Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers as tonic unselfing

Ecopoetics and the lonely brain

Dr Willo Drummond

Earth Dwellers: New Poems by Kristen Lang. Giramondo, 2021. ISBN 9781925818673

Books have a way of making their way into your life at the perfect moment—of need, of openness, of readiness for certain insights. Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers made its way into my life as Sydney entered its second extended lockdown. For me, this second phase of isolation had a fresh edge to it, as though knowing what we were going in to somehow created a greater instability of ground. In addition (and here we arrive at an unavoidable personal confession), though I’m protective of my solitude generally speaking (as an introvert, it is essential to my well-being), I have a tendency toward “lonely social cognition”, a lonely brain, a brain that, perceiving the threat of (unwanted) social isolation, paradoxically seeks to protect itself by isolating further (Cacioppo and Patrick ch 1; ch. 2). Entering lockdown that second time, my lonely brain went into overdrive.

Then Earth Dwellers (Lang’s fourth collection) arrived in the post, and I experienced reading it as a palpable embrace. This is not an entirely uncommon experience with poetry of course (or with good writing of any genre), but there seemed to be something additional in play with Earth Dwellers; something uniquely suited to the particulars of the moment, and I was curious as to what that might be. Though in truth the acute public health crisis of Covid-19 brought ecological ideas such as interconnectedness into sharper focus than ever before, the reality of lockdown tempered the potential transformations of such understanding. Isolated, with my pre-pandemic faith in ecocritical theory momentarily loosened, I wanted to know: how did a poetry collection about nature soothe and disrupt spiraling human loneliness? Furthermore, was there a way I might think this through in terms of the ecopoetic?

Though lonely social cognition might seem an unusual (even anthropocentric) concern when thinking about ecologically focused poetry, the issue is perhaps one that should not be too quickly dismissed. Because although lonely brains are as old as human evolution, lockdowns in the late capitalist phase of the Anthropocene are Molotov cocktails for their creation,1 and brains in fight-or-flight mode are far less able to care for the earth.

Readers of Plumwood Mountain Journal will likely be familiar with the benefits of interaction with the natural world on mental health, now increasingly backed by science (Robbins; Suttie). What is perhaps slightly more surprising is that time in nature can actually boost what are termed the ‘prosocial’ aspects of our psychology: our ability to connect with others and to feel connected (Zhang et al.; Pieters et al. 61). Add to this the fact that benefits can come from looking at images alone (Van den Berg et al. 15862), and here is where we perhaps ford the bridge to ecopoetry as a uniquely poised lockdown tonic.

The poet Ed Roberson states that ecopoetry: “occurs when an individual’s sense of the larger Earth enters into the world of human knowledge. The main understanding that results from this encounter is the Ecopoetic” (qtd in Fisher-Wirth and Street xxx). The ecopoetic encounter offers a path back not only to the interconnectedness of the biome, but perhaps also back to a sense of our social selves. In thinking beyond the isolated late capitalist bounded self, and in encountering nature via the ecopoetic, ecopoetry can offer us a multiplane path out of the habituations of lonely social cognition. “We are never alone” (Lang 63), and this knowledge has the potential to create profound change. 

Lang’s work clearly arises from a biophilic impulse, originally described by Eric Fromm as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive” (qtd in Rogers). Though the biophilia hypothesis (later developed by Wilson) 2 has been criticised for some inherent fuzziness and a lack of relevance to a robust environmental ethics due to a lingering anthropocentric utilitarianism (Joye and De Block 206-7), the impulse has a history in nature writing that remains in contemporary work such as that of Mary Oliver, for example. Lang’s work starts with this impulse, and goes beyond it, keeping human complicity in view at all times, while asking us to attend, to remember.

Desire for communion with the earth threads through all of these poems. To be known by the earth, to somehow overcome the container of the self, proscribed by individualist capitalist ideology. In poems such as ‘This bony land’ the speaker yearns to be known by the indifferent day, to be acknowledged as a part of the earth. There is a moving vulnerability in this poem, as the speaker offers up a range of intimate acts of ritual and devotion, asking to be known and held:

I say I will rub

a handful of the weathered ground

round my neck and chest…

(22)

I tell the day I have grown

from the slime moulds

(23)

David Knowles and Sharon Blackie foregrounded this style of work in their aptly named 2012 anthology Entanglements, describing poetry that “dramatises a growing hunger for meaningful connection with the earth” (xii). The strength of the lyric ecopoem rests in this performative dimension. Via this dramatisation of connection seeking, lyric work such as Lang’s is able to offer the reader the experience of encounter that Ed Robertson identifies as the ecopoetic. There is no absence of the lyric I in these poems. From the first poem, ‘Arrival’, there is an ‘I’ engaging in encounters with the beyond-human:

I gaze and so much blooms and spills

though it’s I who emerges.

(1)

To this same end, the collection is also very invested in the active work of naming. Poems such as ‘Wading with horseshoe crabs’ and ‘Alpine Sky’ perform a music of multiplicity, singing the manifold lifeforms of the rolling earth.

Entanglement, interconnectedness and porosity are dominant themes of the collection, with many of the poems working to rupture our received notions of human boundedness; a significant stance in an era in which we understand how much of our bodies are comprised of bacteria and conversely, how much of our own detritus inhabits the bellies of the non-human. The opening poem, ‘Arrival’, firmly establishes this tone with lines such as “the world tumbles through me” and “my footprint stays without me, woven into the scent / of the morning” (1). In ‘Mt Duncan’, the sensory experience of entanglement is evoked with visceral lines such as:

wood- and fern-dust

in our hair and mouths, in our clothes.

(38)

The sky takes hold, burrowing

into our bodies…

(39)

These poems are asking us to remember the phenomenological experience of our entanglement with the beyond-human, even if we might have forgotten its texture. In the sensuous and ecstatic ‘With such edge’ the speaker “tilt[s] upward” to enable the “sky [to] stream… into” (44) her:

You open your mouth. And the taste

arrives on your tongue as if the rivulets of its drops

trickle into all of you, staining your veins

with their silver.

(45)

Similarly, in ‘Headland’,”Salt crawls into us”, “the breeze spiders into us”, “The light enters our lungs” (52). We cannot extricate ourselves from our own entanglement with the non-human world, either physically, or psychologically, as “The day’s / glow [is] stacked in the towers of ourselves” (53).

Several poems in the collection are situated in caves, extending the idea of porosity further. These poems enact a visceral rupture of inside/outside binaries, offering up a destabilising unravelling of knowing. This is profoundly ecological work, in the sense of Morton’s claim that “being able to appreciate ambiguity is the basis of being ecological” (ch. 2). In ‘Learning the world’, a troubling of the corporeal/psychological binary is initiated: “Flesh. The self. All of her / was always porous” (2). What is inside? What is out? we are led to ask, as “she slips the hollows of the cave / into her chest, inhaling / a little darkness” (3). The poem introduces themes that will recur across several other cave poems: fear of the dark and sitting in the unknown. In the moving ‘Touching the dark’, the primal human fear (for the visually able) of being without sight is explored directly. Light is an environmental concern in the Anthropocene, an epoch in which we no longer know true darkness. Thus, to encounter true darkness is to become unmoored from knowing, leaving us “stretching into the dark” (14). As a counterpoint, in the glorious ‘Cave song’ the speaker and companions sing within the ancient body of the earth and find themselves in the embrace of underground acoustics. The cave sings back, sound waves bouncing off its contours and reverberating into the singer’s bodies, creating a beyond-human chorus as the human singers become “the cave’s hooks / and curves” (71).

These ruptures and reversals are one of several ways the collection teases out a human decentering. Several poems also engage with deep time, such as ‘The roar of it’ and ‘Wading with horseshoe crabs’ which remind us how late and small humanity is in the scale of evolutionary time, while poems such as ‘Poon hill’ perform our irrelevance in the face of the earth’s multitudinous phenomena, “while the sun // simply rises” (17).

To return briefly to the opening concern of this article, such rupturing of anthropocentric solipsism can be understood as a useful antidote to the patterns of lonely social cognition as it reminds us to look up and out, to recall that we are part of something much greater than the self. Iris Murdoch’s term unselfing, is useful in this context—a forgetting of self and selfish concerns that can occur in the presence of beauty—particularly as Murdoch argued that nature and art are uniquely suited to effect such an experience (84).

Yet Lang takes things further. In a move that might not find ecopoetic success in less deft hands, Lang frequently uses human intimacy in this collection as an objective correlative for the kind of intimacy and connection she is exploring with the non-human word. Peppered throughout the collection are moments of human intimacy—that remind us what it is to connect, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable—closely juxtaposed with moments of non-human encounter. In poems such as ‘Mt Duncan’, ‘Alpine Sky’ and ‘Platypus’, there is a human ‘we’ present, and the gaze alternates between human and non-human. I had the sense reading these moments that Lang was saying: this feeling, remember this? Now turn to the world. The effect was striking and deeply moving.

Earth Dwellers is pointed ecopoetry in the lyric tradition and Lang does not allow us to forget our complicity, even amongst the collection’s many moments of rapture. ‘The shard counters’, for example, names in stark detail humanity’s pervasive presence across the earth: the “pen lid, bottle cap” in the bellies of birds. Again Lang reframes this issue for us with a human reference (asking, can you, will you understand?):

                      As if you or I might swallow, 

                 spooned to us in our hunger, 

       three kilos of kids’ toys, thrown-out plastic cups, 

coloured straws, cigarette butts, balloons, broken forks…

(32)

Similarly, in ‘Habitat’, the scale of the current extinction crisis is made flesh in human terms. Were each extinction a cut, we would:

…bleed from every

pore of our bodies

(59)

The poem does not hold back with its accusatory gaze, and blunt truth of the final line is haunting:

And still

we would not name them.

(59)

Not even the book in our hands, it seems, evades Lang’s gaze. In ‘The trees’ the “bodies” of felled trees haunt “the insides/ of our vowels” (49).

As I read and re-read Earth Dwellers, the political cohesiveness of the collection came sharply into view, even as the storm of my lonely brain subsided. This is ecopoetry that asks something from us in the way of ethical answerability.3 It asks us to look, to consider, to reframe. It asks (no more and no less of us than) to love, and to recall, in the middle of the pulsing, feeding world, that we are not alone.

Notes

1. They are also, of course, a public health necessity.

2. Wilson, Edward. O. Biophilia: the human bond with other species. Harvard University Press. 1984.

3. Building on the work of William Waters, I discuss this concept in more depth in Drummond, Willo. “Who’s Afraid of the Lyric Mode? Romanticism’s long tail and Adamson’s ecopoetics.” TEXT, Special Issues Series, 41. 2017. Romanticism and Contemporary Australian Writing: Legacies and Resistances. Edited by Stephanie Green and Paul Hetherington.

Works cited

Cacioppo, John.T., and William Patrick. Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. W.W. Norton & Co. 2008.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann, and Laura-Gray Street, eds. The Ecopoetry Anthology. Trinity University Press. 2013.

Joye, Yannick, and Andreas De Block. ‘“Nature and I are two”: a critical examination of the biophilia hypothesis’. Environmental Values, 20(2), 2011: 189–215.

Knowles, David, and Sharon Blackie, eds. Entanglements: new ecopoetry. Two Ravens Press. 2012.

Lang, Kristen. Earth dwellers: new poems. Giramondo. 2021.  

Morton, Timothy. All art is ecological. Green Ideas #3. Penguin. 2021. EPUB.

Murdoch, Iris. The sovereignty of good. Schocken Books. 1971.

Pieters, Huibrie C., Leilanie Ayala, Ariel Schneider, Nancy Wicks, Aimee Levine-Dickman, and Susan Clinton. ‘Gardening on a psychiatric inpatient unit: cultivating recovery.’ Archives of psychiatric nursing33(1), 2019: 57–64

Robbins, Jim. ‘How immersion in nature benefits your health.’  9 Jan. 2020. <https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health>

Rogers, Kara. ‘Biophilia hypothesis.’ Encyclopedia Britannica. Jun. 25, 2019. <https://www.britannica.com/science/biophilia-hypothesis>

Suttie, Jill. ‘How nature makes you kinder, happier, and more creative.’March 2, 2016, <https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_nature_makes_you_kinder_happier_more_creative>

van den Berg, Magdalena M.H.E., Jolanda Maas, Rianne Muller, Anoek Braun, Wendy Kaandorp, René van Lien, Mireille N.M. van Poppel, Willem van Mechelen, and Agnes E. van den Berg. ‘Autonomic nervous system responses to viewing green and built settings: differentiating between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.’  International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 12 (12), 2015: 15860-15874

Waters, William. ‘Rilke’s Imperatives.’ Poetics Today, 25:4, 2004: 711-730.

Zhang, Jia Wei, Paul K. Piff, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, and Dacher Keltner.’An occasion for unselfing: beautiful nature leads to prosociality’. Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 37, 2014: 61-72. 


Dr Willo Drummond lives and writes on Dharug and Gundungurra land in the NSW Blue Mountains. Her writing is published in Australian and international journals including Cordite Poetry Review, Mascara Literary Review, TEXT, Science Write Now and Plumwood Mountain, and has been anthologised by Australian Poetry, Hunter Writers Centre and Recent Work Press. In 2020 Willo was the recipient of a Career Development Grant (poetry) from the Australia Council for the Arts. She teaches in the creative writing program at Macquarie University.

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