Poetry and Nature: ‘Renewable Energy for the Soul’

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that without literature the Sierra Club would not exist.  John Muir’s gifts as a writer are largely responsible for preserving the Yosemite and Sierra Nevada mountains when they were threatened by industrial exploitation in the late nineteenth century.  Thus began the organized effort to preserve America’s wilderness through the founding of the Sierra Club and establishment of the National Parks System.

Muir could be pithy on the subject of writing.  “No amount of word-making,” he wrote, “will ever make a single soul to know these mountains.”

Yet it was through his articles in Atlantic and Century magazines that readers did come to know America’s wilderness.  These popular magazines were mostly read on the east coast.  Few of his readers would ever see California’s mountains for themselves.  Muir’s essays and books gained a wide readership because of their authenticity, historical and scientific accuracy, and passion.  His writing might tend to be “adjectivorous,” as he said, but it was neither pretentious nor sentimental.

Muir worked hard at writing.  As is true for most successful writers, the easy style of his prose was the result of much rewriting and polishing.  He complained in a letter to his sister Sarah that life as a writer is “like the life of a glacier, one eternal grind.”

Perhaps, but with glacial persistence he managed to grind out ten books and hundreds of essays in lively and captivating prose that is no more of a grind to read today than when it first appeared in print.

Literature and nature have long been woven into the same fabric.  The seventeenth-century poet John Dryden believed that “the imitation of nature” was the most important function of the arts, and he regarded poetry as the highest form of art.

It seems more than a coincidence that in the crowded and feverish culture of the twenty-first century, our relationship to both nature and poetry has been simultaneously fractured, if not severed altogether.  Just as mankind once lived closer to the natural world, so too in past ages poets were held in high regard in many cultures.  To cite one instance from the eleventh century, on the eve of battle William of Normandy called on his court poet, the jongleurTaillefer, to recite the Song of Roland as inspiration for the invasion of England.  He then honored Taillefer by asking him to carry the Norman colors into battle.  Similar examples of the poet’s elevated role can be cited from Homer to Walt Whitman, and throughout every culture.  Yet for most in today’s world, poetry is considered frivolous and dispensable, while the premium cable package … not so much.

When I stepped in as Chair of the Kanza Group, it seemed a fitting notion to lead off our general meetings by sharing a suitable poem or literary excerpt with members.  A short poem, I felt, would set the tone, help us put aside the cares of the day and recharge our spirits—an invocation, if you will, a moment in which to meditate on our highest values as a community and as citizens of planet Earth.  Renewable energy for the soul, so to speak.

My eclectic reading habits soon led me to stumble on poems with imagery and themes that were well-suited our meetings.

On rereading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” I realized that the passage that included these famous lines was the ideal prologue for a showing of the movie Gasland, which was followed by ExCom member Joe Spease’s discussion of hydraulic fracturing:

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

I happened upon Jorie Graham’s “The Geese” after another ExCom member, Craig Wolfe, shared a personal epiphany upon watching some geese pass high overhead at the end of winter:

For days they have been crossing.  We live beneath these geese as if beneath the passage of time, or a most perfect heading.

Sometimes I fear their relevance.

Wendell Berry’s poetry was an obvious choice for a Sierra Club meeting, and I called on him a couple of times.  He, too, had written of geese in flight in “What We Need Is Here,”which is short enough to share in its entirety:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear.  What we need is here. 

A prose passage from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters inspired us at one meeting with this stunning aphorism on the challenge of painting a waterfall: “It is like trying to paint a soul.”

At the Kanza Group’s annual travel meeting, when members share photographs and stories of their trips, Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” seemed fitting:

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Kanza member Bob Wilshire won a tee-shirt that evening for correctly identifying the poet from first line of the poem, which was the caption to a photo on my PowerPoint slide.

The response to these readings by members has been encouraging, so I plan to continue sharing poems at our gatherings—at least until I exhaust the literature of nature.

Bob Sommer is Chair of the Kanza Group and Political Chair of the Kansas Chapter.  His new novel, A Great Fullness, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books.

by Bob Sommer


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