Poems to celebrate Earth Day 2021, selected by Independent climate and environment writers

Harry Cockburn
·7-min read
A serene stock pic of a book lying on a log near some trees (Getty)
A serene stock pic of a book lying on a log near some trees (Getty)

Though this year’s Earth Day is also on the same day as the beginning of the US climate summit, it is worth remembering that Earth Day is a celebration of our planet, and not merely an opportunity to remind us how badly we are abusing it.

So to emphasise that what we have is worth taking concerted action to protect, Independent writers have chosen their favourite poems which relate in some way to the natural world. Enjoy.

The Sick Rose by William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

This enigmatic short poem, just 34 words across two stanzas, appeared in the visionary Romantic poet’s Songs of Experience in 1794 and could stand as a metaphor for many things but is most obviously about the agony of observing the suffering of a loved one, helpless to intervene.

But Blake’s Sick Rose could stand for the whole natural world in microcosm, the “invisible worm” representing the forces of pollution conspiring to undermine and endanger it. A poignant thought from a poet writing and illustrating his verse at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Joe Sommerlad, reporter

Ghosts on My Tongue by Kat Lyons

I was a bookish child

Chased new words like butterflies, discovered them

Pinned into novels in my local library

Crept up on them

As they fluttered

On the edges of adult conversations

Skittishly avoiding my easy comprehension

I learned a new word the other day-

Endling

The term has overtones of Tolkien

A child of the 80s I imagine it spoken in a Skekis’ croak

The suffix ‘ling’ adds diminutive charm

Making it sound cute

As well as fantastical

It is neither of these things

It is the word for a creature that is the last of its kind

It describes

That long extended moment measured out

In one heart beating

The inhale/exhale of a single pair of lungs

Before the wave of extinction breaks

I roll it between my lips

This loneliest of words

It tastes like ashes

Leaves

Ghosts on my tongue

I selected this poem because it hints at the excruciating pain I sometimes feel, as I connect with the devastating destruction of nature, that my generation has inflicted upon our precious earth.

And because I believe in opening up ourselves to this deep pain, we can tap into the courage necessary to stand up for her and become peaceful warriors for her protection and repair.

It is possible for us to pull back from the teetering brink and bequest their rightful heritage to future generations of humans and fellow creatures, of a thriving teeming natural world again.

Let there be no more endlings taking their last devastating breath. Donnachadh McCarthy, columnist

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Across trillions of possibilities, billions of galaxies, and millions of years, what are the chances that you – reading this piece – are here, now?

How often I forget to revel in the wonder of existence when caught in the banality of the day-to-day.

"Wild Geese" is my reminder that the surest return to home is found in nature. Rita Issa, columnist

Instructions on Not Giving Up by Ada Limón

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out

of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s

almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving

their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate

sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees

that really gets to me. When all the shock of white

and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave

the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,

the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin

growing over whatever winter did to us, a return

to the strange idea of continuous living despite

the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,

I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf

unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Ada Limón’sInstructions on Not Giving Up speaks to me of the resilience of nature and of the human spirit – it’s a short, sharp reminder of the beauty of the world, even when it is shrouded in pain. As we emerge from the pandemic, as we continue the fight to protect our planet; this poem feels like a totem: a reminder of what is worth saving in the first place. Victoria Richards, senior commissioning editor at Indy Voices and poet. A collection of her work, Primers IV, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2019.

The Tree Agreement by Elise Paschen

The neighbor calls the Siberian Elm

a “weed” tree, demands we hack

it down, says the leaves overwhelm

his property, the square backyard.

He’s collar-and-tie. A weed tree?

Branches screen buildings, subway tracks,

his patch of yard. We disagree,

claim back the sap, heartwood, wild bark.

He declares the tree “hazardous.”

We shelter under leaf-hoard, crossway

for squirrels, branch house for sparrows, jays.

The balcony soaks up the shade.

Chatter-song drowns out cars below.

Sun branches down. Leaves overwhelm.

The tree will stay. We tell him “no.”

Root deep through pavement, Elm.

In my mum’s garden there’s a big London Plane tree that’s grown with us through the years. This poem reminds me of some of the small scuffles she’s had with the neighbours, and why it’s always been so important to us to keep the tree intact.

The solace that a favourite tree or patch of nature can bring has become even clearer during lockdown. I think that this poem speaks to the need to preserve these small reminders of the natural world, as well as the greater issue of deforestation. A report published last week by the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change found that only 3 per cent of the world’s surface is ecologically intact.

Here’s hoping we eventually approach deforestation with the same defiance as the poem’s last line: “Root deep through pavement, Elm.” Emma Snaith, audience editor

The Stone Skimmer by Alice Oswald

Going down through the two small fields,

disturbing the small-seeing flieshe brushes

the restless thistles, their dried skins hooked to their bones.

brimming flowering dimming diminishing.

Among the thistles and the whisking pools of the wind

he’s walkinghe can almost feel

the spent fur of his flesh, a seed-ghost on a gust

condemned to float in endless widening circles.

Eyeless stones, their silence swells and breathes easily in water,

barely move in the wombs of rivers.

His mind so rushed and slovenly, full of forms

brimming flowering dimming diminishing:

into the five inch space between heaven and heaven

he’s skimming a stonejust the smack of it

contacting water, the amazing length

Of light keeps lifting up his slid-down strength

I was brought up in the Wye Valley, and used to regularly go swimming in one of the Wye’s tributary rivers – the Monnow – which we accessed by walking through fields full of cattle, down to the riverbank where chamomile grew in great abundance. When I was a child it was here I learned to skim stones, sliding down, leaning low and wanging rocks over the surface of the river. Both the Wye and the Monnow are now seriously compromised by pollution. Harry Cockburn - Climate and environment reporter

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