Integrating Nature: The Role of Poetry in Reorienting Environmental Politics

Patricia Nelson Limerick

Some things are very dear to me —
Such thing as flowers bathed by rain
Or patterns traced upon the sea
Or crocuses where snow has lain . . . .
The iridescence of a gem,
The moon's cool opalescent light,
Azaleas and the scent of them,
And honeysuckles in the night.

— African American poet Gwendolyn Bennett, “Sonnet II” 1

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act, and the two great causes of our times — racial justice and environmental well-being — seemed to operate in amicable, if distant, coexistence. By 1970, the civil rights movement seemed to be losing momentum, while, with the launching of Earth Day, the environmental movement seemed to be gathering force. Was the environmental movement going to succeed civil rights, or compete with civil rights, or simply pursue an unconnected destiny from civil rights? Would there be some sort of carry-over or connection from one movement to the other? Or would environmental activists come to believe that the earth's problems posed such an urgent danger to the human species that dealing with inequality among human beings would have to be postponed? Increasingly, the civil rights movement and the environmental movement seemed segregated from each other, with the environmental movement drawing heavily from a white, middle-class pool of supporters with little attention to spare for matters of racial injustice.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of grassroots movements came into being, to protest exposures to environmental hazards. In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice issued a much-noted report arguing that environmental pollution had a disproportionate impact on minorities and poor people of all ethnicities. In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit met as a clear launching moment of the nationwide environmental justice movement. The focus of environmental justice has been on issues of toxic pollution of the places where people of color live — neighborhoods close to landfills and incinerators in urban neighborhoods, in particular. The premise has been, in the words of sociologist Robert Bullard, one of the leaders of the environmental justice movement, that “low-income communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of the nation's pollution problems.” The major issues and disputes taken up by environmental justice advocates, Bullard explains, “include toxics, waste facility siting, urban industrial pollution, childhood lead poisoning, pesticides and farm workers, land rights, sustainable development, and the export of toxics and risky technology.” With the operating assumption that white environmentalists direct their attention to outdoor spaces and the health of ecosystems, and minority environmentalists direct their attention to urban spaces and public health, the gap between the two kinds of environmentalists seems enormous indeed. As scholar Dorceta Taylor has written, “The relationship between white and minority environmental groups has traditionally been one of distrust, distance, discomfort, and misunderstanding.” 2

For anyone who doubts the relevance of history, this is a situation in which a legacy from the past exercises considerable power over the way we conduct ourselves in the present. In its origins in preservation and conservation, the environmental movement was indeed a racially exclusive operation. Some of its founders, like Theodore Roosevelt, were outright celebrators of the superiority of white Americans, and the inferiority of everyone else. The attitudes and habits of Roosevelt's Progressive Era exercise a remarkable and persistent power over the contemporary conservation movement, the resource management professions, and the federal land management agencies.It is thus enormously consequential for our lives today that conservation came into being in a context in which race relations were in a very bad state. When conser- vationist thinking rose to influence, the Jim Crow segregation of the South was settling into place; as presidents, Theodore Roosevelt did nothing to interrupt the disenfranchising of blacks and Woodrow Wilson actively supported it. Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants were subordinated into the lower ranks of the labor force in the Southwest. The state of California was passing laws to restrict the rights of Japanese immigrants to own land. Indian people were at their nadir, both in population and in power. Many white Americans in the Progressive Era believed wholeheartedly that Indians were vanishing and disappearing. Thus, conservationist thinking, at its origins, made no reckoning with the continued existence of Indian people and offered no challenge to the rigidifying of the nation's racial hierarchy.

At the turn of the last century, the beginnings of federal conservation — the creation of the Forest Reserves, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the passage of the National Antiquities Act — coincided with the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the influential early writings of advocates like W. E. B. DuBois. Simultaneous as they were, concern about a timber famine, fueled by alarm over the devastation of forests in the upper Midwest, seemed to exist in an entirely different arena of life from concern about race terrorism, fueled by alarm over a siege of lynchings of African Americans in the South. Of course, in the mind of an individual like Theodore Roosevelt the issues of race and conservation did cohabit: to Roosevelt, the status and security of native-born white Americans were jeopardized by the reproductive power of African Americans and immigrants. Along with a mandate on white women men to have larger families, for Roosevelt, the conservation of natural resources and the maintenance of opportunities for outdoors experience found their places in the larger project of protecting the position of white Americans in a rapidly changing world.

Beyond the origins of the movement, an active indifference to issues of race continued in the expressions of influential environmental thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. Acknowledging this pattern is an important way to help mainstream environmentalists recognize that the low number of people of color in conventional environmental groups is not an historical accident. On the contrary, a habit of taking white privilege for granted runs deeply in the currents of their movement. A telling example of active indifference to the dilemmas of African American people comes from the naturalist and environmental writer, Joseph Wood Krutch. Often cited and excerpted for his eloquent descriptions of the adaptation of plants and animals to desert conditions and of the need for humans to restrict their self-indulgence, Krutch was a leading voice for nature in the mid-twentieth century.

In his autobiography, published in 1962, Krutch became one of the few twentieth century, white nature writers to discuss his racial attitudes explicitly, writing warmly of his memories of his home town, Knoxville, Tennessee. His birth certificate, he said, described him as “White, legitimate, born alive.” In the 1890s in Knoxville, as Krutch wrote, “not to be white was frankly admitted to rightfully entail some pretty severe penalties.” The belief in a fundamental difference between blacks and whites was, accordingly, “one of the very first of the things which I took for granted.” While life could be “unadventurous” and dull in his hometown, Krutch found much to value in the ways things were. He could not help remembering, he said, “how relatively free [Knoxville] was from both the public and private pressures, tensions, and anxieties of today. . . . We are now accustomed to seeing our world as a concatenation of problems; few living before World War I took any such view of it.” 3

Writing during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, Krutch declared that the pleasant, leisured life of the white middle class in his childhood was made possible by “the greatest labor-saving device of all, namely servants — almost invariably black.” “Neither I nor anyone else,” he went on, “ever thought of ‘a Negro problem’ or supposed that the modus vivendi which seemed accepted without reservation by both groups need ever be disturbed.” Subordination, Krutch suggested, offered the benefits of stability and tranquility. “Whether or not the Negroes actually believed themselves to be natural inferiors, I do not know,” he said, “but they accepted with apparent cheerfulness and often with humor the assumption that they were.” With that acceptance shattered, “life has now become a series of problems,” as African Americans “exchanged a possibly degrading acceptance of things as they are for anxiety, anger, and a corroding sense of wrong.” 4

Joseph Wood Krutch was an accomplished nature writer and environmental advocate. His example is also a powerful reminder of the obstacles that block the path to reconnecting civil rights with environmentalism. Many of the heroes of environmentalism carry thin credentials in the field of civil rights. In truth, Krutch's approval of the workings of nature and his nostalgia for segregation were well-matched. Looking out at the flora and fauna of deserts, or looking back at the people in early twentieth century Knoxville, Krutch admired a stable system in which individuals kept to their proper places in a spirit of cheerful acceptance. He stands as a focused example of the kind of white privilege that runs through the principles and practices of mainstream environmentalism.

Krutch, some readers will instantly respond, was a “man of his times,” and there is no particular benefit in drawing attention to the fact of his tone-deafness on the matter of racial justice. Of course, recognition of the unfinished business of slavery was very much on the minds of many other people of those same times, people like Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Earl Warren. More important, an interpretative stance that categorizes white indifference to racial injustice as simply “the way things were back then” offers its own grim danger of fatalism. Indeed, by challenging that fatalism, a door opens to a more positive, potentially more hope-sustaining way of configuring and structuring the history of conservation and social justice.

In response to challenges brought by the advocates of environmental justice, some contemporary environmentalists have come to worry about the dilemmas posed by their own history. Is environmentalism trapped by the historical fact that it has been, by and large, a movement of white people, and white middle-class people at that? Can mostly white groups devoted to the preservation of open spaces and natural ecosystems recognize, and make common cause with, minority groups organized to reduce and remedy pollution in urban neighborhoods? “The first step toward reconciliation . . . ,” the white environmental writer Mark Dowie puts it, “must be semantic. The definition of environment has to be expanded to include factory interiors and poor peoples' kitchens.” 5

In recategorizing “public health” issues as environmental issues, the environmental justice movement has taken Dowie's first step. And yet that visibility has confirmed an accepted, taken-for-granted dichotomy of ethnic perception, by which white people care about wilderness, outdoor recreation, open spaces, wildlife, and ecosystem health, while people of color care, much more narrowly, about the air, water, and soil quality of their immediate living environment. Underlying this is a disturbing assumption that white people have the option of aesthetic concerns, while people of color have to operate within much narrower concerns of survival.

The right to claim aesthetic experience in nature matters very much, because the environmental movement has been inspired, guided, and kept moving by literature. Henry David Thoreau's Walden, John Muir's The Mountains of California, Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire: it is easy to list texts that have had a consequential impact on the movement. Ideas gleaned from these books travel with people into the voting booths and inspire their decisions to make financial contributions to organizations. With literature's established power in the movement, if it were possible to change the configuration and boundaries of the category called “nature writing,” this could deliver real political and practical consequence.

When you look over the present crop of collections that are explicitly designated as anthologies of “nature writing,” the whiteness of the cast of characters is striking. It should be no surprise that the collection called Great American Nature Writing, published in 1950 and edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, featured twenty-nine writers, all of whom were white. What is considerably more striking, though, is the persistence of this pattern into the present. A 1989 Penguin Books collection, Thomas J. Lyon's This Incomparable Land: A Book of American Nature Writing, called by the Los Angeles Times Book Review “the finest collection of nature writing ever assembled,” features twenty-two writers, all of whom are white. (Only two are women, Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard; the gender imbalance here is almost as peculiar as the ethnic imbalance.) A 1998 collection of California nature writing has selections from forty writers: one selection is an Indian creation myth, one writer is an American Indian, and another is a Japanese American, and the other thirty-seven authors are white. 6

The two editions of the Norton Book of Nature Writing do show a gradual process of change at work. The first edition, published in 1990, printed excerpts from the writing of ninety-four authors, only of a couple of whom were nonwhite. This was, in part, a result of the editors' decision to tie nature writing to its English origins; thus, much of the book is devoted to British writers. In the 2002 edition, the editors announce that “new voices from other cultural traditions have been added to the dialogue,” and indeed, thirteen of the 131 authors are people of color. In explaining the absence of those voices from the previous edition, the editors offer a statement that begins to bring into focus the assumptions that produce an unintended pattern of exclusion: “we were aware . . .,” Robert Finch and John Elder write, “that this particular form of the personal essay [on nature] has not been the primary genre of choice for many outstanding authors of African American, Native American, Hispanic, Asian American or other background [my emphasis].” 7

The assumption, in other words, is that a true and certified nature writer chooses nature as his topic and the personal essay as his literary form. Here, in the introduction to a collection of scholarly profiles of individual nature-writers, John Elder further explains the meaning he gives to “nature writing.” “One basic definition of the genre might be as follows: personal reflective essays grounded in appreciation of the natural world and of science, but also open to the spiritual meaning and value of the physical creation.” The result of this narrow definition is predictable: in this collection, seventy nature writers receive individual profiles, and only three of those are non-white. 8

But why must a text be a “personal reflective essay” in order to qualify as “nature writing”? Why not a poem, or a passage in a novel, or a section of an autobiography in which nature is an integrated topic but not an exclusive one? Why should an author be restricted to one “primary genre of choice”? Loosen up the borders on this oddly narrow definition, and the world of literary nature-loving changes its complexion.

Reconfiguring our understandings of the category called “nature writing” offers a promising route to significant change in environmentalist thinking. Anthologies of American nature writing may offer some of the most racially exclusive texts around, and yet Americans of color already have a rich and illuminating tradition of nature writing and of nature appreciation. The overwhelming whiteness of authorship that still characterizes anthologies of nature writing is not driven by necessity. In collections of African American, Mexican American, Asian American, and contemporary American Indian writers, there are lots of poems about nature, and often poems that are clearly about the appreciation and valuing of nature. People of color have offered up an abundance of writing about the human relationship to nature, but those writings have ended up published in a kind of “separate but presumably equal” format, set far apart from the mainstream of American environmental thought and writing. 9

The present situation is an odd one, but it is a situation full of promise and hope. The opportunity is one for Americans — all Americans of all ethnicities — to make the choice to repossess a heritage that already exists, a heritage that is as visible in anthologies of ethnic writing as it is invisible in anthologies of nature writing. The widely-taken-for-granted situation of racial exclusivity in conventional environmental thinking — a situation, in truth, of racial segregation — does not have to be this way. A better reckoning with American history and literature could take what many acknowledge to be a big dilemma and show it to be in large part a positive opportunity.

A longtime resident of Oregon, the poet Lawson Fusao Inada has written closely and carefully about nature for years. In the preface to his collection, Legends from Camp, Inada offers a classic description of the relationship among nature, writer, and readers:

It was a fresh, invigorating Indian summer morning in Phoenix, Oregon, where I was getting my car serviced — my transmission, actually. I went across the street to the steps of a pizza parlor to sit and wait. It was early, and business was just getting underway.

Suddenly, I heard sounds overhead — a couple of geese were calling, circling and calling. They circled and called for several minutes before getting underway, heading toward the mountains. And then they were gone. They left, but didn't leave, I could still see them, hear them, overhead in the sky of my mind. And as they called and flew, I felt a transmission from them, something passing, transmitted, from them to me in the form of thoughts and feelings. It was a wonder, a mystery, as geese and thoughts and feelings are, and I reached for my notebook and began to write, to follow where all that would lead me.

A poem emerged on the page: “A Couple of Geese Over Phoenix.” A poem, yes, but also somewhat of a song, a meditation, and a painting — in about 200 words. That was it, that was enough; the poem emerged, happened, my transmission was serviced, and I was underway.

The point is: If it weren't for the geese, the feelings wouldn't have happened. And if it weren't for the poem, the thoughts and feelings would have stayed submerged, unexpressed, gradually fading and dispersing in my consciousness. And that would have been a shame, because these geese and that experience were worth sharing.

Such is the way, the gift, of this ancient and universal way known as poetry. Without it, and the way our society is, I doubt that I could have shared the experience, really done justice to the geese and their messages. Indeed, if I mentioned it at all in conversation, it would become chit-chat and trivia: “Hey, guess what I saw today? Yup, boy, it was really something . . . .” 10

Perhaps, by the standards of purity, Inada's frank inclusion of his fossil-fuel-dependent automobile in the story, and his adoption of its “transmission” as a governing metaphor, would lessen the force of his observations of nature. And yet, in many of his poems, it is Inada's free and comfortable admission of intimacy with nature that commands the reader's attention, as in his companionable address to a mountain:


How have you been,
My beautiful friend?

Whenever I see you
Is forever, again. 11

The act of greeting a mountain both dramatizes the “otherness” of nature and declares the human's right to feel relationship to it, a dynamic that powers many of Inada's poems.

Lawson Fusao Inada gives us one among many examples that the category “nature writer” has already been integrated in practice. In another telling example, when, as a young man in prison, Jimmy Santiago Baca learned to read, and a strong emotional tie to nature accompanied his embrace of the power of the language. Baca has told the story, of his awakening to poetry during his incarceration, in several different passages. This one comes from his recent memoir, A Place to Stand:

I gazed out my window at the swatch of oily grass hugging the base of a telephone pole. I wondered how the grass survived, wondered what it felt when the sun entered its pores and fed it the glowing food that made it grow. I wondered if the grass had a mind, a soul, what it felt about the prison, how it transcended the bitterness of the environment and imbued itself with the sheer joy of living. I closed my eyes and, for hours, focused strictly on the grass at the utility pole base, and I felt my soul grafting with the grass blades. I seemed to be able to feel what it felt: the golden warmth of sun, the dancing breeze waving with light beads in my blood, the earth in my body roots. 12

It is hard to think of places on the planet that are further removed from the “out of doors” than a high security prison. And yet, in that narrowed and walled environment, Baca's mind turned repeatedly to remembered views of landscapes and skyscapes. Still in prison, as he recreated himself as a poet, he “wrote contentedly, trying to describe the rising sun, the sky, the clouds, dirt, weeds, moon, and stars.” 13

Rather than distracting him from the world beyond human construction, Baca's anger at social injustice added depth and passion to his feeling for nature. With a different twist, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes addressed this same issue. Explaining why he did not write conventional poems about “roses and moonlight,” Hughes wrote this:

But, unfortunately, I was born poor—and colored—and almost all the prettiest roses I have seen have been in rich white people's yards—not in mine. That is why I cannot write exclusively about roses and moonlight—for sometimes in the moonlight my brothers see a fiery cross and a circle of Klansmen's hoods. Sometimes in the moonlight a dark body sways from a lynching tree—but for his funeral there are no roses. 14

Read too rapidly, this passage seems to be a convincing rejection of nature writing. But read with a little more care, it isn't that at all. Hughes, after all, says, “That is why I cannot write exclusively about roses and moonlight [my emphasis].” In other words, Hughes can and will still write about roses and moonlight, but he will have to address them in their tragic context. This is not a rejection of nature as a topic; it is instead an important step toward a more resonant, meaningful, and politically powerful form of nature literature. In truth, that is one of the two great promises of this initiative in connecting ethnic writing with nature writing. Not only does it connect ethnic literature to the environmental movement in unexpected ways, when authors of color write about nature, the results may well offer a more grounded, more convincing way of appreciating nature, one that integrates human presence and nature into one arena of experience.

Consider Langston Hughes' poem, “Dream Variation”:

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
    Dark like me —
This is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! whirl! whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly,
    Black like me. 15

Despite Hughes' rejection of an “exclusive” focus on moonlight and roses, here is a poem that offers a solid challenge to the idea that urban African Americans have been indifferent to nature and its appeal. Even more important, the identification of the color of the night with the color of the author's skin is joyful and exuberant, a wonderful challenge to the dominant society's assumption that white registers higher in the hierarchy of color than does black. In our time, this poem, in its embrace of the night as a refuge and a place of rest, acquires an added value as a challenge to the sometimes frenzied exertion and exercise celebrated in conventional outdoor recreation. Most important, this poem accepts and embraces both the topic of race and the topic of environment, letting the color “black” gently and easily take in both earthly night and the color of skin.

Like Hughes, many of the ethnic nature writers are direct in connecting the human being to the phenomenon of nature, purposeful in placing natural phenomenon and person, color of night and color of self, into a one-to-one correspondence, and so unlikely to write about physical nature as separated from and untouched by human beings. And that is one of the strongest reasons for embracing this heritage of non-white nature writers — precisely because they avoid the pickle of placing the most valuable kind of nature into a category of pristine separation from human presence.

The stereotype of Indian people as being very close to nature, really “a part of” nature, complicates any discussion of Indian writings about nature. When white Americans in the nineteenth century cast Indians, like wolves and buffalo, as part of nature, when they built natural history museums and placed the displays of Indians in the same halls as displays of wildlife, they gave a telling demonstration of the blurring of the human and the natural in a way that worked toward the dehumanization of Indian people. In our time, the desire of mainstream environmentalists to celebrate an abstract image of the Indian as Ecological Saint, while often dismissing or discounting reservation rights to natural resource development, keeps this dilemma a consequential one. In a revealing incident, white Americans had taken to quoting enthusiastically from a nature-celebrating speech ostensibly given by Chief Seattle, a Puget Sound Indian leader in the mid-nineteenth century, a speech that proved to be the product, to a large degree, of latter-day white authors, imagining what a nineteenth century Indian ought to have said about nature.

The widespread acceptance of the Chief Seattle speech was its own fine demonstration of the popularity, persuasiveness, and taken-for-grantedness of the idea that Indian people are particularly close to nature, and before the unfortunate consequences of the European conquest, lived in perfect harmony with the physical environment.

Vexed by frequent encounters with the assumption that makes “Indian” and “nature” into an odd set of synonyms, the Coeur d'Alene and Spokane writer Sherman Alexie took on the stereotype directly, writing a poem called “Nature Poem,” which begins with the quoted epigraph, “If you're an Indian, why don't you write nature poetry?”

inside this bottle
stands of pine

Indian fire fighters
black ash faces
& 16 hour days

caught in the middle
ring of fire
they dug a hole

& burrowed in
pretending to be roots
or gophers, etc.

hoping the fires
would pass over
like an (eagle)

no one in the hole
was burned
fire sucked the air

from their lungs
buried in graves
they dug for themselves 16

Throughout the twentieth century, Indian people have been an important part of the Western fire-fighting force, and after a century of suppressing fire in the American West, many forests have acquired a fuel load that sets the stage for blow-ups, like the one in this poem. The relationship between nature and human, Alexie reminds us, regardless of the ethnicity of the human, has a potential for horror as well as transcendence.

Other poems remind us of the complexity and groundedness of Indian people as residents of our modern, urbanized world. Consider this elegant excerpt from a poem by the Cheyenne poet Lance Henson, called “Sitting Alone in Tulsa at Three A.M.”:

the edges of the city and the pale moon reflect
    in the same river
how easily we forget 17

Cities reside on the earth; cities and rivers lie under the same moon. Reflecting the light that reaches it, the river does not “discriminate” between the city and the moon. Without a fraction of the expense and trouble that put the astronauts into a position to look back on the earth and to see it as a whole, Henson reaches the same recognition by sitting in Tulsa.

In the same spirit, the Tohono O'odham poet Ofelia Zepeda reminds us that, contrary to the gloomy predictions of the nineteenth century, Indian people did not vanish and, instead, are attending to seasonal change in the most domestic of settings:

Kitchen Sink

The light from the kitchen-door window comes through in a special way.
I can see the seasons change in my kitchen sink.
The movement of the sun is shadowed in that sink.
During the afternoon the sink is full with sunlight.
Not necessarily a good time to be washing dishes.
Later in the summer there is a sense of urgency as the shadow gets longer and begins to slant
as the sunlight starts to edge out of the sink.
I pretend the sunlight is going down the drain.
The light cannot be stopped by the plug in the drain.
It seeps down around the inner seal where the water cannot go,
becoming a part of the darkness that is always a part of drains and pipes.
Winter is coming.
The air is probably cooler already.
I know this because of my sink. 18

When close observation of a sink reveals the changing orientation of the planet to the sun, and charts the sequence of seasons, the natural and the human are indeed well-integrated.

Nature writing by people of color rarely takes up the hopeless exercise of writing people out of the picture. On the contrary, works in this genre consistently recognize the presence of human beings as an unavoidable feature of landscapes and ecosystems. Meanwhile, white environmentalists wrote themselves into something of a corner by imagining a clear dichotomy between the category human and the category nature, with the best forms of nature occurring where humans are least present. This dichotomy has conjured up any number of unrewarding puzzles and conundrums, most of them swirling around this question: If humans are inherently disturbers of ecosystems, how could anyone reasonably ask a species that was intrinsically such a mess to behave better? In writings of people of color, many of these riddles make graceful retreats with a recognition that there is no mandate to erase human beings from the category of “nature.”

As an example of the integration of the natural and the human, consider this passage of autobiographical reminiscence from a very famous person of color:

[O]ne day I went and asked [my mother] for my own garden, and she did let me have my own little plot. I loved it and took care of it well. I loved especially to grow peas. I was proud when we had them on our table. I would pull out the grass in my garden by hand when the first little blades came up. . . . . And sometimes, when I had everything straight and clean for my things to grow, I would lie down on my back between two rows, and I would gaze up into the blue sky at the clouds moving and think all kinds of things. 19

The source of that quotation is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Learning this, many people are caught by surprise: Malcolm X is evidently so associated in our minds with cities and city people that we are caught by surprise at the knowledge that, as a child, he loved his garden and felt exhilarated when his family gathered to eat the peas he grew.

Malcolm X concludes this description with an image of himself “gazing up into the blue sky at the clouds moving.” My impression is that people of color writing about nature are very likely to mention the sky — clouds, stars, moon, sun, the air above us, sky. Even if the writer's gaze starts at a bush or a wild animal, there is a pretty good chance that the gaze will lift and reach toward the heavens. I certainly have the impression that these references to the sky occur more often in the writings of people of color than in the work of white nature writers. While I surely would not want to go to court, and swear that this is so, let's speculate and say that it is a pattern.

What might be going on here?

There are, of course, a lot of possibilities. If you are living in poverty and in tough surroundings, then looking up at the sky offers the most immediate and effective way of reminding yourself that there are alternatives, that there is a larger framework of beauty that dwarfs local manifestations of ugliness. In the same spirit, from the point of view of the sun, the moon, or the stars, racial difference — subtleties of skin color — cannot add up to much. The distinctions of complexion that human beings make so much of fade to invisibility from the point of view of the heavens. More to the point, these invocations of the skies invite a different version of the view so often invoked by mainstream environmentalists. Mainstream environmental rhetoric asks us to think of the earth as seen by the astronauts, in order to grasp the wholeness of our planetary home. Writers of color, I think, ask us to skip all the technology, infrastructure, and expense of space capsules and space shuttles, and just send our minds and imaginations upward to a view from which we are indeed revealed to be living on one earth.

Here is one example, Indian poet Joy Harjo's “September Moon”:

Last night she called and told me
about the moon over San Francisco Bay.
Here in Albuquerque it is mirrored
In a cool, dark Sandia sky.
The reflection is within all of us.
Orange, and almost the harvest
moon. Wind and the chill of the colder
months coming on. The children and I
watched it, crossed San Pedro and Central
coming up from the state fair. . . .
We are alive. The woman of the moon looking
at us, and we looking at her, acknowledging
each other. 20

In the years I spent organizing a conference on racial equity and environmental well-being for our Center of the American West, I had many chances to observe that, for quite a few mainstream environmentalists, the “environmental justice” category may well have become too familiar, too easy, and far too confining a category that shuts down thought, rather than provoking and inspiring reflection. “People of color and the environment,” the advocates of balanced ecosystems and open spaces said to me, “oh, you mean environmental justice, landfills, incinerators, toxics in minority neighborhoods.” The concerns that fall under the category “environmental justice” are enormously important, but they are only a part of a much larger question of the relationship between ethnic experience and environmental conviction. Exploring that larger question makes available a wider range of persuasive strategies to use on behalf of the cause of social justice and environmental well-being.

So why turn to poetry — or to music or visual art — in that cause? Here is the first key point: the environmental movement is unusually driven by, guided by, kept alive by literature. Few social movements have been as shaped and guided by poetry and literature as has environmentalism; if there is a single piece of fine writing that espouses the cause of campaign finance reform, for instance, it is known to only a few. And yet, as a vehicle for social change, environmentalism has traveled too long with a literature-supported paradigm that pays exclusive attention to the attitudes toward nature held by white Americans.

And here is the second key point: the arts can cross past well-defended barricades and checkpoints. The arts can infiltrate and disarm in ways that direct, prosaic declarations cannot. I say this from the perspective of a largely prose-bound person, but a prose-bound person who has come to respect, admire, and, yes, envy the power of poetry. Thinking about the role that poetry could play in reorienting environmental politics has led me to embrace a hypothesis. (Since I have been team-teaching for three years with a biologist, I have become aware of the true privilege of being in the humanities: if I were a scientist and I had a hypothesis, I would have to put a lot of money and time into verifying it, but since I am in the humanities, I can leave out all that tedium and just say that I am almost certain that my hypothesis is right.)

So here is my theory: poetry is the best response to the defenses that human beings build against empathy for those they label “other.” To keep defending against empathy, they work out rationales, justifications, ideologies, prejudices, hierarchies of power, and convictions of superiority and inferiority. They lay out these rationales, justifications, ideologies, prejudices, hierarchies, and convictions in a manner very much like the way people place walls and moats around castles.

When you challenge these defenses in prosaic, fact-based texts, you — more often than not — crash head-on into these carefully constructed fortifications and defensive structures. But what artists know is this: the wall and the moat around the castle only extend for about 90 degrees of the circle. Walk around to the side, or even better, walk around to the back of these fortifications, and it turns out that the wall is only a partial façade; the moat only extends for a quarter of the castle's circumference. You can choose, if you like, to keep throwing yourself against the segment of fortified walls, and it is fairly astonishing to see how much human effort has gone into that frustrating activity. Or you can take the other approach: walk around the wall and make your approach from the undefended, unarmed zone.

Through some kind of magnificent collaboration between and among the ear, the eye, the brain, and the soul, poetry, visual art, and music offer a line of approach that makes a great deal of human defensiveness look almost funny, and nowhere near as daunting as it looks when you charge directly at its walls. Yes, I know I risk evading or discounting the serious and important inequities of power and justice in the world, but it does seem clear to me that art offers the route of access that effectively skirts the armaments that otherwise work so well to keep us separated.

In truth, what many of us have considered the “main-stream” of nature writing actually runs through a variety of streambeds and channels. Lots of people coming from lots of different ethnic backgrounds have written stories, essays, poems, and reminiscences that fit productively and beneficially within the category of “nature writing.” Rather than having to struggle to build connections between the environmental experiences of whites and the environmental experiences of people of color, we can attend to the connections that are already in place.

Consider a final example of what we might call “sky-writing,” the poem “Cosmic Eye,” by Lakota writer A.K. Redwing.

A clear, noon sky at midsummer is God's eye;
   the sun is the light shining from within and
you are an episode of life under constant scrutiny. 21

I suspect that A. K. Redwing has this right. When we bring our own powers of scrutiny to bear on the way the human relationship to nature in North America has lodged in our public memory, the results are quite unsettling, quite astonishing, and quite inspiring. The conventional ways in which we understand ethnicity and environment, this scrutiny tells us, demand reconsideration, revision, rethinking.


  1. Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton, editors, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (New York: Random House, 2000),141.
  2. Robert D. Bullard, ed., Unequal Protection:Environmental Justice and Communities of Color (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994), xv; Robert D. Bullard, ed., Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 9; Dorceta Taylor, “Environmentalism and the Politics of Inclusion,” in Bullard, ed., Confronting Environmental Racism, 59.
  3. Joseph Wood Krutch, More Lives than One (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1962), 23.
  4. Ibid. 24, 26.
  5. Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 172.
  6. Joseph Wood Krutch, Great American Nature Writing (New York: William Sloane, 1950); Thomas J. Lyon, editor, This Incomparable Land: A Book of American Nature Writing (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989); Steven Gilbar, Natural State: A Literary Anthology of California Nature Writing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). David Landis Barnhill, At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place: A Multicultural Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) gives the project of including multicultural perspectives a good try, but Landis' introduction presents the book in such an improbably utopian framework that the effect of the collection is considerably undermined.
  7. Robert Finch and John Elder, editors, The Norton Book of Nature Writing (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990); Robert Finch and John Elder, editors, The Norton Book of Nature Writing (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 15, 17.
  8. John Elder, editor, American Nature Writers, Vol. I (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996). These exercises in counting offer their own complication: the three writers referred to are people of recognized tribal ties, Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, and Leslie Marmon Silko, while a fourth writer is William Least Heat-Moon, a person of a more reconstructed and self-designed sort of ethnic identity.
  9. Lorraine Anderson, Scott Slovic, and John P. O'Grady have produced a reader for classroom use, Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999) that sets a new standard for inclusiveness in the category of essays, though here, too, poems are quite a rarity.
  10. Lawson Fusao Inada, Legends from Camp (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1992), iii. The poem, “A Couple of Geese Over Phoenix,” appears on 128.
  11. “The Journey South (To Northern California),” in Inada, Legends, 123.
  12. Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (New York: Grove Press, 2001), 238. In Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio (Santa Fe: Red Crane, 1992), 11, Baca makes the tie to poetry even more explicit:

    “I was born a poet one noon, gazing at weeds and creosoted grass at the base of a telephone pole outside my grilled cell window.... From the dirty brown blades of grass came bolts of electrical light that jolted loose my old self; through the top of my head that self was released and reshaped in the clump of scrawny grass. Through language, I became the grass, speaking its language and feeling its green feelings and black root sensations. Earth was my mother and I bathed in sunshine.”

  13. Baca, A Place to Stand, 237.
  14. Langston Hughes, Good Morning, Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings, ed. Faith Berry (New York: L. Hill, 1973), 143.
  15. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, The Poetry of the Negro (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1970), 183.
  16. Sherman Alexie, Old Shirts and New Skins (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, UCLA, 1993), 24.
  17. Kenneth Rosen, Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by American Indians (New York: Viking, 1975), 69.
  18. Ofelia Zepeda, Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), 68.
  19. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1966), 8.
  20. Harjo, She Had Some Horses (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1983,) 60.
  21. A.K. Redwing, Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by American Indians, ed. Kenneth Rosen (New York: Viking, 1975), 139.

Literary Sources

“Sonnet II” from The Vintage Book of African American Poetry edited by Micheal S. Harper and Anthony Walton. Copyright ©2000 Random House, New York.
“The Journey South (To Northern California)” from Legends From Camp by Lawson Fusao Inada. Copyright ©1993 by Coffee House Press. Appears by the permission of the publisher, Coffee House Press
Excerpt from Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Copyright ©1992 Red Crane Books, Santa Fe, NM
“Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes. By permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated. Copyright ©1994 by the estate of Langston Hughes.
“Nature Poem” from Old Shirts and New Skins by Sherman Alexie. Copyright © 1993 by Falls Apart Productions. Appears by the permission of Falls Apart Productions.
“Sitting Alone in Tulsa at Three A.M.” Copyright ©1975, 1993 by Lance Henson. Reprinted from Voices of the Rainbow, edited by Kenneth Rosen. Copyright © 1975, 1993 by Kenneth Rosen, published by Seaver Books, New York, New York.
“Kitchen Sink” from Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert, by Ofelia Zepeda. © 1995 Ofelia Zepeda. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.=
”September Moon” from She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1983, 1987 by Thunder's Mouth Press. Apperras by permission of the publisher, Thunder's Mouth Press.