Perhaps, as both artists and scientists, we have to see ourselves as cautious evangelists, breathing the fire of our convictions, but not the fire of chaotic thought, or a fire from which people would run. Indeed, relative to climate change, we need to be a campfire that people will gather around, think the deep thoughts that fire somehow elicits, see one another in that flickering glow for the combination of science and spirit that we truly are, and then carry that fire the rest of our lives.
Those are the words of John Bates, a naturalist, guide and author who lives on the Manitowish River in Iron County. I was delighted to stumble upon John’s writing recently while sorting through a pile of old magazines someone had given me. In a winter 2007 edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas, I read an essay Bates wrote in which he reflected on the ways artists can help us understand, engage and respond to the science surrounding climate change. His reflections grew out of his participation in a project called “Paradise Lost? Artists on Climate Change in the Northwoods,” which brought 20 scientists, artists and educators together in the forests of northern Wisconsin to learn about climate change and the potential role of art in increasing public awareness of it. That rendezvous produced a traveling exhibition that melded artists’ work, including some of Bates’s own poetry, with climate science.
John was happy to oblige when I asked him if I might share some of his poetry with Climate Chronicle readers. The author of seven books on the north woods, he soon hopes to publish a collection of his poems. National Poetry Month is still a month away. I don’t know about you, but I need it now. Besides, with spring arriving especially early this year it seems fitting to prime the poetic pump. Some readers will remember the post in which I featured the poetry of John Ingham of rural Dodgeville. I would like to continue to highlight the work of regional poets, especially those whose poems speak to the climate crisis, so please do not hesitate to send suggestions my way (or poems of your own).
The two selections below are campfires in themselves. Although both have elegiac undertones, it would be wrong to describe them as dark. Bates’ love of the flora and fauna unique to his part of the north woods shines forth as brightly as the animals and plants he names in his poems. Lament and the specter of climate change shadows every line, ’tis true, but the verse glows, ember-like, welcoming and warming even as it warns and mourns.
Reading poems aloud helps me to savor them, to appreciate their flavors and aromas. So I invite you to bring these hot coals to your lips, too. You will not be burned, but you may find your own inner fires kindled.
(upon reading an article projecting the loss of millions of species due to climate change)
Many ghosts already roam this land.
Some are simply and utterly gone –
the passenger pigeon,
the Carolina parakeet,
the heath hen.
Some species are ghosts in waiting,
but already splintered into ragtag remnants,
hiding along the edges of their former ranges,
hanging on in tiny encampments.
“Perhaps we are only here for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate . . .”
wrote Rainer Maria Rilke.
“But to say them . . .
oh, to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being.”
In Europe I could say
In Australia I could say
Boyd’s Forest Dragon.
But I live here,
The Northwoods of Wisconsin.
So I say
Pine, Spruce, Cedar, Hemlock
Loon, Winter Wren, Blackburnian Warbler,
Gray Wolf, Moose, Snowshoe Hare
Mink Frog, Brook Trout
Spring Azure Butterfly
Labrador Tea, Cranberry
Dragon’s Mouth Orchid
I am trying at this particular moment to say White-throated Sparrow.
I’m talking about this white-throated sparrow,
the one singing from the river edge
as the night succumbs to grey dawn.
I want to talk with birds.
I mean TALK.
I want to know everything.
Right now, I want to know why this white-throated sparrow sings
with such silver clarity
while the alder flycatcher has so plainly little to say.
And how is it that its song says NORTH?
That when I hear the white-throat
(Oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada)
I see the crimson-pink flower of bog laurel
smell sphagnum moss
feel the soft threads of cottongrass between my fingers?
To speak of this tiny bird as Rilke asks of me,
I must hear its Otherness,
I must know how to sing in celebration of a long night gone by,
I must know how to grace the wind with an ecstatic simplicity
I kneel in prayer.
dancing with the ghosts,
dancing with the living,
dancing with the dying.
The light and the shadow are in the trees
on the water
among the rocks.
Opening the door
How do we open the door to compassion?
“What good are sturgeon?” a man asked in a meeting.
“I don’t eat them. I say get rid of them.”
Another time, another meeting,
a fellow said, “What good are wolves?
All they do is eat our deer. Get rid of them.”
Once, even, a guy said to me,
“What good are loons? They eat all the fish!”
He thought the only good one was a dead one.
I want to say, “What good, then, are you?”
“What good are your children?”
Right now I’m standing next to a black spruce
in the bog just down the road from our place.
It’s a scraggly thing,
mostly just a tuft of growth at the top,
At its feet are bog laurel and bog rosemary
growing out of a bed of sphagnum moss.
The tiny leaves of bog cranberry weave themselves around their base.
The laurel is in flower, and
I can’t describe for you how beautiful it is
because what good are words
when your heart is so open?
When the climate warms, this bog will warm up,
the spruce, the laurel, the cranberry die.
And unless you live in a place for a very long time
you probably won’t even notice.
And you probably won’t care.
They are very small.