An ecopoetic

An ecopoetic – one of many – Teaching ecopoetry and flourishing

These are not arguments or linear, they interrupt, intersect and interconnect – the crucial concept of ecology.

Abstract – The experience of teaching a 5 day intensive ecopoetry course clarifies the interconnectivities among aesthetics, ethics and the importance of the teacher’s own creative practice. A major difficulty in teaching/learning about the ecological crisis is our daily distance from natural processes and environments, I suggest that writing with an ecological intent and teaching such writing should begin with personal experience. An aesthetics of attention to the everyday world is where I begin from and I provide an example of a writing / photography practice that attempts to take account of such attention every day.

Martha Nussbaum uses the term ‘flourishing’ for the Greek eudaimonia, happiness, being favoured by the gods. Such flourishing requires that we know where and who we are – alert and responsive writing with/on/through the environment nourishes such an understanding. Such flourishing is usefully informed by the ethical frameworks provided by Nussbaum in her ‘Capability Approach’ linked to the renewed interest in virtue ethics and the concept of Wellness, and also connects to understanding multiple intelligences as developed by Howard Gardner.


an aesthetics of attention

Teaching writing with an ecological intent begins for me and my 5 day program with personal experiences of everyday natural processes and environments. Our culture celebrates distraction not attention, with its entertainment and the city’s sublime size and unknowable nature. I encourage bricolage to engage my students with their distraction/ attention – though sketching, poetry, photography, found objects. In nature so much is happening every instant sounds, smells, physical movement, vision, memory, interpreting bird song and behaviour, with knowledge of the season, migration patterns, particular nest sites.

Cumulative bricolage is the bootstrap of culture and is visible early on. Stephen Nachmanovitch writes: “We see bricolage in small children, who will incorporate anything into their play—whatever small piece of stuff is lying on the ground, whatever piece of information they picked up at breakfast. Dreams and myths work in the same way.” But so does science and everything else!!” [i]



Language is natural and constitutive in that, as John Stewart states, it, ‘does not represent the world but builds or develops it.’[ii] Cognitive scientists back this claim; Tim van Gelder writes: “The cognitive system is not just the encapsulated brain; rather, since the nervous system, body, and environment are all constantly changing and simultaneously influencing each other, the true cognitive system is a single unified system embracing all three… interaction between the inner and the outer is… a matter of coupling, such that both sets of processes continually influence each other’s direction of change.”[iii]

Can writing, a technology that has meshed with our bodies and minds, be the basis for a writer or reader developing an ethical relationship with their environments? Writing is a technology – but as we are beings of techne, it is also natural. I tell my students about one of my favourite poems, perfect.

Thoreau wrote awful poems, yet Walden is poetic and wonderful. In the exercises I give my students, attention to an object, perception, or process is prior to writing, and the writing is prior to any shaping of a poem from the raw materials. Writing as a process that leads to a poem but beyond the poem to the world of poems and poetry and readers and to you changing and writing another a dialectic that is ongoing . . .

‘i had suggested that I had always mixed feelings about being considered a poet if robert lowell is a poet I dont want to be a poet if robert frost was a poet I dont want to be a poet if socrates was a poet Ill consider it.’ David Antin[iv]


daily practice, not routine

I encourage a daily journal, commonplace book, notebook. John Ruskin drew every day before breakfast, the better to see the world. For him realist art was valuable for educating the hand and eye. My writing / photography practice occurs every day – For professional musicians a 45 hours week of practice is common, but over practicing is also quite common causing injury.

Tai chi is a daily practice, but never routine, like creating art, the form, the composure & mood, the outcome is always different, and often in doubt, the routine always on the edge. Tai chi slows one, allows attention. Ruskin thought modern railway travel tired the senses, our culture has accelerated since then with the speed of transport, new technologies like iphones and ipads with their social networking immediacies.

You hear of prose writers employing routine – Anthony Trollope writing 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning, watch beside him; Vladimir Nabokov writing daily from around 7 to 10.30 am or Isaac Asimov writing from around 7 to 10pm;  Flaubert 1pm to 1am. Then there’s John Cheever taking the lift to a basement room where he undressed to his underpants and got to work. He’d put his suit back on and head back up for lunch, then down again. Orhan Pamuk reveals, “I had to sleep and write in the same place. Reminders of family life were all around. This upset me. In the mornings I used to say goodbye to my wife like someone going to work. I’d leave the house, walk around a few blocks, and come back like a person arriving at the office.” [v]

Poets don’t have the same kind of routine. W. H. Auden took Benzedrine every morning to write, Gertrude Stein sat in her parked car scribbling poems on scraps of paper. Poems tend to be spontaneous – poets do not keep set hours and every poet works differently. Poems tend to be revised, edited, finely wrought, but at various levels retain a sense of zuhanden, of embodied skilled practice giving meaning and satisfaction – or what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls being ‘in the flow’, engaging in ‘the activity itself, the pattern, the action, the world it provides.’


the bio/cultural diversity of the bricoleur

Nussbaum uses the term ‘flourishing’ requires we know where and who we are –
No need for the drama like a writer like Kafka. [vi] We must:

  1. make the most of (i.e. realise the potential of) the environment we live in – (and some of us have freedom to move – I moved country, night sky and hemisphere
  2. make the most of (i.e. realise the potential of) ourselves. Not the potential we have  been schooled in, to become prime minister of a doctor or top model, but our daily lives, our sensorium, our multiple intelligences and our learning;

The artistic attitude, which always involves a healthy attitude of bricolage, frees us to see the possibilities before us; then we can take an ordinary instrument and make it extraordinary.”

Humans are ecologically creatures, making sense of all that happens, at every moment, as Mark Johnson puts it, we are: ‘weaving together the threads of our lives. In order for us to have coherent experiences, to make any sense at all of what happens to us, to survive in our environment, and to enhance the quality of our lives, we must organize and reorganize our experiences from moment to moment.’[vii] What enables me to live my particular life is seen as cultural but capacities emerge in the life history through development.

Martha Nussbaum uses the term ‘flourishing’ (following Aristotle) to represent the Greek concept of happiness (eudaimonia, being favoured by the gods). She hypothesises a single objective account of human good, from an ethical standpoint. And given our fear of death and longing for life which the Greeks examined (particularly Epicurus) such a standpoint will cover wellness.

A baby born into the world should flourish in its abilities and capabilities. One possible approach to a wellness index is known as a capabilities approach: in Martha Nussbaum’s words, “that there is waste and tragedy when a living creature has the innate or “basic” capability for some functions that are evaluated as important and good, but never gets the opportunity to perform those functions.”[viii]

Nussbaum lists the fundamental capabilities:

1.       Life.

2.       Bodily Health.

3.       Bodily Integrity.

4.       Senses, Imagination, and Thought.

5.       Emotions.

6.       Practical Reason.

7.       Affiliation.

8.       Other Species.

9.       Play.

10.     Control over One’s Environment, Political and Material. (78-80)


These dimensions are dependent on the environment allowing them to appear and flourish. There is value in us having the opportunity to use innate or basic capabilities. Wellness allows us to take advantage of such opportunities, illness denies us.

Amartya Sen, from a wider perspective, emphasises opportunities for people to do and be what they value. [ix]  The renewed interest in virtue ethics and the concept of Wellness connects to multiple intelligences as developed by Howard Gardner.

Howard Gardner closes Frames of Mind (1984) with an overview of methods to reach human potential from the Suzuki method, to Puluwat navigation and the pedagogy of Paolo Freire.

All of the above supports a personal, alert and responsive writing with/on/through the environment. Such attention and subsequent recollection (writing is always in hindsight) rere has to become involved in one’s own writing to make the teaching alive and show that writing matters in the contemporary world, where nature is under constant threat and yet also constantly out of sight/out of mind ?



In China, the four arts, calligraphy, landscape painting, poetry and gardening were thought to each rely on an understanding of each other. Chinese garden often had a pavilion of painting and writing. In China they “build” a garden, whereas we “plant” a garden.

Although gardens appear to be excisions of nature, they are clearly artefacts.[x] This difference between nature and gardens was apparent from our notion of Eden: “Flours worthy of Paradise which not nice Art/ in Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon .” Milton, Book 4, Paradise Lost).

A generation later, Shaftesbury talked of, ‘the horrid Graces of the Wilderness itself, as representing NATURE more . . with the Magnificence beyond the formal Mockery of princely Gardens.

Gardens are a source of pride. After a famous fete in the summer of 1661 Louis IX imprisoned his treasurer Nicolas Fouquet allegedly jealous of his garden Vaux-le –Vicomte, Le Notre’s masterpiece, surpassing Versailles, (just as Henry VIII imprisoned Cardinal Wolsey, partly due to Hampton Court).

Gardens are a source of healthy labour, one Thoreau refused preferring to walk. But gardening involves and invokes touch, close examination happens through gardens. Lysander of Sparta was shocked to find Cyrus the Younger, working in his garden.

Just now weeding my garden I came on a miniature grove of stinkhorns, flies attracted, a nauseous scent. An ecological sense need not be as scientific and highly detailed as Jenifer Owen’s. For 30 years, she has recorded life in her ordinary city garden in the UK and identified 2,673 species of plants and animals.[xi]

Nor ritualised like in the Imperial Court of Japan, where by the 9th C, ladies had developed a strict dress code, wearing kimonos of colours that suited the garden they would be viewing. This highly refined ritualised aesthetic loses attention to so much in a garden,

One needs to grow a personal relationship with the garden as well as plants.


or an eco garden

Dilmun, the land of peace and honey
with no gardening, no getting your hands soiled.
Gilgamesh searched still . . .
Following the Ecologues
it’s not poetry but labour
that fits us to nature.  from the poem Eden

Traditionally, the garden was a refuge, paradise; Babur, the first Moghul Emperor, hated dirt and dust, planted carpets of flowers – outside is pain and wilderness. Walls were important to its separateness from nature and culture beyond, gardens were a respite from danger, from labour and from politics and social demands. Gardens were a luxury, using land not for food or profit, thus became a status symbol and a belonging.

Gardens are no longer refuges but should be we forceful biodiverse and sustainable environmnetss that are beautiful, interesting, that work in with the local habitat and provide constant surprises and satisfactions. We have some exotics, my partner likes roses and lavender, we have saved some throw outs, and planted black bamboo in our Japanese garden, New Zealand Christmas Bush (related to Australian eucalypts) in our rainforest garden, but mostly native and local, we are next to a reserve, and we provide space for self seeders, orchids and vines, shrubs and trees.

Thomas Huxley argued that given evolution, humans are gardeners and nature their garden. He wanted a program of improvement and efficiency, with human needs central (Prolegomena, Evolution and Ethics, 1894). The problem is human needs are varied and often in conflict, and we now have much more interest in the state of being of other species on this living planet.


Interconnectivities among aesthetics, ethics and teacher’s own creative practice

I ask my students to be attentive to ordinary experiences – they are richer and more complex than one realises. The natural world is so marvellous that Goethe was tempted to abandon language, though only scientists, horticulturalists or deep ecologists want all the details of what’s under our feet. Art strengthens the embodiment of arts practitioners including their conscious experience, allowing the body to encounter itself, to reflect upon itself, to become at home in itself and in its environments. Art may sensitise us to various aspects of the world, technology as well as techne, but so does being aware of, and exploring through natural environments. Thoreau wrote Walden to wake people up. An enlarged aesthetics could waken people to the natural, as both a valuable resource (one our existence depends on), and a rich renewable source of pleasure and fascination; and as a whole body of lives, processes and systems that may are in serious decline.



[i] Stephen Nachmanovitch, 2004, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, p86-87.

[ii] John Stewart, Language as Articulate Contact: Toward A Post-Semiotic Philosophy of Communication (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1995, p31.

[iii] Tim van Gelder, ‘What Could Cognition Be, If Not Computation?’, Journal of Philosophy 91, 1995, p373.

[iv] ‘Talking at the Boundaries 1’ in Talking at the Boundaries, New Directions, 1976.

[v] Orhan Pamuk, The Art of Fiction No. 187, Interviewed by Ángel Gurría-Quintana, The Paris Review, Fall/Winter 2005

[vi] “If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. – Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollak, 1904.

[vii] Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993, p152.

[viii] Martha Nussbaum, ‘Justice for Non-Human Animals’, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, November 13, 2002

[ix] Nussbaum writes, “there is waste and tragedy when a living creature has the innate or “basic” capability for some functions that are evaluated as important and good, but never gets the opportunity to perform those functions.” Martha Nussbaum, ‘Justice for Non-Human Animals’, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, November, 2002. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, OUP, 1999.

[x] The oldest garden we have evidence of is that of Cyrus the Great at Sardis, 500BC, archaeologists have traced remains of water wheels, white columns, pavilions and revealed a very geometric garden, confirming reports by a Greek envoy Lsyander.

[xi] Jennifer Owen, 2010, “Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study”, Royal Horticultural Society

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