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Poetry and Ecology
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Redeemer's Dr. Deborah Bowen explores in her public work and research how poetry can uniquely inspire us to care for the environment.

Written by Lindsay Barden, Digital Communications Coordinator - Redeemer University College. "This story was originally published in Redeemer University College's Resound: www.redeemer.ca/resound."

Sustainable, eco-friendly and green are buzzwords that are often bandied about, with increasing frequency in Christian circles. We know the phrases and have heard the facts, but has it convinced us to care for the environment? Does our heart for God’s earth lead us to act differently?

Dr. Deborah Bowen, professor emerita of English at Redeemer, is exploring the connection between poetry and how we care for and relate to our environment in her research endeavour: The Poetry and Ecology Project. Her work is funded by a $15,885 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

“My research considers the possibility of a voice of environmental hope — even in dark times — in the contemporary poetry of a highly populated area of southern Ontario,” shared Dr. Bowen. “I have been looking to see how the poetry of seven local poets might reflect that ‘where you are matters’ and might be the vehicle for engaging readers more thoughtfully and creatively with their social and natural environments.”

If the goal is to inspire stewardship, it is essential to reframe the way we talk about nature and its care. This need is echoed by others in the larger science community. “The data may change our minds, but we need poetry to change our hearts,” said Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in her 2004 essay Interview with a Watershed.

With the help of senior students Elise Arsenault, Liane Miedema, Joshua Voth, Rebekah Borshevsky and Jeff Vandergoot, Bowen created seven leaflets to represent the project to the public. Each features three poems on one of seven topics: food, flowers and pollinators, water, trees, birds, wild creatures and degraded land. The work of local poets Daniel David Moses, Madhur Anand, Fr. Greg Kennedy, Bernadette Rule, John Terpstra, Adam Dickinson and Anna Bowen fill each leaflet, opening the door for a new kind of conversation about the environment. Each leaflet also lists a directory of local organizations that protect and care for the earth in the leaflet’s area of concern. The carefully curated selections of environmental poetry and practical steps offer an opportunity for us to rethink our relationship to the earth.

The front of each leaflet reads: “Poetry, like chlorophyll, is a catalyst for turning light into energy.” The quote, by poet and environmental scientist Madhur Anand, describes the leaflets’ purpose. “As Anand suggested, I’m wagering that poetry can be the catalyst for turning light into energy,” Dr. Bowen explained. “That’s what my student researchers and I are hoping for — that the poems will awaken the imaginations of readers in such a way that people care more and are more interested in getting involved in environmental issues.”

The Poetry and Ecology Project has received a level of success that Dr. Bowen did not expect. Since the leaflets’ launch at Redeemer on March 16th, Dr. Bowen has presented the project on four separate occasions in Hamilton, Guelph, Saskatoon and Regina. The project has been featured in The Hamilton Spectator and her leaflets have been distributed at schools, libraries and community centres throughout the Hamilton area.

It’s an invitation to be inquisitive, sensitive, imaginative and restorative as we rethink our relationship with the wild.”

“The Poetry and Ecology Project is an important one,” said Elise Arsenault, one of Bowen’s research students, “because it helps us tune into a conversation that used to come much easier, when we were more connected to the outdoors and understanding of the fact that we are a part of an ecosystem — not just standing outside of it. It’s an invitation to be inquisitive, sensitive, imaginative and restorative as we rethink our relationship with the wild.”

The excitement about The Poetry and Ecology Project shows no sign of slowing down. Dr. Bowen and her research students were featured on the Art Waves radio show in August. They are scheduled to present at a conference and share the project with a number of other groups later this year.

The Poetry and Ecology Project has struck a chord. This message of creation care has grown quickly, showing that perhaps Anand was right: poetry is in fact like chlorophyll, turning light into energy