Environmental Empathy in the Contemporary Epic: Exploring Ephemeral Waters and Phosphorescence of Thought by Amy Brown

Environmental Empathy in the Contemporary Epic: Exploring Ephemeral Waters and Phosphorescence of Thought

Amy Brown


Looked at in one way, nature . . . is a penetrating summons to the slow efforts, patient and unseen, by which the individual, himself borne along by a whole past, humbly prepares a world he will never know (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 1915).

Our “natures”: an introduction

Chicago poet Peter O’Leary (2013) quotes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as an epigraph to Phophorescence of Thought, his contemporary epic on the “efflorescence of consciousness that saturates the world”.[1] Teilhard’s description of “nature” applies to both the phenomena of the cosmos and one’s innate characteristics. This subtle pun expresses a tenet of O’Leary’s poem: the mutual dependence of these two definitions of “nature”. It also provides a fitting foundation for this essay, in which I will suggest that O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought and Kate Middleton’s Ephemeral Waters, both published in 2013, exemplify what I will call “environmental empathy”.

In Middleton’s account of her journey along the Colorado River, the River is addressed as “she”. What initially appears to be anthropomorphism of a natural environment could equally be described as the poet’s ecomorphism—a reversal of the usual tenor and vehicle of ecological metaphors (Nichols 2011). Similes comparing the Colorado River to human traits are crucially reciprocal. The direction of influence is pendulous, swinging between anthropomorphic and ecomorphic metaphors, which, far from being antithetical as some have suggested (Nichols 2011; Morton 2007), represent the poet’s acknowledgement of symbiosis between “nature” and “nature”, between one’s consciousness and the natural world as one interprets it.

This symbiosis is central to O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought, a demonstration of the impossibility of explaining the matter of one’s innate nature (one’s thoughts) without drawing comparisons with the natural world. In examining Middleton’s and O’Leary’s poems, I hope to demonstrate that a creative work can be at once anthropomorphic and ecomorphic; that describing the natural world in human terms need not be hegemonic; and that acknowledging the symbiosis of “nature” and “nature” is an important form of environmental empathy.

Environmental empathy

In March 2010, lawyer Polly Higgins submitted to the United Nations an amendment to the Rome Statute, proposing that “ecocide” be legally recognised as the fifth international Crime Against Peace. The Rome Statute currently acknowledges four crimes against peace: genocide; crimes against humanity; war crimes; and the crime of aggression. Each of these crimes affects human victims. While Higgins’ proposed definition of ecocide attends to inhabitants’ “peaceful enjoyment”, the victim the amendment is primarily promising to protect is not human but environmental. This is an example of what I am deeming environmental empathy.

The word ecocide is prefixed with “eco”; it derives from the sixteenth-century Greek word oikos

meaning “house, dwelling place, habitation, family.” The suffix “cide” means “killer”, from the use of the French -cide, from Latin caedere “to strike down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay.” To eradicate ecocide means to forcibly remove the systems that are killing and destroying our habitat (Higgins 2010, xi).

This definition of “eco” only pertains to human habitats, which might indicate that Higgins’ amendment is fundamentally concerned with the wellbeing of human inhabitants. However, Higgins, like Middleton and O’Leary, presumes the interdependence of habitat and inhabitant:

Our bodies are our most immediate dwellings . . . as we contaminate our own internal systems we start to suffer . . . Therefore, as we do locally, so too we must do globally for the larger habitat we inhabit (Higgins 2010, xii-xiii).

Identifying ourselves as the first layer of our “dwelling” or eco-system is an example of simultaneous ecomorphism of self and anthropomorphism of the natural world. Our skin is, in Higgins’ definition, not even a porous boundary between “inhabitant” and “habitat” but a liminal space in which both states co-exist. Lawrence Buell, in The Future of Environmental Criticism, shares this opinion: “the understanding of personhood is defined for better or worse by environmental entanglement. Whether individual or social, being doesn’t stop at the border of the skin” (Buell 2005, 23). Altering the language we use to speak about our environments, Higgins argues, will lead to a change in relationship between ecosystem and inhabitant. Middleton’s and O’Leary’s poems each reflect upon this relationship. While Higgins’ Act has not yet been ratified, these ecopoetical reflections are altering the language we use to speak about our environments.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel asked in his famous 1974 article, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The question was rhetorical; Nagel argued that we could not possibly know. Understanding another’s experiences, or feelings, is a common definition of “empathy”. According to Nagel’s article, we could not empathise with a bat. “The problem”, he writes,

is not confined to exotic cases, however, for it exists between one person and another. The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character (1974, 438).

We would be less inclined to admit to an inability to empathise with another human, regardless of the discrepancy between our experiences. Nagel suggests that the more similarities we share with an organism, the more capable we are of relating to their experiences, and, presumably, of empathising. Understanding another’s experience would be easier, Nagel admits, if there were an objective truth to experience. “If mental processes are indeed physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is for such a thing to be the case remains a mystery” (1974, 441). The mystery is due less to the nature of the physical processes than to what “is” entails:

people are now told at an early age that all matter is really energy. But despite the fact that they know what “is” means, most of them never form a conception of what makes this claim true, because they lack the theoretical background (1974, 442).

Knowledge of an organism’s physical workings might appear to be an honest substitute when our human consciousness cannot relate to the organism’s “experience”. However, there is still a gap between knowledge of behaviour and understanding of experience; I know that a bat’s perception of the world relies on echolocation, but I cannot fathom its experience. I can imagine a black, shrieking world, and attempt to translate it into what I would experience as normal sights and interactions. There would be movement to these imaginings; they would swing between my own experiences (anthropomorphing) and my knowledge of the bat’s senses (ecomorphing). A narrative would form, as it does when I attempt to understand the experience of anyone other than myself. When this attempt to understand is directed at non-human matter, Val Plumwood has defined it as “re-animating” (akin to “anthropomorphising”):

In re-animating [matter], we become open to hearing sound as voice, seeing movement as action, adaptation as intelligence and dialogue, coincidence and chaos as the creativity of matter. The difference here is intentionality, the ability to use an intentional vocabulary. Above all, it is permission to depict nature in the active voice, the domain of agency (2009, 9).

The contemporary epic poems I have chosen to discuss are each “narratives of encounter with nature” (Buell 2005, 9) and employ “intentional vocabulary” (Plumwood 2009, 9). While acknowledging the impossibility of the task of understanding another organism’s experience by way of human consciousness, these contemporary epic poets attempt to succeed. Referring more broadly to the modernist epic’s attempts at capturing a whole societal truth while acknowledging the infeasibility of such an endeavour, Fredric Jameson (2007, 4) wrote, “there is a paradoxical corollary of this particular version of the imperative to fail, and that is the requirement that the writers in question not merely attempt to succeed, but also believe success is somehow possible”. Even if empathic engagement with non-human organisms cannot be based on objective truths, genuine attempts—such as O’Leary’s and Middleton’s—are still valuable. As David Orr (1992, 86) writes, “[e]cological literacy . . . requires the more demanding capacity to observe nature with insight, a merger of landscape and mindscape”.

Movement over mental landscapes, or mindscapes, is a recurring metaphor used to describe the act of empathy. Anders Pettersson (2012, 93) writes, “[t]ransportation is no doubt an important phenomenon in connection with literary art, even though it is by no means unique to literature . . . transportation obviously influences the reader towards being more affected by the text and its world”. Pettersson’s “transportation” suggests passivity—the reader is “moved”, carried into a fictional world on emotions fuelled by the text. Lesley Jamison (2014, 6), in her essay “The Empathy Exams”, also defines empathy as “a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Jamison’s image of travel suggests empathy is more active; instead of being carried, the empathiser’s entry into another person’s pain is deliberate and strenuous. “Empathy”, Jamison (2014, 23) concludes, “isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves”. This extension of self is the antithesis of what Plumwood deemed “hyperseparation” of the human mind and the natural world:

When we hyperseparate ourselves from nature and reduce it conceptually, we not only lose the ability to empathise and to see the non-human sphere in ethical terms, but also get a false sense of our own character and location that includes an illusory sense of agency and autonomy (2009, 10).

Higgins’ Ecocide Act, and Middleton’s and O’Leary’s poems choose to attend to and extend our capacity to relate to natural environments. But, even if their knowledge of the natural world and willingness to observe the interdependence of our two “natures” enables an empathic transportation into “the pain” of the environmental subject, what does this mean? If we do not believe an environment has a relatable, comparably human, consciousness to enter (the position of critics of anthropomorphism, e.g. Kinsella 2011; Morton 2007; Rasula 2002), where does our empathy take us? Back, I believe, into our own consciousness, as in every case of empathic engagement. Solipsism does not preclude empathy but provides a context for it, and is “stretched” by it. A mindscape’s limits expand as its understanding of the landscape it inhabits improves. Andrew Taylor defines “landscape” as

the natural world when we look at it—and that includes looking at what we have done to it and put within it . . . when we look, we also impose a point of view. We look from where we are. And we are where we are because of who we are (2008, 8).

Environmental empathy is a complex attempt to understand where one is and an acknowledgment of the fact that where one is affects who one is.

Des Plaines’ Phosphorescence of Thought

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1993, 125) called his body “a thing among other things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world”. O’Leary portrays his consciousness in this way in Phosphorescence of Thought, describing how his thoughts are generated by his habitat, and, equally, how his habitat as he experiences it is contained by his thoughts. “As authors, in part, of the world we inhabit”, O’Leary (2013, 68) writes in the Afterword, “we’re obliged, in addition to trying to rectify problems we’ve created, to bear witness in the form of honest testimony to the declining powers of our days”. Phosphorescence of Thought is a complex witness statement, attending to both the sublime and the “Plastic tatters of sandbags two meters up, bewitched in ragged scrub:/ . . . Little solemn disaster. Little nothing really that happened” (2013, 21).

The poem’s form is a “set of traces”—Stuart Cooke’s term to describe a poem that generates a semblance of movement across the inevitably static page. This movement is evident in Phosphorescence of Thought’s “fragmentary passages and images that seemingly flare up and then die away in a series of articulated plateaus. The reader moves through these moments, deciphering them like scenes, while there is no general idea of what the whole work is about” (Cooke 2007, 119). The presence of the house wren throughout the poem provides the reader with a guide, in an ingenious demonstration of how O’Leary’s (2013, 1) consciousness relates to the bird:

The wren
the mind
to sing
– and flits –

The lack of punctuation here conveys the interchangeability of the bird and the mind. The metaphor is fluid as the Des Plaines River where the wren is sighted, but also reversible, not merely flowing in one direction. Both the wren and the mind are singing. Later in the poem, O’Leary tells the fable of “the greatest of the birds”. In a competition for primacy, the eagle suggests a high-flying contest. The sly and inconspicuous wren nestles on the eagle’s back, letting the larger bird fly to its limit; at the peak of its ascent, the wren lets go of the eagle and hovers above it briefly, announcing:

Thou hast not outflown me;
I am king of all I see
and cleverer than I am free     (54)

The reader is not allowed to decipher this fable’s metaphor; O’Leary explains in the following lines that the eagle is “life itself” and the wren “the mind’s feeling force”. The wren’s song penetrates the poem’s music, its ebullient sibilance, assonance and alliteration.

A house wren. Its beak a slightly silvered sickle, its remembered song
– rapidly rolling, a bubbling, liquid trill –
an outlandish complexity copied
inventively from an adult
– a male –
not his father. A descending chirruping, a
draining descant he daylong intones variously, marking
the little log he’s nesting in          (3)

O’Leary’s equivalent of the adult male wren, “not his father”, might be Whitman—Phosphorescence of Thought’s outlandishly complex song “copied/ inventively” from Songs of Myself. “A functional river ecosystem is connected to everything around it”, O’Leary (2013, 21) writes, declaring the poem’s holistic philosophy and intertextuality.

A major tributary of the poem’s “functional river ecosystem” is the collective human memory of creation myths, in the Judeo-Christian and ancient Greek traditions. In describing Prometheus’s theft of fire, which catalysed the human race’s “civilisation”, O’Leary demonstrates the fundamental personifications performed when the human consciousness interprets the natural world (anthropomorphism) and, mutually, the natural, physical imagery humans use to “anchor” the abstractions of consciousness (ecomorphism).

Prometheus’ gift of fire was stolen from the earth’s unsleeping mood, its
tone of feeling roused by that recalescent theft Olympus anxiously
warded against, warred for, mercilessly penalizing the act of. The mind’s
gnarled flame ignited. The earth’s unconscious pooled, fluvial        (18)

The human mind ignites as if made of plasma and the earth develops an unconscious.

There is a physical origin to O’Leary’s densely packed definition of myth—”the narrative metaphor sounds out of melodies” (19). Song, O’Leary suggests, is the basis of myth; humans’ capacity for comparison, for metaphor, allows its rhythms and pitches to equate to moods, and in turn to narratives. This is, in Phosphorescence of Thought, the natural origin of language and story, and in turn, thought. In the following stanza, O’Leary defines the soul as “an extrusion of resins” (19)—natural, viscous, flammable; susceptible to Prometheus’s gift of fire. This metaphor sticks to the reader, prompting an investigation of both its aspects: what is the soul? And, what precisely is resin? The human and coniferous each act as both tenor of and vehicle for the other.

“Why is it [myth] always current and ancient both? For I live in it”, O’Leary (2013, 19) declares, eliminating from his poem what Bakhtin (1981, 13) called “absolute epic distance”—a separation of epic singer and audience from epic setting (which made the genre anachronistic in a modernist setting). O’Leary’s statement, that the poet lives within the myth he is retelling, lets the traditionally sacred become a profane component of human consciousness. “And humans embody divinity’s holy ether like a catastrophe of weather”, O’Leary (2013, 59) writes, reminding the reader of the natural origin of this intersection between personal and divine by comparing the connection to a natural disaster. Following this stanza in which the three main tributaries of O’Leary poem (the natural world, the spiritual, and the personal) flow together and become almost indistinguishable, he writes in a separate section:

You find this mixture of thousands, beloved, this
riot of flowers let loose, overwhelming   (59)

The centring of the lines lets them resemble an epitaph, as if the poet (and reader) has been absorbed into this “mixture of thousands”, overwhelmed both figuratively and literally.

O’Leary intermittently (and apparently ambivalently: “pattern is a form of patron” [2013, 60]) deploys patterns to organise what is otherwise a chaotic depiction and demonstration of the mind’s “excessive novelty”. Meditative and incantatory repetition of syntax, motif and sound move throughout the book like birds in flight, motivated by the seasons. In attempting to define the natural world, O’Leary assembles six pages of epithets, each line beginning with “you”:

you unbearable creative moment
you consuming sacrificial force . . .
you socket of life     (27)

The epithets move from metaphorical, to metonymical, to literal—chemical (“you oxygen saturating earth’s system”), biological (“you unspooling tendrils of mushroom protein”), sensual (“you sweet sleepiness”), sexual (“you involuntary erections”), specific (“you hydrodynamic, pluvious Des Plaines”), broad (“you rapid, hapless scattering of electricity”), personal (“you relaxed body”), elevated, (“you angels of God and you heavens”), earthy (“you lumbering beasts of the land”), pure (“you light”), adulterated (“you intoxicated central nervous system”). The effect is a frenzied Wallace Stevens-esque list containing multiple ways of looking, which knits together the viewer and the viewed, the mind and the body, the theological and the biological.

“You autochthonomous animal forms shifting” is the best example of O’Leary’s nexus between spiritual and scientific imaginings of the natural world. The adjective he has coined here “slots into the center of autochthonous, which means ‘native born’ but also ‘of the earth itself,’ the Greek word nomos, which means law. So: of the earth’s own native law. Essentially this is an adjective for evolution but evolution as if it were a theology” (69). O’Leary is not interested in prioritising theology over evolutionary theory, or vice versa; instead his objective appears to be accentuating the mutual effect of the two systems on his consciousness’s interaction with the natural world. Returning to the theme of migratory patterns, O’Leary writes:

Avid explosions of warblers
bursting in patterns in woodlands and prairies,
suburbs and flyaways they zodiac with symbols
predicting our thinking      (33)

This follows six pages of incantatory epithets, demonstrating how patterns in the natural world are constantly contributing to (or “predicting”) his “thinking”; again, the components of the metaphor in this stanza are each acting as both tenor (idea) of and vehicle (image) for the other. As the warblers fly in formation, O’Leary is reminded of the zodiac, its symbolism both fed by and feeding his understanding of the warblers. The warbler and the zodiac are both image and idea; the meaning of the metaphor moves in its own migratory pattern between the two. O’Leary acknowledges:

Migration’s astonishing parallels between image and idea, between
species and soul in communion with motion, in
commotion, its eucharistic transformations      (34)

Within our phosphorescing consciousnesses, O’Leary suggests, distinctions between disciplines of thought, physical elements, aesthetic reactions and spiritual belief should not be hierarchical, and should, in fact, dissolve entirely, for each relates to the other. This Buddhist sense of oneness in O’Leary’s poem is particularly directed at limiting the division between the human self and the natural world in which one exists. “Soul in communion with motion” refers, I believe, to the act of being “moved”, of extending oneself (in a Eucharistic transformation) to empathise with species and elements usually recognised as being other.

In Phosphorescence of Thought O’Leary speaks only of (and from) the engagement of his own consciousness with the world; he does not presume that the reader’s patterns of thought are equivalently “interdisciplinary”. The reader is given a highly specific portrait of his consciousness and its habitat (Des Plaines) and is persuaded that the two are inseparable.

The Colorado River’s Ephemeral Waters

Kate Middleton’s recent book-length poem Ephemeral Waters is an equally personal portrait of consciousness engaging with natural environment. However, the environment in question—the Colorado River—is not Middleton’s home; she views its culture and geography as an outsider. In “Myths of the Wheatbelt”, John Kinsella comments:

So much poetry of the country comes out of weekend excursions—by those who leave the cities to go into the country and record their experience in picaresque-like poems. The road, the drive, bind the journey together . . . Brief encounters with the rural world and the devastation it has wrought on natural environments, usually interwoven with personal experience and anecdotes, memories of earlier journeys in childhood, or comparisons with city life.  I am not criticising these poems, but rather registering them as a sub-genre . . . In fact, the tentative “touching” of place, and the overwhelming points of reference coming out of zones so apparently very different, create insights that those very familiar with the place, or locked into the place, do not always get, or cannot get (Kinsella 2008, 166-67).

Ephemeral Waters fits well within this “sub-genre” Kinsella has identified and thus contrasts O’Leary’s meditation on his home. As an equally attentive and personal reflection on a geography, Middleton’s poem shows that environmental empathy need not be reserved for one’s dwelling and that the extension of self I mentioned above in relation to Phosphorescence of Thought is possible in a “foreign” environment.

Observing a group of children listening to a ranger’s talk, Middleton (2013) sees a crude and vulnerable sort of solipsism to human interaction with the land. Instead of examining the rock firsthand, the children are watching a slideshow—their experience two-dimensional and mediated. The children’s interest is finally piqued when they hear of the human element of the rock art:

         Yes, piss and spit—the artists
literally put themselves
         into the work . . .

         now it’s washed away
—while the petroglyphs nestle
         in their pecked rock beneath

         the waterline     And the colours
and other bodily stuff, mix
         with the rippling reservoir     (62)

In the reservoir of Middleton’s poem, the human “stuff”—voices conveyed verbatim—gives the reader a similar thrill to the children’s in this scene. The presence of authentic human material is comforting. However, the painting is ephemeral; its fluids easily subsumed by the River’s. This, Middleton suggests, is the River’s fate—to outlast its human inhabitants. In her Afterword, she writes, “We talk about the death of a great river—yet I have no doubt that sometime the river will resurrect itself. I have no certainty that humans will still be there to witness that resurrection” (125).

An ephemeral body of water is a shallow lake with no outlets; its water gradually evaporates, is absorbed into the ground, or consumed by animals and plants. When its water disappears, the animal and plant life relying on it for sustenance is forced to adapt. The ingenuity of Middleton’s title is its applicability to both the natural environments and human inhabitants the poem describes. Metaphorically, were a human consciousness to become shallow and lacking in outlets (empathic tributaries to other species), it would eventually dry out. In order to sustain itself, human consciousness needs to recognise its inlets and outlets, its connections to other species (as O’Leary demonstrates). Literally, the title refers to ephemeral bodies of water; what my metaphor does not capture is that ephemeral bodies of water are usually replenished. But, in the dry period between rainfalls, the species subsisting off the ephemeral water need to adapt to the new dry conditions. In this literal meaning, Middleton’s poem suggests the resilience of natural environments and the need for human inhabitants to change their behaviours in order to endure their habitats’ alterations. As in O’Leary’s poem, Ephemeral Waters recommends an attentive identification with the land.

Middleton’s attention is directed not only to the natural elements of the landscape, but to its human inhabitants, its history (both geological and human) and to its manmade components. For instance, she notices:

a perfect wedge of manicured
         Bermuda grass
grass that grows over the pipes

that lead through the dam wall
         growing above
the train-roar churn of river       (65)

The “perfect manicure” of the grass appears slightly repugnant and the fact that Middleton hears the river’s roar as that of a train emphasises the intrusion of the artificial onto this section of her journey. However, there is no simple dichotomy in the poem between natural beauty and manmade monstrosity. On first seeing the Hoover Dam “in person”, Middleton admits to being

left untethered by the sheer range of emotions I felt. Taking the tour, going underground, seeing small seeps through the thick concrete walls . . . Underground I could seethe. We tried to break a river the way we would break in a wild horse. Emerging into the sun again, there was the stunning curve, the dam’s concrete segments resembling an inverted parachute. Coming away from the dam, I let go too much of the beauty, retained the seethe (2014, 146-47).

The complication of the manmade or technological sublime is that “we are all implicated in the object as well as the experience of encounter” (Middleton 2014, 146). This state of simultaneously experiencing and being related to the object of encounter is similar to O’Leary’s conscious engagement with the natural world throughout Phosphorescence of Thought. Being both subject and object of an experience (tenor and vehicle of a metaphor) leads to ambivalence, which is “a kind of caring deeply—of loving both” (Middleton 2013, 124). This ambivalence is evident as the poem follows Middleton through tourist attractions and museums, in which the timelines begin to resemble rivers and the museums themselves dams for the rivers of history. At the same time, the river acquires human guises; the rock becomes a patient on an autopsy table, the water a surgeon cutting into the earth’s body. Later, in Sonora, Mexico, its vulnerability is childlike:

the water finally      curls
into itself     hides

in fetal helix        (2013, 113)

In the poem’s Epilogue, Middleton writes the River’s Prayer. By this stage of the journey, there is a fond intimacy to the description that comes with experience; she depicts the River as being hungry, hugged, messy and lovely, but despite the personifying effect of these adjectives and the feminine pronoun, Middleton lets the River be itself in all its algal glory:

         bless her for her secret, dying pockets
laced with salt
         oxidised and algal-bloomed

         Bless her for her stash of desert pupfish     (2013, 122)

The “secret pockets” are the inevitable omissions of the poem, and Middleton’s acknowledgement of Jameson’s “imperative to fail”. She admits, “this poem could never be a complete document of a series of landscapes that would take, it feels, several lifetimes of a study” (2013, 125). However, despite its impossibility, Middleton pursued the task of writing the River’s poem. “Never along that journey did I forget I had come with the faith I’d be able to write about it—to make the journey somehow cohere into a poem” (2014, 141). The literal movement of the journey is an apt metaphor for the figurative movement of Middleton’s consciousness stretching to identify with the new landscape. “Cohering” her impressions of the Colorado River into Ephemeral Waters was an act of environmental empathy.

“Human centredness” and empathy: a conclusion

Both Ephemeral Waters and Phosphorescence of Thought demonstrate what I am calling environmental empathy, which is akin (but not identical) to what Gander and Kinsella deemed “environmental literacy”. In their collaboration, Redstart: an Ecological Poetics, they posit, “[m]aybe the development of environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitants, can be promoted by poetic literacy” (Gander and Kinsella 2011, 3). In reading a contemporary epic poem such as Middleton’s or O’Leary’s, one needs to attend carefully to patterns and rhythms, to infer from the absences, to wait patiently for immersion. Most importantly the reader needs to empathically identify with the consciousness responsible for the poem.

This act of readerly empathy is comparable to the poets’ acts of environmental empathy that I have described above. In order to empathise with natural environments, O’Leary and Middleton each attended, inferred, waited and empathically identified with natural phenomena. The poets perform a pendulous act of alternately “ecomorphing” their own behaviour and anthropomorphing the environment’s. This performance results in a nexus between consciousness and environment, which allows the poet to experience the environment as an extension of the self rather than as a separate entity. Each poem acknowledges and challenges what Plumwood described as “human centredness”, which results in

a failure to understand our embeddedness in and dependency on nature, that it distorts our perceptions and enframings in ways that make us insensitive to limits, dependencies and interconnections of a non-human kind . . . So human-centred conceptual frameworks are a direct hazard to non-humans, but are also an indirect prudential hazard to Self (2009, 3).

If the poems do enable poet and reader to understand their embeddedness in nature, can this interconnection really be called empathy, or is it self-preservation? In the final sentence of this quotation, Plumwood appeals to her reader’s solipsistic desire to protect his or her Self.[2] Every act of empathy involves a stretching of the edges of one’s sense of self to include the other, the subject on whom the empathy is bestowed (be it human or environmental). In order to identify with the subject’s pain, we feel it as our own, however briefly. We inhabit it. This conscious, empathic inhabitation is what I believe Middleton and O’Leary have demonstrated in their poems, and which their poems encourage their readers to attempt too.



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Plumwood, Val. 2009. “Nature in the Active Voice.” Australian Humanities Review (Ecological Humanities) 46 (May): http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-May-2009/plumwood.html

Rasula, Jed. 2002. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Taylor, Andrew. 2008. “Introduction”, in Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language, ed. Glen Phillips and Andrew Taylor. Fremantle: Fremantle Press.. Fremantle: Fremantle Press.


Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet and novelist, now based in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne, where she is currently teaching. Her latest book, The Odour of Sanctity, was published by Victoria University Press in 2013


[1] The quotation comes from the cover note to Phosphorescence of Thought.

[2] A thorough discussion of the paradox of empathy and solipsism (what happens when we not only identify with but also, even provisionally and imaginatively, become the subject of our identification?) is beyond the scope of this essay, but is addressed by Suzanne Keen (2007, 44).

1 reply


  1. LUX HOMINEM | PETER O’LEARY — Amy Brown/Environmental Empathy.

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