Jonathan Skinner

ecopoetics

Somatics

Finding ecopoetics on the disability trail

Independence Trail
Independence Trail, photo by dbtownsend

I’m back, with apologies for the long absence. The bad news is that I had to take a month break from these Commentaries due to a minor but temporarily disabling health issue, that pretty much knocked me out of commission, for anything but the day job. The good news is that I’m healed, my “tenure”here has been extended, and I'll be posting these Commentaries through November. 

Last fall, on my trip across the country (mostly by rail) to visit the park spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, I worked in a visit to one of the poets most readily associated with American space (though not urban space), Gary Snyder, at his residence high above the Yuba River, Kitkitdizze. I have yet to document that conversation (we spoke, amongst other things, of Gary’s experience bivouacking in Central Park in the late ’forties, while awaiting his seaman’s papers), which will happen, when I get around to it, on the Olmsted blog. After I left Gary, I stopped just on the other side of the Yuba River, to check out something called the Independence Trail. It turns out that the trail — occupying the site of old, abandoned hydraulic miner’s ditch — was built in answer to a request to, “Please find me a level wilderness trail where I can reach out and touch the wildflowers from my wheel chair.” It is a mostly level trail, shaded by oak and pine, that contours the slope of the undeniably wild Yuba River valley, with views to the river below. At the time, I did not know that this trail, the “First Wheelchair Accessible Wilderness Trail in America,” had been created by one John Olmsted, a distant relative of Frederick Law.  J. Olmsted worked to save hundreds of acres in what is now the South Yuba River State Park, as well as what is now Jug Handle State Nature Reserve on the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County, Goat Mountain in the Coastal Range, and the Yuba Powerhouse Ranch. He wanted to create a “Cross California Ecological Trail.” Walking his Independence Trail helped me realize, yet again, how limited my conception of wilderness can be. 

Dark ecology

In the wolf-songbird complex

Wolf kill
Wolf kill (elk bones) in Waterton Park

I had the good fortune to spend three days in the field, last week, with a wildlife biologist and her field crew, in their study area in the Southern Canadian Rockies, observing and helping the team “pull transects,” inventory tree growth, and track for wolf and other predator sign. They were compiling data for evidence of “trophic cascades,” in the ecosystems at the mountain-prairie interface. Trophic cascades are the energy that ripples out from the presence of a top predator, or a “keystone species,” in an ecosystem—not necessarily through direct predation so much as through an “ecology of fear,” which keeps herbivores vigilant and on the move, balancing browsing with scanning for predators. Removal of the predator can result in a collapse of the number and complexity of the energy cascades; presence of a predator amplifies and expands the energy ripples. Through such “cascade” effects, we ultimately might establish links between, say, wolf presence and songbird diversity. (For some ecosystems, a “mesopredator” like the coyote fulfills the function of the wolf.) Or so the theory goes. 

Theoretical or not, I like to call it the wolf-songbird complex.

Conceptualizing the field

Some compass points for ecopoetics

The ecopoetics compass rose
Compass Points

In thinking about how to conceptualize ecopoetics, one scheme I have played with groups the field into eight vectors of attention, or “compass points.” (I was inspired by Robert Smithson’s “boxing the compass” of his Spiral Jetty: “South by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water,” etc. ) I array these ecopoetics compass points in relation to a kind of spatiotemporal mappemunde that is more conceptual than geographical. The trope of westward movement—a fiction that has guided much of Western history—provisionally organizes the temporal frame, while the trope of economic North and South, another partial fiction used to sort geopolitical realities, organizes the spatial frame.

While sound marks the “true North” of the ecopoetics compass, Northeast and East point to conceptual and procedural writing and to documentary and research poetics, respectively: modes of writing keyed explicitly to the past. Conceptual and procedural writing occupy the Northeast front out of their instructive orientation to European modernism (more explicitly than any orientation to more recent developments in poetics around the globe), while documentary and research-based practices work directly with history, and/or what has been documented, as their primary material.

The simple fact of foxes

On nonfiction, and C.S. Giscombe

C.S. Giscombe reading at Studio One, July 6, 2008
C.S. Giscombe (photo c/o Andrew Kenower)

FAR

Inland suffers its foxes: full-moon fox, far-flung fox—flung him yonder! went the story—or some fox worn like a weasel round the neck. Foxes are a simple fact, widespread and local and observable—Vulpes fulva, the common predator, varying in actual color from red to black to rust to tawny brown, pale only in the headlights.

It’s that this far inland the appearance of a fox is more reference than metaphor. Or the appearance is a demonstration. Sudden appearance, big like an impulse; or the watcher gains a gradual awareness—in the field, taking shape and, finally, familiar. The line of sight’s fairly clear leaving imagination little to supply. It’s a fact to remember, though, seeing the fox and where or, at night, hearing foxes (and where). The fox appearing, coming into view, as if to meet the speaker.

Push comes to shove. Mistah Fox arriving avec luggage, sans luggage. 

I wanted to quote this poem by C.S. Giscombe, from his collection Prairie Style. There are contingent reasons, like the fact that I have somehow found myself shadowing Giscombe over the last several months. We were on a research poetics panel together at the Washington, D.C. AWP, where we discovered a common love for foxes, coyotes, wolves, the midwest, and Amtrak; I ran into him at Point Reyes, at a Michael Ondaatje reading, and drank whiskey with him in Oakland; we discovered we have Maine connections in the same neighborhood; I got a hunch he might like my latest book (full disclosure), and I asked him to blurb it, which he generously and eloquently did; I was in Bloomington, Indiana for a conference, one of Giscombe’s old stomping grounds, and then immediately caught up with him again, in Boulder, where we shared more whiskey; finally, I am now heading for a week of studying wolves in Alberta, near the epicenter of two of Giscombe’s best-known works. More to the point, his poem “Far” locates something important to ecopoetics, what I like to call the “nonfiction impulse.” 

Discourse camping

Ecopoetics as transitional architectural system

Climate Camp, beside Yorkshire, England's Drax power plant; photo: John Giles/PA

Ecopoetics as remaking the household (oikos) may entail moving out of the house altogether, a shift from home-making to camping. For instance, in a remarkable (and painfully ironic) appropriation of refugee architecture, an urban tent city lines the median of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv—middle class Israelis protesting the high cost and scarcity of housing. (There are plans afoot for a similar occupation of Wall Street.) 

One of the best “art shows” I saw in recent years was the exhibit Into the Open, the official United States representation at the 2008 Venice Biennale. (I caught it at the New School, in NYC; the Slought Foundation also ran it in Philadelphia.) 

This show indicted modernist architecture as “an aesthetic style—an abstract form in a landscape, photographed aerially and devoid of social relations[, whose i]conic buildings, formalism, and myopic obsession with the upper class . . . became the hallmarks of much American architecture.” Into the Open’s installations ask architecture “to mitigate its current celebrity obsessed approach, encouraging instead a new type of collaborative thinking about design and space that highlights local, periphery, and even edge conditions.”