On Earth Day, Turning to
Poetry for Hope
"I rest in the grace of the world and am free."
One of our greatest living poets, Kentuckian Wendell Berry, writes,
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.
………For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.
Many of us have a new appreciation of the balm of the natural world. As those of us who are in a position to do so isolate socially, we “socialize” with the clouds outside our window, or the trees, flowers, and birds in our garden. If we live in a city, we can notice cherry blossoms in bloom in an early morning walk, perhaps crossing the street, with a smile under our mask, to avoid coming within six feet of other humans, if we are able.
April is the first month of spring, and has for 50 years been “Earth Month” (Earth Day falling today, April 22). It seems especially fitting this year that it falls in the same month as National Poetry Month. For this is also the spring that Covid-19 and climate change are sharing. While Covid-19 upended our lives in a matter of weeks, climate change is at high risk of upending all life on earth in a few years, if we do not take bold action.
We must not let the coronavirus keep us from moving forward on addressing climate change. Rather it should propel us to address other environmental problems and climate change itself, if for no other reason than because of the intersection between climate change and the increasing risk of global pandemics. Similarly, this is no time to put the brakes on the strides we have made to protect the environment, by halting environmental protection.
Perhaps most important, this is not a moment to lose heart in our ability to solve the seemingly intractable problem of climate change. We must do more, not less, to address the accelerating climate change humans have caused that threatens the health and well-being of people in the United States and all over the world, particularly those in poor and marginalized communities.
And we must do more, not less, to protect endangered magnificent animals with whom we share our planet, like “…the polar bear / drifting out of history / on a wedge of melting ice,” as poet Paul Guest laments.
There are already many losses to mourn: accelerating sea-level rise, longer and more harmful wildfire seasons, more common and serious heat waves, more rainfall and flooding, and numerous adverse impacts on human health. These devastating consequences will only worsen as temperatures continue to rise, unless society takes decisive and unprecedented action to limit post-industrial temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.Poetry can leave us stirred, and ready to act, regardless of how often we have turned to poetry in the past, and regardless of political affiliation.
An ambitious national plan to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and reduce energy use will allow the United States to do our part to forestall the most severe outcomes of climate change. This will require an extraordinary effort, but scientists say it can be done.
In this time of crises, poetry speaks to our hearts, not just our intellects. And we can look to poetry and other arts, not only for an appreciation of the natural world, and one another, but for hope for the future. This is, in a profound sense, a strategy for change. Hope can give us courage and energy to do what needs to be done to protect our beautiful planet and one another, and poetry can give us hope. Poetry can leave us stirred, and ready to act, regardless of how often we have turned to poetry in the past, and regardless of political affiliation.
With the limited amount of time we have left to prevent its most dire consequences, people around the world are studying and implementing the most effective solutions for climate change. Even though President Trump has moved to formally withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, there are people and organizations in every country addressing these issues with passion and urgency. In the United States, a new generation of lawmakers and some climate stalwarts have re-inspired our will for legislation to fight climate change. For example, the Green New Deal, although lacking the effect of law, lights the way forward for the power of a science-based response to climate change in a fresh and striking manner, with young people at the forefront.
The world we are hoping and working for—one that relies on clean, renewable energy, that feeds people and nurtures the environment, and that protects vulnerable populations, including those most impacted by climate change—seems more possible than it did even just a few years ago, and responses to Covid-19, even if belated, teach us that we can work together to forge solutions to problems that seem intractable, and to see we are all, rich and poor, regardless of national origin, regardless of religious affiliation, in this together.
As Australian poet Mark Tredinnick writes,
Wherever you are, the smell
Of rain coming or just gone
Is the smell of the same rain locally inflected.
With the same courage, optimism, and sense of a greater duty the United States displayed when we joined with our allies to help defeat the scourge of Nazism at the end of World War II, we can, and must, do our part now to limit the post-industrial increase in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, protect the vulnerable, and make our planet livable for generations to come.
As poet Lee Herrick writes,
I feel like the saints are marching.
They are singing a slow, deep and beautiful song,
Waiting for us to join in.
–Elizabeth J. Coleman, editor, and George Knotek, co-publisher at Copper Canyon Press.