Ecology & Poetry: Background & Exploration
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The fields that prompted these thoughts are at Steepletop, the Edna St. Vincent Millay home site.
The orchids there are a modest species (the Pale-Green Orchid) and not
ones fit to be grown in gardens or pots. But, for a biologist, their
presence is fascinating, as is the occurrence of a range of other plants
such as Water Avens, the affectionately -named Lousewort, and Wood Lily
(pictured at head of article).
Insects too are unusual. Aphrodite Fritillaries, which we
had seen as rare singlets twice during the preceeding nine or so years
of butterflying, were abundant this summer. The Coral Hairstreak showed
up for the first time in our records for the County, and the Grey Comma
made its third appearance in our records. The Rusty-Patched Bumblebee, a
species which has been declining throughout the Northeast, is
represented by only one specimen in our collection from... Steepletop.
What makes this such an unusual spot is, as the nugget
explains, not clear to us. Certainly these high, mature, old fields are
something of a rarity in our neck of the woods. Many hill fields tend to
be on poor soil. And, once you have unusual plants, then you may often
get unusual insects. What it was in the history of that field which led
to such modern diversity we don't know. A poet's eye may have been part
The explicit mixture of "poetry" (as a stand-in for all
emotive writing) and science has largely gone out of fashion. In the
19th century, the distinction was perhaps not so clear. Samuel Scudder,
late 19th century Massachusetts lepidopterist, made an appearance in an
earlier nugget on Great Grandfather's Butterflies. As we mentioned
therein, his main tome was a three volume set entitled Butterflies of the United States and Canada with Special Reference to New England.
Each species account in that book is highly detailed. For
example, his description of the Aphrodite Fritillary (which he called
the "Silver Spot Fritillary") contains a quarter page on the historic
scientific names for this species, followed by two and a half pages of
description of the adult (in small print), a half of a page of
description of the younger stages, a page of comparative description,
one half page of distribution records, one half page of food plant
information, a half page of life history, a half a page of "habits"
(e.g., they "usually fly near the ground" - a description that actually
is very evident when one sees a field of them), a paragraph on "postures
and flight", another on enemies and finally a list of "desiderata". In
short, this is dense book full of scientific description.
However, there, lurking between the synonyms and descriptions is the following:
"The grass, with its low insect-tones, appears
As murmuring in its sleep. This butterfly
Seems as if loth to stir, so lazily
It flutters by.
Street. - An Autumn Landscape"
In other words, a poem. In fact, it seems each of the
roughly 125 species accounts includes a butterfly-related poem.
Scudder's account of the Aphrodite Fritillary (from archive.org).
SImilarly, Flowers of the Field and Forest,
published in 1882, includes detailed color illustrations of many
wildflowers together with written descriptions and notes on habitat. And
yet, each account is led off by a poem and poetry is interspersed
through the text.
It's difficult to Imagine a modern scientific treatise or field guide accomodating such a mix!
Scientific observation has a key role to play in helping
us understand the world, but it is certainly not the totality of the
human experience. If we are to build not only knowledge but compassion
then addressing words to the heart will also be important. Fields like
those at Steepletop even suggest that, eventually, such words may come
around and, in turn, determine what the scientist sees.
(if a pinned bee seems out of place at the end of an essay
on the poetry of ecology, please realize that for us to identify these
creatures, we sometimes need to collect them. That is the science of it.
Can that still go together with poetry?)
"Ecology & Poetry"
by Conrad Vispo
There’s a field I know where wild orchids are so dense one
has to watch one’s step. Where skippers eddy and dash in small
whirlwinds; where Aphrodite Fritillaries tumble like wind-blown leaves
across the rough, flower-cobbled meadow; and where brash Wood Lilies
flare amongst soft-spoken Meadow Sweet. These are fields like no others
that we know, and we wonder at their richness. Why here? Perhaps some
twist of soil composition? Perhaps some logical consequence of land use
history? Perhaps topography and relative isolation?
Or, perhaps, poetry. For a couple of decades many years ago,
these meadows were the home ground of a poet. They have since been
maintained in her image by family and then followers. While poetry can
be written on paper by literature’s poets; it can also be written on and
by the land. It is incidental or intentional autobiography bound in the
leather of a hillside; unintended or intended self-portrait on an
earthen canvas. These meadows, while we may not fully understand their
grammar and technique, are as surely poetry as the published volumes
written in their company.
At various points in my life, written poetry has been
important to me as a means for sharing some gnawing reflection on the
solitude of “I” and the glorious, self-erasing reveille of Life. It has
been a private space into which I could speak awkward thoughts knowing
that honesty was all that mattered. Those words, although my own, were
more than me and circled around to lift a mirror to myself. It is that
same search for reflection on self, for reassurance that one is alive,
which is at the core of our dearest encounters with Nature. It is that
same selfless honesty, sometimes fatally painful, sometimes ecstatically
fulfilling, that binds the poetry of the written word together with the
poetry of the trodden ground.
We are all potential poets, even those who might laugh and
grimace to be called poets. We are poets with words, with wood, with
dirt, with stone. Those who treasure a forgotten creek for its tickling
ripples practice poetry; those who strive, from a deep-hearted urge, to
till the land work poetry; those who find a haunt in which to fish, hunt
or fill their wanderlust seek poetry; those who ask a flower garden to
be them sow poetry. These are poets as ones who write with their
surroundings and also poets as ones who are written about by their
While I personally relish the beauty of the ‘lines’ that are
those butterfly- and orchid-strewn meadows, the call is not for a
certain type of poetry, but rather for the space, the freedom, the
chance for as many people as possible to live their particular poetry on
the land. There is much these days that erases the every-poet because
it traps or strips or corners nature, because it sets who has entry to
the ‘reading room’, because with physical and social structures it wraps
the experiences of so many in an isolating armor. May we all be lucky
enough to find openings to be who we are in Nature.
Literal poetry is not our only truck with words, and space
for self not our only call to Nature. But, while we may assign words
their daily tasks and may ask Nature for more than bare experience,
words and people will be poorer if they can’t conspire on poetry, and
neither we nor Nature will prosper if we snuff out the poetry in the
relationship. Aphrodites stalk the Hardhack because of some ecologies of
caterpillar and of seed; and because the black and orange, mauve and
green, distilled and inked in their own words a human need.