J500 Media and the Environment

They Paved Paradise and Put in a Ten Lane Superhighway? by vincemeserko
May 5, 2008, 6:59 pm
Filed under: Local Events + Action, Nature + Travel

I remember a few years ago I had to write an 800 word essay on an Allen Ginsberg poem called “My Sad Self.” Ginsberg was a weird, depressed dude and after three hours staring blankly at the page I was feeling pretty weird and depressed myself. While on the verge of tears, it finally clicked with me. I was overcomplicating things. Ginsberg’s poem was reflecting the importance of a place – the narrator’s home. This was easy. Ginsberg was telling the reader, in a non-overt way, why New York City matters; why the narrator should leave it behind, why he should love it and why the reader should even care in the first place. It wasn’t any more difficult than that. It was poetry from the gut, and it hit me hard.

It’s the same sort of reflection I found in reading the poetry of the Wakarusa Wetlands, which I guess is sort of like New York City for the Great Plains Skink or the Smallmouth Salamander. I’ve never been real interested in animals. I used to have some goldfish growing up, and for a brief period of time I held a small snapping turtle captive in our front yard. When I see a report in the New York Times on endangered wildlife I get a little sad … but not that much. When a historian lectures me on biodiversity I become drowsy, lethargic and hungry. I’m willing to bet others have a similar reaction. “So they want to build a highway through the Wakarusa Wetlands? Sounds good to me. Lawrence traffic sucks dude. Let’s go lift some weights.” That’s probably a typical reaction from a typical college student.

This is where the poetry comes in. Here’s one example of the poetry that has been so connected to the “save the wetlands” campaign. Others can be found in book Wakarusa Wetlands in Words & Image. Read this and reflect:


If you can’t put a bullet
through it, put a road
through it: that killing
only takes a little longer.
Name the road after what you destroy:
Haskell Highway
or Wetlands Expressway
The Wildlife?
They’ll be fine, stuffed
behind glass
in the steel and concrete
Nature Center, soundproofed
from the road’s roar.
The spirits? Who
believes that claptrap anyway.
not with a gun but
a bulldozer.
shoot, shoot.

-Brian Daldorph

Daldorph is throwing daggers, and I can feel it. The final line is brilliant. Daldorph’s poem hits me the same way Ginsberg’s did. It makes me feel the magic of a place and why it’s worth saving. You don’t have to be a committed environmentalist to be moved by it. Like Ginsberg’s poem, the message is not overly complex. It’s simple and makes a point.

The poem is also apolitical, poignant and relevant. In others words, it represents a different type of way to talk about the environment in public. Poetry like Daldorph’s offers a competing narrative to the divisive political sparring that bogs down far too many discussions on environmental topics. In the words of Robert Frost, “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” People want to see and feel something. There’s a reason why everyone knows Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (“they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”), but can’t quote carbon dioxide emission regulations or fuel economy standards. There’s a simple resonance to Mitchell’s words; the same resonance found in Wakarusa Wetlands in Word & Image.

A newspaper story loaded with numbers and jargon is just too distant – irrelevant even. There’s a place for factual regurgitation, but it’s not likely to connect with people the same way a verse of poetry does. Poetry is a small way to combat labels like “treehugger”, animal lover, hippie, and lunatic that get attached to those who get close to nature. With Daldorph’s poem you’re none of those. You’re just a human being and sometimes that’s enough.

-Vince Meserko


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