Can poetry save the Earth? Frankly, I think it’s a splendid idea. Lately I’ve spent quite a lot of time out in the streets trying to save the Earth,3 and it’s clear to me there has been a communications breakdown. The potential for catastrophic environmental crisis is making our present situation increasingly dicey, yet it often seems like the wrong people are trying to address the problems in various unhelpful ways.
Can poetry save the Earth?1 Frankly, I think it’s a splendid idea.2
Lately I’ve spent quite a lot of time out in the streets trying to save the Earth,3 and it’s clear to me there has been a communications breakdown. The potential for catastrophic environmental crisis is making our present situation increasingly dicey, yet it often seems like the wrong people are trying to address the problems in various unhelpful ways. Citizen concerns go unheard by corporate-sponsored elected officials who seem to be either actually baffled or deliberately obtuse about scientific data.4
Some people like Sverker Sörlin5 believe the key to crossing this communication barrier lies with the humanities because, as he wrote in the scholarly journal BioScience, “We cannot dream of sustainability unless we start to pay more attention to the human agents of the planetary pressure that environmental experts are masters at measuring but that they seem unable to prevent.”6
The founders of a new Australian journal called Environmental Humanities call for putting this human focus to practical use: “The environmental humanities is necessarily, therefore, an effort to inhabit a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action.”7 Sounds good to me. The world needs saving. Poetry to the rescue!
But how poetic does this Earth-saving poetry actually need to be? After all, one of the truly great Earth-saving poems is “The Lorax.”8 Likewise Publishers Weekly derided the poems of Edward Abbey as “cornball,” “overwritten,” “doggerel-like” and “Victorian in sentiment,” and said that they “may interest Abbey’s fans, but not poetry readers.”9 Touché. But clearly we have a problem, here. In order for poetry to save the Earth, someone besides poetry readers has to read it.
One possible solution lies in “relocalization,” a central tenet of the sustainability movement and which you can think of as a kind of survivalist movement for people who are not actually crazy.10 People are attracted to reading about familiar places, and they might like place-based poems. I live in Utah, ergo I should begin my search for poetry to save the Earth by constructing a poetic ecology to save Utah.
In any case, love of place is a convincing argument in favor of conservation, and Utah exerts a distinctly odd pull on the human spirit. One theory has it that susceptible souls are sucked toward a gravitational anomaly located directly under the Mormon temple;11 another theory holds that ancient rock art carved on sandstone walls in remote desert canyons opens a portal to an alternate reality.12 In any case, people who try to move to Utah from elsewhere often run screaming as if chased by a furious genius loci,13 and Utah natives who try to leave snap back into place entirely against their will as if attached by a giant bungee cord.
On the map, Utah is not a conceptually complicated place. Lyons & Williams have the essential geographical outline.14 All Utah is divided into three parts: the “Great Basin” which includes Great Salt Lake, the West Desert and the Greatest Snow on Earth®; the Colorado Plateau, home to Utah’s iconic red-rock desert; and the Uinta Mountains where you may find conventional picture-postcard lakes, forests and wildlife.15 Two largish rivers—the Green and the Colorado—run through the landscape like the two essential kinds of chili, and their confluence lies at the mystic Heart of Redrock16 in the center of Canyonlands National Park. The geological substrate is generally exposed everywhere, but here and there rocks are overlain by a veneer of biological and/or human activity.
Most of Utah’s human population lives in a sprawling urban area along the Wasatch Front between two mountain ranges that trap urban pollution in a cold-sink known (not at all fondly) as “The Inversion”17 which renders breathing toxic for weeks at a time. The rest of the state is largely small-town, rural or completely unpopulated since more than half of the land is managed by various federal government agencies.18
The state capitol, Salt Lake City, is also the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons), and Utah’s population may be conveniently divided into “Us” (Mormons) and “Them” (everyone else). Utah legislators19 are heard in the marble halls of the capitol building addressing each other as “brother” and “sister” to affirm their affiliation with “Us.” As for minorities, Polynesians, successfully recruited by “The Church,” typically affiliate with “Us”; Hispanics and Native Americans (Ute, Paiute, Goshute, Shoshone and Diné) tend to affiliate with “Them.”
Jell-O haiku contest
That’s the basic outline. The next problem is to find poetry to match the scenery;20 then it’s a simple matter of pinning the poems on a map. So let’s start with what is probably the best-known poetry contest in Utah—the annual Jell-O Haiku Contest that has been sponsored by the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper since 2007.
Jell-O was named the official state snack by the Utah Legislature in 2001,21 “whereas Utah has been the number one per capita consumer of Jell-O brand gelatin for many years.”22 During the 2002 Olympics a green Jell-O pin (with many variations) was the hot souvenir item, and political cartoonist Pat Bagley contributed a glow-in-the-dark radioactive green Jell-O pin to the mix in order to protest various ill-advised nuclear waste storage schemes proposed for Utah’s West Desert.
In 2006 when my ex-husband Brian was running as the sacrificial Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, he wore Bagley’s nuclear Jell-O pin on his lapel23 to remind people that the sitting congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT-1) was a former lobbyist for the Envirocare nuclear waste disposal facility in the West Desert and that he (Bishop) had just voted in favor of resuming nuclear testing at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.24 In order to reinforce public awareness of this transgression, Brian and I spent quite a lot of other people’s money to televise a political ad that featured a mushroom cloud followed by an image of ourselves holding our exceptionally cute blonde baby.25
Well, as I said, Brian failed to win so he donated his remaining campaign funds to Peter Corroon26 who was running for mayor of Salt Lake County and, helped by the sudden implosion of his opponent’s campaign,27 found himself unexpectedly the front-runner. In his subsequent two terms as Salt Lake County Mayor, Corroon not only vastly improved bicycle infrastructure in the County but had a generally stellar environmental record in other respects as well.
What’s more, not long after all this took place, Congressman Bishop did the one and only visionary thing he has ever done28 by establishing a Cedar Mountains Wilderness Area in order to block transportation routes to the aforementioned proposed nuclear waste dump in Skull Valley.29
So, by squinting just a bit, it seems possible to believe that Jell-O haiku may indeed have played a significant role in Utah’s environmental public dialog, even if it was in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of way.30
Radioactive Jell-O, by the way, is a good example of “Mondo Utah” which is the name filmmaker Trent Harris gave to the genius loci of Utah.31 Mondo Utah exists as a kind of ecotone between the spiritually sublime and inexcusably ridiculous and often manifests on an unexpectedly grand scale.
In 2013 Mondo Utah was chosen as the theme of an exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, and the show’s curator, out-of-state transplant Aaron Moulton,32 called Utah “the most spiritual place I’ve ever been to in my life.”33 Indeed, the mythologies of Mormonism are a prime example of Mondo Utah.34
Other examples include the discovery of cold fusion by University of Utah chemists, the Mark Hoffman “white salamander” forgeries and bombings and the salvation of the 2002 Winter Olympics by the weirdly robotic polygamist-descendant and future GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Robert Smithson’s artwork Spiral Jetty is both an example of and an artistic response to Mondo Utah.
However, Mondo Utah is not all fun and games. It also has a propensity toward flamboyant boondoggles and environmentally catastrophic scams like the government-subsidized uranium mining frenzy of the 1950s, the Glen Canyon Dam, the MX Missile, the Central Utah Water Project and the Tar Sands Triangle35 which is currently threatening to disappear the entire state in a vast dusty pit.
Capital “N” Nature poetry
But back to poetry. Ever since 1935, the Utah State Poetry Society has been publishing a decennial collection called Utah Sings.36 Back in the ’30s Utah’s population was not much above 500,000 souls, and the official State Road Commission map warned travelers to “carry water” on the road to Hanksville lest they die of thirst stranded out in the desert.37
Sentimental capital “N” Nature poetry was in style, and the poems in Utah Sings are about what you’d expect: World War I veteran Andrew M. Anderson (“Night on Timpanogos”) finds himself atop a peak in the Wasatch range writing “Here in ultimate peace, and supreme beauty— / I feel so close to God”; Jessie Miller Robinson (“Great Salt Lake”) calls a migratory bird habitat of critical global importance, “Sterile, passionless, bitter”; William F. Hansen (“Fading Day (Indian Songs)”) pictures the native people “Skulking, submitting, dying / Soon away, away, goodbye.”38
Once in a while a ray of hope for ecological awareness shines through: Harrison R. Merril (“Jest Sage-Brush”) openly confesses, “I love sage-brush! / And all the valleys love it, / Because, like foil around our precious heirlooms, / It preserves for them—and us— / The very fragrance of life’s high romance.” Nowadays, of course, the Sagebrush Sea is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America39 and Utah Governor Gary Herbert is actively trying to devise ways to undermine the Endangered Species Act in order to prevent sage grouse from being listed.40 Perhaps Herbert could be swayed toward a more pro-sagebrush attitude by reading Mr. Merril’s heartfelt poem.
Clearly one problem with such antique poetry is that it was written before the consciousness-raising environmental movement of the 1970s which brought out a new activist streak in many poets.
For instance, in America’s bicentennial year, some overtly activist poems about Utah by David Milton appeared in the scientific journal Environment.41 The poetry is, how shall we say, pretty bad. For instance, in “Magna” Milton imagines his own body as the Kennecott copper smelter, “A dark phallus stands against the sunset / Spewing its sperm of death.” Astonishingly, the Communications Director at Kennecott took the time to write a rebuttal which was published in the Letters to the Editor column declaring that the smelter “…is not, I repeat not responsible for the pollution in Salt Lake City” and calling a comment attached to the poem “irresponsible journalism” and “counterproductive to providing clean air.”42 So whatever you think of his poetic talent, as far as getting a reaction from actual industrial polluters, Mr. Milton has set a high bar for ecopoets everywhere.
The state of Utah ecopoetry
But still, considering the many environmental threats to Utah’s well-being, there seems to be less Utah ecopoetry lying around than you’d expect. Even though a number of literary journals are published in Utah,43 many don’t seem to have any particular regional focus. The new journal Saltfront refers to the Dark Mountain Project44 and has an Environmental Humanities mission45 but they’ve only published four issues to date. Weber, which has a deeper backfile, looks promising—it has “Contemporary West” right there in the subtitle—but seems a bit thin as far as poetic critique and action. Kimra Perkins46 mentions some specific features in Arches National Park, and likewise Nancy Takacs47 imagines hiking to fancifully named places listed in a guidebook,48 but they don’t stray far from the usual tourist routes. David Lee’s49 “Nocturne Chinle Strata” (2007) is oddly noncommittal. The Chinle formation contains radioactive petrified wood that lured money-hungry prospectors funded by government subsidies to spider web Utah’s wilderness with dirt tracks all leading straight to the Chinle formation and their own radon-gas-poisoned demise; Georgia O’Keeffe painted the Chinle formation, for heaven’s sake! But all Lee comes up with is: “Pangea splits into continents / which float, collide, grind, erupt.” Oh, here we go! Claudia Putnam’s50 poem “Global Warming Scenarios: Rocky Mountain Region” (2007) takes environmental issues head-on with an elegy for the extinction of snow, aspen, pikas, glaciers, and trout, and it’s poetry in action, too: Western Resource Advocates reprinted her poem on their blog Sept 20, 2012.51 True, Putnam used to work for WRA, but still it is encouraging that someone hoped the poem might exert an influence on public dialogue.
Let’s see what our Utah poet laureates have to say. There have been four of them since Utah started its Poet Laureate program in 1997: David Lee (1997),52 Kenneth W. Brewer (2003), Katherine Coles (2006) and Lance Larsen (2012).53 Oh, look here! After Lee54 retired from his faculty position at Southern Utah University, he published a collection called So Quietly the Earth55 dedicated to Ken [Seldom Seen]56 and Jane Sleight; the librarian who catalogued it classified it as “Human Ecology – Poetry.” And here it is! Exactly the kind of poem I’m looking for! “Paragonah Canyon—Autumn,” rage, rage against the senseless environmental destruction of the Utah landscape! “Alas. Poor Utah. / Weep for Utah. / So far from Heaven. / So terribly close to California.” You go, Mr. Lee.
So it’s not quite as simple as I hoped, this business of saving the Earth with poetry. It’s easy enough to find Nature poetry gushing with love for the landscapes and people of Utah, and this is essential, of course, because “In the end we will conserve only what we love,”57 but however much critique they offer, Nature poems strike me as lacking in action. Somebody needs to rile up those poets and encourage them to vent a bit.58
But an even bigger obstacle to poetry saving the Earth is that ecopoetry is just too darned hard to find, tucked away in low Google-ranked websites, academic literary journals and various unreviewed small-press books that don’t look like they’ve been checked out of the library for years. Poetry needs to jump out more, swell up in unexpected places, strike people with a new way of looking at things.
I suppose a knowledgeable scholar could pull together a wonderful Mondo Utah poetic anthology of environmental rage and action59 but somebody60 would need to read through a heck of a lot of poetry in order to find the really great nuclear Jell-O poems, phallic smokestack poems, tragic-pika-extinction poems, angry-at-the-clueless-rural-idiots poems, downwinder poems, and all that other blessed poetic unrest and rage. And then who would read it besides the usual suspects? I’m afraid that by the time Environmental Humanities Man arrives, it will be too late.
If this strategy is going to work, we need a poetic action of immediate witness, thrusting poetry right into the middle of the conversational spotlight where it can roll up its sleeves and get to work. I have to say, the dour-faced Utah Governor Gary Herbert has always struck me as someone who could use a little more poetry in his life. I think I’ll start by sending him that sage-brush poem from the 1930s and then take it from there.
1 Felstiner, John. Can poetry save the earth?: a field guide to nature poems. Yale University Press, 2009.
2 Brunvand, Amy. “More Poets, Fewer Lawyers.” Canyon Country Zephyr, August 3, 2014.
3 I’m the woman in orange pants waving a banner on the Salt Lake City federal courthouse steps in the documentary Wrenched (2014).
4 Particularly regarding things like global climate change that they don’t want to understand.
5 Apparently everyone in Sweden has names like that.
6 Sörlin, Sverker. “Environmental Humanities: Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?” BioScience 62.9 (2012): 788-89.
7 Rose, Deborah Bird, et al. “Thinking through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.” Environmental Humanities. 1 (2012): 1-5.
8 Seuss, Dr. The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.
9 “Earth Apples = (Pommes Des Terre) The Poetry of Edward Abbey.” Publishers Weekly 241, no. 30 (July 25, 1994): 44.
10 e.g. Quilley, Stephen. “Transition Skills” in Handbook of Sustainability Literacy. Arran Stibbe, ed. UIT Cambridge Ltd., 2009.
11 The temple is situated at the mathematical origin of a massive Cartesian grid that overlays the entire state.
12 See various issues of “Proceedings of the Utah Rock Art Research Association,” utahrockart.org.
13 Much like the one that chased Napoleon out of Russia in War and Peace.
14 Lyon, Thomas, and Terry Tempest Williams, eds. Great & Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Reader. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1995.
15 Though due to a tectonic glitch, the Uintas trend perpendicular to continental drift.
16 Not to be confused with Heart of Darkness.
17 Similarly, citizens of Denver have anthropomorphized their pollution layer as “The Brown Cloud.”
18 A situation that drives libertarians, sagebrush rebels and other worshipers of private property literally insane.
19 Mormon Republicans, for the most part.
20 To paraphrase Wallace Stegner.
21 S.R. 5 (2001) “Resolution Urging Jell-O Recognition.”
22 Particularly the lime-green variety mixed with shreds of carrot, though this is merely common knowledge, not encoded in law.
23 Next to a tiny American flag, of course.
24 Despite the fact that fallout from such tests is hazardous to human health and due to prevailing winds tends to fall largely on people in Utah. Hence the term “downwinders” to refer to those affected.
25 A sly nod to the infamous “Daisy” ad aired by LBJ during the 1964 U.S. presidential election.
26 A first cousin of former Vermont governor Dr. Howard Dean, famous for the “Dean Scream” that may or may not have undermined his presidential candidacy.
27 Ethical concerns emerged after County Mayor Nancy Workman hired her own daughter as a “ghost employee” paid with public funds.
28 At least as far as I can remember.
29 This was not actually Bishop’s own idea. James V. Hansen who held the seat prior to Bishop had a far more devious mind, and he was the one who thought it up. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Bishop is the one who actually passed the legislation.
30 “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” is a game in which players try to link any Hollywood actor living or dead to Kevin Bacon. The film Footloose (1984) starring Kevin Bacon was filmed in Lehi, Utah.
31 Harris, Trent. Mondo Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: Dream Garden Press, 1996.
32 Who lasted a little over a year in Utah before he ran screaming.
33 Means, Sean P. “Preview: An ‘Anti-Biennial’ Takes over UMOCA.” Salt Lake Tribune (5/6/2013).
34 See Plan 10 From Outer Space (1997).
35 A distant cousin of the better-known Bermuda Triangle.
36 Utah State Poetry Society. Utah Sings. Utah State Poetry Society, 1935-. Vol. Published every 10 years starting with v.1, 1935.
37 Utah State Road Commission. Road Map of Utah. 1947.
38 Even though, judging by his biography, Mr. Hansen actually kind of liked his Ute neighbors.
39 Davies, Kirk W., et al. “Saving the Sagebrush Sea: An Ecosystem Conservation Plan for Big Sagebrush Plant Communities.” Biological Conservation 144.11 (2011): 2573-84.
40 O’Donoghue, Amy Joi. “Gov. Gary Herbert: Threat of sage grouse endangered species listing is real, could cost Utah billions.” Deseret News 2/18/2014.
41 Milton, David. “Regarding Creation.” Environment 18.4 (1976): 19-20.
42 “Letters.” Environment 18.8: 44.
43 The ones I know about are listed here in reverse alphabetical order with the acronym of any affiliated institution of higher education: Western Humanities Review (U of U), Weber: the Contemporary West (WSU), Touchstones (UVU), Sugar House Review, Saltfront, Quarterly West (U of U), Petroglyph (USU, RIP), Isotope (USU, RIP), Irreantum: a Review of Mormon Literature and Film, Enormous Rooms (U of U), Ellipsis (Westminster).
45 “Saltfront is an arts and literary journal for a radically new type of ecological storytelling. We are searching for the newest and most vibrant eco-lyrical expressions, new ways to tell stories of what it means to be human amidst the monumental ecological transformations taking place on this planet.” Saltfront.org.
46 A Desert Guide, 1986.
47 Domes and Pinnacles, 1999.
48 Pretty obviously Allen, Steve. Canyoneering the San Rafael Swell. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1992.
49 About whom more later.
50 Though she’s actually from Colorado, not Utah.
51 Putnam, Claudia. “Global Warming Scenarios: Rocky Mountain Region.” Western Views: Words from Western Resource Advocates 2012/9/20. [Blog post].
52 Best known for rustic pig-oriented humor.
53 Whose latest poetry collection is actually titled Genius Loci. University of Tampa Press, 2013.
54 Remember him?
55 Lee, David. So Quietly the Earth. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.
56 Stiles, Jim. “Ken Slight.” Canyon Country Zephyr. Aug/Sept (1999). Web.
57 Attributed to a speech by Baba Dioum of Senegal at the Tenth General Assembly of IUCN, New Delhi, India, 24 Nov-1 Dec 1969, but it’s hard to verify since volume I of Proceedings (addresses and speeches) was never published.
58 Maybe the folks at Saltfront are doing that.
59 Something like, Delanty, Greg, ed. So Little Time: Works and Images for a World in Climate Crisis. Brattleboro, VT: Green Writers Press, 2014.
60 Maybe me, but I expect it would be have to be somebody with fancier literary credentials.
Amy Brunvand is a published poet, longtime CATALYST contributor and librarian at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library specializing in government documents, environment and sustainability. A version of this story also appears in “Western Weird,” (Manifest West #4), Mark Todd, ed., Western Press Books.