Poetry of the Wild: Mapping the Soul of Communities with Poetry and Art
Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stone and good in everything.
Box with poem by Ana Flores, Sigue Caminando. Installed at University of Connecticut/Avery Point during Poetry of the Wild/Avery Pt. summer of 2013.
Box by Ana Flores with poem by Sue Ellen Thompson, Mystic River 2011, part of the Mystic Arts Center Invitational Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition.
In the spring of 2003 I began my first artist residency with an environmental group, the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA). The association, located in the southern part of Rhode Island, oversaw my watershed. I’d worked for a decade as an artist in residence with schools and universities but this was my first foray with an environmental organization. The residency represented the changes going on in my artistic process since my husband and I had purchased an unfinished house and 17 acres in the middle of the woods. As we worked manually on the house and land, the land worked on us. My intellectual and aesthetic bedrock which had been so narrowly focused on art history began to shift. Surrounded by non-human neighbors and the wonders of the natural world, earth history became an equally compelling force for my creativity. I began to devour books on ecology, physics, and the earth sciences, discovering thinkers such as James Love- lock, Fritjof Capra, Wendell Berry, and David Orr. Also having to do the work ourselves on our house, I became very comfortable with power tools and morphed from painter to sculptor. Instead of doing sketches and color studies for painting, my studio process began with long walks in the wood collecting branches, roots, stones and bones that caught my attention. I read Thoreau’s essay on walking around this time and an anecdote about Wordsworth resonated with me, When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.
The residency at WPWA evolved out of a one year forum called “Gaia Dialogues” that I’d organized to bring together profes- sionals in different disciplines: artists interested in the natural world, educators, activists, and scientists. With the support of the Rhode Island Foundation, we met monthly in different stu- dios and institutions to share work and discuss environmental topics brought forth by group members. At the end of our year we had an increased awareness of each other’s talents and pro- jects, new interdisciplinary relationships, and an exhibition to celebrate our new network bridging the arts and sciences. My friendship with one of the Gaia participants, Lori Urso, the di- rector of the Watershed Association, both a scientist and musi- cian, led to a continuing collaboration. The Association pro- cured a grant from the RI Council on the Arts to employ me to use the arts to foster a greater public awareness and stewardship of the 300 plus miles of land and waterways they protected. How that was to happen was open ended.
I began by walking as the trails that the Association oversaw and letting the land speak to me. It was March, peak mud season, and most of the trails were deserted. I walked in silence taking note of fauna and foliage. Unfortunately the most aggressive and abundant signs of wild life was human. People thoughtlessly dropped their beer cans, glass vodka bottles, cigarette packages and plastic bags. I adjusted my simple practice to walking and filling garbage bags with litter, and asking myself, How do you turn slobs into poets? But I also noticed a kind gesture that man makes, the many bird houses put up by private landowners and Dept. of Environmental Management. After about a week these two thoughts merged and I thought why not take the idea of a bird house, but with a door, post a poem about the natural world inside, decorate it, and add a journal for the public to write in. I also was not going to make all the boxes myself I would get different communities in the watershed involved: students, artists, watershed members, and interested citizens.
That first project had a dozen boxes, installed for three months in the watershed along river and refuge trails and on the coast. I worked with two schools making boxes with 4 different classes. When we’d finish the collaborative boxes the kids would all sign on the bottom. This meant many parents would go out hiking to find their child’s box. I made two of the poetry boxes and the rest were created by artists and interested citizens. Each of the boxes also had a poetry steward who oversaw the box and the journal. Once installed, we were overwhelmed by the public response and the number of poetic walkers who used the trails. It seems there’d been no place for this kind of thoughtful expression before the installation, and last but not least, trails leading to boxes also became less littered.
Once the boxes were de-installed we had a poetry reading hosted by the poet laureate of RI, Tom Chandler, and the boxes were auctioned off with the funds going to WPWA. Many people went home with poetry boxes for their homes or yards.
Since that first project, Poetry of the Wild has traveled to many new geographies both urban and rural. Each new community shapes it with fresh ideas. Colorado Springs used local poets for the first time, they also published a chapbook of the project. New London introduced the idea of putting boxes in the library, at the Dewey decimal address for English poetry, 811. What doesn’t change from project to project is the joy the public gets out of making simple decorated boxes, of having to read, write or choose poems, of rediscovering their local terrain through a poetic lens. Poetry of the Wild continues its very simple template, using only found or recycled materials for the boxes and having only a temporal presence on the landscape. The journals continue to be cheap memo pads– we did try a cell phone tour and response but it was not a hit– there seems to be a rare delight and novelty of just writing with a pencil or pen in a notebook.
© Ana Flores