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Posted on Jan 29, 2012

Ripples Blog Series | Jason Kirkey

Ripples Blog Series | Jason Kirkey

Four weeks ago we announced the launch of the Ripples Blog series. Continuing on our chosen theme of hiraeth, we offer this contribution by Hiraeth Press Founder Jason Kirkey. Jason is the author of four volumes of poetry, most recently Estuaries. He is also the author of the award-winning non-fiction title, The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality.

Hiraeth is a  word of Welsh origin. Loosely it translates as a “longing” or “home­sick­ness” or “a longing for some­thing our soul once knew.” Drawing from his love of verse and landscape, Jason reflects on poetry as a form of longing—be it to connect with the beauty of earth or to a deeper part of ourselves.

The Ecology of Longing

Jason Kirkey

Poetry longs to break free from the confines of words. It wants to be something more than sound and syllables. Precisely what it wants to be is as diverse as the poets—whether they are mammal, plant, or fungus—who write it or speak it. My poetry longs to be water over stones and the feathers of heron and crow—it longs to speak in “the common tongue of mushroom and moss, sorrel and sprout.” So too, I think, these wild voices long for deep communion with the myriad of other polyphonic voices which make up this wild earth. Just as I cannot understand the bullfrog or wren, they cannot understand me in the way another human can—yet their utterances are beautiful and evocative, change me in the hearing, and influence my own articulations. Though I do not speak the language of herons and they do not speak English—we each speak the language of beauty and through it find communion.

Beauty speaks to us through longing. Poetry goes beyond understanding to the mutual enlivening of the whole earth community through the reciprocity of our longings. Any lover of poetry—or indeed any art, in the broadest sense of the word—knows that it can bring healing and wholeness to areas of the psyche which were fragmented and dis-eased. Whenever I collapse into a sense of suffering I routinely read Rumi—not to make myself feel better but to remind myself of those deeper currents of life in which everything is already perfectly good and beautiful. Through Rumi I am able to bring those currents to the surface and bring about a change in my condition or at least my perception of my condition.

Poetry is one of the great medicines for the psyche. This is equally true not only of the poetry of humans but of that inscribed by rain and rivers and leaves. My concern is whether this is true only for human minds or if it also true for the mind which is an ecosystem. Does poetry make a difference in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest or the salt marshes of the Northeast? If the poetry of trout and sorrel can touch and affect a human being—independent of our ability to understand what they mean (I do not understand fully the behavior of deer or the poems of Yeats and yet both a beautiful and meaningful to me)—then why should our own poetry not also have some effect on the ecology in which it is embedded?

The longing of the ecosystem is not merely metaphor or poetry but an ecological reality. Longing is simply the word we use to point to a human emotion. In ecology we might call it succession. In the early part of the 20th century an ecologist by the name of Frederic Clements put forth his ideas on the succession of plant communities toward a climax state. In brief, he argued that ecosystems develop along predictable stages toward a discreet climax which represents the ideal order of the system. In poetic terms, Clements was arguing for the longing of the ecosystem toward its own fulfillment.

This concept was held that there supported by a philosophy of the “balance of nature,” which attracted many early ecologists. The balance of nature suggests that there is an inherent balance and order to ecosystems—an ideal distribution and configuration of species in predictable relationships. The change and development—even instability—of ecosystems, much like in discreet organisms, was seen as a mark of immaturity or disturbance. Once the mature stage of climax was reached things would level off into their ideal order until an outside disturbance, like humans, came to disrupt the system. The problem with all of this is that such climax states are never reached because of the frequency of disturbance and because the climate changes at a faster rate than the ecosystem.

In opposition to the Clementsian view of succession was another plant ecologist named Henry Gleason. Although Gleason states his case too strongly when he argues against any holistic order in ecology, he provides an invaluable insight into the nature of ecosystems: complexity. Gleason’s argument, contrary to Clements’ idea that the particular plant formations associated with each successional stage are fixed, is that they are actually quite random. According to Gleason the character of plant associations is determined by the random dispersal of seeds which are viable enough to survive in a new environment. These qualities are not fixed but depend on a number of variables that are far too complex to model or to pigeonhole into a deterministic set of successional stages and plant associations. It is the “coincidental” nature of this process which leads to the structural diversity of ecosystems.

This process—of longing, of succession, of evolution—is best described as being stochastic. This simply means that there is a selection—by the whole—of random elements. Evolution by natural selection, for example, is stochastic because those traits which are most fit (as in, most integral with the rest of the ecological community) to survive are selected because they are consonant with the ecosystem’s dao—its Way. They may not fit at all in other communities—they are not universally “better” but rather contextually fit. Creativity works in much the same way by taking the random events of a life and driving them toward beauty.

The longing of the soul which constitutes our deepest self is similarly not fixed but fluctuating in conversation with the whole community of life in which we are situated. Geography—both of the landscape and of the psyche—matters. This order arises out of complexity, fluctuating with the ebbing and flowing of ecological energy, and will one day dissolve back into it. Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice. And so it is with longing and the soul. It’s a different river running through us every time, in every moment, with every breath.

This, I believe, is what the Buddhists mean when they say there is no self. There is no permanent structure that we can grasp onto and declare as the definitive or ideal version of the self. It rises and falls with the rest of the trophic energy that flows through the food web. Longing is food which liberates the creative energy of beauty into form. In its resonant beauty, the ecosystem is constantly evoking and feeding us with longing, creating new structures of identity through which we in turn can feed the world with whatever beauty we create, whatever longing from the earth that we inspire—the poems of longing that connect us.

Read past contributions to the Ripples Series by Theodore Richards, Jamie K. Reaser and J.K. McDowell. Next week we will be presenting you with a piece penned by Ian Marshall, author of the forthcoming book: Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail {Coming February 24, 2012}



Jason KirkeyJason Kirkey is an author, poet, and the founder of Hiraeth Press. He grew up in the Ipswich River-​​North Atlantic Coast water­shed of Massachusetts. Inspired by the land­scapes in which he has lived — the tem­perate forests and old moun­tains of New England, the red rocks and high desert of Colorado, Irish hills and sea — his work is per­me­ated with an eco­log­ical sen­si­bility. Whether poetry or prose, Jason’s words strive toward con­so­nance with the ecosystem. He has written four vol­umes of poetry, including Estuaries and a non­fic­tion book, The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality. Jason is now working on his second non­fic­tion book and a grad­uate degree in con­ser­va­tion ecology. He lives in the Piedmont of North Carolina.