Ecopoetics in Conservation

Education for conservation targets people’s attitudes, emotions, knowledge and behaviours about wildlife and wild places.  The aim is to apply new skills and patterns of behavior of individuals, groups, and society to protect and improve biodiversity.  Fundamentally, education for conservation is about making plans for environmental protection within a conservation management system (CMS). The planning logic is the same whether one is planting a tree in the garden or controlling biodiversity in a national nature reserve.

1 The Big Picture

There are between 30 and 50 trillion stars spread between 80 and 140 billion galaxies, but Earth is the only place we call home. It’s all we have for life to survive and thrive and we need to understand that we are all part of one natural world.  Without fresh air, water, seas, fertile soils, forests, animals and plants, we humans couldn’t survive. Everything, even the smallest has a role to play, and. You are part of your local environment. Everything is connected – from the deepest ocean to outer space – and what we do as individuals, does make a difference.

The Big Picture values are exemplified by the environmental values of indigenous peoples as universal human values, and so are beliefs that guide a community’s understanding of how the natural world should be viewed and treated by humans.  For example the following Māori perspective of the natural world can be adopted as a starting point to explore anyone’s values about the natural world.

  • Aroha means ‘love’ but it actually refers to a lot more than that. It is about compassion for the environment and understanding the environment. We are all connected to the natural world.
  • Manaaki means ‘to look after and to care for’. It is our responsibility to be good kaitiaki/guardians for the natural world. If we don’t look after and care for the resources, then we will not have them in the future. It is part of our responsibility to manaaki everything within the natural world.
  • Wairua means ‘spirit’. Everything within the Māori world has a spirit. Wairua is mainly associated with living things, with people, and humans. Wairua is about feeling and hearing the essence that is around us in the natural world.
  • Tapu means sacred. Every part of the natural world, including ourselves has tapu. Some places have a tapu placed on them if they are sacred or for spiritual reasons.
  • Mauri means the life force or life essence. All things are united through mauri. People are part of the natural world and connected through mauri. The mauri of the natural world has been weakened by pests and habitat destruction, but we can restore mauri by looking after our environment.
  • Mana means respect, power, authority, and relates to dignity. From the Māori world view, everything has mana within the natural world.

2 The Big Picture ideas

For a Maori-

i Everything is connected (Ko au ko te taiao, ko te taiao ko au)

I am the environment, the environment is me

  • The planet is made up of many interconnected systems.
  • Everything in an ecosystem has a role to play.
  • Changing anything in an ecosystem impacts on everything else. It is often difficult to predict what the consequences of any change might be.

ii The planet’s diversity is critical to our survival (Toitū te marae a Tāne, Toitū te marae a

Tangaroa, Toitū te Tangata)

If we care for the resources of the land and the sea, we, the people, will survive.  

  • The health, well-being, and survival of humans depends on the health, well-being and survival of our planet’s ecosystems.

iii People are part of the natural world (He nohonga ngātahitanga ahau me te taiāo)

We live as one with our natural world

  • People’s actions can impact both negatively and positively on the environment.
  • Individuals, especially young people, can make a positive difference to ecosystems.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser writes, ‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’ There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story. The vocabulary we use is not handed to us from outside; it’s ultimately a matter of our choice.”

3 Ecopoetics

There are many poets today doing vital work to actively confront unsettling questions about our impact on other species and on the climate.  Ecopoetics is about shifting modes of thinking around our place in evolution. For some, ecopoetics is the making and study of pastoral poetry, or poetry of wilderness and deep ecology, or poetry that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals. For others, ecopoetics is poetry that confronts disasters and environmental injustices, including the difficulties and opportunities of living in urban environments. For yet others, ecopoetics is not a matter of theme, but of how certain poetic methods model ecological processes like complexity, non-linearity, feedback loops, and recycling, or how “slow poetry” can join in the same kind of push for a sustainable, regional economy that “eating locally” does.

Ecopoetics may be defined in many ways.  It can be the poetry of wilderness and deep ecology or poetry that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals and what it means to be human..  Humanism is a belief system that focuses on human agency, self-actualization, rational thinking, and attention to human life. This is to be understood as a shift in focus from religion to individuality, or from institutional agency to human agency, carried by what Anne Cluysenaar calls the subject matter of natural languages bridging art and science.  Humanists can and do weave lives that are rich tapestries of morality, purpose, awe and wonder. From this point of view, poetics in conservation expresses emotions about being an element of evolution in a sensitive or moving way. These emotions arise from our concerns as individuals about our impact on the natural world. Poets today are serving as witnesses to climate change while bringing attention to important environmental issues and advocating for preservation of biodiversity. 

Ecopoetics in conservation is the practical expression of evolutionary humanism, a division of environmental humanities.  It is an outcome of the motivation to manage biodiversity with the objective of protecting nature, as it is thought to be, or as it ought to be.  We protect species, their habitats, and ecosystems from erosion and extinction because we are a part of evolution in everything we do. We are as one with nature,  Biodiversity in this sense generates a poetical input to human non-monetary prosperity and its loss affects human wellbeing and individuals in many ways, regarding zero growth economics, food security, nutrition and  health. It is linked to social issues such as equity and rights to resources, which demands good governance and well functioning institutions. Thus, conservation management plans can be viewed as the humanistic interface between poetry and science, which can share the values of a common natural language.  There is a heart felt role for each and every one of us as managers of evolution, The linguist and poet Anne Cluysenaar challenged poets to engage strongly with science so as to stimulate their imaginations by freeing them from inadequate interpretations of the world. Her poetry exemplifies how, through serious study and interaction with scientists, a poet can appropriate science with intensity and discernment such that it becomes an integral part of our awareness of the world. 

“The world of science is colourless, soundless, tasteless, and if it even makes sense to say so, emotionless . . . this nature leaves something important unaccounted for . . . only natural language can deal with this central area . . . the sciences cannot . . . yet if the wisdom we derive from science is to be of any value, it must be of value to us, and our values and perceptions form the privileged subject matter of natural languages”.   

Anne Cluysenaar  

In an effort to establish a practical interdisciplinary baseline, Susanna Lidström and Greg Garrard develop an understanding of the relationship between poetry, ecology and environment.  In particular they trace the development of the idea of ‘ecopoetry’ from the Romantic and deep ecological traditions in the 1980s to the complex environmental concerns in the 2010s. They distinguish between poems that heighten readers’ awareness of their ecological surroundings on the one hand, and those that engage with difficult and complex environmental questions involving scale, justice, and politics on the other. They suggest that recognising this difference could improve cross-disciplinary discussions between ecocritical studies of poetry specifically, and environmental humanities more broadly. 

Their analysis is centred on differences between the work of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes that illustrate the two poles of their argument. What they define as an eco-phenomenological poem starts from the experience of the individual (Hughes), while what we call environmental poems tend to start from the points of view of societies and their environments (Heaney)   

Hughes’s ecological view connects us to nature, rather than sets us apart from other species.  It is illustrated in the poem. “Brambles” which describes a flock of jackdaws, comparing them first to a set of bramblecbriars, then to the poet himself. The poem begins by describing the jackdaws’ complex social behaviour.

The whole air, the whole day

Swirls with the calls of jackdaws. The baby jackdaw

Generation is being initiated

Into jackdawdom – that complicated

Court-world of etiquette

And precedence, jingoism and law.

The speaker then shifts his attention to a set of bramble briars, wondering if they too have their own agency: “So craftsmanlike, / Their reachings so deliberate, are they awake?” Next, however, the question is turned around and instead of affirming the briars’ agency, the speaker wonders about his own agency:

Surely they [the briars] aren’t just numb,

A blind groping. Yet why not?

Aren’t my blood-cells the same?

What do even brain-cells fear or feel

Of the scalpel, or the accident?

They too crown a plant

Of peculiar numbness.

Heaney’s view of the environment is focused on the poem “Canopy,”54 from his last collection, Human Chain. “Canopy” describes how the trees in a yard at Harvard through which the speaker is walking resonate with voices from ‘everywhere.’ This is not a metaphorical description, but actually the result of amplifiers hidden in the trees:

It was the month of May,

Trees in Harvard Yard

Were turning a young green.

There was whispering everywhere.

David Ward had installed

Voice-boxes in the branches,

Speakers wrapped in sacking

Looking like old wasps’ nests

Hush and backwash and echo.

It was like a recording

Of antiphonal responses

In the congregation of leaves.

 4 Poetical Puffins

The following two paragraphs open  the open Roseanne Alexander’s ecopoetical story of the life of a Puffin on Skomer National Nature Reserve, just one outcome of a decade of her day-to-day life on a small seabird island off the South West coast of Wales.  It follows the science precisely.

“It was an exceptional day, hovering uncertainly between spring and summer.  For the first time in over a week the heavy mist that clung to the island had melted away.  The sun burnt down with a harshness that was disguised by the cool clarity of the air. It glared against the sea which reflected its light as smoothly as rippled silk.  On the cliff top above a puffin stared out into the stillness, to where the sea met the sky. There was an intensity in her stare, a longing perhaps, but she did not respond to the lure of that endless freedom.  She was tied to the island by a bond that even she did not fully understand. 

The damp air had held back the drying effects of the sun, and now the cliffs of North Haven where the puffin stood were vibrant with colour.  The turf, close-cropped by rabbits, was strewn with the shimmering pink and white of thrift and sea campion. It was afternoon and the bay was peaceful, awaiting the evening in-rush of birds.  The puffin unfolded her short wings and beat against the invisible resistance of the air, but she did not rise away from the unyielding cliff. She simply folded her wings across her back and shuddered her feathers into place.  Once or twice she flicked her head nervously from side to side as though wary of some unseen predator. Then, crouching low, she scuttled the few feet to her burrow entrance and ducked below ground”

Life itself could never have been sustainable without seabirds and they provide many poetic metaphors bearing on human survival.  As Adam Nicolson writes: “They are bringers of fertility, the deliverers of life from ocean to land.” But a global tragedy is unfolding.  Even as we are coming to understand them, the number of seabirds on our planet is in freefall, dropping by nearly 70% in the last sixty years, a billion fewer now than there were in 1950. Extinction stalks the ocean and there is a danger that the grand cry of the seabird colony, rolling around the bays and headlands of the high latitude Atlantic, will this century become little but a memory.  

Seabirds have always entranced the human imagination and Adam Nicolson has been in love with them all his life: for their mastery of wind and ocean, their aerial beauty and the unmatched wildness of the coasts and islands where every summer they return to breed. His book, The Seabird’s Cry, comes from an elemental layer in the story of evolution and we revel in the way the avian lifeforms  “float like beings from the otherworld” 

Over the last couple of decades, modern science has begun to understand their epic voyages, their astonishing abilities to navigate for tens of thousands of miles on featureless seas, their ability to smell their way towards fish and home. Only the poets in the past would have thought of seabirds as creatures riding the ripples and currents of the entire planet, but that is what the scientists are writing their stories today.  As their cries die om the waves so our lives become more precarious.

5 Hot spots of poetic naturalism 

Sean Carroll espouses a philosophy he calls “poetic naturalism.” Here is how he explains this concept:

“By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world. ‘Ways of talking’ shouldn’t be underestimated; they can otherwise be labeled ‘theories’ or ‘models’ or ‘vocabularies’ or ‘stories,’ and if a particular way of talking turns out to be sufficiently accurate and useful, the elements in its corresponding vocabulary deserve to be called real.  “Naturalism,” says there is nothing above and beyond nature. In particular, there are no supernatural forces to transcend or interfere with natural laws. “Poetic,” says, “there is more than one way of talking about the world.” 

Naturalism is a literary genre that started as a movement in late nineteenth century literature, film, theater, and art. It is a type of extreme reality. This movement stressed the roles of family, social conditions, and environment in shaping human character. Thus, naturalistic writers produce stories based on the idea that environment determines and governs human character.  We also see use of some of the scientific principles in naturalistic works, and humans struggling for survival in hostile and alien society. In fact, naturalism took its cue from Darwin’s theory of evolution, which holds that life is like a struggle and only the fittest survive.

Naturalism has had a big impact on literary writers, leading to the growth of the modern movement of ecopoetics. Generally, naturalistic works expose dark sides of life such as prejudice, racism, poverty, prostitution, pollution and disease. Since these works are often pessimistic and blunt, they receive heavy criticism. Despite this, naturalism is generally concerned with improving the global human condition. It is in this context of promoting conservation of biodiversity and international integration of conservation management that Fredrick Monant Nyambane investigated indigenous Kenyan oral poetry.  The intent is to explore the possibility of indigenous poetry that could aid the already existing efforts of biodiversity conservation and how this might lead to the fostering of social and national integration/unity. His research supports the view that …..”human conflicts are offshoots of multiple interests such as sectarian jingoism, xenophobic sentiments, ethnic bigotry and other reasons”. However, the belief is that these are secondary causes. The deeper cause is the scramble for biodiversity-related resources and has further resulted in the “sordid banditry of fauna and flora,” which has displaced and dispossessed populations around the globe.  This gives rise to the idea of hotspots of poetic naturalism, which are special places on Earth where one can meditate on nature, its conservation management and the cultivating naturalist intelligence, a recognized learning style that relates to observing patterns in the natural world and expressing empathy for all other lifeforms. 

An example of a hotspot of poetic naturalism, with layers of meaning awaiting discovery, is the Sourdough Mountain Lookout. The lookout is part of the conservation management plan for tackling lightning-sparked wildfires at the heart of the US  North Cascades National Park. The lookout is situated a mile above the Skagit River canyon at the intersection of six major watersheds. In this respect, it commands one of the most spectacular views in the range. The naturalist and poet Tim McNulty spent the summer of 2003 in the lookout as the firewatcher and here is his gift of a poem when he connected briefly with the life of a migratory Townsend’s Warbler.  This bird is a colourful, distinctive wood-warbler that breeds among the treetops of mature fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, Townsend’s Warbler also nests in montane spruce-fir forests in Idaho, Montana, and northwest Wyoming, and in boreal forests in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. In September, it begins its southward migration to California and the highlands of Mexico and Central America. Although Townsend’s Warbler populations remain stable, this species is predicted to lose large parts of its breeding range due to climate change. Like so many bird species, it’s also at risk from habitat loss.

Tropical Sunlight

Smoke from wildfires fills the valleys,

and a high veil of cirrus

dampens the morning sun.

Then a gift from Costa Rican forests —

Townsend’s warbler drops by.

Sunlit yellow face and breast,

dark Zorro-like mask,

quickly, neatly, shakes down

a subalpine fir crown

for bugs,

cleans his beak madly on a limb,

and takes leave south

across the Skagit,

heading back.

6 Internet references

Conservation education

Darwin timeline

Wallace timeline

Evolution library

Conservation poetry

Indigenous environmental values

Environmental humanities


Kenya state of environment

Conservation poetry

A poetic look at wildlife conservation


Decline of the Hull fishing industry

Fishing and poetry

Sourdough Mountain

Comments are closed.