In her book of essays, “Upstream”, poet Mary Oliver explores the interplay between creativity and nature. The titular essay argues that just because butterflies don’t write books doesn’t mean they don’t feel and know, in their own way, who they are and what role they play. The book is a tender exploration of the natural world that sees nature as an equal, not a subordinate. “Teaching children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do,” pleads Oliver. “Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility that the world will be saved from the lords of profit. Hold them in the stream, lead them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in.
When the virus-that-must-not-be-named first hit and I was home for my second consecutive remote semester, I received an email from the professor who taught my very first political science class. The email had the subject “I thought you might like this” and attached a link to a New York Times opinion piece about Taylor Swift’s “folklore” album and our return to nature in a post-COVID world.
At the time, I was intrigued but skeptical. The writer found that, in a culture disconnected from nature, Swift’s lyrics used seven times more nature-themed words than other pop songs. He argued that music that showcases nature as a “place to bond, seek comfort, or just hang out” could be more important in the climate conversation than art that preaches to save it. . As much as I loved the album, and as interesting from the point of view of the article provided, I wasn’t sure if the music really indicated something more than what it was: the result of the imagination of an artist going wild during a period of isolation.
A year and a half later, I attended a conference in the Hawkins-Carlson room that I haven’t stopped thinking about ever since. Last spring, writer Amitav Ghosh gave the Distinguished Visiting Humanist public lecture. During the conference, he spoke about the importance of storytelling in changing the way we think and finding solutions to the climate crisis. He argued that the humanistic sciences were far too focused on humans and noted that they needed to use new modes of storytelling to engender action. He highlighted the links between colonialism, capitalism and the climate crisis, and how industrialization has made humans and non-humans inert, devoid of free will and ripe for exploitation. We have come to see nature as mute, he said, and we have lost the ability to communicate with nature and create meaning in conjunction with it. The voices of nature and marginalized groups have been silenced by colonizers.
The question of who is mute and who can talk is at the heart of the climate crisis. Ghosh said the burden of imaginatively restoring the agency of nature falls on artists and storytellers, and it is both an aesthetic and a political task.
Mary Oliver admits that writing or art will never compare to a true nature experience. “‘Come with me to the field of sunflowers’ is a better line than anything you’ll find here, and the sunflowers themselves are far more wonderful than any word about them,” she wrote. Creativity is a vain attempt to capture nature – it is little more than an expression of hope. And everybody knows that hope is the thing with feathers; I would rather we try and fail to capture nature than not try at all.
Earlier this month, Just Stop Oil activists threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in protest against UK government fossil fuel licensing. The incident went viral and ended up on front pages around the world. Perhaps it takes the most famous artistic depiction of the threatened natural world for us to realize what is really at stake. Numbers and science alone are not enough – we need performance, we need storytelling. The stories cut through the noise and bring the climate crisis to the forefront of our minds. They help us understand the emotional magnitude of climate catastrophe. Music, literature, film, fashion and art help us both visualize the climate crisis, but also connect us to what we stand to lose. Poets have always written about nature, but now, more than ever, we need a variety of works that allow nature to lament and connect creatively.
“Pure Colour”, a novel by Sheila Heti, is an unconventional example. The book is a sincere and abstract look at a woman who has just lost her father. It presupposes that this world is the first draft of creation, and that the Creator is preparing to destroy it to create a perfect second draft. The ice caps are melting, the seasons have become postmodern, all the water has plastic in it, grief abounds, and humanity is unsure how to carry on. And so they create art. They channel their rage, joy and pain into their own second versions, through art, stories and plays. They learn to love when the world ends and find beauty and meaning in their imperfect world.
In the book, Heti finds unexpected ways for nature to speak by merging human experience with animal and plant life. In the first draft of the universe, “plants were the grateful recipients of all consciousness” and they told stories because they had “front row seats in the cosmic landscape”. In the second draft, they will have more agency. They “won’t remember how we cut them…the vegetables won’t tell tales…they’ll have a happy innocence that first draft plants don’t have”. The book seems to say that we must learn to listen while nature still has stories to tell, and we must incorporate them into the visions of our own second versions while we still have the chance.
We also need to be humble, and we’ve seen that storytelling can be a powerful way to build empathy and break down perceptions of human exceptionalism. “Humility is the price of the leaf world,” Oliver says. Vain glory is our scourge, we humans. Folk tales that honor nature, Indigenous knowledge focused on resilience and conservation, and granted rivers juridic people are all evidence of how culture can foster sustainable attitudes and practices.
And so, maybe “folklore” signaled the need to return to nature. Cottagecore can be a TikTok aesthetic as well as a response to commercialism and a driver of sustainability. Our desire to be frogs on water lilies and little worms can help us empathize with nature. After all, according to Mary Oliver, attention is the beginning of devotion.