by Wendy Thompson
To quote the Swiss naturalist Jean Louis Agassiz, “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.” To be honest, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the quotation does encompass my trail of nature writing: a deep, intimate, glacially slow attention with all my unadulterated senses focused on the subject of my writing. To write “Hawk Moth,” the poem that appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, I needed to know the hawk moth, not separate from me in a dualistic subject-to-object perspective, but rather as subject-to-subject – in a near meditative, soulful engagement with other. Here is the result of that engagement:
Prejudice deprives me of my due:
denizen of the cloth
herald of death
robber of souls
seduced by flames
that is all you know of me.
Oh, and that I am ugly and hairy.
Even those two who just spied me
sucking from honeysuckle tubes …
“What is it?” they ask. “See how it hovers,
its wings beating up a breeze?
It must be a hummingbird,”
they insist. But I am not
and I am no less for that.
Prejudice deprives me of my due.
I am often overlooked –
the stubby brown cousin to monarchs
and mariposas – even in death, with radiant
wings pinned, they maintain a mounted beauty.
And unlike my luminous sister Luna,
I fly by day and I am drawn to nectar, not the flame –
honeycomb more likely the death of me
than the romantic sputter and hiss of candlelight.
I am not the social butterfly,
the healing Band-Aid, or the eyelash kiss.
I am not the swimming stroke,
the yoga pose, or even the embroidery stitch.
I am the hawk moth, carrier of your dreams.
I fly at dizzying rates of speed,
the soulful guardian of eternity.
I had just finished reading Sallie McFague’s book Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature in which she suggests a conversion from the “arrogant eye” to the “loving eye” with regard to our relationship with nature.* To do this, we must enter that subject-to-subject relationship which, as McFague suggests, requires we get to know nature intimately: “… bone of the bone, flesh of the flesh.”** She adds, “We cannot love what we do not know.” ***
McFague defines nature writing as “… geo-graphy – earth writing” and declares, “Nature writing is not a difficult or esoteric enterprise, reserved for an insider elite. Anyone can do it, and in any place, even in one’s own backyard.”****
Since I was a child in rural Pennsylvania, I sought nature’s wisdom and today attribute much of my personal growth to my inexorable relationship with nature. My bookshelves are lined with nature writers such as Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Sue Hubble and a Pacific Northwest favorite, Kathleen Dean Moore. But it wasn’t until I was at a recent poetry reading that I fully recognized my place as a nature writer. The emcee stated that my poems amalgamate wild nature with human nature in a near surreal – or is that in a super, natural? – way. To date, my process of nature poetry writing has been intuitive, but reading McFague gave me insight into some essential elements of that process.
A process for writing nature poetry
The praxis – my reflective practice attached to the natural world – begins with curiosity and open-ended questioning. I saw my first hawk moth while geocaching in Condon, Oregon. Actually, I heard it first, thrumming around a tubular blossom. My partner, a scientific illustrator, and I both exclaimed, “What is it?” It was the size of a hummingbird hovering over a nectar factory with equal wing rapidity, but the wings were like a moth’s. And frankly, its torso was ugly, lacking the emerald iridescence of the hummingbirds I have seen. Was it a cicada on steroids? I approached the hawk moth with naive eyes, releasing my expectations of what I thought I knew and understood. Curiosity, then, is the first stage in writing naturalist poetry.
The next stage is to spend intimate time in observation. Sketch the subject, videotape and photograph, examine under a microscope if you can. Experience it with as many of your senses as possible. Notice the hairy hawk moth torso; touch a lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantine) leaf to your cheek; listen for pinecones clicking open in the first warm spring sun; smell the stink bug; or taste rain-washed granite. Observe without inference; purely perceive all the obvious and minute differences. Discover the essence of other. As Annie Dillard suggests, “unpeach the peach.”You cannot speed date your way through nature-knowing. You must take your Walden Pond time with this courtship – step away from self-absorbed musings on your impact on others. The flicker does not care for you, perhaps doesn’t even perceive you. Release the arrogance that makes you think she does.
When you’ve spent as much time observing as your subject will allow, it is then time to study the subject through every possible –ology: from biology and ecology to mythology and ontology. What are the legends surrounding your subject, the idioms, the scientific research, the habits and habitats? Google has made this process faster. Even in Condon, OR, we were able to identify the hawk moth for what it was – a nectar seeking Macroglossum stellatarum, member of the moth family known for its capacity for rapid flight, attraction to red, and preference for bright sunlight. Last August we returned to Condon in hopes of filming the hawk moth, but none appeared on the overcast, windy day.
I often reference field guides and other poems/essays about the subject. However, I have one resource I refer to consistently: Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small by Ted Andrews. For “Hawk Moth” I looked up “hummingbird” to find that it is “a symbol for accomplishing that which seems impossible. It will teach you how to find the miracle of joyful living from your own life circumstances.”*****
The hawk moth, then, became my symbol for accepting who I am just as I am.
Be mindful in your research that true knowledge of your subject isn’t limited to textbook information and field study. McFague advises your study should also include states of “… empathy, patience, delight, openness, and the willingness to be surprised.” ******
Subject-to-subject nature writing is like building the bonds of friendship. Following an in-depth getting-to-know-you phase, you the poet can reach a second level of naiveté – an interdependency and intimacy with full recognition and respect for differences. Now, you can write about a subject you care about from a place that matters to you without the arrogance of objectification or the icky-sticky symbiotic fusion of a co-dependent relationship. You can write with loving eyes.
In Part II I will explore the process of nature writing from first draft to crafting to the point where a poem claims a life of its own.
* McFague, Sallie. Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997, p. 38.
** McFague, p. 153
*** McFague, p. 29
**** McFague, p. 137
***** Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1999, p. 159.
****** McFague, p. 111
Wendy Thompson is a poet, hiker, kayaker, singer and all-around artivist employing the arts for transformation and healing. An arts educator for three decades, she helped open the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics in Washington State, and worked as a facilitator for The Right Brain Initiative. Her award-winning poetry has been published in Arnazella, Poet’s Ink, Synapse, Song of Ourselves, VoiceCatcher and Spoleto 2000. She was selected for the Flight of the Mind Writers’ workshop and Spoleto Writers’ Symposium in Spoleto, Italy. With an MFA in dance, Wendy published articles in Teaching Tolerance, Science & Children, and Impulse Journal.