Two sides of Nature through poetry

child on swing

“I have no philosophy, I have senses.” – Fernando Pessoa.

With the ever increasing moral relativism of modern life the quote above seems to embody a way of being that is refreshingly unaffected, simple and honest. There is a natural inclination to identify with our more basic instincts when confronted with overwhelming complexity. Although this inclination doesn’t always make for the best results, it is never a good idea to completely forget our wildness.

Civility, allows us to function peaceably within society and is therefore essential to maintain it, even at the cost of some conditioning, but all systems must also make some concessions for the wild element of human nature. If they don’t incongruence will arise within individuals between an expected “ideal” and their ability to realistically live up to it. Idealism seeks to ennoble but so often undermines. Sometimes it is easier to idealise something that transcends our fragile, limited, human frames.

The 19th century romantic poets idealised wildness and nature. This was a time when the world was processing massive social upheaval. The transition from the feudal dark ages to the enlightenment was swiftly followed by the industrial revolution. This rapid change was deeply unsettling on all levels, physical, economic and psycho/ spiritual. Nature, with its relative constancy (from a human perspective) became a sacred mother figure. The instinctive, feminine aspect of nature gave solace at a time when the world had  become remote, systematic, mechanised and indifferent to the human spirit.

In the newly industrialised world human relations had very much been reduced to transactions. Slavery was an accepted norm, child labour considered an economic necessity, even marriages were arranged like business contracts. The rise of industry also drove an exodus of labour from rural to urban areas. This displacement reinforced the sense of disconnection between man’s “natural” state and his socially conditioned state. The degree to which these social changes forced a dissonance between the conditioned self and the more primal self, made romanticism a perfect antidote to functionalism.

In Freudian terms the restraining of the primal, instinctive, animal part of human beings by the transcendent, idealistic, civilised part could be symbolised as the repression of the id by the super ego. In social terms, the super ego acts as the responsible parent, fulfilling the super ordinate goal of sourcing provisions ( building factories, colonising, creating infrastructure) which is essential if we are to begin to get our first foot on the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and ultimately attain self-actualisation and conscious integration. However, the material attainment of the superego (civilised, functionalist, conditioned self) can come at the cost of social division. The super ego is consequentialist in that it will accept the collateral damage necessary to achieve it’s “ideals”. Socially, this collateral damage looks like the poor, minority groups, indigenous peoples and the vulnerable disenfranchised.

On a personal level, the id acts as the child made innocent by ignorance or more precisely, unconsciousness. As with all children it is driven by ever present needs that need to be met. The problem occurs when we overly deny the child’s needs in the short term to meet the long term goal. To create a healthy, sustainable balance we must integrate the child’s (id, instinctive) needs with the overarching goals of the adult’s needs (super ego). Any parent of children knows how difficult this is. You need to go to the supermarket to buy food or to the doctors for an appointment but the child feels nervous or bored perhaps and complains about getting dressed or has a meltdown when they are strapped into their car seat. There can be no negotiation on the reality that a doctor’s appointment can’t be missed or food not bought but perhaps the chances of complete meltdown can be mitigated by some foresight on the part of the parent on how that aim is achieved. For one, the parent can ensure the child is prepared for the trip. Has the child eaten properly beforehand, or been well rested and emotionally connected with?

Marshall Rosenburg taught, all destructive behaviour is rooted in un met needs. The id, when ignored or undermined can be extremely destructive. Nature, of course has two sides, both creation and destruction as symbolised by the Hindu god/ goddess dichotomy of Shiva/Shakti. The Romantic poets emphasised and glorified the feminine Shakti element as keenly as the Industrialists and Colonialists emphasised and sought to subdue the Masculine Shiva element.

Most of those who made idles of the humble, harsh work and hovels of the poor, in their paintings, poems and polemics were usually, protected from the dark side of nature by their own affluence. They were effective in expressing how the binds of living within a “civilised” society are repressive in their own right. Indeed, The Romantics found solace in the wildernesses of nature as eagerly as nomadic man once conversely, found solace in the bond to settlement and agrarian systems (the germination of society).

Below I’m sharing some poems that explore this subject from different angles.

The first three poems convey a visceral sense of the instinctive need for freedom that human beings share with animals. The Edenic trade of all trades for life with all possible potentiality including eventual death for free will and liberty seems to be one that humanity would always chose. Liberty, is a non-negotiable for all creatures.

Jeffer’s Hurt Hawk came “begging for death” rather than incapacity and the loss of flight and the sky. The poem captures the fierce, raw, unsophisticated, innocence of a wild animal. The hawk embodies this uncompromising purity. Over time, the world humbles us of course. Limitation subdues our childish arrogance. Still, the majestic arrogance of the hawk still sits embedded within deep geological layers of our brain, glinting in our depths like a diamond in coal, glinting in our eyes with the rush of our first childish drive to run, abandoned through the open fields, the cold streams stinging our bare feet and the tree bark scoring our soft skin. The herons still take flight at his rising and at some deep level, so do we.

In Rilke’s Panther we feel in our own sinews and flesh the terrible living death of potential energy forever held taut like an arrow on a bow, unrealised and un-manifested. It is a poem I find hard to read yet am compelled to.

Laurie Lee’s O The Wild Trees, mourns an elemental pre conditioned state. In this poem iron rests unprocessed within as tree limbs and the trees are synonymous for a sense of home or belonging. Nature is personified throughout the poem. The animal nature, the fox is a guide, a “lantern”. Whereas in the city, there are obscure and dense, “thickets of many different gestures”, a place of deceit and confusion.

Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things, and Walt Whitman’s “ I could turn and live with animals” similarly seek solace in the unselfconsciousness of nature.


Hurt Hawk
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance.
I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
Robinson Jeffers
The Panther
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
Rainer Maria Rilke
O The Wild Trees

O the wild trees of my home,
forests of blue dividing the pink moon,
the iron blue of those ancient branches
with their berries of vermillion stars.

In that place of steep meadows
the stacked sheaves are roasting,
and the sun-torn tulips
are tinders of scented ashes.

But here I have lost
the dialect of your hills,
my tongue has gone blind
far from their limestone roots.

Through trunks of black elder
runs a fox like a lantern,
and the hot grasses sing
with the slumber of larks

But here there are thickets
of many different gestures
torn branches of brick and steel frozen against the sky

O the wild trees of home
with their sounding dresses,
locks powdered with butterflies
and cheeks of blue moss.

I want to see you rise
from my brain’s dry river,
I want your lips of wet roses
laid over my eyes.

O fountains of earth and rock,
gardens perfumed with cucumber,
home of the secret valleys
where the wild trees grow.

let me return at last
to your fertile wilderness,
to sleep with the coiled fern leaves
in your heart’s live stone.
Laurie Lee
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come to the place of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come to the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendall Berry

I think I could turn and live with animals
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Walt Whitman

Any ideal, even the ideal of nature is composed by the super ego. An ideal, by definition is a reflection of our greatest aspirations. When we idealise something, we project these aspirations onto it, we personify it and turn it into an idol or golden calf. We give it our own consciousness.

We are still unsure to the extent at which animals have a moral conscience or can empathise. We also know very little about the experience of plants.
But at an essential level nature and the animal part of humans isn’t driven by conscience. Indeed it is as precise, economic and utilitarian as any elaborately conceived social construction. As the cliché goes, nature abhors a vacuum.

Nature takes what it must, is brutally competitive and forsakes all for basic survival. It’s profound beauty belies its necessary ruthlessness. The part that would die for its young will also kill for it’s young. When I walk towards a herd of hinds and they stop in their tracks to regard me, I personify their vulnerability, beauty, elegance and make metaphors of their grace, aloofness and synced movement. I may even presume that a relationship between us is emerging, yet it is more likely that they only see me as a potential predator.

This is not a detraction though. Accepting the other for what they are in their own right, apart from us, existing, not in reference to or in validation of us, bestows dignity upon all parties. It is the utmost respect.

Despite this truth, there seems to be a governing consciousness, or unified field, that we all share. This governing consciousness is compartmentalised within the human being, other creatures and life forms but it’s spirit moves through art, music and spirituality, encompassing an unfathomable totality. We are woven into the fabric of this whole, yet are only dimly aware of the patterns within, let alone the overall pattern. In such a framework, all disparate, or seemingly fragmented parts have the possibility of a kind of integration that still maintains integrity at an individual level.

The three poems below explore nature from such a holistic perspective.

Wallace Steven’s Two Pears is almost puritanical in it’s objectivity.

Richard Eberhart’s The Groundhog invokes the solemnity of religious ritual in his return to the dead animal during its stages of decomposition. Though the totality of his articulation of this experience is mired in “intellectual chains”, this intellectualism is ultimately resolved in the last stanza where the banal death of a single creature can only be digested in the wider context and magnitude of great civilisations, historical and religious figures and even they seem isolated, confounded and undone as the little groundhog by it.

Finally, Galway Kinnel’s beautiful poem Saint Francis and the Sow comes almost full circle. The beauty and value of the sow, just as she is, is transfigured by the unconditional regard of the saint. This recognition of our interdependence illustrates how self blessing and individual flowering occurs in the context of a wider whole. The integrity of the sow isn’t compromised by such a blessing, it is indeed more clearly defined and beatified by it.

Two Pears
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.
Wallace Stevens

The Groundhog

In June, amid the golden fields,
I saw a groundhog lying dead.
Dead lay he; my senses shook,
And mind outshot our naked frailty.
There lowly in the vigorous summer
His form began its senseless change,
And made my senses waver dim
Seeing nature ferocious in him.
Inspecting close his maggots’ might
And seething cauldron of his being,
Half with loathing, half with a strange love,
I poked him with an angry stick.
The fever arose, became a flame
And Vigour circumscribed the skies,
Immense energy in the sun,
And through my frame a sunless trembling.
My stick had done nor good nor harm.
Then stood I silent in the day
Watching the object, as before;
And kept my reverence for knowledge
Trying for control, to be still,
To quell the passion of the blood;
Until I had bent down on my knees
Praying for joy in the sight of decay.
And so I left; and I returned
In Autumn strict of eye, to see
The sap gone out of the groundhog,
But the bony sodden hulk remained.
But the year had lost its meaning,
And in intellectual chains
I lost both love and loathing,
Mured up in the wall of wisdom.
Another summer took the fields again
Massive and burning, full of life,
But when I chanced upon the spot
There was only a little hair left,
And bones bleaching in the sunlight
Beautiful as architecture;
I watched them like a geometer,
And cut a walking stick from a birch.
It has been three years, now.
There is no sign of the groundhog.
I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece,
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
Richard Eberhart
Saint Francis and the Sow
The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Galway Kinnel


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