“We have to learn to read the poetry of ecosystems the same way one learns to reads tracks and signs across a landscape—and to let it reshape and nourish our minds the way food nourishes and shapes our bodies.”

Minnows scatter like starlings from a field as I step into the water. I wade out carefully over stones worn smooth and slippery, roll up my pant legs and walk until I am up to my calves in the pond. I stop and stand as still as the heron stands. The minnows eventually return to investigate my feet. The wind gusts in successive waves, blowing through the white pine needles that hang above my head, bending the reeds and grasses, carving ripples in the surface of the otherwise still water. I stand in the water for a while, listening, watching, and eventually writing down a few words that would later become a poem. The air itself is silent, but it shakes the pines, bends the reeds, ripples and waves the water—it speaks through the world, plays it as music: a wild quartet.

In a technical sense, language is built up of phonemes and morphemes, of syllables, words, and sentences. Less technically, language can be considered a system of communicating or sharing meaning. Everything speaks if you know how to listen. The soughing of pine branches is a manner of speech. More than ordinary speech, it is poetry. There is poetry in clouds brushing the granite and pine face of a mountain. In the infinitesimally slow growth of hemlock and Douglas fir. In the lightning-strike-on-water of a heron’s beak. There is a disarming simplicity to these things that strips us down, even if only for a moment, to that same simplicity of being.

“Poetry is the resonance of being,” writes Robert Bringhurst. Poetry is the sound of things echoing through their own emptiness into the world. He goes on to say, “It is the resonant silence you hear, and the resonant silence you make in return, when you get the poem and the poem gets you. When you really see what it means, what you see is nothing, and the nothing sings a song—one you may want to say you feel instead of hear.”[1] What resounds is the is-ness of things. By is-ness I mean what Chinese philosophy calls ziran, which translates to “that which is so of itself.” That which is so of itself effortlessly expresses its is-ness, its essential nature. Like a lightning strike on a mountain, ziran is an eruption of meaning into form and being.

The wind in the pines is this sort of poetry. Nothing about this poetry is separate from the poetry we humans make. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is poetry, of course. It is the sound that Walt Whitman makes when the wind blows through him. But an actual leaf of grass is poetry too. All resound through silence with meaning and being. That is the whole point of language that has been cut loose from civilized life and linguistic theory, language that is allowed to return to the wild from where it originally came. All language is a subset of the poetry of flesh, leaf, wind, tooth, and stone.

Language moves through the whole web of interrelationships that constitute ecosystems. Typically, we think of these webs as food webs: who is eating whom? But just as tooth and tongue are the pathways that nutrients take from one organism into another, language is the pathway that meaning takes. The earth speaks through the sound of water over river rocks, the loping gait of a wolf as it stalks an elk, the still, waiting beak of a heron, the patter of rain on leaves. Such speech is food in the ecology of mind.

As much as we eat each other’s flesh, we also consume each other’s meaning—the poetry of things sustains us aesthetically. In its classical sense, the word aesthetic means to sense or perceive, coming to us from German through the Greek words aisthetikos and aisthanesthia. It is related in this way to our word of opposite meaning, anesthesia. The poetry of things enlivens us and brings us into our senses.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold’s land ethic states very simply that, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”[2] Why beauty? Beauty is the nutrient of poetry. Beauty is what engages the ecology of our bodies and minds, connects us into consonance with the ecology of the earth. It nourishes us aesthetically, emotionally, spiritually the same way food nourishes us physically.

In ancient Greek philosophy, beauty was identified with virtue and “the good.” The beautiful is the aesthetic, and so to make sense of Leopold—indeed, to make sense of ecology—we have to widen the scope of what we might consider beautiful. The aesthetic need not be pretty or pleasing. The scent of a grizzly bear, musky and fecal, is not particularly pleasing, but it most definitely brings you sharply back to your senses.

From the comfort of our homes or around the glow of the fire, it is easy to associate the aesthetic with a sense of awe for the natural world or the feeling of kinship and belonging to it, but having aesthetic relationships in the wilderness can be a matter of life or death. Whether you’re a human or an elk, a moment of lapsed attention can get you killed. The ecological community depends on the web of interrelationships to stay sensually awake, just as it depends on that same web for its physical nourishment. The deeper, more spiritual feelings of awe and of belonging to the earth come naturally out of this, because such relationships require that we situate and identify ourselves within the larger ecology of things.

There are plenty of things in nature that are not pretty or beautiful to our “civilized”[3] sensibilities but which are nonetheless essential to the biotic community. No one is giving their sweetheart a bouquet of slime molds and a box of dung beetles, certainly. Yet fungus, mold, insects, bacteria, decomposition, and decay are all essential to the functioning of ecological communities. The sort of beauty I am speaking of runs deeper than prettiness. As poet Fredrick Turner wrote, “Beauty…is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”[4] Such is the role of poetry in the food web, to integrate us into the deepest tendencies of the earth: the dào.

When I was a graduate student in ecology, I had many conversations with my adviser about learning to see the world differently, to learn to observe as an ecologist. This was the single most important component of my studies—far more crucial than learning research design or how to assess peer-reviewed literature. Those are skills, but how we perceive the world is part of who we are in the deepest strata of our being. Beauty must be tracked in the same way a bear can be tracked through the mud, or the browsing habits of elk can be read over multiple years by observing the patterns of growth and clipped stems. The ability to observe and read these signs changes how one perceives the biota of a place—observer included—as embedded in the landscape.

Beauty is information that travels along the web of ecological relationships in the same way energy and nutrients travel through a food web. A paw print in the mud or a nibbled stem is a difference in the landscape. Every “word” spoken by the ecosystem, every utterance of poetry—a ripple on the lake, the flash of tail by a fleeing deer, the croak of frogs—is a difference amongst the myriad relationships, living or non-living, that constitutes an ecological community. We have to learn to read the poetry of ecosystems the same way one learns to reads tracks and signs across a landscape—and to let it reshape and nourish our minds the way food nourishes and shapes our bodies. That is how we might come into consonance with the aesthetic of wildness, into consonance with the dào. That is what it means to eat beauty, to eat meaning, to eat poetry.

The elk at the forest edge resound with poetry, and their poetry transforms the landscape through their being, by shaping the structure of plant communities through their patterns of browsing, or by becoming food for carnivores. Without the elk, without the wolf, without the aspen, the “words” of the ecosystem’s poem change, for better or worse. This language is a matter of life and death, a matter of ecosystem structure, and resilience.

We can study empirically how the poetry of wolves, beavers, termites, and maple trees affect and transform their ecological communities. But how does our own poetry—decaying into the soil, floating in the air like seeds, or washing away in the rain—feed the ecology into which we are embedded? This is a question at the heart of our humanity. We are what we eat, and out here everyone is eating flesh and poetry. Every member of the ecological community must eat this flesh of meaning. If we wish to be a part of this community, we must eat it too. So it is that the wildness of our language matters—not our words, but the poetry of our being that is spoken by the winds of this earth blowing through us.

Our voices as of late have become dissonant with the wild. This has changed the web of trophic poetry, and in turn changed the landscape. We have de-wilded the land through fragmentation, habitat conversion, and the extirpation of species. It is the imperative of our times to rewild. This task cannot solely be a matter of landscape management and conservation action. It must also be a matter of poetry, of relearning the wild poems at the heart of our humanity, of relearning to speak in consonance with the vernacular of mountains and rivers. Then we might make a beautiful meal of ourselves to the earth and feed the wild as the wild keeps feeding us.

[1] Bringhurst, Robert. The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008. 309
[2] Leopold, Aldo (1953). A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. 262
[3] Here I mean civilized in its sense of being rooted in the life of the city, rather than the wilderness.
[4] Turner, Frederick. Rebirth of Value: Meditations on Beauty, Ecology, Religion, and Education. New York: State University of New York Press, 1991. 13