Though this year’s Earth Day is also on the same day as the beginning of the US climate summit, it is worth remembering that Earth Day is a celebration of our planet, and not merely an opportunity to remind us how badly we are abusing it.
So to emphasise that what we have is worth taking concerted action to protect, Independent writers have chosen their favourite poems which relate in some way to the natural world. Enjoy.
The Sick Rose by William Blake
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
This enigmatic short poem, just 34 words across two stanzas, appeared in the visionary Romantic poet’s Songs of Experience in 1794 and could stand as a metaphor for many things but is most obviously about the agony of observing the suffering of a loved one, helpless to intervene.
But Blake’s Sick Rose could stand for the whole natural world in microcosm, the “invisible worm” representing the forces of pollution conspiring to undermine and endanger it. A poignant thought from a poet writing and illustrating his verse at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Joe Sommerlad, reporter
Ghosts on My Tongue by Kat Lyons
I was a bookish child
Chased new words like butterflies, discovered them
Pinned into novels in my local library
Crept up on them
As they fluttered
On the edges of adult conversations
Skittishly avoiding my easy comprehension
I learned a new word the other day-
The term has overtones of Tolkien
A child of the 80s I imagine it spoken in a Skekis’ croak
The suffix ‘ling’ adds diminutive charm
Making it sound cute
As well as fantastical
It is neither of these things
It is the word for a creature that is the last of its kind
That long extended moment measured out
In one heart beating
The inhale/exhale of a single pair of lungs
Before the wave of extinction breaks
I roll it between my lips
This loneliest of words
It tastes like ashes
Ghosts on my tongue
I selected this poem because it hints at the excruciating pain I sometimes feel, as I connect with the devastating destruction of nature, that my generation has inflicted upon our precious earth.
And because I believe in opening up ourselves to this deep pain, we can tap into the courage necessary to stand up for her and become peaceful warriors for her protection and repair.
It is possible for us to pull back from the teetering brink and bequest their rightful heritage to future generations of humans and fellow creatures, of a thriving teeming natural world again.
Let there be no more endlings taking their last devastating breath. Donnachadh McCarthy, columnist
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Across trillions of possibilities, billions of galaxies, and millions of years, what are the chances that you – reading this piece – are here, now?
How often I forget to revel in the wonder of existence when caught in the banality of the day-to-day.
"Wild Geese" is my reminder that the surest return to home is found in nature. Rita Issa, columnist
Instructions on Not Giving Up by Ada Limón
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
Ada Limón’sInstructions on Not Giving Up speaks to me of the resilience of nature and of the human spirit – it’s a short, sharp reminder of the beauty of the world, even when it is shrouded in pain. As we emerge from the pandemic, as we continue the fight to protect our planet; this poem feels like a totem: a reminder of what is worth saving in the first place. Victoria Richards, senior commissioning editor at Indy Voices and poet. A collection of her work, Primers IV, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2019.
The Tree Agreement by Elise Paschen
The neighbor calls the Siberian Elm
a “weed” tree, demands we hack
it down, says the leaves overwhelm
his property, the square backyard.
He’s collar-and-tie. A weed tree?
Branches screen buildings, subway tracks,
his patch of yard. We disagree,
claim back the sap, heartwood, wild bark.
He declares the tree “hazardous.”
We shelter under leaf-hoard, crossway
for squirrels, branch house for sparrows, jays.
The balcony soaks up the shade.
Chatter-song drowns out cars below.
Sun branches down. Leaves overwhelm.
The tree will stay. We tell him “no.”
Root deep through pavement, Elm.
In my mum’s garden there’s a big London Plane tree that’s grown with us through the years. This poem reminds me of some of the small scuffles she’s had with the neighbours, and why it’s always been so important to us to keep the tree intact.
The solace that a favourite tree or patch of nature can bring has become even clearer during lockdown. I think that this poem speaks to the need to preserve these small reminders of the natural world, as well as the greater issue of deforestation. A report published last week by the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change found that only 3 per cent of the world’s surface is ecologically intact.
Here’s hoping we eventually approach deforestation with the same defiance as the poem’s last line: “Root deep through pavement, Elm.” Emma Snaith, audience editor
The Stone Skimmer by Alice Oswald
Going down through the two small fields,
disturbing the small-seeing flieshe brushes
the restless thistles, their dried skins hooked to their bones.
brimming flowering dimming diminishing.
Among the thistles and the whisking pools of the wind
he’s walkinghe can almost feel
the spent fur of his flesh, a seed-ghost on a gust
condemned to float in endless widening circles.
Eyeless stones, their silence swells and breathes easily in water,
barely move in the wombs of rivers.
His mind so rushed and slovenly, full of forms
brimming flowering dimming diminishing:
into the five inch space between heaven and heaven
he’s skimming a stonejust the smack of it
contacting water, the amazing length
Of light keeps lifting up his slid-down strength
I was brought up in the Wye Valley, and used to regularly go swimming in one of the Wye’s tributary rivers – the Monnow – which we accessed by walking through fields full of cattle, down to the riverbank where chamomile grew in great abundance. When I was a child it was here I learned to skim stones, sliding down, leaning low and wanging rocks over the surface of the river. Both the Wye and the Monnow are now seriously compromised by pollution. Harry Cockburn - Climate and environment reporter