Celebrating Earth Day feels heavy. Increasingly alarming reports from the United Nations on the estimates one million species threatened with extinction and the need for immediate and deep emission reductions limiting global warming fills us with dread.
The climate emergency is upon us, but there is still much to do. It can seem overwhelming.
But we still have to celebrate – and fight – for what we still have. If we all raise our voices, maybe governments, institutions and businesses will finally hear us. The last stanza of Wang Ping’s “Tsunami Chant” from the anthology Downstream: reinventing watersuccinctly summarizes:
All I have is a broken voice,
An immense heart of sorrow.
But please, please take them,
Let them be part of this tsunami
Singing, this song of awakening.
Poetry can serve as a form of song to acknowledge the fundamental value of our environment and acknowledge the intricate connections between a myriad of species and our biosphere – forests, air, oceans, waterways and watersheds.
Many poets have written about the climate crisis through verse, such as beloved and well-known activist Rita Wong, who is an associate professor of critical and cultural studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. His recent collection of poetry, Current, Climate: The Poetry of Rita Wongedited by Nicholas Bradley, represents two decades of Wong’s poems on the the themes of climate justice and water. The Quill & Quire published a excellent interview with Wong which examines both his writing and his activism.
Last year, Yukon poet Joanna Lilley won the Canadian Authors Association’s prestigious Fred Kerner Book Prize for her collection of poetry, Purposeswhich pays homage to individual species that have gone extinct, from birds and insects like the passenger pigeon and the Xerces blue butterfly to mammals like the western black rhino and the bowhead whale.
A few of the poems also address more broadly how humans may react to the reality of extinction, such as the final poem in his book. Lilley noted that the poem evolved out of wonder for other creatures:
“When I wrote ‘It’s Time to Speak Hope’, it came from this experience of pleasure and joy in discovering how remarkable our fellow human beings are. Our attention to this remarkableness could inspire us to do more. ‘efforts to slow down the sixth mass extinction event that we are unfortunately causing, and that greater awareness of non-human animals can in turn help us in our own evolution.
It’s time to talk about hope
by Joanna Lilley
It’s time to talk about human evolution,
with a tapered blue cup
Earl Gray and a slice of spelled
raise a toast while my dog rests his head
on your feet, and your dog is behind
me looking out the window
for a yellow car. Sapiens are always
becoming, we agree, evolution
never stops, of course, as long as the Moon
and twisting the earth in locked rotation
around a dying sun. Perhaps
we can delay our inevitable extinction
by persuading our DNA into a kinder
transmutation, maybe we can increase
our capacity for wonder. In the same solar orbit,
we discovered the existence of another
eighteen thousand species. A tinkerbell
Fairyfly fits four times inside a millimeter.
A koala’s fingerprints are the same as ours.
A starfish, losing one arm, will develop another.
Let’s practice our amazement just in case
it saves us. Let’s bend down to count a slug
four noses, instead of drowning it
in a plastic beer jug.
Former Poet Laureate of Victoria, Yvonne Blomer has just published a new collection of her poems, The Last Show on Earth, exploring death, disability and the fate of our planet. Some of the poems are written in response to paintings by Robert Bateman, such as the piece below which relates to his painting, Long Light — Polar Bear. Commenting on the inspiration for the poem, Blomer noted, “This bear looked so much like a guy leaning against a bar on an icy stool, and so I pulled pictures of a bar and what you would eat at the bar… polar bears eating in climate change.
by Yvonne Blomer
Muscular, you bend over
like a guy at the bar, nose
lifted to pick up the scent
of a breathing bearded seal
one mile offshore.
Maritime Bears —
your moans and gurgles bluber-
breath; padded legs hold
you to ice cream. Freeze hard stools
you swing on.
Drink air, you breathe bourbon
in spilled engine oil
along the arctic coast,
a sweetness that you cannot
Styrofoam Chips, Plastic Twizzlers, Rust
from a local car battery
unload. This desire could kill you,
you kind of giant with short ears, you kind of handsome
boar, your statue
carved in cast iron and salt.
What are you going to gorge on
when winter does not come?
Light is elementary like fur,
your yellowing ice floe.
The sun will melt you.
Yvonne Blomer has also edited two magnificent water-themed anthologies, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific and Fresh water: poems for watershedswhich contain a rich and diverse collection of poems by poets from British Columbia and across the country.
I interviewed Blomer and three other environmental anthology editors for a panel for the Word Vancouver Festival last fall where they discussed how they put together their anthologies and then read examples of contributors’ work.
Filmmaker and University of Victoria screenwriting professor Kathryn Mockler coordinated a powerful editorial collective to bring together poetry and prose for the anthology, Mind Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis. There are pieces by award-winning poets such as Jordan Abel, Kaie Kellough, Stephen Collis, Erín Moure and many more. It also has a constant evolution online companion anthology.
Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Catriona Sandilands edited Rising tides: reflections on climate change, a collection of short fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir and poetry about the past, present and future of climate change. You can hear recordings of some of the contributors reading their work in the anthology, such as Tzeporah Berman, Carleigh Baker, Sonnet L’Abbé, Hiromi Goto and Rita Wong on the Storying Climate Change website.
Poet Laureate and Tofino activist Christine Lowther has edited two tree-themed anthologies, one with adult contributors coming out this month, Worth More Standing: Poets and Activists Pay Tribute to Treesand a second containing contributions from K-12 students to be released this fall, Worth More Growing: Young Poets Pay Tribute to Trees.
Lowther received thousands of poems after posting the call for entries. Clearly, there is an enduring and widespread love for our forests.
I will conclude with two poems in celebration of Worth more standing which show the deep link between man and the forest.
The first, by Calvin Wharton, former Creative Writing Chair at Douglas College, takes readers on a walk through the trees, translating the process of photosynthesis into poetry.
“Having the chance to live in a house backed by the forest, I often have the impression that the trees are my neighbours”, he remarks. “This poem is an attempt to address the unmistakable presence they evoke when I am among them.”
tree light dialect
by Calvin Wharton
If you’re sitting here
you could see
how trees transform light
how light changes trees
if you walk on a path
dashed space between
cedar hemlock Douglas fir
you can feel light
your thoughts rise
in a canopy of greenery
where they settle
in the mist hanging there
after the rain
how these living branches
maple poplar western birch
make intricate patterns
shaping an arboreal lexicon
you might notice
a kind of thirst
and i want to drink
every word of this language – all
this brilliant dialect.
Finally, here’s an elegant, lyrical poem by the publisher’s mother, famed West Coast poet Pat Lowther, who uses the resonant closing lines of Margaret Atwood’s poem “Resurrection” as its epigraph and title.
“At Judgment Day we will all be trees” – Margaret Atwood
by Pat Lowther
The trees are
in their roots and branches,
what we are
ambassadors between the lands
and the great outdoors
define a form of breathing
against the sky
like you and me
spring is also blooming
in our hands
how the tree works
light in bread
its thousands of languages
taste the time
how we taste the electric
each other’s weather
Trees moving against the air
diagram what is
the most alive in us
such as breath misting and clearing
on a mirror
we breathe each other
There is no shortage of wonderful and powerful poetry on environmental themes to inspire (or provoke) both thought and action. May this Earth Day affirm our conviction and our commitment to defend and protect our precious planet.