Earth Day 1996

April 22, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In celebration of Earth Day and National Poetry Month, 26 American nature writers and poets gathered in Washington for a week-long event called “Watershed,” sponsored by American Poet Laureate Robert Hass, the Orion Society, and the Library of Congress.

Four of those writers are with us. Poet Laureate Robert Hass is author of several books of poems and a collection of essays. He teaches at the University of California at Berkeley; Gary Snyder received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975, he is the author of 15 books of poetry and prose; Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist in residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History and the author of Refuge, among other books; and Barry Lopez is the author of Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award in 1986. He has also written several collections of essays and short stories. Thank you all for being with us.

Robert Hass, you’re here to celebrate the tradition of nature writing in American literature. Tell us about it.

ROBERT HASS, Poet Laureate: Oh, I think it begins the moment Europeans and Africans faced this continent. As soon as they, as soon as they had to look at entirely new species and entirely new contours of landscape, they began to make notes about it. I think it’s the oldest thing in American writing, and since I was the first–am the first poet laureate from the West Coast, I thought that to draw what’s been so powerful in western writing and bring together so many of the exciting nature writers who are working in this country right now would be a very good and appropriate thing to do at this time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Barry Lopez, do you think American literature is distinct in this way? There’s certainly a tradition of nature writing in Europe to a certain extent, but is American literature different?

BARRY LOPEZ, Writer: The flowers, there are more flowers and they’re brighter, I think. This is a tradition that, that we shine in. We, we seem to have a facility, a way to speak about landscape and its relationship within itself, its elements, how its elements are related, and how people play out their lives against landscapes.

That’s the work of people like Melville or Willa Cather or John Steinbeck. All of those people in the history of American letters have looked at human drama set against the distinctive place that’s full of elements of landscape.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it because the American landscape was so huge and so overpowering, is it because of that, do you think, or is there something else to it?

BARRY LOPEZ: I don’t know. Certainly it’s overwhelming to me, and–but you can travel away from North America and see landscapes as stunning. I think it’s–what’s peculiar, it seems to me, here is the question of what is the relationship of human culture to place.

That’s the thing that many of these writers keep looking at, and, and I think where many of the writers are headed is toward an elucidation of what are just relationships, what is a just relationship between a particular culture and place where it lives.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this has been especially true in the West, don’t you think, west say of Western Kansas, this almost obsession with nature and, and place?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS, Writer: I think the American West, in particular, has always been a landscape of the imagination. We’ve always kept moving, umm, more and more and more.

And I think what we’re seeing now in the American West is we’re filling it up, and so we’re having to question the assumptions of capitalism, consumption, how do we want our lives to be, how do we want it to live as we move toward the 21st century, and I think we’re seeing that reflected in the stories, that in a way when we tell a story, it bypasses rhetoric and pierces the heart, so in a way this is a literature of love and loss, and coming to grips with grief.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gary Snyder, do you have anything to add to all of this before I ask you to read?

GARY SNYDER, Writer: Five hundred years since Columbus. Uh, I would add to what Barry said, one of the reasons that it was so generating of the creativity of people when they landed here was that Europe was already de-forested and was pretty well reduced in biological diversity, so America was a rich, vital, new place with rich, vital tribal people in it that absolutely blew their minds, and 500 years later, it is still wilder than Europe.

That’s something to think about. So, yeah, my work has been to try to figure out how to become a native of North America, how to respectfully leave Europe behind and to start thinking as though I were going to live here for the next 10,000 years.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read something, would you?

GARY SNYDER: Sure. To that point, this poem called “For All,” which was a little epiphany in the Northern Rockies. “Ah, to be alive, on a mid-September morn, fording a stream barefoot, pants rolled up, holding boots, pack on, sunshine, ice in the shallows, Northern Rockies.

The rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters. Stones turn underfoot as small and hard as toes, cold nose dripping, singing inside, creek music, heart music, smell of sun on gravel. I pledge allegiance. I pledge allegiance to the soil of North America, Turtle Islands, and to the beings who thereon dwell. One ecosystem in diversity under the sun with joyful interpenetration for all.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the years that you’ve been writing about all these things that you’ve–these themes that have been fairly consistent in your writing for many, many years, have you seen a change in the way people, in the way American writers are looking at nature?

GARY SNYDER: Nobody was looking at nature, with a very few exceptions, twenty-five, thirty years ago. I was one of the first poets to write on the landscape of the American West. Uh, now we are discovering finally that nature is a valid and valuable subject to discuss in the English Departments of the major universities, that nature writing course are coming into the curriculum, and this parallels, I think, across-the-board, in all segments of American society, a deepening sensitivity and knowledge and appreciation for the natural world and for our heritage in North America. Yeah.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Terry Tempest Williams, would you read something?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Yes. This is from “Desert Quartet,” and I think it–the frame would be that our lack of intimacy with the natural world has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other. “Earth, rock, desert, I’m walking barefoot on sandstone flesh, responding to flesh. It is hot, so hot, the rock threatens to burn through the calloused soles of my feet.

I must quicken my pace, paying attention to where I step. For as far as I can see, the canyon country of Southern Utah extends in all directions. No compass can orient me here, only a pledge to love and walk the terrifying distances before me. What I fear and desire most in this world is passion. I fear it because it promises to be spontaneous, out of my control, unnamed, beyond my reasonable self.

I desire it because passion has color, like the landscape before me. It is not pale. It is not neutral. It reveals the backside of the heart. I climb the slick rock on all fours, my hands and feet throbbing with the heat. It feels good to sweat, to be engaged, to inhabit my animal body.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Barry Lopez, would you read something?

BARRY LOPEZ: Yes. Umm, tough to follow, Terry. Umm, this is, uh, the closing of a story about a named Roger Callahan who was, has been in my fictive mind a teacher and what’s–what distinguishes him is that he made a life-long effort to understand the way of knowing time different from the one he’d grown up with, and that was to learn winter counts, a way of cataloguing the passage of time according to a single event.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Which is what native Americans did, right?

BARRY LOPEZ: Some native American tribes kept these winter counts and, umm, this is at the end of a story where he’s delivered his speech, which he was very nervous about, the storm going on outside the hotel. “He felt the edge of self-pity, standing before a plate glass window as wide as the spread of his arms and as tall as his house.

He watched the storm that still raged, which he could not hear, which he had not been able to hear, bend trees to breaking, slash the surface of Lake Pontchartrain, and raise air boiling over the gulf beyond. Everything is held together with stories, he thought. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.

He turned quickly from the cold glass and went up in the silent elevator and ordered dinner. When it came, he drew back the drapes and curtains and opened the windows. The storm howled through his room and roared through his head. He breathed the wet air deep into his lungs, in the deepest distance once he heard the barking dog, sounds of geese running like horses before a prairie thunderstorm.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before I ask you to read, Bob Hass, do you think that–any of you respond on this–that there’s a big difference between the way prose writers look at nature and poets look at nature? I mean, I know this is poetry and prose, it’s lovely, but do you think there’s a difference?

GARY SNYDER: I think poets, poetry sometimes gets you closer together: The mind of the writer and the natural world.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think it’s more–

GARY SNYDER: More as one, that’s the nature of poetry.

BARRY LOPEZ: I think one of the reasons–

GARY SNYDER: He can argue with me.

BARRY LOPEZ: No, I don’t know if I would argue with you, but what I would say is that it’s more possible to make use of music, a sonic landscape in poetry than it is sometimes in prose. And in that way, I think you can bring that one extra element to a line of prose. You can bring that sonic landscape into the prose.

ROBERT HASS: But I don’t think there’s a fundamental difference. I mean, there are, of course, immense differences from writer to writer, but I don’t think there’s a fundamental difference in the way the American poets and novelists and essayists have looked at the American land.

I don’t think that’s where the distinction is. Different philosophies and different periods, I mean, umm, uh, there’s a period when we saw the natural world as a very dark and threatening place.

There was a period when we saw it as female and endlessly open to the possibility of male explorers. That was a kind of rhetoric. There was a period when we began to see it as endangered. There’s a period–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is there a different period now?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That’s not endangered?

ROBERT HASS: Well, I think that we’re in a–I think one of the interesting things about the tradition we’ve been talking about, or Barry was talking about, the power of American landscape writing, is that all of the processes of the industrial society that are destructive to the natural world are accelerating. The World Bank t his morning issued a report on the future of the environment.

They talked about automobiles in developing cities, you know, where there is now acid rain, there’s going to be acid rainstorms in the future. We can’t–we simply can’t have it. America has to a large extent exported that technology. It’s also the case that because of our particular national heritage we’re exporting a literature of thinking about it.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s interesting. Let me just interrupt one second. Read your poem. I’m afraid we’ll run out of time before you do.

ROBERT HASS: Okay. This–this is a–this is really a poem about the way we don’t see the natural world. “There”–and it’s called “The Apple Trees at Olima.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is a place in Northern California.

ROBERT HASS: Which is a place in Northern California. It’s a Meewok word that means “Valley of the Coyote.” There are, of course, no coyotes left in Olima. “They are walking in the woods along the coast and in a grassy meadow wasting, they come upon two old neglected apple trees.

Moss thickens every bough, and the wood of the limbs looks rotten, but the trees are wild with blossom, and a green fire of small new leaves flickers even on the deadest branches.

Blue eyes, cranes, their little Dutchmen fleck the meadow, and some intricate leopard-spotted, leaf-green flower whose names they just don’t know. ‘Trout Willie,’ he says. She says, ‘Adder’s Thumb.’ She’s shaken by the raw white backlit flaring of the apple blossoms.

He is exultant as if something he felt were verified and looks to her to mirror his response. If it is afternoon, a thin moon of my own dismay faced like a star in the sky to the East of them. He could be knocking wildly at a closed door in a dream.

She thinks, meanwhile, that moss resembles seaweed drying lightly on a dock, torn flesh, she thinks. It was the repetitive torn flesh of appetite in the cold white blossoms that had startled her. Now, they seem tender, and where she was repelled, she takes the measure of the trees and lets them in.

But he no longer has the apple tree. This is as sad or happy as the tide going out or coming in at sunset. The light catching in the spray that spumes up on the reef is the color of the lesser goldfinch they notice now flash a dull yellow in the light above the field. They admire the bird together. It draws them closer, and they start to walk again.

But a small boy wanders corridors of a hotel the way they walk. Behind one door, a maid. Behind another one, a man in striped pajamas, shaving. The boy holds the number of his room close to the center of his mind, gravely and delicately as if it were the key. And then he wanders among strangers all he wants.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much. I wish we could go on with this, but that’s all the time we have. Thank you.

ROBERT HASS: Thank you for having us.