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Why We Chose To Do This: Nature’s (Human) Nature

“Nature’s (Human) Nature” is a gathering of poems and two essays focused on the subject, location, and occasion of the “natural.” This installment, our fourth annual “Nature’s Nature,” looks in particular at the place of the human in nature with more self-consciousness or purposeful awareness. We chose to do this feature—or perhaps it chose us—because of our concern about the environment’s health and because so many writers are turning their words to the crisis. I am glad to reconfirm that this will be an annual offering, each May/June, in the Kenyon Review, and I am delighted to offer these new works by writers included in “Nature’s Nature” for the first time. What follows is the introduction I have written for the feature itself.

Nature’s (Human) Nature

It’s July 30, 2017, as I start taking notes for the present introduction to “Nature’s (Human) Nature.” It is December 1, 2017, when I finish. Four months. During this time, with more than 350 thousand births each day, according to the US Census Bureau, and about half as many deaths, we have added twenty-eight million human beings, give or take, to our gasping planet. That’s about eighty-four million people in the past year. By another count we have added, in the one year since our last “Nature’s Nature” feature, between seventy-five million and eighty-five million more of us. In fact, I have compared many sources—from the World Bank to Wikipedia, the US Census Bureau to the United Nations—and while no statistic is quite the same as another, the ballpark average is sufficient for my purposes here.

Let’s add another fact. The United Nations reports that more than 55 percent of the current human global population now lives in urban areas. Once upon a time we emerged from the waters and slowly moved into the savannahs and trees. Now we see the arable lands rapidly shrinking, the farm-fields imperiled, and waterways poisoned. If we are growing and spreading—like a virus, as we say—our world’s kindred species are growing extinct at a rate between one thousand and ten thousand times the “natural” background rate. Still, deep in our imaginations—far back in our prehuman memories—resides that primordial landscape, that natural scene and setting made of wilderness, wildness: nature. Is it nostalgia or sentimentality that impels our nature poetry now? Is it a primal, abiding sense of home and habitat? Is it the poets’ collective warning that makes us write about the trees, birds, and icecaps, in a stark jeremiad of dread and shame?

There is no single model for the nature poem. John Shoptaw reminds us in his prudent essay “Why Ecopoetry?” (Poetry, January 2016) that even the basic generic terms—nature poetry, environmental poetry, ecopoetry—describe a range of treatments from descriptive to overtly advocative and political. In our own three previous features of “Nature’s Nature,” the narratives of nature poetry have run the gamut from the beautiful pastoral to the terrible sublime, from the field and ocean to the inland park. Its forms have been equally as widespread, from haiku to docu-poems, from prose and multimedia erasures to strict metrics and rhyme.

This is the fourth annual feature of “Nature’s Nature.” I started this ongoing project in 2015 as a way to provide a framework for the abundance of nature poetry I’d been reading and, as well, to articulate, direct, and share my own commitment to the subject. This year I have hoped to frame “Nature’s Nature” in a more concentrated manner by attending to the human facets of nature. We are, after all, animals made of the same fundamental atoms and particles as the fin shark, gingko, or seventeen-year cicada. We are chemistry, like the raindrop. We are biology, like the toad.

What is not nature?

Some would answer that question by pointing to the city, the sprawling, steaming urban pavement; by pointing to the constructed rather than the grown; by pointing to the specifically not-human rather than the human. Some would distinguish between the meadow and a painting—or photograph or mere inscription—of a meadow.

But are we not nature, too? Rather than ignore the distinctions or avoid the debate, I’ve tried to assemble a new group of writings so we might think together both about the tension between us and nature, and the oneness. I had thought at first this feature would focus on urban nature, on the city; but as I sifted through thousands of poems in this last year, I see these poets and writers have recast the subject a bit. Yes, the big city is here. But what is the city if not another natural habitat with its nests, watering holes, and its whole strata of refuse and comfort? Here, too, are the grasslands, the forests, the animals, and the attendant language, the artful rendering, and the human idiom—the taxonomy, the morphology—of those “natural” things. The prison cell and museum, the skateboard pavement and airport. It is, after all, a very short journey, as Bruce Smith says in a single sentence, from “the romantic garden” to “the garden of ruin.”

It’s fitting that the writers in “Nature’s (Human) Nature” speak in as many tones as the landscapes and cityscapes they inhabit. They are funny, witty, grave and bereft, erotic and tender, brutal as well as melancholy. And their forms of expression are just as vivid, just varied, from the short poem to the essay, from the sequence to the image to the story. In fact, I think that’s what I’ve learned again. What is nature? Well, what is it not? Kathleen Ossip writes in her dexterous, hilarious, heartbreaking road-trip-of-a-poem: “There is no outside of this.”

I hope you enjoy and are enlightened by “Nature’s (Human) Nature.” I hope you are delighted and, yes, scared. These sounds are the sounds of us all—“the flourish, the fanfare,” as Sylvia Legris writes—and the hope.