Discussions about eco-poetics often involve nostalgia. The word itself has a fascinating etymology: from the Greek algos (pain, grief, distress) and nostos (homecoming). The word further descends from Proto-Indo-European nes- (to return safely home), which is cognate with Old Norse nest (food for a journey) and Gothic ganisan (to heal).
From the 17th to 19th centuries, nostalgia was considered a wound and a serious disease afflicting people who had been taken from their homes and families by colonization, war, enslavement, industrialization and globalization. These massive displacements not only separated peoples from their native countries, but also separated them from the natural environment, since many migrations arced towards urban centers. Climate change has increased this kind of migration.
Another term, solastalgia (combining solace, desolation, and nostalgia) speaks to the pain and distress caused when your homeland is destroyed but you are not necessarily displaced. In other words, you yearn for what your home was before it was desecrated by mining, logging, fracking, military testing, or oil spills; it is “the homesickness you have when you are still at home.” Sadly, solastalgia is becoming more and more common, especially for peoples of color and those in developing countries.
Eco-Poetry is one expressive form through which people have addressed the pain, grief and trauma associated with nostalgia and solastalgia. In these poems, the natural world is longed for because of its association with home, innocence, family, peace, sustenance and nurturance.
Thus the first poetry prompt for our eco-poetics course was related to nostalgia: write about a childhood memory in which you felt connected to nature. Below you will find 8 poems from students in the course (about 15 minutes of reading time). What do you notice about how nostalgia and the environment are portrayed? What do you notice about the forms, images, symbols and other poetic techniques? What emotions do these poems conjure?
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment field, and—if you have time—try writing your own poem based on the prompt.
Sitting at the top of the stairs,
Which used to be on one side of the house
Going down and around to the back yard.
A favorite spot.
We had fruit then:
Papaya, Banana, Starfruit;
Lychee from the tree that now stands barren by the garage.
And flowers: Orchids and Bougainvillea mostly.
Grandma always loved those best.
I remember being young. Small.
Small enough to fit on Papa’s lap
Together on the old bench in the yard—
Tree turned to seat lost to dry rot.
Small enough that the yard was a jungle to explore.
Today we have more house — an extension.
Less yard — an encroachment.
What’s left is mostly rocks and dirt.
A few scattered succulents.
One creeping monstrosity.
Still I remember:
Sitting with Papa in the yard
Gazing across luscious greens
And fewer, scattered houses
Until they all gave way to ocean blue.
As sudden sirens shatter the silence,
I looked up to say “I hope it isn’t serious,”
And we stopped together and prayed.
I don’t remember what exactly we prayed for,
But I am certain now it was serious.
Waimea Valley and on the way to the falls
canopy of green leaves and branches
laughter and spongy moss
damp leaves and rotted roots
wet socks and cold juice
soaked shoes and slippery steps
mud on your shorts and in your fingers
on your hands and dreams of tiny legs and nibbles on your toes
scampering in the icy water and stream rush of bubbles
childhood revelry and summer fun friends shouting
I got one and Aww it got away
and teachers yelling
Hurry up get back on the trail and We going miss da bus
sometimes itʻs gray skies and mostly not
summer blue of hot humid air and billowy clouds
splashes everywhere and wet palm prints
silken moss and debris on your shins
your cheeks and didn’t mean to fall in
never mean to do any of it and only deliberate thing is
clasped hands underwater and grasping for a flash of gray scurrying
under rocks and to be the scurried
the hidden under the dark shadows
living in the rush of clear water
huddle in a wisp of pond or stream
giants loom over you
murking the water with every step or fall
live the life of catch and release
of spawn and egg to escape
a certain pot of boiled water
kiss the green bloom on the rock
a bite here, a nibble there
to never think of the larger shadows
torpedo shaped propellers slashing in the air
waiting for creaks and oil drips
what do/will they think of next
where does it go or matter
to miniscule me and the
human children wading in
drying puddles who never seek
to live like me undisturbed
under stream rocks
they yearn for the sun, capture the light
and energy of the room
my room of river beds and
mossy rooted pohaku
I remember sitting on the brown leather Lay-Z-boy recliner
in the clutter and the shade of the Lionel Court house –
it might be early morning sun failing
to filter from the one kitchen window
that looked heavy-lidded onto the close white lattice covered passage
from the half-moon wood white gate and the red brown zig-zag brick path
my brothers built
impatiently digging in uncovered summer heat
when I was only just tall enough to walk
The one kitchen side window is only a frame
for shade and trees and occasional roses my mother planted heavily
since she never wanted anyone looking in
at the dark clutter and shade covering me
sitting on the leather Lay-Z-boy chair –
it might be the late afternoon shade
chipping over patio bricks and white wood and wisteria shade
that my mother waited for
because she wanted our cover beautiful
with white and purple and bricks and paint
You couldn’t walk in the backyard
so much as stand, and it wasn’t a yard
so much as “the back”
that was quiet so much as to make a little kid
with too much imagination
silent under shade and smell of cold hose water
trickling between vines, rotting fruit, hot bricks and hanging
flowers that stood still
just letting the sun filter
occasionally touching the dark shade and clutter
of the little room to move inside the house
where I would sit on cool leather
waiting to go to school, waiting to play
outside uncluttered in an open park
waiting to move
I’m pretty sure even if they’ve cut down
all the trees my mother constructed and dug up
all the bricks my brothers planted
and ripped off all the wisteria shade
you would still find yourself
in that place
waiting to move out from beneath
an imaginary shade
The Perfect Night to Fly a Kite
Dragged by a rope across sharp blades. I don’t see anything. Whispers and screams race from the shadows before me. I flop and plop around as my captors pick up speed. The cool breeze purrs, brushing up on me. I begin to float in the wind. The screams turn to laughter. They echo behind the veil of the night sky. I float higher. What happened to the blades? Am I in heaven? No. I don’t feel any clouds. I float higher. It’s still dark, but now there are handfuls of twinkling stars dotted across the unknown. I float higher. I glide faster. I feel colder. The rushing of the wind across my limbs deafen me to all other sounds—making my skin flap around and tingle. I float higher. Stop. I don’t float higher. The string is taut. My arms split. I drift down to the earth and relax on the familiar sharp grass. Silence. He picks me up by my sticks and drops me into the cold metal bin. I am left alone with the ringing sound of a single woo-hoo.
My fondest memory sits on a roof in Mānoa as a kid.
It looks back at me now and then from the middle
of that synthetic ridge—chin low, arms hugging knees—
years away, when our house came with my father’s then-job
and we lived on the grounds of the Baptist student dorm
and their rec center sat down the hill from our home, low
enough that the roof met the backyard four feet up. I hopped
atop every evening to sit with the sunset. Silver dirt clung
to my hands and legs from my slanted slate perch
and traffic brayed from University Avenue below and
the Honolulu skyline obscured most of my view
of the Pacific, but behind me hung rain on the greenwet
valley mountains, shower trees standing sentinel, and the sun
peeled the light blue off the sky leaving cotton candy tears
toward the horizon and the city turned on for the night
too bright for stars though you could feel them there
in the dim as if earth would ever still be itself no
matter how human stood in the way.
A Nationality of Time
Henry Wei Leung
Ice in the lungs, sunlight like a shattering.
The pond, frozen, and fall’s leaves standing in it at half-mast.
Clover mites as the snow melts.
Footprints as the snow melts.
Air whipping in the distance like a helicopter’s heaving breaths.
Geese, and their goslings, as the snow melts.
A man arrives.
He dangles from the low branch of a tree recently freed of a white burden.
The branch breaks.
He looks behind him before shuffling away.
The next day, the branch is hauled to the edge of the woods.
The next day, the tree is reduced to stump, circular and fallow.
All the snow, now, evaporated into something else.
And I remain, asking nothing in my stillness.
Asking nothing, yet still taking.
I take, and I take.
Off the Boardwalk
Amidst the deluge of
drops raining down
I peer out of a
palmetto thatch hut,
shift my weight around
on the spongy earth
from the saturated sky,
and when the leaf litter
I venture into the mist
to survey the scene.
Slurping from a replenished
elephant ear funnel
I bristle with pride at my
newest survival skill
as the refreshed cicadas
resume their fais do do,
springing on spindly legs
and sloshily keeping time
while lazy rays of afternoon
sun peek through
bright green leaves
warming my watery haven.
In this damp world
I am part of a steamy
oasis for prehistoric
and forgotten creatures,
but today, I got to
step off the boardwalk
and nobody worried
about water moccasins.
A short distance to the east, the sprawling suburbs of Orange County are dissolved in the undulating foothills of the Santa Ana mountains. The place is a familiar one; I have come here annually to spend my birthdays, catching tadpoles and looking for waterfalls that maybe don’t exist. We park the car and make our way to the trail-head. The air is hot and dusty, but this is forgiven, for it is perfumed with the aroma of sagebrush. The tiny bones in my ear, usually preoccupied with the inner workings of distant machines, now sing about the flight of insects. We climb a ridge and descend the slope of the far side, in a gully whose red earth bursts open in tangles of tree roots. At the bottom is our destination: a dry riverbed snaking its way through a limitless canyon. Eventually the sand permits a trickle of water, and before long it transforms, droplet by droplet, into a gushing torrent. The electric buzz of insects softens into the murmuring of whitewater, the coarse shrubs of the chaparral exchanged for the delicate beauty of ferns and the velvet of moss. Even the golden light of the sun must be pacified on its way to my skin, cooled to a green as it makes its way through the canopy of sycamore and oak. The trail itself becomes one with the stream, and we scramble through deep blue pools and over polished granite boulders, until the slanting light tells us it is time to return home.