By Lowell Wolfe
Poems cannot recreate human encounters with the natural world, but ecopoetry is effective because it can connect its readers with nature and convince them to undergo such encounters without attempting to reproduce nature. Duncan Campbell Scott’s poem “The Height of Land” epitomizes a compelling ecopoetic lyrical ode. Scott brings the reader into an imagined, natural realm through human senses, emotions, and artistry. Simultaneously, Scott tempers the poetically mediated link between the reader and the wilderness, refusing to prioritize his artistically constructed natural experience over an authentic one that humans could, and should, have within nature. By relating humans to a natural world that exists beyond poetic representation, “The Height of Land” encourages the reader to experience nature directly. The poem creates a powerful, but incomplete, bond between the reader and the natural world that only the reader may fulfill. Scott’s “The Height of Land” weaves author, reader, and natural world together and limits the scope of this imaginative connection, motivating the reader to experience real nature.
Scott shows that nature is valuable to humans through poetic portrayal. By articulating nature’s significance, Scott mediates a relationship between the reader and the natural world. The poem’s setting represents the connection between humans and nature. Situated upon a topographical peak, Scott observes in one direction “[t]he lonely north enlaced with lakes and streams” and, on the other side, “[t]he crowded southern land / With all the welter of the lives of men” (Scott 42, 47–48). The space between the northern and urban areas separates wild and human realms. Written in Canada in the early twentieth century, Scott’s statement ignores the colonization of Indigenous peoples, who inhabit and were driven from all the lands he observes (McKay 2). Nonetheless, Scott conveys a literal and figurative gap that divides humans and nature. By existing within this gap, the poem’s setting constitutes an implicit metaphor for the unity between human subjectivity and the natural world that the poem establishes, inhabiting a realm between these entities and associating them through poetry. Moreover, by bringing the reader’s imagination into the natural environment, Scott fosters what cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan terms ‘“topophilia,’” which is “‘the affective bond between people and place or setting’” through which the poem “become[s] a model for how to approach the landscape surrounding us so that we view it as meaningful” (Tuan 4, qtd. in Bryson 11; Bryson 12). The poem creates ‘“topophilia’” because it imbues the natural environment with human feelings and music, associating the reader with nature via relatable, human experiences. It transmits the powerful forces and emotions that Scott encounters in nature into a poem and, ultimately, into the reader’s imagination. Scott articulates his personal experience with the wilderness to develop the foundations for the reader’s own relationship to nature.
Scott uses details that act upon the reader’s body and senses to bring their imagination into a seemingly direct encounter with nature. These immediate perceptions of nature allow the reader to encounter the physical wilderness vicariously. University of Idaho literature and environmental studies scholar Scott Knickerbocker argues that sensory details within nature poems immerse readers in second-hand natural encounters because “the sensuous aspects act as a physically palpable analogue for direct experience of nature” (Knickerbocker 17). Sensory details convey the speaker’s immediate encounters with their natural surroundings to situate the reader’s imagination within a graphic, lively natural environment. Scott’s description of nature acts on multiple senses concomitantly by remembering a swamp with “[s]kin of vile water over viler mud / Where the paddle stirred unutterable stenches” (Scott 102–103). The phrase “unutterable stenches” combines sounds and smells by evoking the belching noises and the unpleasant aromas of wetland methane gas bubbles. The poem linguistically re-enacts what Scott immediately hears and smells as he canoes through a real swamp and transfers these sensations onto the reader. Furthermore, the water’s “skin” evokes bodily imagery and the sense of touch to extend the passage’s stimulating effects into a tactile realm that belongs to an environmental feature. Through personification, the water possesses an organ mutually shared with humans, allowing the reader’s and nature’s identities to overlap. The natural world enters the reader’s tactile perceptions while the reader’s sense of somatics melds into nature. Sensory details vicariously situate the reader within Scott’s natural surroundings to connect them to the natural world through second-hand experiences. Scott creates an imaginative link between the natural world and the reader built upon shared stimuli, and furthers this link by accessing the reader’s emotions.
To build upon the connection that his poem establishes between the reader and nature, Scott implicates affect into his natural experience to demonstrate the potential for powerful emotions in natural encounters. Since he experiences natural forces outside of and within himself, Scott’s sentiments correlate with his wild experiences. Simon Fraser University Canadian literature scholar Kathy Mezei identifies that “Scott achieves a fine correspondence between his spiritual state and the states of nature by describing a journey through a landscape that is also a journey through the mind of the poet” (Mezei 28). Scott’s surroundings condition his epiphanies, digressions, and memories; his moods and thoughts correlate with the wilderness around him. Scott’s poem allows affective states and the natural world’s qualities to merge within the human experience. For example, Scott proclaims, “here, where we can think, on the brights uplands / Where the air is clear, we deeply brood on life” (Scott 77–78). Scott’s environment conditions his internal feelings because the elevated topography and clear air parallel his similarly elevated thoughts and his ability to think clearly. Additionally, Scott applies the first-person plural pronoun to create a shared experience that incorporates the reader’s sense of self into the poet’s wild encounter. The reader physically and emotionally feels how nature affects Scott—how it could affect them. Scott illustrates that natural encounters meaningfully impact humans because they contour people’s feelings and thoughts. Emotional affectivity strengthens the magnitude of the bond between the natural world and the reader.
Conversely, Scott’s emotions fuse into his understanding of nature because he personifies and incorporates sentiment into his surroundings. Scott portrays wild sounds, creating an emotional aural experience through which the reader indirectly hears and feels the natural world. Natural soundscapes weave emotion and environment together, intertwining humans with nature. As Scott hears “[t]he thrill of life beat up the planet’s margin / And break in the clear susurrus of deep joy,” he experiences a sonic phenomenon that derives from nature, represented by “the planet’s margin” (Scott 148–150). This force becomes an internal soundscape as Scott subsequently rejoices at how it “echoes and reëchoes in my being” (Scott 151). Scott’s diction attaches human feelings, such as “joy” and “the thrill of life,” to this wild occurrence. Earthly sonics enter his thoughts and feelings, while his exulting mood transforms his perception of these sounds into elated, natural forces. Human emotions travel between the wilderness and the poet because the natural world becomes a vessel for human meaning, while simultaneously shaping what humans feel and think. Wild encounters are moving, sensuous occurrences. Thus, Scott’s poem acts as a conduit for Scott’s emotions and experiences to leap out of his natural surroundings and into the reader’s imagination. Furthermore, these natural sounds belong to nature’s and the poem’s musical dimensions that bring Scott, the reader, and the natural world together into a polyphony of human and non-human sonics.
Scott and his readers participate in the natural world’s aurality through poetic song. The forces mentioned above that Scott hears and subsequently feels demonstrate the harmonious sonic dimension of his natural environment. Drawing on German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Bath Spa University Environmental Humanities professor Kate Rigby terms this phenomenon “phusis,” or the process through which nature discloses its autonomous, holistic existence in an expression of non-human song and dance-like movements (Rigby 434). An example of phusis occurs when a seed sprouts and grows into a plant that blossoms, bringing bees that buzz and hum; naturally-driven movements and sounds occur as natural entities exist and interrelate, creating phusis. The natural soundscapes within Scott’s poem demonstrate nature’s resonant capabilities. “The thrill of life” and the “susurrus of clear joy” constitute aural forces that derive from a holistic, natural entity: “the planet’s margin” (Scott 149–150). Scott does not attribute them to ontologically distinct natural phenomena. Instead, they emanate from a large-scale, terrestrial force, comprising an environmental ensemble of harmonizing, natural sounds that enter Scott’s perception as one unified reverberation. Scott perceives these sounds as echoes, demonstrating nature’s autonomy; the sonics exist beyond Scott’s identity, and he only receives their vestiges. Therefore, Scott experiences and describes phusis by portraying how nature sonically discloses its interrelated existence, independent of humans. Through the poem’s musicality, Scott and the reader connect with nature through musical communion.
Scott’s poem allows the reader to engage with phusis because the reader’s voice joins in the environment’s musicality. Ecopoetry allows humans to participate in the diverse, interconnected forces and beings that comprise the natural world, using the “human capacity for song […] to join in the exuberant singing, dancing, shape-changing, many-hued self-disclosure of phusis” (Rigby 434). Musical expression facilitates human relations with the natural world as human art responds to and participates in the Earth’s artistry. As a form of music, Scott’s poem responds to nature’s disclosure. Scott recognizes the potential, and creates an opportunity, for the reader’s involvement in the natural world’s resonance. “The Height of Land” constitutes an irregular ode because it is a moderately lengthy, sustained lyric poem containing irregular rhyme, meter, and formal language through which Scott praises nature. As an ode, the poem evokes song, dance, and oral performance, thus incorporating the reader into nature’s musicality through the act of reading. Knickerbocker cites poet and University of Pennsylvania literature scholar Charles Berstein to demonstrate that “even when silently sounding the poem to one’s inner ear,” poets and readers “‘sing the body of language […] [They] stutter tunes with no melodies, only words’” (Knickerbocker 7; Bernstein 21 qtd. in Knickerbocker 7). Whether the reader sings, speaks, or silently reads “The Height of Land,” they musically collaborate with the natural world and build a relationship with it through artistic cooperation. Scott recognizes this collaboration’s significance by asserting that one can respond to nature’s “spell” if they “answer in chime,” conveying that both rhymed and wordless musical expression allows humans to connect with the natural world (Scott 51, 56). The poem becomes a medium through which the reader can indirectly experience nature by participating in phusis. This experience occurs because environmental and human sonority links humans and nature together through art. Additionally, the poem’s elevated style mirrors Scott’s physically elevated position between the wild and urban areas upon “The Height of Land,” to demonstrate that poetry connects these two realms. Using sensations, emotions, and art, Scott’s poem thus fosters a relationship between the reader and the natural world to bring the reader into the poet’s wild encounter. However, the reader’s experience remains distinctly indirect.
Nature exists independently of humans and is beyond artistic portrayal; art cannot capture or disclose its true essence. While the reader may connect to nature through Scott’s poem, nature transcends poetic representation because language cannot truly capture natural phenomena, and how humans experience it. “The Height of Land” facilitates the reader’s relation to nature but cannot act as a substitute for the real thing because language can artistically represent natural encounters, yet it cannot faultlessly recreate what a person experiences when immersed in nature. Canadian poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky argues that reality possesses forces that transcend poetic representation because “the foundations of meaning lie in the world, and in human experience of the world, unconditioned by language” (Zwicky 15). First-hand natural encounters affect people in ways that a poem cannot reproduce. Therefore, poetry cannot portray nature without enacting what Heidegger terms “‘enframing’” (Heidegger 332, qtd. in Bate 255). University of Oxford literary scholar Jonathan Bate interprets “‘enframing’” as “making everything part of a system, thus obliterating the unconcealed being there of particular things” (Bate 255). Since nature exists autonomously beyond language, poetic representation subjugates and contorts nature by assigning specific words and phrases to its inexpressible features. Scott acknowledges these linguistic limitations when he describes how humans “snared [the stars’] fiery pinions, / Entangled in the meshes of bright words” (Scott 118–119). Through zoomorphism, the stars’ wings evoke flight, conveying freedom and their transcendence beyond humans’ experiential capabilities. Scott describes how words trap and confine the stars’ wings, suggesting that language subjugates and restricts the stars’ ineffable natural identities. The stars synecdochically represent nature in its entirety. Scott expresses that language cannot describe nature without reducing and contorting its autonomous identity. Thus, ecopoetry cannot capture nature’s essence faultlessly because it can only convey nature’s qualities through language. Since Scott establishes a meaningful relationship between nature and the reader built upon language, this relationship becomes insubstantial as he draws attention to nature’s incommunicable autonomy. Scott motivates the reader towards a more direct natural encounter by expressing nature’s existence beyond language.
The poem transmits Scott’s wild experience to the reader, but the aforementioned limits of language prevent the reader from understanding how nature truly exists. Scott proclaims that the natural world exists beyond his poetic portrayal because he feels
Golden and inappellable
That gives the inarticulate part
Of our strange being one moment of release (Scott 51-54)
Natural forces and their effects on humans are ineffable. Thus, the poem cannot reproduce what the reader would experience in nature. Scott portrays the natural forces as “a spell” to imbue the lands with a mystical, esoteric identity which neither he nor anyone may describe. Scott again applies the first-person plural pronoun to identify that the reader may also undergo this experience. The poem refuses to replace or overcome authentic nature. By communicating how natural experience transcends articulation, the poem “draws attention to its own status as text and hence as a mode of enframing” (Rigby 437). The poem’s self-awareness reminds the reader that they are not truly experiencing the natural world. Their poetically mediated connection with nature only goes so far because Scott emphasizes this connection’s insubstantiality. An unfulfilled gap remains between the reader and the environment that only the reader can travel across.
Scott invites the reader into the real world by drawing upon the reader’s senses and emotions and bringing them into musical harmony with nature to develop a deep human-nature bond, but announces that the bond remains because nature is ultimately indescribable. To discover “the secret of that spell” of which “no man may tell,” the reader must encounter real nature (Scott 57–58). Scott makes nature’s forces and powers enigmatic and esoteric; the reader must experience them first-hand to truly understand nature. French poet Yves Bonnefoy observes that compelling poems refresh the reader’s sense of existence, or “presence,” within reality because the poet “can recall that presence is a possible experience, and he can stir up the need for it, [and] keep open the path that leads toward it” (Bonnefoy 801). By developing the reader’s meaningful relationship with the natural world, yet acknowledging this world’s existence outside of his poem, Scott reminds the reader that they, too, can undergo an encounter with nature. Within these limitations, the poem reveals the effects that the natural world has on humans. It instills in the reader a drive to enter nature and experience the phenomena that exist beyond these limitations. Thus, the poem “both draws [the reader] in and sends [them] forth, urging [them] to ‘interrupt’ [their] reading by returning [their] gaze to what lies forever beyond the page” (Rigby 438). While Scott’s poem cannot stand in for nature, it pushes the reader to experience it and motivates them to fulfill the relationship that the poem initiates. “The Height of Land” encourages the reader to seek out natural encounters by imbuing its description of nature with ambiguity. Furthermore, Scott limits his poetic vision’s authority to invite the reader to understand nature for themselves.
By accepting and acknowledging representational biases, Scott resists asserting an absolute understanding of nature. His recognized subjectivity invites other perspectives to experience and disclose what the Earth means for them. Scott reflects upon his personalized natural experience when he rhetorically questions, “How often in the autumn of the world / Shall the crystal shrine of dawning be rebuilt / With deeper meaning” (Scott 123–125)? By metaphorically describing the sunrise as an altar that is continuously imbued with new, greater significance, Scott identifies that even a natural feature as recurrent as night and day provokes a poetic response, subjective interpretation, and human introspection. He humbles himself and acknowledges that his experience is not unique. He reflects on how many other voices will, like his, create their own understandings of the natural event that he perceives. This question also constitutes an invitation: Scott calls readers and other poets to formulate their own meaningful conceptions of the natural world. Scott’s poem embodies what Prescott College Environmental Humanities scholar David Gilcrest terms “hermeneutical poetics,” an ecopoetic style in which subjectivity “bracket[s] the poet’s commitment to the vision being offered in his or her poem, thus ensuring that meaning is kept in play, to one extent or another” (Gilcrest 100). Scott ensures that his representation of the natural world does not claim dominion over the truth in order to create room for other voices. Scott resists authoritatively portraying how he understands nature by foregrounding that his imagination contorts his poetic vision. The poem sends readers to discover their own perceptions of nature without Scott’s vision exerting authority over it. Additionally, by articulating these understandings, readers can further the human participation in phusis, singing up the natural world by adding their unique voices and opinions in resonance with human and non-human others.
Scott forges a bond between the reader and the natural world portrayed within his poem, but mitigates this bond’s strength. Scott encourages an encounter with real nature by distinguishing the reader from his poem’s presentation of nature. The reader develops a vicarious physical, emotional, and musical bond with nature by reading the poem. However, Scott refuses to complete the reader’s connection with nature. To fully experience this bond, the reader must leave his poem behind and enter the magical, ineffable space whose grandeur and significance Scott communicates in “The Height of Land.” The poem demonstrates ecopoetry’s ability to direct readers into forming meaningful connections with the natural world. Literature is a bridge to, but not a substitute for, nature.
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