The relationship humans have with the natural world -- a tie that sustains us, comforts us and informs our identities -- has been detailed in poetry for thousands of years. Many of the poems quoted in the list below touch on the emotional healing nature offers us, but others point to our shocking destruction of a planet that has only nurtured and awed us. In the Spring 2021 issue of Love + Regeneration, Living Deep co-founder Jason F. McLennan outlines our responsibility to the earth and to each other, urging us to commit to healing both humans and our habitats. He writes that “at every intersection where one lifeline touches another, there is an opportunity for healing.” If we join together our knowledge and experience with love and persistence, we do have the power to heal our planet and each other. As Jason notes, “if we adopt a disposition of empathy, a desire to perpetuate good in this world and a commitment to begin consciously to use our inventiveness to heal the planet, we can change our living future.” It is our hope that these eight poems will foster your love of nature, encourage climate action and remind you that we are all connected -- drawing from the same sources for life, love and peace.
Nature Makes Us Better People
One of the most valuable gifts nature offers humans is a deeper connection to each other. In her article “How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative” from Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Jill Suttie references a number of recent studies that demonstrate nature is tied to empathy. Pointing to experiments conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Irvine over the last decade, Suttie writes that those who either viewed or were immersed in nature “demonstrated more helpful behavior and approached moral dilemmas more ethically.” The participants in these experiments who viewed nature -- rather than the control group which did not -- also demonstrated increased “‘prosociality’ or willingness to help” others as a result of the “positive emotion elicited by natural beauty.”
And Encourages Us to Act With Empathy
Perhaps most significant for the health of our planet and the survival of our species, nature has the capacity to create a kinder, more empathetic future generation. Todd Wilkinson explains in his article “Nature Helps Kids Have Compassion For The World” for Mountain Journal. Quoting environmental educator David Sobel, Wilkinson writes that “‘we want to cultivate that sense of connectedness [children have with the environment] so that it can become the emotional foundation for the more abstract ecological concept that everything is connected to everything else.’” Wilkinson writes that “researchers see a correlation between those who spend time immersed in nature and higher levels of empathy, not only toward other humans but other species.”
Children immersed in nature -- who value connectedness to their surrounding environment -- are more likely to care about the earth and each other. According to Ryan Lumber, Miles Richardson and David Sheffield in their paper “Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection,” nature connectedness benefits individuals and the wider world. Connection to nature from an early age “is thought to lead to pro-environmental attitudes and subsequent positive behaviours through a willingness to sacrifice.” A collective willingness to sacrifice will certainly play an important part in healing our planet over the next several decades.
8 Poems About the Natural World to Inspire You this Great Poetry Day
Though most nature poetry lists will touch on the work of Thomas Hardy, William Wordsworth and Robert Frost, this list will focus on the work of mostly contemporary poets -- many of whom are eco-poets rather than solely nature poets. The nature poems that resonate today are often imbued with commentary on complex societal issues like environmental responsibility and social justice. These poems bring us together by referencing our collective experiences and philosophies -- such as our debt to nature -- while acknowledging our individual identities. Follow below for eight impactful nature poems about the beauty and value of our world.
#1 “Shelter in Place” by Kim Stafford
Son of William Stafford -- who also served as one of Oregon’s poet laureates --, current Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford wrote “Shelter in Place” as one in a series of reflective poems about the pandemic. According to Brooke Herbert in her article “Poems for the Pandemic” for The Oregonian, Kim Stafford approaches poetry with two objectives -- first, to honor his intuition and second, to be a “servant of the world.” In a recent broadcast for NPR, Vermont poet James Crews read Stafford’s poem aloud, noting that poetry is vital because it “reminds us...why the world is worth saving and also how we can take better care of ourselves.” Read the rest of “Shelter in Place” here.
#2 “Characteristics of Life” by Camille T Dungy
Currently an English professor at Colorado State University, Camille T Dungy has received numerous accolades for her writing -- from an American Book Award to a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. In her article “Also a Kind of Love: An Interview with Camille Dungy” for 32Poems.com, Cate Lycurgus describes Dungy’s work as a blend of her “expertise in both eco- and African American poetics.” Dungy consistently references nature in her work, often as metaphors for the human experience. Lycurgus writes that Dungy’s work is punctuated by “precise descriptions of [nature], and the borders of self and surroundings blurred.”
Acknowledging this, Dungy tells Lycurgus that “‘the boundary between me and that which is not ‘me’ has always felt infinitely porous...the way that I come to describe my place in the world is always in some way in relationship to what’s around me.’” Speaking about her poem “Characteristics of Life,” Dungy notes that she is not speaking for the many animals and plants she references, but rather “‘speaking up for them...like we speak up for ideas and things and people we care about.’” Dungy says that speaking up for “the life forms of the world in this sort of radically empathetic way is, as you suggest, a kind of witness. It’s also a kind of activism. And it’s also a kind of love.” Read the entirety of “Characteristics of Love” here.
#3 “the earth is a living thing” by Lucille Clifton
The late Lucille Clifton served as Poet Laureate of Maryland during the 1970s and ‘80s and as an educator for most of her life. Clifton was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize, received a number of fellowships and grants and was awarded dozens of accolades. She was granted the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement -- cementing her place amongst great poets of the 20th century.
During her prolific life, Clifton published fourteen poetry collections -- including Quilting: Poems 1987–1990 and Good News About the Earth -- as well as her own memoir and a number of children’s books. She was a fierce advocate for women and children -- especially for Black Americans. Literary scholars often point to Lucille Clifton’s “the earth is a living thing” as evidence of her commitment to dispelling racist stereotypes about Black people. In this poem, she honors their strength, beauty and vitality by tying “blackness” to awe-inspiring and powerful elements of nature such as the “black hawk” and the “black bear.” Read the rest of “the earth is a living thing” here.
#4 “Fulfillment” by Helene Johnson
In his 2017 paper “Toward an Understanding of Helene Johnson’s Hybrid Modernist Poetics” for the College Language Association Journal, Robert Fillman notes that Helene Johnson was well-respected during her time, despite a rather small oeuvre of works. However, in the years that followed her death, she was but a “footnote in American literature.” Recently, interest in Helen Johnson’s work has skyrocketed -- lauded by “feminist scholars and scholars of the Harlem Renaissance” for its “avant-garde representation of the distinctive features of [Depression era] African American culture.” Delving into social issues like “race politics [and] the subordination of women,” Johnson’s poetry marries innovation with “traditional verse forms,” resulting in easily consumable yet incredibly piercing, wholly original pieces.
Fittingly for this post, Fillman writes that Helene Johnson “also explored the beauty and sensuous pleasures of [nature]” in her work, borne from a childhood that focused on “education, female solidarity and a love of the outdoors.” “Fulfillment” -- excerpted above -- was one of her first widely read poems and was awarded the First Honorable Mention prize in the 1926 Opportunity literary contest. In his 1987 paper “The Published Poems of Helene Johnson” for The Langston Hughes Review, T. J. Bryan describes Johnson as “one of the few women who produced high-quality poems that capture the spirit of the age.” As such, “scholars would be especially remiss if they continue to ignore her works” for each of her poems “possess qualities that transcend race, place, sex and time.” Love of nature certainly is one of those themes. Read other poems by Johnson here.
#5 “Loneliness” by Mary Oliver
In her poem “Loneliness,” Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver describes the enduring comfort, hope and peace offered by nature. According to the Poetry Foundation review of her incredible life, Mary Oliver was an “‘indefatigable guide to the natural world...particularly to its lesser-known aspects.’” The late Oliver focused consistently on the “quiet of occurrences of nature” that we often take for granted. She celebrated the “industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, ‘lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes,’” awed, bewildered and bolstered by each. Through her poems, Oliver served as a connection between bustling urban life and the delicate beauty of nature. The Poetry Foundation places Oliver’s poems in the “Romantic nature tradition” because of their “clear and poignant observations and evocative use of” nature, many of which continue to inspire readers.
#6 “On the Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou
Many poets throughout history have used nature imagery to underscore the need for social responsibility. Few have done so as effectively, however, as civil rights activist and award-winning writer Maya Angelou. In her 1993 poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” -- which was performed during Bill Clinton’s inauguration --, iconic American poet Maya Angelou emphasized the need for the US to acknowledge its many sins and transform into a country that honors the earth and its people. Andrew Spacey explains further in his article “Analysis of Poem ‘On The Pulse Of Morning’ by Maya Angelou” for Owlcation.
Spacey writes that Angelou’s poem references “historical elements and philosophical passages and urges everyone to do their best and share the planet wisely.” Though written specifically for the inauguration, Angelou’s poem still rings true today. It looks at our past errors and evils while also positing that people “can change for the better and that, working with Nature (rock, river and tree), learning from the past, and despite differences, great things can be accomplished together.”
#7 “Praise Song for Oceania” by Craig Santos Perez
Indigenous Guamian poet and scholar Craig Santos Perez frequently writes about climate justice and environmental issues -- often honoring his Chamorro culture. Critically acclaimed for his work in film, research, activism and poetry, Perez has received a whole host of awards including the 2015 American Book Award, the 2017 Hawai’i Literary Arts Council Elliot Cades Literary Award and the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry. An eco-poet and educator, Perez currently teaches in the English Department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. According to Perez’s own website, the poet “co-curates the Native Voices Reading and Lecture Series, the Chamorro Studies Speaker Series, and the New Oceania Literary Series” at the University.
In her article “This poet captures the madness and injustice of our burning planet” for Grist, Shannon Osaka describes Perez’s approach to eco poetry. Not quite nature poems, but rather “eco-poems,” Perez’s work speaks to his understanding that “climate change is inextricable from other global injustices and inequalities, including the suppression and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples.” In 2016, Perez created a film-poem hybrid for World Oceans Day, which he notes was intended to raise awareness about issues facing the ocean and expand environmental literacy. Quoted by Osaka, Perez outlines the goals he has for his work, noting that a poem "'can raise awareness, it can increase environmental literacy — it can inspire people to take action.’” Read the entirety of “Praise Song for Oceania” here.
#8 “Speaking Tree” by Joy Harjo
The first Native American Poet Laureate, musician, poet, philosopher and playwright Joy Harjo writes often of the connections between nature and identity. According to her Poets.org bio, Harjo herself is “rooted simultaneously in [nature], in earth—especially the landscape of the American southwest—and in the spirit world.” She frequently references “native traditions of prayer and myth," advocating for the preservation of culture and the environment. Quoting legendary poet Chancellor Alicia Ostiker, the post notes that Harjo’s “‘visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.’” In addition to her position as US National Poet Laureate, Harjo received the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award and was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In her paper “Who Speaks For the Trees?,” A.K. Afferez analyzes Harjo's poem “Speaking Tree.” Afferez writes that Harjo “reiterates the sentience of trees and the urgency of situating oneself in relation to them.” She notes that our relationship to nature is vital because it can “help voice what is unspeakable at a human level.” Quoting several lines from Harjo’s poem, Afferez writes that “only by listening to trees can the speaker find a way through her grief.” Afferez explains that storytelling from culture to culture -- whether in oral histories, a written poem or song --, paints the tree as “the embodiment of extreme strength and extreme vulnerability, a life spanning centuries, nourishing millions of other life forms, the backbone of entire ecosystems, and which can be felled within minutes.” Literary depictions of the tree remind us of our resilience and power while highlighting the delicate nature of life and the need to care for and nurture it.