Thursday, December 3, 2009

Poems Can Stop Bulldozers

The Australian poet John Kinsella has posted a blog at the Poetry Foundation site that is a very powerful statement about the efficacy of poetry, especially in thwarting environmental degradation. What is so striking to me is that in the absence of violence - Kinsella is a pacifist - language is one of the last things one has left to articulate resistance.

Vermin: A Notebook

Poems can stop bulldozers.

Driving down to the city this morning, we saw five or six emus crossing the road in an area of national park where I hadn’t seen emus before—not once in a lifetime of driving that way. It was a remarkable and invigorating sight as they plunged into the wandoo woodlands of Western Australia, negotiating their way through the spiky hakeas and parrot bush.

On a personal level, it came as a kind of foil for the weekend-that-was—a complex amalgamation of environmental affirmation and also witnessing of horrific environmental crime. The sort of experience that leaves you wondering if any form of environmental activism has any chance of succeeding, yet nonetheless also convinced that there is no choice about acts of resistance. Without them, the environment has no chance.

And writing a statement like this is part of a process of creating poems that hopefully resonate in different ways and in different contexts, and extend what is a particularly local debate into the wider dialogue of which, sadly, it is also part. The compulsion to witness in poetry, the desire to overcome a feeling of crushing failure, and the need to create a cautionary tale that is more than propaganda—all this goes hand-in-hand with a volatility and (maybe overly) emotional reaction to the situations as they happen.

I can see the poem forming in my head as I am raging against an act of destruction, not as a fetishized aesthetic “response,” but in the struggle to formulate a language of reply that is not aggressive and thus self-defeating and hypocritical. I am being somewhat obtuse here. To begin at one possible beginning . . .

Click here for the rest of the essay.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Antennnae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture

The artist Brandon Ballengee sent a link to the new issue of Antennae, which features one of his scans of cleared and stained amphibians on the cover. The journal is new to me, and I read the whole thing this weekend very avidly. In addition to being a great overview of the academic issues facing the study of nature and visual culture, it had excellent insights into art/science collaborations which is something that I have always been interested in and have the chance to see first-hand with my work on the board of iLAND.

Here is Brandon in an interview:

I strongly do not think blurring in the context of genuine art and science cooperation means dumbing-down. Collaboration implements increased complexity. For in collaborative multi-disciplinary projects, participants come from different skilled backgrounds and work through different models of approach. During the working process natural blurring or overlaps occur between disciplines – which is essential for a cross-pollination of knowledge and skills. Innovation happens precisely because participants approach problems differently. The process is not exclusively art or science but transdisciplinary research.

What is most intriguing to me is that the collaboration is not science or art, but this hybrid that Brandon calls "transdisciplinary research."

Here are two other artists Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd:

Pr. Howard Thomas has mentioned that our collaboration has had a direct influence on the culture of IGER (Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research) and stated that some of the new directions for IGER research would never have been undertaken without our artistic presence. There has been quite a strong media profile for art and science initiatives in the UK in the last few years, and the work of IGER has received more press through our working together than it thought possible, or would have done without our interaction, and when funding for research institutes is hard won, “profile” means something. It has been argued at times that artists gain more from crossing the cultural divide between art and science than scientists do, but we buck that trend.

I pulled this quote because I thought it did a tremendous job of "measuring" the value of the arts to science. Collaborations with artists allow scientists to pursue "new directions," to increase the media profile of science institutions, and improve the chances for "scientific" funding. Although only anecdotal it is very persuasivie. If anyone knows of any other studies that are more quantitative about the effects of artist's collaborations on scientific funding I would love to see them.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Considered Landscape

The poet Andrew Schelling sent me a wonderful little book that I had never heard of before, THE CONSIDERED LANDSCAPE by the botanist Edgar Anderson (White Pine Press, 1985).  It is a collection of essays that Anderson had originally written for the journal Landscape.  Although he was not a poet and his book was not necessarily geared toward poets, he opens his first essay with a very provocative couple of sentences against the "average" American poet:

Sometimes the American poet lets us down.   He lives and writes in America but in his mind's eye he looks upon an English rather than an American landscape.  Look about you just as spring is passing into summer: look with a clear eye and a critical mind and see if you find the kind of a June the average American poet has been singing of.

Here he describes the power that reading has over the poet, mediating one's experience of the world before one's eyes.  It is the kind of statement that only someone who has spent a long time in the field can make, and it really encourages me to keep getting out and actually seeing what is there.

Many of the pieces in the book consider urban landscapes.  In these essays he is ahead of his time, noting how natural cities are and how wonderful they are for "studies" of human nature, weather, plants, and birds.  He critiques the American tendency to see "nature" outside of cities, and believes that is why cities can be so poorly designed.  

I have always thought that one of the ways to be happy in the City is to pay attention the natural world: the phases of the moon, the migrations, life cycle of trees and weeds, and it was very heartening to find Anderson describing this too:

One can forget one's troubles, and find peace and quiet, and food for thought in the intelligent observation of nature.  It is quite as easy in the city as the country; all one has to do is accept (we are) a part of Nature.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Artist Katie Holten has an amazing project on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx called TREE MUSEUM.  100 hundred trees along the 4.5 miles stretch of the Concourse now have signs with instructions on how to access an audio guide via your cell phone.  The audio guide features the voices of community members, super stars like DJ Jazzy Jay, the Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan, scientists like Eric Sanderson and Uli Lorimer, architects like Daniel Liebskind, among others.

It also features my haiku poetry.  Almost a year ago, when Katie told me about her project, I asked her if I could write poems around it and it started me on a six-month-plus project to write haiku about the trees on the Concourse.  The Challenge I gave myself was to only write while I was walking the Concourse.  So I logged about 20 miles on the Concourse, wrote over a hundred haiku, and hope to have a small collection of 40 poems as soon as I lay them out and self-publish them, which I don't know how to do but will figure out.  If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

All artists make something out of nothing.  But one of the things that is so beguiling about Katie's work is that it transforms nothing into goodwill.  That may sound like an exaggeration, but the TREE MUSEUM is bringing together a very diverse group of people to share their work and stories, bringing artists into the Grand Concourse to lead projects in the community for the community, and bringing participants together to collaborate.  Her work feels like more than the sum of its parts, and you will have to check it out for yourself online at 

Join the TREE MUSEUM community:

Come out for the opening on Sunday, June 21, Father's Day, at 5pm: