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Finding and Keeping the Language of Nature

Your exercise is to take a natural history field-guide and locate a poem within it. Write it out as your own, before altering it as you wish in order to make a final poem that imitates the precision of language of a field-guide, and a precision of your own observation in the writing. This is an example of “found poetry” of course, but one where you shape the words to refashion them into being more than their original parts.

To get comfortable with this exercise, take any good field guide and open it at random – allow chance to have its say on your choice. Believe me, you will find precise, and sometimes magically incisive, description, and names that seem to fall from fairy tales, and a language as precise as it is playful to the ear.

In the following example, I have broken and reshaped some descriptive prose (stolen from the Collins Field Guide to British and European Trees) into counted syllabic lines; I have placed episodes of linked description into stanzas, and indented lines in a way which forces the eye to move around the page to find connections and answers. See how the shaping has altered the way we hear and read this text. It is more playful, sure, but it still holds to a precision of perception. Try this yourself.

from Found Poem: ‘The European Larch’.

 The Alps—
     replaced by Norway Spruce
          in colder, wetter areas—
                with ranges
                in the Tatra and Sudetan
     plains and mountains of Poland.
          Long cultivated and abundant: 
              in older plantations, shelterbeds
              and parks,
 away from cities and the driest, drabbest areas.

 Shape: spire-
    like, on a trunk straight up 
           only in the finest, sheltered
                 trees; often
                 broad and characterful in age
    in arid or exposed sites.
           The fine shoots hang under the branches.
               Blond in winter. More finely, spiki–
               ly twig–
 gy—set against, say, the Ginkgo or, say, a Swamp Cypress.
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The Magic of Field Guides

As a field ecologist I get a buzz from science’s terminology and the names of species – especially…

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