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On Poetry as a Place to 'Reckon With Catastrophe'

Smoke blankets an area where hundreds of thousands of trees have been killed by years of drought and beetles as the Windy Fire continues to grow on September 26, 2021 south of California Hot Springs, California.
Smoke from the 2021 Windy Fire blankets an area south of California Hot Springs, where hundreds of thousands of trees have been killed by years of drought and beetles.
An environmental journalist writes about the poems that help her process wildfire and climate change. At a time when so much is being lost, ecopoetry can bear witness, sift through the ruins, reveal the cause of the crisis and restore the spirit.
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This piece is part of a two-part series on climate change, poetry and solastalgia — the distress caused by environmental change happening in one's own home. Read the poems discussed below in the companion article: "4 Poems About Wildfire, Climate Change and Loss"

Last month brought a set of horrific climate headlines. The great barrier reef endured yet another severe mass bleaching event and, for the first time in human history, an ice sheet in East Antarctica collapsed. Soon we will be going into another fire season, even though the memory of last summer’s smoke still causes my chest to tighten. As an environmental journalist, I read and write about the symptoms of our changing climate, and I can never shake a low-level hum of anxiety.

Since the early 2000s, this anxiety has had a name. Glenn Albrecht, an environmental philosopher at the University of Newcastle in Australia, coined the term “solastalgia” — distress caused by environmental change. In his paper defining the term, Albrecht wrote that solastalgia is:

“the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault [...] In short, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.”

Whenever I get particularly mired in Albrecht’s solastalgia, I find myself turning towards poetry. Poetry may not be the solution to climate change, or even the cure for solastalgia. But for me, it’s a place to grapple with the crisis – not just on a conceptual level, but on an emotional one as well.

As the Canadian poet Anne Carson once wrote:

What is the difference between
poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose
is a house poetry a man in flames running
quite fast through it.

One record-breaking wildfire season after another, at a moment when it feels like we are both the house in flames and the man running through it, poetry can help us reckon with climate change – and perhaps even point towards greener futures.

In "For the Love of the Land", climate change takes a toll on the mental health of farmers, herders and homesteaders in rural areas.
For the Love of the Land

So much is being lost at once – ice sheets, forests, towns, coastlines – it’s almost difficult to keep track of the damage.

In late 2017, Camille Dungy watched from her home in Colorado as flames tore through over one and a half million acres of the state where she grew up. She monitored the CALFIRE app as the smoke engulfed California. It was, at the time, the most devastating wildfire season on record, a title which would be broken only the following year. “It’s scary to see places you know imperiled in such dramatic and devastating ways,” said Dungy. “Even then, I think I knew that that wasn’t the last of it.”

Dungy is a poet, and that fall, the fires found their way into her writing. Confronted by the enormity of loss, the poem Dungy wrote about fire is tender. In “this beginning may have always meant this end”, she lovingly catalogs her relationships with the plants and animals of her childhood home in the southern California hills. Her record of the landscape (“everything i loved, chaparral pea, bottle brush tree, jacaranda, mariposa, pinyon and desert oak”) articulates a sense of place that is deeply personal and uniquely Californian. The fire only makes an appearance briefly at the end (“everything could flame up that quickly, could flare and be gone.”).

To Dungy, it seemed natural to focus more on her intimate connections within the ecosystems than on the flames themselves. After all, she said, it’s precisely because she loves that landscape that she worries about its loss. “That’s one of the things poetry is for, for me,” said Dungy, “a place where I am reckoning with catastrophe.”

Other California poets have also reckoned with fire season in their work. Molly Fisk’s “Particulate Matter”, written in 2018, documents the aftermath of the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Fisk, who lives 50 miles away from the Camp Fire’s burn area, does a similar kind of cataloging in her poem: she takes stock of all that is consumed in the fire and transformed into smoke. “Particulate Matter” moves from the mundane: “Arco, Safeway, Walgreens, the library — everything they contained.” to the horrific: “their bark and leaves and hooves and hair and bones, their final / cries, and our neighbors: so many particular, precious, irreplaceable lives that despite / ourselves we're inhaling.” Where Dungy’s poem focuses on her relationships with the California landscape before catastrophe strikes, Fisk attempts to sift through the ruins.

Where Dungy and Fisk’s poems bear witness to what is lost to climate change, both allude only indirectly to the cause of the destruction. stevie redwood’s poem “Fire Engines” is more explicit. Redwood points to both climate-induced drought as a cause of the unnaturally long fire season (“The ground thirsts for respite & water / bodies, desiccated & desperate / to burn”), as well as colonization and the severing of Indigenous fire management strategies like cultural burns (“Fire season rampages far too long, fanned by generations / of negligence & genocidal engines.”) While all three poems tackle solastalgia following wildfire, naming land dispossession and other forms of exploitation explicitly gives redwood’s poem a lens into the root causes of the crisis.

A satellite image shows green phytoplankton swirling in dark water near Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea on July 13, 2005.
A satellite image shows green phytoplankton swirling in dark water near Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea on July 13, 2005. | USGS, NASA, Landsat 7

Climate change is a slippery thing to wrap your mind around. Solastalgia comes and goes, and it doesn’t fall on all of us equally. In one part of the country, it’s easy to ignore the unseasonably warm weather; in another state, ash falls like rain and entire towns are blotted off the map. If poetry can help us take stock of the causes and consequences of climate change, can it also point a way forward?

In “A Sonnet at the Edge of the Reef,” Craig Santos Perez navigates solastalgia as he raises his young daughter. The speaker’s daughter learns about the beauty of coral reefs at the aquarium. Later, while reading a book about the Great Barrier Reef, the speaker wonders how to explain climate change to her, and how much to keep hidden: “We don’t mention / corals bleaching, reared in labs, or frozen. / And isn’t our silence, too, a kind of shelter?”

Perez had been wrestling with environmental themes in his work his entire career. As an Indigenous Chamoru poet who grew up in Guam, he saw the toxic legacies that militarism and colonization left on the land. When he came across the concept of solastalgia, it resonated with him. “The idea of solastalgia was really compelling to me,” says Perez. “It gave a word to a feeling I had felt for a long time, growing up in Guam and seeing the environment become degraded and contaminated over the years.” Climate change didn’t enter his poetry until 2014, when his wife became pregnant with his daughter. Becoming a new father, combined with a growing awareness of climate change via the headlines, brought these themes together in his work.

Much like for Dungy, poetry for Perez is a space to work through difficult emotions around climate change. Perez also feels that poetry can help build an ecological consciousness and connection to the land. “Colonial ideologies view the natural world as empty space that exists for humans, and men in particular, to hold dominion over,” says Perez. “I think poetry is a great venue through which we can critique those colonial ideologies and revitalize Indigenous narratives about land and water.” In doing so, “hopefully the values embedded in these stories can teach us a sustainable way to live with the world,” says Perez.

In the face of loss and grief, Perez finds that poetry gives him the energy to keep moving forward. “Turning to art and poetry as an act of creation rebuilds and restores my spirit.” He says, “If I can continue to take all these destructive events and all these difficult emotions and create something that someone else might find beautiful and inspiring, then that might give us the strength to keep fighting for what we love.”

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