I first read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or Life in the Woods during my high school years in Colorado. There’s a pond on mountainside where I grew up, and I decided to emulate Thoreau and write about the pond, just like Thoreau wrote about Walden Pond. I perched on the bank for about an hour, watching the occasional dragonfly zip through the cluster of cattails near where I sat, and then I got restless. As much as I admired Thoreau’s writing, I realized that I lacked the discipline and powers of perception to be a nature writer. Still, I appreciate writers who are attuned to the rhythms of nature and who can help us understand our place in the natural world. One such writer is Charlotte poet Allison Hutchcraft. For more information about Allison and her poetry, please click on the following link: https://www.allisonhutchcraft.com
I met Allison about six years ago. At the time, she had just had a poem published in the Kenyon Review about a dodo bird. I remember reading the poem and then talking with her about her ability to make readers care about an extinct bird. I have followed her career ever since and have taken pleasure in seeing her poetry gain national attention. I am pleased to report the recent publication of Swale, Allison’s first poetry collection. I contacted Allison and asked her for more information about her collection. Here is what she sent to me:
I’m thrilled to share that my first poetry collection, Swale, was released this November by the good folks at New Issues Poetry & Prose. The book looks outward to the natural world, and also inward to the landscape of the mind. In Swale, water and land meet and mix, and at times become confused. Sailors hallucinate the ocean as a field. Ancient coastal forests, having fallen into the sea from shifting tectonic plates, reappear on a beach, unburied by erosion.
In my work, I often find animals appearing, from bears, horses, and lambs to whales and manatees. In Swale, there are extinct species, too, particularly the dodo and Steller’s sea cow, which went extinct roughly in the 1680s and 1760s, respectively. Human intervention set in motion those extinctions, and I’m interested in thinking about those losses, and the kinds of worldviews that made them possible.
In 2018, I was lucky to be a resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast. Sitka is a dream of a residency, and quite remote: perched where the Salmon River estuary spills into the sea, and steps from a national scenic research area. I saw more elk than people. Being in that particular place—walking the woods and coastlines, climbing over boulders, touching rockweed, lichen, and driftwood—was incredibly generative, and brought forth poems that grew incrementally from daily observations. Such writing in the field is crucial to me. At the same time, I love research. Reading about the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, led me to the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller’s study of the sea cow, which in turn led to a poem.
I am particularly interested in the ways in which art and science meet and what questions and conversations such crossings might foster. I often think of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, in which he advocates for finding ways to bring the disasters of the Anthropocene into our shared consciousness. Nixon writes:
“In an age when the media venerate the spectacular, when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, a central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world?”
This, to me, is an urgent call: how can we begin to make visible the precariousness of our world? Poetry, I think, offers one way to do so.
Even though Allison’s Swale is a work of poetry while Thoreau’s Walden is a work of prose, both writers have much in common. For both of them, nature writing is an immersive act. Both are keen observers of the dynamics of the natural world, and both reflect in profound ways on how humans interact with nature. Both have an appreciation of place, and they communicate their appreciation of place through the power of their writing. In many ways, Allison Hutchcraft is Storied Charlotte’s own 21st-century Thoreau.