Conservation poetry: a field guide

Is there such a thing as conservation poetry? This question has been running through my mind since I talked with a Masters student who was doing a project on ‘conservation art’. I asked exactly what that meant. This led to an interesting discussion about different artists (primarily in graphic art or sculpture) whose work spoke of themes central to conservation. There are lots of examples, either of projects (the Ghosts of Gone Birds for example), organisations (such as the Artists for Nature Programme), or individuals (like the wonderful murals of my friend Rory McCann).

Yet while I can think of many artists whose work inspires me as a conservationist, I hesitate to say that my response necessarily matches their intention: the question for me is whether my feelings should be allowed to label their art? To me, artists do what they do, expressing what they see or hear in their heads. The notion that the resulting art, even if it portrays some aspect of nature, should necessarily be thought of as ‘conservation art’, seems wrong. Art just is. Its effects lie with the response of those who engage with it.

The same is surely true of poetry, which is the only area of the arts where I have any experience as a practitioner. Probably most poets, writing in English anyway, say something about nature somewhere in their work. But does that mean that any poem about nature, the countryside, wild species or environmental change is ‘conservation poetry’. That seems absurd: vast parts of Romanticism would be swept into the fold, with Wordsworth’s Daffodils fluttering and dancing at their head.   With it would go great swaths of twentieth century verse (Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney for example). ‘Conservation poetry’ is not a sensible category for such diversity.

Yet while not all poems about nature speak about conservation, many do. So how might we identify a conservation poem?   I have been thinking about this in the context of my own poems. Without doubt the relations between people and nature have been an important influence on my writing (some of which is here). So Green Field Site speaks about consumerism and planning, M42 and Wilderness are two takes on our land of motorways, while Krill is (unsurprisingly) a reflection on industrial fishing. On the other hand, other poems are not informed by conservation issues in any obvious way at all: thus Wheatear is what it says, a poem inspired by a bird newly arrived on a Pembrokeshire cliff top, with the perils of life as a migrant deep in the background.

Perhaps we need some kind of field guide to conservation poems? Thinking about this, I find three kinds of poems that have moved me as a conservationist.

First, some ‘conservation’ poems are bio-centric, offering a view from other lives (or making an attempt to tell truths about nature from the perspective of other species). A good example is the poem Pike by Ted Hughes, which electrified me when I read it in an otherwise very dull English lesson at School. Hughes is surely a poet to inspire conservationists, but too rough, clever and iconoclastic to be tied down by the label of a conservation poet. Yet almost every book by Hughes has poems that perfectly catch some animal’s sharp likeness: Wolfwatching (1989, from a collection of the same name), or The Black Rhino (‘the elastic boulder, coming at a gallop’). Norman McCaig has the same skill: perfect vignettes of nature with sharp comments on the human place in it (Basking Shark, for example, or his wonderful Toad).  Another much anthologized example is D.H. Lawrence’s Snake, speaking of a brusing encounter with the non-human, and its lingering legacy: ‘I missed my chance with one of the lords / Of life’.

Second, there are ‘conservation’ poems that are bio-nostalgic: poetry of lament for lost places or naturalness and accounts of the costs of human consumption. I guess the classic poem here is the endlessly anthologized Inversnaid, by Gerard Manley Hopkins: a fine (and as far as I could judge last January still accurate) evocation of the fall of the Inversnaid burn into Loch Lomond, ending with the famous lines ‘Oh let them be left, wildness and wet / long live the weeds and the wilderness yet’. John Clare’s poems documenting the environmental and human impacts of the enclosures in Northamptonshire has attracted similar attention from environmentalists.

Third, some ‘conservation’ poems are strongly bio-regional: poetry of place, of landscape ecology, of right function. Norman McCaig’s A Man in Assynt does this perfectly. The landscape in question lies west of the Caledonian boundary fault, part of the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape. McCaig offers an account that combines in one frame species, ecology and landscape, the politics of the Clearances, and the state of mind of the visitor walking in this ‘this frieze of mountains, filed on the blue air’.   The place of the human in land and community is also strong in the work of Ted Hughes, for example in his 1979 collection Moortown Diary, about Devon farming, although these poems certainly do not address conventional biodiversity conservation concerns. To take another example, the long-lost poems of Nan Shepherd nail the spirit of the Cairngorms in slim deft strokes: poems about mountains that are also about being human, and have much to offer the conservation reader.

These and many other poems might well provide inspiration or challenge to a conservationist, or stimulate their readers to thing differently about nature and human engagements with it. Does that make their writers conservation poets? I wonder.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes on the cover of his recent collection ‘I dislike the idea of being a religious poet. I would prefer to be a poet for whom religious things mattered intensely’.

Perhaps he has it right.   Am I a conservation poet? I don’t think so. I would prefer to say that, if I am a poet at all, I am one for whom nature (and human relations with it) matters intensely.

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