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En Plein Air Poetics: Notes Towards Writing in the Anthropocene

i. praxis

January 3rd, 2019 // 12:03 PM // Lehigh Gap Nature Center

Blue Mountain juts up from the bank. I’m standing at its base, near the noise the river makes out of last night’s hard rain. Paper birches mark the floodplain’s west edge where colluvium from the hillslope settles. I look up. It’s bedrock, I write, Silurian Shawangunk Formation, a mass of unstressed syllables holding stress in its gorgeous folds. My field notes begin here, on trail tucked between the mountain and the river where it cuts through Kittatinny Ridge, a series of peaks and gaps that runs Appalachia from Pennsylvania up into New Jersey.

This is the second time I’ve hiked the mountain. I’ve come back in part to visit some rare habitat in Northeast Pennsylvania—acres of uninterrupted grassland, which, because it’s January, will be an astonishing dark blonde, soft and long in uncut splendor. Long ago, in another life, I fell in love with the grasses of Northern California coastal prairie. I fell in love with native grasses especially, but felt fondness even for the European feed grasses ranching left behind. I love grassland the way I once loved, in that other life, a man. I save the sight of it for the hike’s end.

My hike begins on the mountain’s accessible southeast side. From the Nature Center parking lot, I head uphill through scrubby low ecotone—a haven for bearberry, and heaven for certain birds—into a largely deciduous forest. Among the live large trunks old enough to be ringed at the base with moss, there are a number of dead ones on which fungi grow upward in colorful rows of rot. The trail is steep and rocky and wends its way between trees. I love the word wend, so short and weird you know it’s old.

It’s 43 degrees and overcast. A dark noon sinks the woods in deep shade. Eastern PA’s had a warm and wet winter so far, weather fueled by fronts that pass through from the west, bringing days in the high 50s and heavy rains. Such saturation has animated the landscape, its biota enlivened by so much water. The small ferns that root between rocks persist, miraculously green past December. The trail’s spongy beneath my boots, and everywhere the moss and lichen look plump and bright.

Leave on the ground, moss on a fallen log.

Not very far up the mountainside, the trail maintained by the Nature Center meets the Appalachian Trail, marked with its famous white blazes. For a quarter-mile it too is steep and rocky until it levels out for a much more gradual rise to the ridge. The AT heads southwest pretty much parallel to the ridgeline. A few miles into its gentle ascent, the AT and the ridgetop meet and you can either continue west, or you can turn east and walk the North Trail, which follows the north face of the ridge along the Lehigh River.

I’m heading up the AT to the North Trail, the kind of hike during which my mind goes from translucent to luminous, its usual wash of thought polished to a transparency that lets in the world with a force I adore. After a mile on foot, details come into focus with an oxygenated crispness. Thought can be a block to feeling the intertwining of self and world, the mesh of phenomena and the qualia of self, and hiking unblocks that feeling by muting my mind and allowing it to flood with a kind of proprioceptive ecstasy. My sense of self disappears into smell, color, sound, touch.

Dead grasses, tree limb, and leaves on the ground.

For years now, osteoarthritis in my feet and spine has impeded the ease with which I disappear into landscape. Chronic physical pain returns me to myself, a closed loop. But today I quickly give way to place, to the pattern of grasses caught on a downed branch. The hike is as quiet as it can be, what with the busy highway that follows the curve of the river around the mountain. The sound seems to polish the smooth bark cold. The occasional gunshot echoes across the state game lands from which the trail is cut. The only birdsong on this side of the mountain is a downy woodpecker, as squeaky as new gym shoes on a polished basketball court. High among the muted palette of the leafless trees, a glimpse of its white-spotted black wings, the little flicker of its red-flecked head. Many a deadfall is bored with holes.

ii. theory

One of the primary ways I make ecopoetics an active practice is by drafting poems on foot in the field.

Writing while walking makes explicit the intimate relationship between a site and my body, and though writing while walking obviously privileges language as its end-product, it derives that language from relation lived through the physical especially.

As the poet A. R. Ammons argues in his lucid useful essay, “A Poem Is a Walk,” poems and walks resemble each other in that “a walk involves the whole person; it is not reproducible; its shape occurs, unfolds; it has motion characteristic of the walker.”

Though Ammons’s essay offers the walk as a figure for the way poems work, and mines that metaphorical relation as a way to get to his core beliefs about poetry, my own practice takes Ammons’s claims rather literally.

The first time I hike a site, I write while walking the length and duration of the trail and produce a gestural outline of the experience in a notational form: phrases taken down without stopping interleave with more fully realized passages written during a pause in the walk, the interplay of fragments and full stanzas a kind of mapping.

Rhythm, alliteration, phrase, image: the point of the notational form is to capture my most intuitive and physical responses to the shape of the walk, to get down its singular music and the site-specific details that define my first interactions with the place.  

I take these notes on subsequent walks so I can add to them, layering in subsequent observations carefully, so they don’t obscure the walk’s unfolding, non-reproducible shape.

I find useful the four points of resemblance that Ammons posits between poems and walks, and my own poems hew rather closely to them as guiding principles, but after a decade of literally enacting the poem as a walk, I would add that both poems and walks are subtended everywhere by site, by the oikos, or home, that forms the root of ecology, and that each point of resemblance put forward by Ammons is a chance for us to think about how a site’s given parameters influence both the walker and the poem produced by the walk.

In fact, I’d argue that a poem written on foot—its rhythm and form—emerges nonce from chance encounters with surrounding life, from lived physical relations between species, between forms of matter, between matter and nonmatter, human modalities and non-human modalities of being.

Encounters in the field remind me that I’m a mammal, a body that navigates its surroundings and assesses pleasure and threat the way other mammals do—though of course the poet on foot also navigates their surroundings in ways that other mammals don’t.

Because human mammals tend to privilege sight over other senses, one of the challenges of writing in relation to a site is the inclusion of other sensorial ways of knowing—to render legible a relational embodiment that feminist philosophers like Gail Weiss call intercorporeality, a term that names the often-unacknowledged fact that we are bodies always in relation to other bodies.

“To describe embodiment as intercorporeality,” Weiss writes in Body Images, “is to emphasize that the experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always already mediated by our continual interactions with human and nonhuman bodies.”

Though some ethical thinkers focus on the intercorporeality between human bodies, ecopoets often extend intercorporeality into relationships between human bodies and nonhuman bodies, between human mammals and both biotic and abiotic matter.

As Weiss reminds us, such relationships necessitate “a frequent reorientation of one’s own mobile body in reference to other, often mobile, bodies (both animate and inanimate)” as well as “the coordination of the body’s limbs, organs, muscles, neural pathways, etc.”

Paying attention to a fully intercorporeal relation to a specific site in the field dethrones eyesight as the most valued sense through which we acquire knowledge of nonhuman bodies—the eye is no longer the portal of empiricism through which the rational mind accesses the world.

For instance, hearing and touch are senses rarely accused of the kind of imperialism associated with vision; they are powers that alert other parts of the brain to our embodied relationships with the world.

A listening, touching human mammal is an embodiment that is not all eye and mind, a sensate creature whose language—its rhythms and structures—is derived in part from encountering the sonic landscape, felt textures, and the human and nonhuman bodies that populate and constitute the field.

After all, each ecosystem produces a unique biophony that envelopes us, and writing itself is haptic, a specialized kind of touch.   

iii. praxis

January 3rd, 2019 // circa 2:00 PM // North Trail

1500 feet: this is the highest point of the hike. The AT meets the North Trail just shy of one of the three communications towers that line the ridge. At the fork presided over by pine, I walk due north briefly before leaving the cover of forest to turn east along the bare rocky ridge. And went into the wind, I write in my notebook. This moment’s always a bit of a shock. The exposed trail’s much colder, and dry even after rain. Wind hits the ridge without a break, and sounds from the valley travel with it unimpeded: the dull hum of the highway mixes with the high-pitched beep of dump-trucks and bulldozers working across the river. But the unobstructed view is both beautiful to me and true—an honest document of human use and ruin playing out on top of the earlier work done over many geological periods by water, wind, and earth.

Landscape photo of the Lehigh Valley, PA.

Plainly visible from the ridge, Palmerton sits right across the river. The borough was incorporated in 1912 around a factory run by the New Jersey Zinc Company. Stephen Palmer was once the company head, hence the town’s name. For 82 years, the factory’s west plant smelted zinc, an activity that left behind 33 million tons of slag; released hundreds of thousands of pounds of onsite toxics like cadmium, lead, arsenic, and zinc onto land and into air and water; and reduced to bare rock over 3,000 facing acres of Blue Mountain. The west plant closed in 1980, and in 1983, the EPA declared the area the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund Site. Cleanup, remediation, and revegetation have been arduous, ongoing collaborative efforts since 1988, when the company’s corporate owner and the EPA began the initial work. My understanding is that Blue Mountain’s successful revegetation proved both difficult and expensive due to its rocky steep terrain, and progress eventually stalled. In 2002, a small volunteer-run non-profit group that would in time become the Nature Center began plans to buy just over 750 acres of the mountain’s north face and revegetate the affected areas within it. Current protocols on the mountain began in May 2003, when the Center—in collaboration with the EPA, the company’s corporate owner, and other consultants—planted the first test plots of the current prairie grasses.

The first time I hiked the mountain, I didn’t know any of this. I had no plan to write about it. I was with my friends Sean and Maude, who’d selected the site. On the drive from Philadelphia, Sean read aloud from an outdated guidebook a description of a loop hike through a denuded landscape; my memory is that the description left out all mention of what caused the lack of vegetation. That day together on the mountain was much colder, and just as overcast. When we hit the ridge, metallic flurries glittered as they drifted toward us, up the hillslope. The weekend highway was quiet. As we walked and picked our way among young mountain laurel, stubby pines, and other scrub that line the trail’s western half, we talked and wondered aloud about what we saw, remarking upon the purple patina on some surrounding rocks and the coppery sheen of others. None of us know shit about geology really, though I love the word orogeny. It has the beauty of an ornament turned out on a lathe. The Taconic orogeny made this place, I write.

Walking the North Trail today, I realize that even before I researched the specifics of the mountain’s history, I felt them. I mean my body responded with caution and alert curiosity to radical changes in the landscape, changes introduced first by industry and then by conservation, the mountain’s north face a palimpsest of poison and its antidote. My favorite part of the trail is when it first enters the area of the ridge the Nature Center crop-dusted with prairie grass seed in 2006, when after three years of successful plot testing the EPA gave them permission to begin revegetation of the whole site. Prairie grasses act here as phytoremediators: naturally tolerant of heavy metals, over many years they do the hard work of restoring microbial biomass, reducing erosion, and increasing overall soil health. The presence of grasses could be said to be a kind of healing—the soil was once too toxic to support bacteria!—though this landscape looks nothing like it did before succumbing to the clouds of sulfur dioxide the factory stacks emitted. 

Dead trees and grass field.

Evidence of poison: rotting trees remind me that deadfall once couldn’t decay here because no microbes could survive on this side of the mountain. In photos of its former lifelessness, all the trees felled by heavy metals are dessicated twists, shrunken and mummified. Evidence of antidote: the winter grasses. It’s a transitional landscape—eventually grassland will give way to succession, and trees will repopulate the ridge—and perhaps unsettling for all the evidence of its being in a kind of recovery. Though revegetation, phytoremediation, and conservation efforts here aren’t fantasies of a return to “wilderness,” in a region whose resources and people have long been exploited by industry, the grasses seem to me evidence of the miraculous, of the great power the world has to correct the effects of our hubris and cupidity.

From what I understand, the initial estimated cost of removing thousands of acres of polluted topsoil from the mountain was too high and the logistics too complex to be practical. The point of the grasses is less to absorb the heavy metals than to attempt to fix them beneath thorough groundcover, to stop them from leaching further into the surrounding life. Walking among their noisy stems, I love how they court the wind to help disperse what’s left of their seeds, and how, below ground, their roots facilitate the silent slow work of remediation. I love that to walk among them is its own mini-biophony, an Objectivist lyric for the prairie: An integral / lower limit earth / upper limit wind. And to walk in this specific integral interval of grass between earth and wind makes me think of Lucille Clifton’s remarkable ecopoem “generations,” a statement of conscience and a praise song both. “people…bear a responsibility to something/besides people,” she writes, because “those natural/obedient generations…did their own things” without acknowledgment of their quiet labors done without violence, without the ability to resist the human use that exploits and then erases them:

and the generations of rice
of coal
of grasshoppers
 
by their invisibility
denounce us

iv. theory

One of the commitments I make to any site I walk while writing is to learn as much as I can about it: its natural history, its flora and fauna, its geology, its hydrology, all the layers of empirical knowledge that get laid down by Western culture on top of the land.

Sitting down with the notational form of the poem produced while walking—the draft that attempts to preserve the shape of the walk in its unreproducible initial unfolding—I draw upon this research to add another layer of data to the poem, to help me pinpoint with rigor the exterior origins of interior experiences.

My hope is that the poem frames acquired empirical knowledge within the original intimacy facilitated by writing while walking, thus squaring facts with embodied experience and integrating them into the rhythms and shape generated by traversing the site.

My hope is that the empirical—an anthropocentric system that tends to separate mind and body, perceiver and the perceived, in ways antithetical to the feminist ethics of intercorporeality—doesn’t dominate the many ways of knowing and relating that inform and intersect in the poem, and instead joins it as part of a network of knowledge and relation.

Biospheric thinking teaches us that no system is single; no natural system operates in isolation; embodied intimacy with a site reminds us in quite literal ways that we are not separate, for instance, from the watershed region whose waters live on in our very cells.

But it’s hard to remember, when thinking through the local level of a specific bioregion or ecosystem, that all biospheric processes are intertwined; as philosophers of the Anthropocene like Timothy Morton are quick to point out, it’s all but impossible to think on the scale of planetary systems.

When walking and writing, when making a lived commitment to a site, it’s likewise hard to remember that, in the Anthropocene, all anthropogenic processes are likewise intertwined with all biospheric processes.

Given that, as Morton argues in Hyperobjects, biospheric processes like global warming are hard to point to in time and space because they are everywhere and happening on a time scale vaster than the human, every time we encounter the local intertwining of anthropogenic and biospheric processes, this encounter is merely a very small part of the total picture. 

Though I find Timothy Morton and many of his Object-Oriented-Ontology colleagues persuasive, provocative, and necessary, I remain skeptical of any philosophy that ignores and thus discounts the mammalian physiology that supports human life, a physiology that both intertwines us with other bodies of all sorts and links us to our deep history as a species.

Further, I’ve come to believe that the way anthropogenic and ecosystemic processes intertwine on the local level is in essence a scale model of far larger intertwinings, a small instance that repeats biospheric patterns that are of course literally quite different in scale and temporality.

The conceptual practice of scaling by non-scientists is not trivial. “Scaling makes it possible,” as Deborah R. Coen writes in Climate in Motion, “to weigh the consequences of human actions at multiple removes.” Because it helps us situate “the known world in relation to times and or places that are distant or otherwise inaccessible to direct experience,” it’s the primary way we make personal ethical decisions regarding climate change action, for instance, though many of us also feel defeated by this exercise.

Through the lens of scaling, I’ve likewise come to believe that intercorporeal relation to a site, when filtered through mindfully acquired knowledge, can also repeat, on a small scale, the Anthropocene’s globalized patterns—neither to celebrate nor reify such patterns, nor to claim to grasp a biospheric process like global warming in anything like its totality, but rather to clarify our complicity with and participation in the end of the world.

So though it is often overwhelming or defeating to try to think through biospheric markers of the Anthropocene like global warming, ocean acidification, or the sixth extinction, I believe poetry undertaken as fieldwork can record instances of the Anthropocene’s logic operating on local ground and model an embodied response to our global situation, to mark as immediate threats those biospheric processes that have so far failed to register adequately as shared dangers with which we must collectively reckon.

v. praxis & theory

January 3rd, 2019 // circa 3:00 PM // Charcoal Trail

Toward the eastern edge of the ridge nearest the gap, the prairie recedes and the forest returns in full force. The battery in my old phone abruptly gives up, so I won’t be taking any more photos: now it’s up to words alone to do the work of memory. Not far into the woods, the North Trail forks. On the first hike we stopped here to consider which route to take: north or south? While Maude and I looked at the map she had, Sean spotted off-trail a hump of bright green moss as perfectly round and formal as a bowler hat. That’s Sean’s hat, I write as I pass. About 1300 feet above the river, I take again the Charcoal Trail down the mountain’s north face, a gradual slope west through trees into full-on prairie, the site I’ve come back to see.  

Coming down a mountain’s the hardest part—my afflicted joints register the impact of each step of the descent. As the pain begins I begin to recede from the hike and loop back into myself in thought, anticipating this essay. I make notes, thinking especially that the Lehigh Valley’s a good example of hydrological and anthropogenic processes intertwining because multiple industries—coal, steel, and zinc included—have used the local waterways whose connections to the larger watershed region also supply citizens with drinking water. Contamination of surface and groundwater is, after all, part of what made the EPA declare Palmerton a superfund site, and is another part of the cleanup that’s still underway.

The first part of the Charcoal Trail, before I re-enter Nature Center property, is more like the AT, more like the mountain before Palmerton, I imagine. It is rocky and shaded and still wet from last night’s rain, and sturdy tiny ferns return to the trailside rocks, along with fungus and moss, thick where trickles lick the hillslope. And then there’s a transition between forest and prairie during which grasses grow among and around the trees, the trail a rocky matt of trampled grass. Suddenly—for the first time all day—the sun comes out, and though it’s low in the sky and impinged on by the ridge, it throws its glow over the grasses, and the landscape changes. It goes from a dark-gold to a white-gold hue brightest among the inflorescences, whose thin papery glumes catch the light. With a rush of wind that stirs the stems, cloud cover returns and dims the fields.   

As the trees thin out around the trail, I’m at around 700 feet. I can see the river running rough parallel to the trail. I can even see the bulldozers working on what looks like the former site of the NJ Zinc Company’s west plant. During the plant’s years of highest production, sulfur dioxide emission rates were estimated to be 3,300 to 3,600 pounds per hour. After that toxic inundation, soil on Blue Mountain measured one hundred times the normal amount of zinc, cadmium, and lead. Think of it: Palmerton’s located where the Lehigh meets Aquashicola Creek. Following the natural action of the watershed’s hydrological systems, industrial effluents piggybacked on gravity and the pull of currents and dovetailed with the water system, which shuttled heavy metals into the surrounding life.

As the Charcoal Trail turns east down a last rocky steep to meet the Prairie Grass Trail, I anticipate the pleasure of being surrounded by grasses taller than I am. But I’m also tired, my spine twinging a bit where my pack gently pats it. On a big flat rock, I sit and attend to my mammalian self—I drink some tea and eat one of the hard-boiled eggs I packed for the day. The beeping of bulldozers continues, accompanied by the sound of a dump-truck opening its back flaps with a bang. Some of Palmerton’s citizens were upset by its designation as a superfund site, but the area’s children, when tested, showed elevated levels of lead. Capital follows the flow of water through the industrial landscape grafted onto the watershed; capital as it flows through our bodies as water leaves a wake of toxins we in turn return to the watershed through waste. This cyclical grafting of anthropogenic processes onto natural ones is the Anthropocene writ small and large.

What I love about phytoremediation is that it reverses this opportunistic and exploitative logic; it attempts to undo damage done by grafting natural processes onto anthropogenic ones. After their root systems take hold and the grasses mature, they slowly begin to build a prairie habitat, initiating a regeneration that eventually ripples down to insects and microbes and up to rodents, birds, and larger fauna like fox and coyote. Other flora also flourish, nursed by intact relations among biota: wildflowers, shrubs, trees. Given the current state of things, it seems improbable that a group of human advocates made this happen—and I don’t want to leave unseen and unsung the long ingenious labors of the Nature Center’s founders, staff, and volunteers, who have made lasting revegetation happen. But as I walk at last amidst the thick satisfying mix of prairie grasses, I also know this landscape is an exception to the capitalist principles of growth, development, and extraction.

It’s hard for a poem to hold this kind of knowledge because it can be hard for a human mammal to hold this kind of knowledge. It is hard for a human mammal to hold this kind of knowledge because our bodies are proprioceptively and neurologically designed to navigate and respond to our immediate surroundings—scalar thinking only takes most of us so far beyond peripersonal space. Which is why writing while walking works so well as a way to approach the logic of the Anthropocene: informed fieldwork allows the poem to register the intertwining of ecosystems and anthropogenic change at a local level, a small-scale instance of the catastrophic intertwining that has, for us, always already happened and is continuing to happen at the biospheric level.

It’s just a few weeks past solstice, and the days are still short; I can tell from the light I don’t have long before sunset. Before I go, I give myself the gift of lying curled on my side in the grass, bedded down briefly like a deer or a bird in a hidden twist of nest. Dry and soft, the crushed grasses give off the sweet smell they have when cut, though the smell is sweeter for knowing these won’t be. Surrounded by a ground of poison and suffused by the perfume of its slow antidote, I don’t have to imagine happiness. This is my poetics. I keep one ear turned to the lower limit earth; the other’s open to the upper limit wind of the world that waits above.      

Originally Published: January 21st, 2019

Born in Athens, Georgia, Brian Teare grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He earned a BA in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama and an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. His collections of poetry include The Room Where I Was Born (2003), winner of the Brittingham Prize and...