14 Reasons for Hope: A Phenomenology of Place

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We who live in the coastal north wear jackets in July,

pick peonies near sunset, scatter

daisies on the islands, snack

on trailing shoots of tender sea peas.

We count eagles soaring in island updrafts, mark

deer print and heron step across the sand.

We watch bladderwrack yellow and

sea heather purple, skip slivers of slate

across the base of the bay. We listen for loons

and can tell by smell that the wind will soon shift,

that the fog will soon lift, that the raspberry canes

are in bloom. Look! The terns have returned;

their angled wings scissor through the sky. Before long,

wild roses will hedge the shore.

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One line at a time: some thoughts on keeping journals and writing poetry about “nature”

A focus on what one notes in a particular place offers us something very specific and irreducible, a set of observations bounded in space and time.  We all know this; at its most simple, this is exactly what a “phenomenology of place” is: local knowledge; a story or an account built of accumulated observations made (or is that taken?) in a particular time and place, often with a philosophically pointed aim or ethical turn. And yet some phenomenologies of place–for example a romantic tradition of poetry, emergent in the new nationalist and postcolonial landscapes of the last two and a half centuries–also imagine that specific spaces, times and stories may, in their very particulars, stand in for others that are their similars, much like the idealized notion of a “citizen republic” or a “representative democracy” which also emerges at the time.   A great deal of  nature writing functions in this vein, its model Thoreau’s close seasonal observations of Walden Pond, or Wordsworth’s autobiographical encounters with the “mimic hooting” of other creatures or his or Rousseau’s wanderings with friends in sublime locales. Each observation is “local,” yet somehow developed in “universally” meaningful ways.

Whitman collapses the distance between the landscape and his own erotic and exuberant extensions across it, celebrating, along with the rattle of the railroad and the urbanization and electrification of the nation, the coincidence of his body electric singing across the continent–which is, if you think about it, a rather dynamic and perfect trope for North American settler relationships to the land. Land and settler-singer, bit by bit, come to stand, seamlessly, as figures for one another, as the I/ eye who sings the nation into being, thereby obliterating or forgetting prior landscapes, along with local indigenous knowledges, and indigenous presence and cultivation of those spaces.

Interestingly enough, reliance on the romantic and formative power of the settler speaker’s eye is not just a “white” or anglo-european trope: Derek Walcott, Edouard Glissant, Amiri Baraka, George Elliott Clarke and Pablo Neruda all offer versions of such songs, as do Aime Cesaire, Herménégilde Chiasson and Jamaica Kincaid, albeit with explosive, complex and surreal send-ups of the seamlessness between singer, song and space, and clear knowledge that whatever history is invoked, it does not begin here and now with the I who speaks.

How then today to write phenomenologically thick “environmental” verse that doesn’t merely tumble into the tropes of romantic lyric–above all if you’re going to use a form as storied and worn as the sonnet? I can’t say I know the answer to this question, nor do I think I’ve found “the way” to answer it–I’m feeling my way along the ledge here, unsure of success in any direction. I have only this, which seems important: the decision to begin not with something new, but with something very old, with forms that already drag their layers and histories with them, with 14 lines crossing something simple and tending toward a conclusion that isn’t one.  I try to fit that form, built as it is for accounts of human actions, with a temporary, very local set of observations about the non-human world: this is what is happening right here right now, almost below the level of our consciousness, certainly despite the racket and destructiveness of human affairs. Does this make for “environmental” verse? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Maybe you’ll have to tell me. Maybe more than a single sonnet is required.

I have lived in Nova Scotia almost two decades, and my journals are full of daily observations.  Does it matter what we see? Does it matter what we say about what we see? What can such daily minutiae tell us? Perhaps more than we imagine. I think about the fact that Thoreau’s Walden journals with their close daily observations are now part of the evidence in scientific studies demonstrating significant climactic shifts, in the last century, in the Concord, Massachusetts area. This is of course not why he made his entries and observations, but it is a result of his thoughtful and embedded practice of living, his effort, however now and then complicated or compromised, to knit observation and understanding to an ethics of place. Writing, it turns out, like other practices of recollection and recording (weaving, sketching, carving, photography, myth-telling) may go on meaning in ways its authors never envisaged or intended. Part of the work of interpretation is learn to listen to what such accounts of the ancestors have to tell us. What are the things they looked and listened for? What are crucial embedded and embodied animal skills (like telling which way the wind will blow) that smart-phone wearing urban humans are on the verge of losing?

In this strange and fecund season here at the edge of the sea, I am thinking a great deal about climate change, for its signs seem acutely evident now, all around us. We appear to be witnessing major shifts or collapses in sea bird populations.  Species of fish and shellfish we’ve not seen before show up here and there, and morning and night we mark the heights and declines of the tides–they are more extreme; likewise, storms when they come carry away larger and larger chunks of various shorelines. In such a space, what, for every living thing, might be reasons for hope, for looking to a future? And what might any living thing hope for (or against)?

The photos for this entry were taken in 2012 in British Columbia, and so they do not belong to the place so narrowly denominated by these lines of verse about the 2018 Nova Scotia shore.  Nevertheless, in some way, they belong–for they seem to me to be an allegory of what it is like to live on the coastlines where I spend most of my time: everywhere, not just here, the climate is changing, the water is rising, and yet we carry on, as if everything is just fine, as if we can simply leave our pasts and all of their debris to sink in the water.  The ducks and other non human creatures may survive this–or they may not. They too may choke on our excesses–as indeed many have–and still we behave as if twitter, and not this, were our most important horizon.  I hope then without hoping–like perhaps the birds–one line at a time.

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