There is something, too, in some human beings that wants to die, that drives us to our own destruction. There is something that makes us pretend to be less than we are, less than the other creatures with the grace and dignity.
from Solar Storms
For as long as I can remember, I have given Linda Hogan’s poem, Blessing the Children, to my beginning creative writing students as a way for them to understand what poetry is, and can be. Blessing the Children begins this way:
Blue curves of our ears
are filled with a bird
And it ends with this quiet epiphany:
Look, little ones
all the places are holy.
Everything blesses us.
It’s a beautiful poem and I admit to shamelessly comparing it to one I found on the Internet about eternal love and roses, posted by a cyber poet who identified herself as “Butterflies.” It is never long after reading both poems to my students and asking them to think about the language in each and what stirs them that I see that first glimmering response in my students’ eyes to Blessing the Children. Even my most novice writers recognize a good nature poem.
But, in a sense, I have done disservice, not to Miss Butterflies, but to Hogan herself. I encapsulated her work for my students in the crystalline stemware of nature poetry, a venerable canon but one that does little justice to the extraordinary breadth and depth of Hogan’s work. And that is a disservice to an environmental activist like Hogan who merges the exquisite lyricism of nature writing with the hard-hitting realities of environmental writing, and, in doing so, takes on the passion of a steward.
Let me be very clear here. I love nature writing, poetry or prose. I respond whole-heartedly, like centuries of readers before me, to the kind of nature writing espoused by publishers and bloggers like Naturewriting.com. Here, the readers and writers of Naturewriting.com are admonished that the “three basic elements of nature writing, ” gleaned from the journals of Thoreau, are “ insightful personal observation, philosophical reflection, and warm, positive spirit.” Yes, poetry that evokes the beauty and spirituality of nature for the arid soul is an important and long loved canon, but much as we might like to, how can we, as contemporary western writers, cling to a notion of nature writing embodied, justly or not, in the 10 by 15 foot cabin of a 19th century Romantic?
In the last couple weeks alone, federal officers have announced a settlement with Noble Energy, a Houston-based oil and gas company that kept “3400 clusters” of oil storage tanks in Colorado near Denver, which emitted “thousands of tons of chemicals a year, contributing to the region’s ozone pollution problem.” And, because “the United States Geological Survey (USGS) found that the frequency of quakes of at least magnitude 3 at industry hotbeds increased by more than 100 times since 2008,” the Federal Government has announced the preparation of “new seismic-risk maps” for oil and gas drilling sites. Colorado is one of the industry hotbeds, our citizens near these “areas of induced seismicity” warned to get fully informed, and insured.
News like this makes it difficult for a writer today to look past these weekly, even daily, environmental bombardments, and gaze, no matter how artistically, at a single blade of grass or a pretty sunset, especially when that pretty sunset has been torched by a drought-induced wildfire. Some of the most beautiful and responsible contemporary journals of place and nature eschew the nature writing of lore. Ecotone, a journal that “seeks to re-imagine place,” describes “the hushed tones and clichés of much of so-called nature writing,” while Flyaway, a Journal of Writing and Environment, advises would-be contributors against the “simply lovely meandering poetry about the beauty of a field of wheat or a sunset.”
In an interview with Terrain.org, a pre-eminent online environmental magazine, Hogan says that as a young writer, “Every morning I would remark about the beauty of that particular morning and what the birds were doing, what the trees looked like, whether it was raining. I finally realized that probably I could do more for nature in other, less private, kinds of writing.”
Hogan’s “less private” kinds of writing have since garnered her a national and international reputation. One of Colorado’s most significant and visible writers, Hogan has been awarded numerous accolades for her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction including finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the International Impact Award, which honors individuals who have “made sustained and deep contributions internationally or in the U.S. to promote global understanding.”
Hogan, a Chickasaw and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, describes her “main interests as both writer and scholar [to be] indigenous spiritual traditions and culture, and Southeastern tribal histories, and environmental issues.” Currently on the Board of Advisors for Orion Magazine, an environmental journal, Hogan has published specifically focused environmental works, including a collection of essays on the environment, Dwelling: A Spiritual History of the Land, Sightings: The Mysterious Journey of the Gray Whale, co-written for National Geographic Books, and a short documentary posted by the PBS/American Experience for the REEL/NATIVE series, A Feel for the Land. But all of Hogan’s work is permeated by a poet’s rich love of nature and an environmentalist’s keen sense of responsibility to advocate for it, both for the human generations to come and, more importantly, for the sake of the earth itself, what Hogan calls that “container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours.”
I first discovered her environmental advocacy through her novel, Solar Storms, which follows the journey of a troubled 17-year-old girl who returns to Adam’s Ribs, the home place of her native American family, specifically her great grandmother, “one of the women who had loved me.” As the novel follows the journey of this girl and her female kin to try and destroy the hydroelectric dam that threatens everything in this place of healing, Hogan, the poet, deftly weaves into that journey the lyricism of nature poetry:
Spring was a statement of faith, trust that all would be well, that light would return. The faithful earth was swept with the religion of the season. Opening. Rising. Muddy, soft, and renewed. I believed spring entered not only our dreams but those of the moose and wolves.
Yet Hogan, the environmental steward, tempers the beauty of nature with the ever-present history and threat of man’s destruction of this very place that sustains her characters:
It was called Poison Road, the road we walked on. The French had named it “Poisson,” after fish, because once it rained tiny fish onto the earth along this road. They’d fallen from the sky. It was said they’d hatched in a cloud. But a few years later the road came to be one of the places where the remaining stray wolves and fox were poisoned to make more room for the European settlers and the pigs and cattle they’d brought with them, tragic animals that never had a chance of surviving the harsh winters of the north.
Rather than simply write within what Steven Poole of The Guardian calls “the pastoral literary genre that has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism” (“ Is the Love of Nature Writing Bourgeois escapism?”), Hogan inhabits the ecotone, what Ecotone Journal calls “a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities . . .a place of danger or opportunity.”
When asked by Terrain if she believed that “environmental writers have a political responsibility,” Hogan replied, “[Environmental writers] are writing about themselves in the environment, and they often don’t understand the world they’re writing about. There are clearly writers who are more concerned with traveling around and checking everything out than they are with long-term survival of the habitats that they’re working in. In some ways, the writing I do is politically centered because it is about a worldview that can’t be separated from the political . . . .”
Thankfully for her readers, Hogan, “held in earth’s hand,” embraces not just the political, nor the poetic, but both.