How poetry can help us better understand the climate crisis
In a world where the climate crisis can seem overwhelming and unconquerable, literature provides an answer where the science cannot.
Ronny Litvack-Katzman, Contributor
The first time I set foot in Algonquin Provincial Park was on a canoe trip with my overnight summer camp. I was 13-years-old at the time. For five days, we hiked through the backcountry, swam across rivers, drank from the lakes and slept on their shores. It was the closest I had ever felt to nature, an entity that I, a suburban teenager, had previously thought began and ended at the neighbourhood park. Sitting there under the stars, I found myself in a state of perpetual awe and curiosity. How could I even begin to understand this unfamiliar landscape? What secrets did it have for me if I were to succeed in unravelling its inner workings? Spending that summer in Algonquin, it seemed as though the answers to these questions were all around me—if only I was bold enough to find them.
Almost a decade later, I’m still proud of my younger self for recognizing the fleeting inspiration of that moment. It was an emotional response to the land I thought would never, or could never, be explained. As I grew up, I turned to science for answers to the questions that first came to me under the stars in Algonquin. Slowly but surely, I found some of them. The trees, like all the other living beings in the park, were a product of evolution.The fish and insects that filled the lakes played their own important roles within the forest ecosystem.
But science alone could not provide all the answers. I began to wonder if biology’s wonderfully complex mechanistic explanations of the natural world could ever evoke that same sentimental understanding I felt so many years ago.
And then I discovered nature poetry. For thousands of years, poets and philosophers have attempted to define humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
The notion that this relationship is fraught with tension is not a new idea introduced by climate change.
It’s one being continuously reimagined in different historical contexts. Famous Romantic poet William Blake’s poetry responded to the effects of urban sprawl and industrialization in London, centuries before the terms “carbon emissions” or “climate change” ever entered popular consciousness.
Ecopoetry is a subgenre of poetry that places a strong emphasis on nature. Though it is a relatively new field of poetics, its traditions date back to the nineteenth century. Ecopoetry seeks to describe the natural world and humanity’s place within it, oftentimes with a core message of ecological responsibility and stewardship. It is both “environmental” and “environmentalist”. In the face of the climate crisis, ecopoetics has become more essential than ever to helping us understand and mend the widening gap between Earth and its human inhabitants.
Oftentimes, humans imagine themselves as separate from nature, with nature as a thing to be conquered or survived. It’s this binary distinction between humans and nature that is one of the ecopoet’s primary causes of concern. The ancient division, passed down from the Greeks, suggests that nature is mute and unalterable, whereas humans are animated and dynamic. Ecopoets see this dualism as limiting, a conceptual barrier that they seek to dismantle in their work. In the context of the ecological crisis, the danger of this interpretation becomes clear: it prevents communication between humans and nature, and by extension gives people a reason to exploit it.
The poet has held the unique position at the intersection between science and society, between the natural and human worlds. Canadian icons such as Margaret Atwood and Earle Birney speak to this ability in their works. In her poem “The Moment,” Atwood reminds the reader that “[they] own nothing” of nature and that man is only ever “a visitor, time after time climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.” In other words, humans are foreigners to the wilderness yet seek to dominate it due to a false sense of authority. As a figure who looks to nature for inspiration and transforms their observations into words, ecopoets like Atwood fill a role that falls somewhere between an empirical scientist and a natural philosopher.
Not only does ecopoetry recapture the imagination and help us better understand the inner workings of nature in a sentimental way, but it provokes further questions about nature in ways that science can’t. This is because poetry is a dialogue between the ideas of the poet and the reader; the reader is exposed to the poet’s understanding of nature and is left to reconcile their own understanding of the natural world with the poem’s. For many, science presents a substantial knowledge barrier. To enter into a dialogue on nature with other scientists requires knowledge on scientific principles and perhaps even a background in the discipline. With poetry, the reader only needs to be conscious of the world around them. Through the use of narrative, poignant images and thematic motifs, ecopoets characterize nature through language and emotion, helping breach the divide between humans and nature by speaking to people on their own terms.
Yes, a thorough understanding of climate science is key to addressing the climate crisis—but it may not be enough to inspire people to act. Poetry succeeds where science oftentimes fails: in commanding an emotional response from its readers. The ecological crisis can be understood through a secondary lens, one that inspires through feelings, not facts. Ecopoetry does not only appeal to persisting social sentiments but also discloses the possibility of radical change in our belief systems.
Humanity’s troubled relationship with Earth has reached a critical inflection point, but science alone will not lead us out of danger. We cannot, at such a perilous point in human history, forget the power of story, sentiment and awe—the best of what ecopoetics has to offer. Through ecopoetry we can revert back to our childhood selves; people who were infinitely curious about the natural world and yearned to look for answers amongst the trees and rivers. Only from that primal point can we transform our collective relationship to the earth through a restructuring of our fundamental beliefs. Like ecopoetry, to become environmentalists, we must first learn from the environment.