This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Susan Lambert for her In the Balance podcast. We talk about my new book, Dwelling: an ecopoem, and how we can repair our rift with the natural world. Give a listen…

Scott Edward Anderson speaks the language of the earth. His new book Dwelling: an ecopoem encourages us to discover a more balanced relationship – an interrelationship – between human beings and the earth.

He urges us to “give back to the earth what is hers.” He reminds us that the earth doesn’t need us. She will be fine. We are the ones who need to adapt, change and have empathy for the earth. Scott’s beautiful book helps us begin to heal that fractured relationship.

In the Balance 

ANDERSON_DWELLING_COVER_FRONT_SMALLSometimes, perseverance pays off.

Back in the early 2000s, I began working on a few poems in response to Martin Heidegger’s essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which I first read over a decade before while living in Germany.

In this essay, Heidegger argues that dwelling is our way of being on the Earth, but that modern society creates a rift between building and dwelling.

We can heal that rift by preserving the Earth, by not exploiting its resources and, Heidegger suggests, by thinking about building as dwelling and our relationship to community.

My reactions to the work were complicated by several factors, not the least of which was the philosopher’s complicity with the Nazis during WWII, but also that some of what Heidegger says about dwelling didn’t ring true with what I understood were the origins and meanings of the word “dwelling.”

For example, Heidegger believed dwelling is best accomplished solely by staying in place, when in fact the roots of the word imply abandonment, leave-taking, and, frankly, wandering.

Heidegger concludes his essay with an example of his own dwelling in southwest Germany’s Black Forest–also home to the Brothers Grimm. His Black Forest home, known as “die Hütte,” located in Todtnauberg, embodied his concept of being rooted in a place. Of that he was certain.

Yet, dwelling’s roots, if you will, speak to its origins in doubt, leading astray, and ultimately, to being in error. This was clearly rich territory, given Heidegger’s egregious affiliations–and Jewish poet Paul Celan’s visit with the philosopher in 1967.

Exploring a multilayered aspect of dwelling as a manifestation of our being on the Earth, I turned to the writing of philosophers Kate Soper and David Abrams, as well as that of the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, all of which contributed to my thinking on the subject.

In November 2002, I enjoyed a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York, sponsored by the Concordia Foundation, and a sabbatical from my work with The Nature Conservancy, which afforded me concentrated time to engage with my project.

I’ll never forget driving up to the Colony–it was right around my birthday. I’d shared a few of the early poems of my project with my friend and poetry mentor, Alison Hawthorne Deming, who responded positively, calling my project “a phenomenology of how we live on the Earth.”

Man, was that both encouraging and daunting! I had to stop the car more than once with a bit of a panic attack fearing I was not up to the task.

Yet, I persevered, and the work expanded from a sequence of poems to a companion series of essay “questions”–in the tradition of the Egyptian-French poet Edmond Jabès–on themes within the poems, and finally to some short “definition” poems, exploring the various meaning of the word dwelling.

At the 2011 American Society for Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference in Bloomington, Indiana, I shared several of the poems on a panel organized by poet and anthologist Laura-Gray Street.

Over the years, a number of the poems made it into print or on-line publications, including Terrain, CrossConnect, Many Mountains Moving, and The Wayfarer. The late John Ashbery selected one of the poems, “Becoming,” to represent work produced by the Millay Colony for its 30th Anniversary exhibit at the Albany (New York) International Airport in 2004.

But I couldn’t find a home for the book as I conceived it–poetry and essays combined. When my collection of poems, Fallow Field, came out in 2013, I included several of the “Dwelling” poems as a section in the book, not sure I would ever publish the entire work.

Then, in 2017, I submitted the manuscript to a contest for The Hopper Poetry Prize, a prize devoted to environmentally focused collections. To my surprise, I received an honorable mention, which encouraged me to seek out other publishers towards the end of that year.

I wrote to half a dozen publishers I thought would have an interest and Christine Cote of Shanti Arts in Brunswick, Maine, was one of the first to respond. I sent her the manuscript.

A few weeks later, Christine wrote with such enthusiasm and a clear sense of the vision I had for the book. And the press, which was founded in 2011 “to celebrate and promote connections between art, nature, and spirit,” seemed like a gift to the book.

Christine’s design sense, too, was a gift and, when I suggested using some of my friend the artist Hans Van Meeuwen‘s drawings in the book, she loved the idea. Hans was an artist in residence at Millay when I was there in 2002; in fact, it’s where we met.

And when I told Christine I wanted to run the “definition poems” as a footer across the bottom of the page throughout the book, she was willing to try it–as skeptical as she may have been at first. I also ran the idea by my poetry friend Erin Belieu, showing her a sample. She said it “felt like a whisper across the bottom of the page.” It worked!

Sixteen years after that drive up to the Millay Colony, I’m holding a copy of this book in my hand. It seems like a minor miracle. Although, the real miracle will be you, dear readers, and your reaction to my little book of dwelling on the Earth.

Let me know what you think.

You can order copies directly from the publisher: Shanti Arts

Or on Amazon in paperback or Kindle versions: Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cleaver Magazine published my craft essay, “Poetry As Practice,” earlier this year:

Paying-AttentionPOETRY AS PRACTICE
How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction
A Craft Essay
by Scott Edward Anderson

In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor

Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize their song—the red flash of a cardinal lights on a branch nearby; a robin lands on the trail ahead, scraping his yellow beak against a rock.

Observation like this helps feed my database of images, fragments of music, and overheard speech, which prepares my poetry-brain for the work of choosing words, putting them in a certain order, and forming phrases into lines, stanzas, and eventually entire poems.

Remembering a line I’m working on, I worry it like a dog with a bone, gnawing on the words, their syntax, imagery, sound or feel in my mouth and mind. Playing with the line, I’ll follow it until it leads somewhere or dumps me in a ditch, when I’ll file it away for another day. I’m paying attention to where the poem wants to go. READ MORE

Spider and waspThis week’s prompt at 52, the poetry group I joined this year to challenge me to write a poem each week during the year, is about insects.

As Jo Bell writes in her introduction to the prompt, “Insects buzz and flutter and sting the air around us.

“They have us outnumbered, and they will outlast us. Insects thrive in every evolutionary niche – from the bluebottle, living on excrement and unpopular in the kitchen, to the Wandering Violin Mantis (yes, really – watch this to see it and its curious friends).”

As readers of my poetry know, observations in nature are a major subject of mine, especially birds. Whether the moths and butterflies featured in my poem, “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet,” or the mining bees that open, “Redbud & Pitbull,” or the cecropia moth that is or isn’t the subject of my poem, “Summer Love,” insects are also not strangers to my poetry lens.

“Opportunity,” which appears in my book FALLOW FIELD, was originally published in the journal BluelineIt was prompted by a scene I witnessed in The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondacks office in Keene, New York, in the 1990s.

The poem centers around an interaction between an insect (wasp) and an arachnid (spider). Spiders are among the most remarkable predators on the planet. The spider featured in the poem was a web-hunting spider, a form of hunting that requires delicacy, building skills, and not a small amount of patience. (For more on how such spiders catch their prey, check out this illustrated description.)

Here is my poem, “Opportunity”:

 

A wasp wrestles all day
with the false freedom
of a window pane.

Scaling the glass, then slipping
down, buzzing the cracked paint
of the old window frame.

As if thrumming wings faster
will pull it closer to the blossom,
just beyond its reach.

So determined in its struggle
to get in, to wrest pollen from
the exotic flower on the other side.

A spider sets its dinner table
in the corner of the pane—
–Scott Edward Anderson

 

Jasper and sunflower.

Jasper and sunflower.

Who’s to say how images come to stick in our mind and how they make their way into our poetry?

There’s an image of my oldest son, Jasper, that stuck with me over the years and I recently ran across a photograph that captured the image and inspired lines in my poem, “Becoming.”

“The way a sunflower towers over a child,

each year growing shorter–

–no, the child growing taller.”

In the photograph my son is in the summer of his second year. We we were living in Anchorage, Alaska, where the sunflowers grow tall in the nearly full-day sun.

He’s measuring himself up against a sunflower — and bending the sunflower down to touch his head.

There are other images of Jasper in his youth that appear in that poem and things that we saw out on hikes together.

Here is my poem, “Becoming”:

 

Say that childhood memory

has more relevance than yesterday–

          a moose calf curled up against the side of a house

merely saying it may make it so.

The way a sunflower towers over a child,

each year growing shorter–

         a hermit crab crawling out of a coconut

–no, the child growing taller.

        a sharp-shinned hawk swooping over a stubble field

imagining the earth, “the earth is all before me,”

blossoming as it stretches to the sun–

      a brilliant red eft – baby salamander — held aloft in a small, pink hand

Is home the mother’s embrace?

     a white cabbage butterfly flitting atop purple flox

The child sees his world or hers

     stroking the furry back of a bumblebee

head full of seed, until it droops,

spent, ready to sow the seeds.

Say that our presence in the world

          a millipede curling up at the child’s slightest touch

is making the book of our becoming.

–Scott Edward Anderson 

snyderToday is poet Gary Snyder’s birthday. He is 83 years old.

I studied with Gary and he had a big impact on my poetry, which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog.

You won’t find traces of his influence in my work, stylistically at any rate; rather you’ll find it in my deep engagement of nature, in how I pay attention, and “be crafty and get the work done.”

Happy birthday Gary!

Here is Gary Snyder’s poem, “Old Bones”:

Old Bones

 

Out there walking round, looking out for food,

a rootstock, a birdcall, a seed that you can crack

plucking, digging, snaring, snagging,

barely getting by,

 

no food out there on dusty slopes of scree—

carry some—look for some,

go for a hungry dream.

Deer bone, Dall sheep,

bones hunger home.

 

Out there somewhere

a shrine for the old ones,

the dust of the old bones,

old songs and tales.

 

What we ate—who ate what—

how we all prevailed.

–Gary Snyder

 

And here is a recording of Gary reading “Old Bones”:

 

Photograph by Steven Kazlowski, Alaska Stock Images/National Geographic

Photograph by Steven Kazlowski, Alaska Stock Images/National Geographic

Today is International Polar Bear Day, celebrating the world’s largest carnivore.

I’ve shared my poem the “Ten-legged Polar Bear” with readers in the past, but there’s another poem I wrote about the species, which is a kind of totem for me.

I wrote this poem for my oldest son, Jasper, several years ago, as he was distressing about the plight of the polar bear.

He was born in Alaska and has always had a special affinity with these bears. He had heard reports of a polar bear seen swimming in circles some 60 miles from the nearest shoreline.

International Polar Bear Day was started by Polar Bears International to raise awareness about the plight of these remarkable bears. You haven’t lived until you’ve felt the power and presence of this bear, which is a potent reminder that we are not at the top of the food chain. (If you want a sense of what a polar bear encounter is like, watch this video of a BBC reporter.)

Polar bears are found in only five countries in the circumpolar north, including the US, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. According to researchers there are only 19 wild populations of polar bears remaining — probably less that 25,000 individual bears.

The rapid loss of sea-ice in the Arctic is the major threat to polar bears, but they are also subject to pollution, industrial development, and even poaching.

Here is my poem, “Disappearance”

 

In the distance we see what appears to be floating sea-ice,

calved from ragged ice-edge, only it’s rounded, tensile, mammalian—

 

Hollow points of light emanating from softly echoing,

transparent follicles; then a broad back surfaces, inanimate—

 

“Oh my god, it’s a bear!” someone shouts, pointing

to a floating carcass now seen clearly: not sea-ice,

 

but sea-bearUrus maritimus—dead-man’s floating

miles and miles from the nearest shore,

 

face staring deep beneath the surface, massive front paws

spent from stretching, from reaching for ice-edge,

 

exhausted from swimming panicky circles,

finding only heavy arctic seawater, viscous oil, adrenaline ooze.

 

Think of a fight-weary heavyweight, no longer at the top of his game,

up against a nimble, invisible opponent, now down for the count.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

Gladys Taylor (on right), with her companion Ga Morrill, in Brookfield, Vermont

Back in November 2002 I was a poet-in-residence at the Millay Colony in upstate New York.    I went up there with the kernels of a big, ambitious new project in mind — my poetic sequence called “Dwelling.”

One day, November 17th to be exact, I took a break from writing and went for a hike in the woods.  In the middle of the woods I had a kind of vision of my childhood.

I was in the woods with Gladys Taylor, who we called Aunt Gladys and who looked after me those days.  Really, I was her protegé.  (I have two slim books of stories she wrote about my exploits as a toddler.)

Suddenly, as rarely happens, I had one of those bolts of inspiration and was compelled to run back to my studio. I sat down at the desk, grabbed my notebook, and wrote furiously.  Some 250 lines later, I put down my pencil and went to the communal dining hall.  When I got back after dinner and read what I had written, I thought some of it was pretty good.

The best of it was the story of Gladys’s “education” of me — I always say that everything I learned, I learned from Gladys Taylor.

Wanting to acknowledge Gladys in a dedication, I looked up her birth date on the Social Security Death Index (she died in 1986).  It turned out, I was writing the poem on what would have been her 100th birthday!  (This past Wednesday would have been her 108th.)

As a dear friend of mine said to me once, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining mysterious.”

Here is my poem, which was a runner-up for the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award a few years ago:

The Postlude

“What dwelling shall receive me?…The earth is all before me.”
–Wordsworth, “The Prelude”

I am a child, crawling around in the leaves

With Gladys Taylor while she names the trees,

parts the grasses, digs into the earth with a gardener’s trowel.

She picks out worms and slugs, millipedes

And springtails, which we see with a “Berlese funnel.”

Busy decomposers working their busy tasks,

Turning waste into energy, leaf litter into soil again.

Gladys names things for me: “That oak,

That maple there, that sassafras, smell its roots.”

“Root beer!” I exclaim,

Her laughter peeling away into the hills. Later,

With Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study

On the table next to the unending jigsaw puzzle,

Gladys opens to “The Oaks,” reading or reciting:

“The symbol of strength since man first gazed

Upon its noble proportions…” Then she sings Virgil,

 

Full in the midst of his own strength he stands

            Stretching his brawny arms and leafy hands,

            His shade protects the plains, his head the hills commands.

 

Leaves and acorns spread across the table,

Each divided to its source, as if cataloguing specimens:

The white and chestnut oaks, red and scarlet,

Every oak in the neighborhood, sketching the leaves,

Tracing and coloring them. Then questions, such questions:

“Where did we see this one growing?” “How tall?”

“Are the branches crooked or straight?”

“Round leaves or pointy?”

And then a game of matching

Acorn to leaf; a most difficult lesson — as difficult

As those jigsaw puzzles for a boy lacking patience

Or attention. Outdoors again, to learn attention,

Naming the birds that came to eat at the feeder:

Chickadee, sparrow, nuthatch, tufted titmouse,

The ubiquitous jay.

“The mockingbird, hear

How he makes fun of all the other birds.” Now

Thrasher, now robin, the sweet sweet sweet,

Very merry cheer of the song sparrow,

Or the flicker’s whicka whicka wick-a-wick.

Then a jay’s piercing caw, a cat’s meow,

This was all the mocker’s doing!  And wide-eyed,

I stare, as Gladys seems to call birds to her side.

“The robin tells us when it’s going to rain,

Not just when spring is come,” she says. “Look

How he sings as he waits for worms to surface.”

That summer, rowing around the pond

By Brookfield’s floating bridge, I saw a beaver

Slap the water with its tail, and then swim around the boat,

As if in warning. Under water a moment later he went,

Only to appear twenty yards away, scrambling up the bank,

Back to his busy work. “Busy as a beaver,” Gladys laughs.

Then a serious tone, “You know that beavers gathered

The mud with which the earth was made?”

(I later learned this was Indian legend; to her

There was little difference among the ways of knowing.)

All around the pond the beavers made of the creek,

The sharp points of their handiwork: birches broken

For succulent shoots, twigs, leaves and bark bared.

“When they hear running water, they’ve just got

To get back to work!” Beavers moving across

The water, noses up, branches in their teeth,

Building or repairing dams or adding to their lodges,

Lodges that look like huts Indians might have used.

 

I watched for them — beavers and Indians — when

Out on the water, and once I remember a beaver

Jumping clear out of the water over the bow of the rowboat!

Later, wading in the mud shallows by the pond’s pebbly edge,

I came out of the water to find leeches covering my feet,

Filling the spaces between my toes.  Screaming, fascinated,

I learned that they sucked blood, little bloodsuckers,

A kind of worm, which were once used to reduce fever.

 

That was me to Gladys Taylor’s teaching,

Wanting to soak up everything she had to give me.

We picked pea pods out of the garden, shelled

On the spot, our thumbs a sort prying-spoon,

And ate blackberries by the bushel or bellyful,

Probably blueberries, too, I don’t know. And

Seeing the milkweed grown fat with its milk,

I popped it open, squirting the white viscous

Juice at my brother. Gladys always found

A caterpillar on the milkweed leaves, tiger stripes

Of black, white, and yellow. “Monarchs,” she said,

“The most beautiful butterfly you’ll ever see.”

I looked incredulously at the caterpillar, believing,

Because she was Gladys, but not believing her,

That this wiggly, worm-like thing could be a butterfly.

Later, she found a chrysalis and took the leaf

And twig from which it hung. She placed it atop

A jar on the picnic table, and each day we waited

— waited for what? I didn’t know. Until one day,

It was empty, a hollow, blue-green emerald shell,

And I almost cried. “Look, out in the meadow,”

She instructed. Hundreds, it seemed like

Thousands, of monarch butterflies flitting about,

From flower to flower!

The wooly-bear

Was easier to study. We put it in a jar with a twig

And fresh grass every day; it curled and slept and ate

Until one day it climbed, climbed to the top

Of the twig and spun a cocoon from its own hairs.

There it stayed for weeks, until at last I thought it dead.

But then, emerging from its silky capsule, a hideous sight:

Gray, tawny, dull–a tiger moth! Nothing like the cute

And fuzzy reddish-brown and black teddy bear we’d found.

“This is magic,” said Gladys. “Nature’s magic.”

 

And I believed her, believe her still, that there is some magic

In nature speaking within us when we are in it, of it, let it in–

Science may explain this all away, physics or biology,

But nothing will shake my faith in this:

That the force of nature, the inner fire, anima mundi,

Gaia, or whatever you may call it, is alive within each

Being and everything with which we share this earth.

 

My Mother Earth was Gladys Taylor, and she

Taught me these things, and about poetry and art,

In the few, brief years we had together. Gladys

Taught me how to look at the world — to pay attention.

Thus began my education from Nature’s bosom:

A woman, childless herself (I believe) who,

In her dungarees and work-shirt, took a child

Under her wing and gave him gold,

Gave him his desire for dwelling on this earth.

 

(For Gladys Taylor, 17 November 1902-1 January 1986)

–Scott Edward Anderson