me desire and wish well the life
these trees may live when I
no longer rise in the mornings
to be pleased by the green of them
shining, and their shadows on the ground,
and the sound of the wind in them. 10
Here we notice an important distinction between Berry's lyric and the other two poems. Berry-who himself would probably ascribe to the notion that "there is a Spirit in the woods" and allow that it is related to the excellence of "He that dwells on high"-here emphasizes the inherent value of the trees in and of themselves, rather than as mere manifestations of a deity that created and permeates them. In other words, whereas Berry values the trees for their own sake, Wordsworth's narrator experiences guilt, less for destroying the brush and trees that make up the bower, than for disturbing the spirit in the grove, and Bradstreet praises the beauty of the non-human world around her, but only as a manifestation of the glory of God. Again, the claim I want to make here has little to do with the quality of the poems in question, but rather with the explicit differences among their perspectives. For Berry's fervor to "wish well the life these trees may live" is much different from the somewhat typical Romantic desire that, as stated by Shelley, was to "always seek in what I see, the likeness of something beyond the present and tangible object." 11 Berry's outlook is much more akin to Thoreau's, who (as Merwin describes him) views the natural world and sees it as "alive, completely alive, not a detail in a piece of rhetoric. And he leaves open what its significance is. He realizes that the intensity with which he's able to see it is its significance." 12
Differences such as these appear time and again in ecological poetry, as writers attempt to address contemporary issues and concerns that traditional nature poets have either been unaware of or have not been forced to deal with. I tentatively define ecological poetry, therefore, as a subset of nature poetry that, while adhering to many of the traditions of the mode, also takes on distinctly contemporary problems and issues, thus resulting in a version of nature poetry generally marked by three primary characteristics. The first is an emphasis on maintaining an ecocentric perspective that recognizes the interdependent nature of the world; 13 such a perspective leads to a devotion to specific places and to the land itself, along with those creatures that share it with humankind. This interconnection is part of what Black Elk called "the sacred hoop" that pulls all things into relationship, and it can be found throughout ecological poetry. Levertov's "Web," for example, demonstrates this interconnection, ostensibly describing the literal web of a spider, but pointing also to what Levertov calls the "great web":
Intricate and untraceable
weaving and interweaving,
dark strand with light:
all spiderly contrivance,
to link, not to entrap:
elation, grief, joy, contrition, entwined;
all praise to the
great web. 14
The "great web" here is the one that, "beyond / all spiderly contrivance," moves through and connects all people and things, both human and non-human. Levertov's web represents what Mohawk poet Peter Blue Cloud calls "the allness of the creation," 15 and it points toward the same lesson Harjo offers in "Remember," which concludes with its speaker imploring her audience to
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
For ecological poets, the world is a community made up of interdependent and interrelated subjects.
This awareness of the world as a community tends to produce the second attribute of ecological poetry, an imperative toward humility in relationships with both human and non-human nature. You won't hear ecological poets endorsing Emerson's statement that "Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will." Instead, ecological poets are more likely to echo Frost's reminder of how little control we actually have over the wildness of nature: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." So instead of what Albert Gelpi describes as romanticism's inherent "aggrandizement of the individual ego," 17 we read a Jeffers poem that depicts extravagant royal tombs then concludes with the lines, "Imagine what delusions of grandeur, / What suspicion-agonized eyes, what jellies of arrogance and terror / This earth has absorbed" ("Iona: The Graves of Kings"). 18 We see Donald Hall, in "An American in an Essex Village," move from a description of a temple's colossal spires, reaching higher than a beech tree, to a recognition that, despite the human pride displayed in the architecture, "the death-watch beetle hollows / six-hundred-year-old / beams." 19 And we hear Blue Cloud define stars as "fire vessels / the universe happening / regardless of man" ("fire/rain"). 20
Related to this humility is the third characteristic of ecological poetry, an intense skepticism concerning hyper-rationality, a skepticism that usually leads to a condemnation of an over-technologized modern world and a warning concerning the very real potential for ecological catastrophe. The opening section of Harjo's She Had Some Horses, for example, criticizes time and again the effects of what Abbey dubs modern "syphilization." In "What Music," Harjo grieves with a mother whose sons are living "in another language / in Los Angeles / with their wives"; 21 in another poem the poet mourns for those in the cities who are "learning not to hear the ground as it spins around / beneath them" ("For Alva Benson, and For Those Who Have Learned to Speak"). 22 Similarly, Jeffers likens modern humanity, with its poor yet immeasurably destructive "wisdom," to "Acteon who saw the goddess naked among leaves and his hounds tore him. / A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle, / A drop from the oceans." Jeffers concludes the poem with a poignant rhetorical question: "who would have dreamed this infinitely little too much?" ("Science"). 23 Snyder is more direct in his reproach, condemning Japan, that "once-great Buddhist nation," for "quibbl[ing] for words on / what kinds of whales they can kill," and "dribbl[ing] methyl mercury / like gonorrhea / in the sea" ("Mother Earth: Her Whales"). 24
Readers familiar with Thoreau will notice the similarities between these characteristics of ecological poetry-ecocentrism, an appreciation of wildness, and a skepticism toward hyper-rationality and its resultant over-reliance on technology-and the principles that dominate Walden and the majority of the Thoreau canon. The essence of my argument is that this similarity is no coincidence. I am not arguing that Thoreau produced or caused nature poetry's shift from a romantic to a more ecological vision, for of course, many complex and inter-related factors have contributed to this transformation. 25 Rather, my point is that just as Thoreau voiced his displeasure with "white man's poetry" and thus offered his prose writings in response, so nature poetry has evolved beyond its romantic ancestry toward a more ecological poetry that attempts to address contemporary environmental issues and concerns and to portray faithfully the wildness of the natural world.
It seems significant that 150 years after Thoreau began to give up on poetry, we are only now, within the last couple of decades, producing a significant body of poetic work that takes into account the issues that so concerned him. The cause for this delay is uncertain. Perhaps he was right to doubt "the vigor of poetry as opposed to prose"; or perhaps poetry's evolution, like our society's mindset, is slow to catch up to his vision. But whatever the reason, poets are now attempting to produce work that, among other things, offers what Thoreau called "the tonic of wildness." Whether or not he would say that these poets have "seen the west side of any mountain" is open to question; but the effort is at least being made, as ecological poets attempt to view the mountain "from the wilderness as well as the village."
This article was previously published in Thoreau's Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. Richard J. Schneider, ed. U of Iowa P, 1999."
1. Elizabeth Hall Witherell, "Thoreau's Watershed Season as a Poet: The Hidden Fruits of the Summer and Fall of 1841," Studies in the American Renaissance, ed. Joel Myerson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 59. My reading of Thoreau's poetry is heavily indebted to Witherell's scholarship.
2. Quoted in Carl Bode's introduction to Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964), xi.
3. This and future references to Thoreau's journal are from Journal 1: 1837-1844 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell et al., which will be cited in this chapter as J1.
4. Bode, 216.
5. Witherell, 60.
6. Robert Langbaum. "The New Nature Poetry." The American Scholar 28.3 (Summer 1959): 323-340. Reprinted in Langbaum's The Modern Spirit: Essays on the Continuity of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford, 1970).
7. Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 32.
8. The phrase "ecospeak" comes from Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America, ed. Jimmie M. Killingworth and Jaqueline S. Palmer (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992).
9. W. S. Merwin, The Second Four Books of Poems: The Moving Target, The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1993), 86-88.
10. Wendell Berry. Collected Poems: 1957-1982 (New York, North Point, 1984), 155.
11. Quoted in the Introduction to the Romantic Period in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2, 6th edition, gen. ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: Norton, 1993), 8.
12. Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson, "'Fact Has Two Faces': An Interview with W. S. Merwin," Iowa Review 13 (1982): 34.
13. I use the term "ecocentric" here to describe a worldview that, in contrast to an egocentric or anthropocentric perspective, views the earth as an inter-subjective community and values its many diverse (human and non-human) members.
14. Denise Levertov, The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature (New York, New Directions, 1997), 17.
15. This line appears in Blue Cloud's "voice play" entitled "For Rattlesnake: a dialogue of creatures," from The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature ed. Geary Hobson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980), 23.
16. Joy Harjo, She Had Some Horses (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997), 40.
17. Albert Gelpi, A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 518.
18. Robinson Jeffers, Selected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1965), 52.
19. Donald Hall, A Roof of Tiger Lilies (New York: Viking, 1964), 24.
20. Hobson, 20.
21. Harjo, 16.
22. Harjo, 18.
23. Jeffers, 39.
24. Snyder, 82. I realize that this distrust of hyper-rationality, like the other characteristics, is not completely absent in the work of traditional romantics, whose work also displays an intense mistrust of enlightenment thinking. Clearly, however, the perspective offered in these poems is different; the original romantic skepticism has risen at the close of the twentieth century to a level never before seen, primarily because we have the "benefit" of a historical perspective that includes such intellect-dependent disasters as Nazism, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl.
25. My project here has more to do with analogy than causality. If pressed, I would posit both that Thoreau has directly influenced contemporary nature poets--Merwin has said that he keeps Walden "in the john" for ongoing reading-and that Thoreau has influenced the modern ecological and environmental movements and has therefore indirectly influenced ecological poetry.
road trips reviews politics renaissances credits/bios submissions links archives e-mail