Toward an Ecotropic Poetry
John Campion John Herndon
This is an emergency. Stand Emerson on his head! Waldo,
prematurely grand fatherly, set poets about their business
backwards, decreeing: "the whole of nature is a metaphor
for the human mind." The error is every day compounded
in human depredations on the planet. The tyrannical
materialism of the military industrialists extends the
wasteland, substituting a narrower and poorer metaphor--profit
and loss. Toxic pollutants permeate the greenhouse. The account
is overdrawn, the soil bank bankrupt.
The earth comes first.
Science won't save us. Technological solutions to problems
caused by technology lead to worse and worse botches. In
fact, the problem and solution are cultural. Poets have work
to do if reclamation and healing can occur. Life on earth depends
on the power to envision and project a myth of balanced,
But in this dark age poets go unheard. Or worse, seek the
approval of the power elite, and validate the dangerous and
obsolete myth--dominion over the earth. Now the same force
that pushed poetry to the fringe of academic specialization
necessitates the restoration of the poet's authority; for
the integrative thinking present in poetry (relentlessly
persecuted by savage capital formation) appears to be the
only thing to save us from the impending eco-cultural
In another age, trusty blacksmiths would build the
framework of the Skambha for us to hang our lays on. But
this time around, polluters employ Babel-slaves to
incarcerate the spirit in vain containment vessels.
Skambha, a Sanskrit word, means "pillar"; the
Finnish correlative is Sampo--the tree that holds up
the sky. Knowledge of the celestial body-woman above,
man below, tree entering heaven-conceived a living archive
for practical intelligence of hunting, planting and meditation.
On this frame the people hung their habitat, symbols and forms
to explain living and dying.
Because the earth wobbles, a new pole is needed every
2,000 years or so, and building the Skambha is the traditional
work of wise men and women. The ram followed the bull, the fish
followed the ram. Polaris will guide us no longer. Befouled waters
overflow. The fish gasps air. We need an ark to carry what can
be saved to the yonder shore. But tremble, for we have shrouded
the stars in photochemical haze.
From the first salvo of the industrial revolution, the
poet's authority as conscience of the age has suffered steady
erosion. In England, where the rip-off started early, Blake
stood firm, holding to shamanistic roots; Shelley cried out in
the face of repression, but already had to acknowledge poets
are the UN acknowledged legislators; Keats yearned to lose
himself in the egolessness of nature, and his passion measures
how much had been Lost. Ego Rampant: the Self became the only
subject. Small mind lost sight of big. This paralleled the
loss of the planet's vitality. For every plant, animal, mineral,
liquid or gas that was polluted, profaned, crippled, or murdered,
poets lost one more iota of power, retreated one step from relevance.
As the earth has been depleted and diminished, the work of the poet
has been corrupted and deranged.
"Free-marketers"--as the slave-owners call their class-
promoted the individual, dividing and conquering community. To
control the desperate, they employed existing class tensions,
racism, religious bigotry, jingoism, sexism, antiintellectualism,
further weakening the base of culture.
The damnable freedom promised by profiteers rejects all
universals as inherently false. "There are no absolutes," moans
the romantic existentialist, staring the absolute profligacy of
unmade nature in the face, right there in the poem. Tragic irony:
the defiant revolutionaries of Ego support the despots that alienate
the split and divide humanity. Poets have taken up the banner-boasting
of their rule in hell. Alas, the panzer man listens to Wagner.
Identification with Nobodaddy unsexes us, negates the dignity of nature,
and robs us of the power to discriminate.
Spirit emerges from the earth: wheels within wheels: therefore
everything we write ought to emanate from and tend toward nature. We
don't give a damn how poets [i.e. their egos] feel. Though
to their credit, poems that honestly express emotion serve as
brave records of opposition to repressive regimes. But catastrophe
nears. Poetry can prescribe the medicine our sickness needs. Like
alchemy, poetry is the work of memory, transformation and
projection-and has intrinsic value not because a poet is in Love
with Self, words, pretty pictures and tamed landscapes, but because
it encourages thinking with integrity. poets must submit, with
everybody else, to the test of personal responsibility. The Buddhist
concept of night livelihood demands an ecotropic poetic.
Because we can no longer distinguish this from that,
constructing the new Skambha requires a new definition of evil.
Aldo Leopold made a good start: "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." Add to that a
reminder of the essential, intimate interdependence of the bio-,
hydro-, atmo-, and lithe-spheres: organic/inorganic mutuality.
Respiration changes the weather.
Certain ancient renegade Egyptians believed one could
rob the energies of the sudden dead before they had re-entered
the long cycle back into life: Mummia. Vile priests crudely
tapped into the energy trapped in the dead. The globe is strewn
with sacrificial corpses. Priest-class control of the masses
through sacrifice served as a yoke to keep them working, piling
up wealth for the overlords. Life was perceived as a mask worn
on the face of death. Poets sang out the party line.
Warfare is an extravagant extension of human sacrifice.
We narrow space by accelerating the rip-off of death. To replace
Moloch the devourer, we invoke Mammon, the god of luxury. From
Pluto's rape of Persephone is born Plutocrat with his deadly toy
Plutonium. Everywhere are signs of collapse. Attempts to short-
circuit the cycles of nature to hurry formation of capital up the
ante: the planet itself will be stuffed in the mouth of the greedy
god. Pour on chemicals and plants grow weak. Deform animals till
they're too fat to fuck and so stupid they drown in the rain. Snow
crowns high mountains with acid thorns; radiation bleeds into
ground waters; soil blows away in a dry wind. Generic diversity
decreases-the biota hang from a shorter chain. But we preserve
naive faith in a way-of-life by false accounting methods that pass
the costs to somebody else-downstream, downwind, away.
There is no such place. The spoil accumulates; nature can
recycle our mess no longer. We are in deep denial. Injecting
distilled spirits of dinosaurs, we're hooked. The sky cringes
before the assault, but we won't give up driving. Let our children's
children fry. Let them wear straw hats and sunglasses. Invest now and
cash in on the suntan-lotion boom. We cling to a lifestyle, though we
are less free now that the earth is diminished.
Technocrats proceed down ever-narrowing pathways of increasing
specialization; they can't see the landscape obscured by profit motive,
forests converted to dollars-per-board- foot, mountains undermined in
the name of military metallurgy. Publicity flacks disguised as
environmentalists temporize and compromise and stall effective action.
Gullible journalists report it all with straight-faced credulity, thus
serving the interests of the eco-criminals.
Some hopeful signs-scientists here and there awakening to the
danger of accumulating toxins, the odd senator calling for clean-up
or designating wilderness, even a businessman or two recognizing the
economic impact of ecological overload. But they're all too lacking
in perspective to build a frame in which people-and all else!-can live.
To counter over-specialized science, we need a Con-Science.
What poetry does best is associate, connect, integrate. Poets
can project the dream of ecologically grounded culture. And the only
ground is what we stand on.
We inhabit a numinous environment. Do not complain about the
weeds in the garden. Every blade in the meadow smolders with inspiration.
We need an earthy mythos. Ecotropic poetry can guide us toward a viable
The work includes recollection. The map of the sky, held up by
the tree, tells how to bring our behavior below into harmony with what
is above. If we study how earlier poets steered by the sky-map, perhaps
we can learn how to cast a new chart.
Vestiges of old maps litter the ransacked library: the
Chakras, the Tree of Knowledge, the Garden of Many Gates,
the Kabbalah, Ziggurats, Astrology-like 12 banquet guests,
the signs surround a central figure-Yggdrasil, the Mayan
World-Tree. For us, the Sampo must be eco- and psychological.
The brain spinning on the axis of the spinal column mirrors
the great sphere on its pole.
Death the progenitor keeps it tuning. In the Popul Vuh,
a skull impregnates a woman by spitting in her hand. All life
feeds on the dead, roots there in the compost. But our relationship
with the dead is in trouble. We must obey but not abuse
The great principle connects life with death: the uroborus.
But history and mythology record human attempts to usurp this sacred,
biological law. If death is the mother of beauty. well then kill
everything. If every body on earth be needed for fuel, souls rendered
in the try-works yield unctuous lucre. Poets must speak out against
How can we avoid mistakes?
The earth is alive. Over billions of years, and without our
conscious help, Gaia got things right. We assume that this
The brain of the earth is far too complicated to isolate a single
thought. The death of a species is not only sad because something beautiful
has been obliterated-the death abases us all. Geologic records prove we are
linked. The removal of one keystone species may cause an entire arch to fall.
How many arches must fall to bring down the great dome of 50 million?
We will not be fooled by the ego-centric claim that if no one hears the tree fall,
no sound is made.
We are against divisive thinking, all bought-and-paid for Isms,
pre-scripted, self-serving scenarios that drive a wedge between humanity
and nature. We insist on knowing the names of things and distinguishing
good from evil.
Ecotropic poetry recognizes limits but need not be
limited. Poets can [must] sing of love. Political repression and war are
still to be opposed, because they are dis-integrative. We can
celebrate beauty; ecotropic grounding simply enables us to
distinguish what is beautiful from what is ugly. Meter, narrative,
metaphor are filled with important purpose. No subject
can be excluded. Go on and write about how you feel--as long
as you teach us to live.
Some will oppose this because they have secured tenure
based on mere aesthetics. The hierarchists of the poetry establishment
--such as it is-have vested interest in poetry that shirks
responsibility. If poetry were significant, paying positions would
erode. Grants might be curtailed by pursestringholders who think of
poetry as contest.
Do not surrender to the status quo. To have no program is to
accept the program of the paid killers. Blissful irrelevance plays
into their hands. Irresponsible poetry decorates the border of their
We write this letter in a spirit of healing, to reclaim a sense
of family among our sister and brother poets. Difference
makes us stronger.
A myth for a planet in peril must reflect accurate knowledge
of nature. We must work with precision and a sense of urgency. We
cannot predict what the new Skambha will look like; building is the
work of many; but in any case it cannot privilege human convenience
over ecological health. Human beings can live in the humility of the
other species, or die with inherited hubris.
We do this and all things for the continuation of the world.