If there is poetry in my book of the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.
A few years ago, my brother and sister-in-law bought me a waterproof notebook. I spend much of my time in, on, or underwater so they would get me waterproof things each year, matches, playing cards, bags, a backpack… The backpack had been the best thus far, I could put everything in it, swim around the coast to remote coves, then set up camp. It always felt miraculous to pull out the dry kindling. The notebook though was a revelation. For the past few years, I have returned to some of the same marine environments. I would swim out, dive and study the various species, come back to shore, look them up in my natural history books, then swim out again. With the notebook, I was able to write and sketch underwater, next to, above, under, amongst: eye-to-eye with trumpetfish, sitting on the ocean floor at the centre of a school of hundreds of sea bream, whilst upside down studying sea urchins, red-lipped blennies and bluefin damselfish, or out by a peninsula surrounded by circling needlefish. At some point the underwater note making, turned into poetic, written sketches, then poems composed beside their subject. The overriding feeling I have when I’m doing this is love. Many people never have the chance to see the ocean in their lifetime, so if I can take a few beneath the waves, I will.
In Jonathan Bates’ book about Romantic Ecology, Song of the Earth, he writes, it is the ‘capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home.’ In English, we get the word empathy from the German, einfühlung: ‘to go to’ or ‘feel into’ nature. Charles Darwin referred to it as ‘sympathies’ for ‘all sentient beings’, Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood conscience as ‘the voice of nature’ working within us and Wordsworth described seeing ‘into the life of things’. For me, no other writer achieves this as well as Rachel Carson. She is one of the most lyric and remarkable writers we have had. Her marine biology books do so much for our sense of compassion and wonder for the mostly unseen and unfathomable oceans. We have to be aware of something and the risks it faces to want to protect it. Aldo Leopold describes this logic in A Sand County Almanac, ‘We grieve only for what we know’. Or as Miriam Darlington puts it in her most recent book, Owl Sense, ‘We need emotional identification with the wild. And the wild needs us to feel that compassion. We will not fight to preserve what we do not love. And to keep our love alive we need contact.’
John Clare’s famous lines, ‘I found the poems in the fields / And only wrote them down’ express what it is to go out to find or live your poems. To write underwater, in the element I’m writing about and to sway and be slid or rolled in the same current as the species I’m trying to depict is amazing to me. It is a constant waltz. I write with a new depth of observation, a sharp accuracy and am surprised by the images and rhythms of what comes out. I may have come up with the same ideas at a desk, but I’m not sure if I would. Composing and writing in-situ affects the physicality and felt experience for me, and can do what A.E. Houseman described as ‘set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer’. Some of the most powerful affects environmental and ecopoetry can have are to create a sense of visibility, understanding, humility, scale, perspective, love, awe, wonder, anger, injustice, grief, loss, compassion, empathy, urgency and desire to act, to protect.
In November 2016, at Standing Rock Protests in North America, a woman who wanted clean drinking water was shot and blinded in her right eye. For wanting a glass of unpolluted water, she was called an activist. The protests were against an oil pipeline that risked their only source of water. They called themselves the water protectors. The water protectors were peaceful. The Sacred Stone Camp, a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance and the Standing Rock protectors were all peaceful. They were blasted with high-pitched sonic weapons, stripped, bitten, attacked by dogs, peppersprayed, faced with armed soldiers and police in riot gear, kettled, then had numbers scrawled on their bodies in permanent marker. Water cannons, teargas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades were used. One of the water protectors was poet, Lyla June Johnston. In response to the abuse and violence they faced, they organised a forgiveness ceremony.
“A movement that begs for vengeance disguised as justice will not be as constructive or strong as beautiful as the movement that begs for peace!”
– Lyla June Johnston
Last month, I got to listen to Lyla talk about her experience. Lyla is a poet, human ecologist, peace activist and one of the most profound and honest people I’ve ever heard. She is a descendent of Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) lineages, co-founder of The Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council, founder of Regeneration Festival and part of her work exposes the exploitation of Diné land and people by uranium, coal, oil and gas industries.
“It’s time that the next generation, our generation, picks up the torch from our elders and continues the fight for justice for our people.”
– Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner
Another poet who works to expose human-created catastrophes, is Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. Her poetry raises awareness surrounding the issues and threats faced by Marshallese people, from nuclear testing and rising sea levels. Kathy opened the 2014 UN Climate Change Summit and co-founded the youth environmentalist, non-profit Jo-Jikum, which is dedicated to empowering Marshallese young people to seek solutions to climate change and other environmental impacts threatening their island in the Pacific Ocean. In her own words: ‘From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in my home, the Marshall Islands. The most powerful of those tests was the “Bravo” shot, a 15 megaton device detonated on March 1, 1954, at Bikini atoll – which was 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Since then, the US has continued to deny responsibility while many Marshallese continue to die due to cancer and other radiation related illnesses. In my own family, both my grandparents passed away before I was born due to cancer and just two years ago I lost my ten year old niece Bianca to leukemia. Radiation related illnesses endure into today, and many more of our family members continue to battle with the effects of those tests which took place over 50 years ago.’
For many poets, being an activist isn’t a choice. In this time of Climate Crisis there are so many ecosystems and species living, witnessing, struggling everyday, including our own. Eco-activist poets in the Niger Delta, wetlands, archipelagos, islands and atolls are living in their poems: in drought, flooding, nuclear testing sites, with rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, melting ice, ocean acidification and warming. Their poems beat with the injustice of what’s happening. The potency of poetry, spoken word, rap, and incredible influence of poets in many languages and countries most-affected by the altering climate has the potential to impact radical shifts in how we live now and what we do to change, enrich and save biodiversity, our environment and ourselves.
(Some of the poets who’ve written about the sea, marine species and intertidal zones, which I often return to are Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Jorie Graham, Jen Hadfield, Galway Kinnell and Craig Santos Perez. Heathcote Williams’ hybrid, science-poetry collection Whale Nation is a wonderful example of ways we can learn about species through poetry. For non-fiction, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, Under the Wind-Sea and The Edge of the Sea are each extraordinary, as is Aldo Leopald’s, A Sand County Almanac. )
Anna Selby is a poet and naturalist. She works collaboratively with dancers and choreographers, writes poetic-studies of different species in the field, directly from life, often underwater, and aims for these poems to share a sense of compassion and attentiveness to the environment. She is doing a PhD on Plein Air Poetry, empathy and environmentalism at Manchester Metropolitan University.