This is music, he said,
and his voice climbed
the thin ladder of air
like a cat chases moths,
the river desperate
in flood—his chest filling
with the thick
liquid of song. This
is music: not so much
the silver-chorded calls
or the silent intervals
of indigo flash
between yellowgreen limbs,
but the complete cessation:
the wind, the river, the earth’s
among its fiery teeth
to hear this simple song.
It seems appropriate to start with a poem when talking about place and ecology and technology. Indeed, the poet Jerome Rothenberg said that poetry is thetechnology of the sacred. In my own work with Terrain.org I’ve sought to define, or at least present, the sacred in ecology and place through literature, art, and design.
But just what is technology?
Let us turn to another Rothenberg—philosopher and musician David Rothenberg, author of Why Birds Sing—to provide his input on the term: Yo Simmons! he said, don’t forget that Aristotle and the ancient Greeks defined the word techne as any creative act of humans—including tools and art.
Yo David! I said, are you suggesting that techne—technology—completes what nature has started? Indeed I am! he said: “We finesse things that nature suggests to us. Could be a song, could be an image. Could be a cabin that then becomes a house and then a city and then roads and then a whole system by which we drink the resources of the planet dry.”
Thanks, man, for bringing me down.
In actuality, I’ve been thinking about technology an awful lot myself lately. Just four months ago I went into cardiac arrest. Turns out I have a strange line of scar tissue between my atria and ventricles, and the only solution is a technological one: a dual-chamber implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD. Mine also happens to be a pacemaker, with a battery life of ten years. Technology saved my life, keeps saving my life.
But I’m not foolish enough to believe that technology alone can save the planet. And I’m not here to tell you what can. That’s no small answer. But I’m also not going to suggest that we must phase out technology to more authentically experience the poetry of place.
Instead, I’d like to offer three ways in which technology can expand the poetry of place—and the first is represented by my iPhone, and the app that led into my poem “Indigo Bunting”—iBird Pro. (By the way, if you need to wake up your teenage daughter because she has overslept, the song of the Atlantic Puffin is a particularly annoying call with which to do so…)
Just as our addiction to these technological marvels can remove us from an intimacy with place, so too they can connect us. I’m happy to bring a field guide with me when hoping to identify birds, but this little computer gives me the sights and the sounds that that older and much beloved technology, paperback books, cannot.
The second way in which technology expands the poetry of place is by enabling the literal implant of poetry in place. We’ve got a great local example down in Tucson. Recently, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum—a kind of natural history museum meets zoo meets botanical gardens—started a poet-in-residence program. The program was modeled a bit after the Language of Conservation program that brought poetry installations and performances to zoos back in 2009, sponsored by Poets House. For example, Alison Hawthorne Deming oversaw poetry installations outside exhibits and in general areas at the Jacksonville, Florida, zoo, while Pattiann Rogers worked in Milwaukee.
In fact, Pattiann wrote of her experience in Terrain.org, in a lovely piece titled, “Under the Open Sky: Poems on the Land.” Here she writes not only of the 54 poems and excerpts installed at the Milwaukee County Zoo, but also of poems embedded in and becoming part of landscapes across the country, from a poem by Robert Frost on a footpath behind the farmhouse where we once lived in Franconia, New Hampshire, to a series of seven poems by William Stafford installed along the Methow River Valley in northern Washington state, to lines of watery poems installed in concrete and waterworks in downtown Lakewood, Colorado, and Austin, Texas.
And water, or the lack thereof, brings me back to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s poet-in-residence program, which was first filled by my friend Eric Magrane, a young poet and geographer who himself had previously inscribed his own poems into mirrors and placed those in the Sonoran desert as both literary and visual art.
The scorpion carries on its back the question mark of its existence
The line was painted on a rock wall, a favorite place of scorpions. And it was only visible when ultraviolet light was shined upon it—which is also the most effective way to view scorpions at night: under a black light. On Desert Museum Saturday summer evenings, you can do just that.
Which brings me to my own poem, “Shine,” from Bloom:
Pouring the black light into every crevice,
we follow the thick vertebrae of the wall
until the moon and bats rise—
until the purple radiance fills the night. There
and there, all at once, the poisonous scorpions shine,
their exoskeletons like intricate green
imps stealing moths at twilight.
We keep their gruesome glow in our minds
and on our tongues as we talk
through the empty hours of the drive home:
the dark mountain pass, the pressing lights
of the city, the dim lane leading
to our house—and then brake hard
at the tangled braid of red and yellow and
black. Eyes open and shining, jaw heavy
with venom, the coral snake’s body
is bent upon itself, rolled tight from the quick black
wheels of the day. Gathering ourselves
now into the car, into the silent rooms
of our house, there is a violet
light pouring over everything and nothing,
like that last terrible night in Eden
when every sharp animal rushed to hide
in all the exposed crevices of the world.
The third way technology expands the poetry of place is by enabling access to landscapes and other places we cannot otherwise obtain. Just as we may bring technology with us into the field to enrich our experience by, for example, using it to identify the song of an indigo bunting, so too technology becomes a portal to places far away, places threatened and endangered, places inhospitable, even places imagined and unimaginable. This, of course, is media, for better or worse.
The ills of media such as television have long been argued. In fact, Paul Lindholdt has an excellent essay on just that—television, habituation, and the skewed views of wild nature on the screen—in an essay titled “The Trumpets of Solitude” in Terrain.org. Paul writes, “One outcome of all our TV viewing is the social creation of nature. The intelligent designs of corporations, all bent on consuming us as media products, filter what we think we know about the out-of-doors.”
I agree. There is no excuse for not getting outside—excerpt certain weather, I suppose. But I am here tonight, too, as the editor-in-chief of an online, placed-based journal—have I mentioned that it’s called Terrain.org?—and we too serve up a kind of nature, though advertisement-free, at least.
Whether on the theater screen or television or computer or your favorite handheld device, however, think of the role media provides in bringing the built and natural environments directly to us. It is filtered, to be sure, but it is accessible as in no time before in human history.
Imagine: poetry, ecology, and place in a technological world. Now, if we only had more time…
Which reminds me of a poem of mine:
In May I Consider My Websites
My client reminds me that the April coupon
is still online, though it’s mid-May, and though
there is a white-winged dove at the feeder,
just arrived from Mexico or maybe Belize.
And that reminds me of the Mexican birds-of-paradise
fanning the backyard in yellow and red, the orange
globemallow now past prime at their rooted and clenching
toes. Beyond the wall, the scarlet ocotillo flowers
are fading to brown, lost in the arid silhouette
of the mountains seemingly painted behind them.
Which reminds me of the trail my daughters and I
hiked late last month, past aromatic creosote—
the rains lingering this winter—past slate and prickly
pear that shine like windows in the sunlight. The view
from here is, of course, gorgeous; and that
reminds me of the website I’m crafting for my neighbor’s
bed and breakfast, with its elegant landscaping
and utterly modern IKEA décor. They are sure to be
a hit—the square tables and chairs and atmosphere,
I mean—which reminds me of the coupon, again,
and now that it’s half past the month of May (or more)
I better get to it, as I pause at the front room’s
inviting window, reminding me—as a Gila flicker
drops in—of the yard’s single saguaro, open and blooming.
Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org; A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. His books of poetry are Bloom and Riverfall, both published by Salmon Poetry. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press). He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he’s yet to see an indigo bunting, but does have a regular afternoon appointment with the neighborhood vermilion flycatcher.
“Indigo Bunting” originally appeared in Southern Humanities Review, “Shine” originally appeared in South Dakota Review, and “In May I Consider My Websites” originally appeared in Isotope.
Header photo of scorpion under ultraviolet light courtesy Pixabay.