Contributor Spotlight: Jim Johnson

“I Usually Don’t Like Nature Poems”


Another poet once told me.  

And I thought, I usually don’t like selfie poems.

Robert Frost was a good observer, though perhaps not a good woodsman. I apologize for picking on him, but the poem “Two Look At Two” that has had so much popularity has become a formula for the casual stroll into the pastoral, two holding hands seeing another, and, of course, connecting. This has become the clichéd nature poem so many who don’t like nature poems don’t like.  

A nature poet must study their text.  

That by writing about my place, the area that I know, I suppose I am a regional writer and often not considered a part of the larger conversation. Yet I remind you, as I must remind myself, that in order to perceive our world, we need to see first from where we are. This extends to the natural world where if we don’t learn to perceive what is going on soon, there will be no larger conversation.  

Aldo Leopold wrote in the 1930s about the need to see in our own backyards instead of driving all over the continent. The prevailing assumption was that wild places are of no use unless seen by humans; therefore, roads needed to be built. That explosion of roads without an understanding of sustaining ecosystems has not only threatened our wild places but also the existence of our species.

When I began writing, I was fortunate to have attended a writing workshop taught by Sigurd Olson. He had parkinson’s disease then and I don’t remember learning about writing, yet I was inspired and decided I wanted to write about the wild. But I wanted to write poetry. Poetry, I thought, was a way to see, as to perceive, using all of the senses. Poetry I felt was a way in.

I published nine books of poetry. The first books focused on Northern Minnesota history and culture, particularly my Finnish-American experience, and natural history. As we cannot deny the importance of the local, we know we must also respect our plants and animals. We are not the only species and, instead of dominating, we must learn how to coexist. In the same way that we have learned how to make our bodies healthier, we need to extend that awareness to the natural world that we are inseparably connected to. If we stop feeding the land a toxic diet, as well as purging and plundering and destroying habitat, then the planet might have a chance to survive.

But as Leopold wrote, to build a road is so much simpler than thinking of what the country really needs.

In my three recent books—The First Day Of Spring In Northern Minnesota, Yoik, andText for Our Nomadic Future (Red Dragonfly Press)—I tried to write for the plants and animals. Of course I don’t know what plants and animals think. Scientists have discovered, though it takes them so much longer to learn what we poets already know, that trees communicate with their own and other species. If a plant or animal is only a name in a textbook, who will care? So I not only identify plants and animals, I tried to give them a story.  As the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano wrote, scientists say the world is made up of atoms, but a little bird told me it is made of stories. So I listen to birds.

Although the translation can be difficult. I realized that as ecology has taught us to search animal populations for analogies to our own species, looking from the other way, the stories we tell may not be far from the stories told by plants and animals. This is because poetry is possibility. So I suppose I shouldn’t dismiss Frost but instead take this idea further.

Recently I put together a collection of my poems featuring plants and animals into a manuscript titled Selected Poems: One Morning In June (to be published summer 2019) to focus my concern for the natural world into one volume and, hopefully, reach a larger audience.

So when I go out into the wilds, beyond the end of the road, on a trail or through the brush, I go out into a larger conversation. What Leopold called the chit-chat of the woods that is so difficult to translate.  And isn’t this the larger conversation we now need in this time of climate change, extinction of species, catastrophic weather?  Shouldn’t we go out and engage in that conversation and try to understand?