Author Archives: Jack Dugan

Jack’s Project Excerpt

Here’s a peak into the project I’ll be presenting next Wednesday, May 3rd. This is the first of three poems exploring the human narrative in climate change through the lens of the Emerald Ash Borer and the regenerative city.

1. Hinterland

The sun hung, swinging in the still,
sprawling a field in light.
Stalks of corn were left mangled
in dirt to freeze with winter.
The rusting corpse of a thresher
lay like a dull green elephant, poached.
Angry men of industry
leveled the horizon of limbs.
Somewhere between sky and thaw
the ash borer yells
“I’m sorry everything is falling apart,
I just needed a home,”
and the crop lines hunched over
the northern bow breaking the distance.
They’re marching towards tundra, the Arctic,
or somewhere else.

An Interview with Mary Swander

As a part of our on-going discourse on the arts and climate change, I was provided the opportunity to sit down with Mary Swander, Workshop graduate and former Iowa Poet Laureate. Swander’s story is an interesting one which has led her to living in a re-purposed single room school house in an Amish community outside of Kalona, IA where she grows or raises 90% of her own food. The issue of climate change has permeated through her work repeatedly, from her book of poetry, The Girls on the Roof to her collaborative work of drama Farmscape. In the comfort of her home, we sat down and got to talking poetry, environmentalism, and the poetic audience:

Jack Dugan: My first question is the big one, one that I’ve been personally grappling with: how can poetry play a role in the climate narrative; specifically bridging the gap between the science and the dialogue, given the disparity between the two?

Mary Swander: I think art is going to save us. It’s just so crazy, look at the politics. How did climate change, something that is going to wipe us all out in the not too distant future, become a Democrat/Republican thing? Al Gore first got out there, and said “we got to deal with climate change, this is the number one pressing issue that will ever come down the pipe.” Everyone thought he was crazy. Even Jesse Jackson. I had never heard of it either. It turned out to be prophetic. The politics are all messed up. Around the world, everyone recognizes the issue but us. We even have “climate deniers” here in the states, and that has us looking like idiots.

JD: Right, and that’s one of the goals of the project: How can we effectively reach out and talk to people that are denying the existence of something so present?

MS: Through the art, we have half a chance. We don’t have a chance anymore through the standard stuff, like op-eds. Now everyone gets their news from Facebook. We do not have good journalism anymore. But the arts are sneaky, more palatable. But a lot of people ask me, “isn’t it just preaching to the choir?” I think we have a better chance with the arts of getting out to the real populace of the world. With the arts you can dramatize, it’s not preachy, it becomes real. It’s something people engage emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. It hits on different wave lengths to humanity’s response. So, it’s really the way to go. Though, another question that comes up is: “aren’t you being didactic when writing about climate change in poetry?” Well, not if you do it right. You can be didactic about anything in a bad poem. But in a good poem, you could persuade through all the literary devices we use.

JD: And that brings up another question we’ve been discussing at our meetings, which is the effective use of humor when approaching something that is very heavy, daunting, all ‘doom-and-gloom’ to make it more palatable.

MS: That’s another reason why people don’t want to read about climate change, the classic reaction being “oh! That’s so depressing!” Well, it’ll be much more depressing when your grandchildren are dead, or washed out to the sea. Humor is a good way to break that protective barrier people put up.

JD: Another point made at our meetings is that essentially we’re past the window of humor and we need to be active and we need to be confrontational.

MS: That’s kind of a point where the ‘resistance’ movement is at. We’ve been out in the streets for the past two months. It’s time to introduce some legislation of our own, change some laws ourselves, line up some politicians who have a grip on climate change. It’s up to us. The literary arts have to step up.

JD: How can us as Iowan’s participate in the climate narrative through the arts; in terms of what can we learn from other people or what can we bring to the table? I think you did this effectively through The Girls on the Roof, where you used the Mississippi river as something that defines a community as much as it can destroy a community if you’re not engaging with it correctly.

MS: I mean here in Iowa we’re having a 500 year flood every five years. The first really big one was in ’93. I grew up in the Quad Cities and we had a flood every year. But nothing like when ’93 hit. Creeks turned into streams that turned into rivers. With situations like that, as Iowans, we have to document that, and respond to it in a way that brings people in to confront it. We have to get the word out, because even the experts have a hard time with that. We also have to address the complexity of it. If you take the ’93 flood, yeah we had rain for a solid year, but one of the problems with it is we’re 95% cultivated, which means all of the roots that once sucked up all the water are now gone. So it became much more dire here than it needed to be.I love reading narratives that are climate change narratives in a different way. I’m trying to work with Althea Sherman’s work a little bit. She was this remarkable ornithologist and she invented this chimney on her farm in 1880’s to allow Chimney swifts to nest. But when you read her work, it’s essentially a document on climate change. She describes her farm where there’s groves of timber and prairie stands of grasses. If you go to this place now, it’s all gone. Naturalists tend to document more than they think.

JD: I think it’s safe to say poetry has a rich tradition of naturalists engaging with the natural world, where natural imagery seems to have always been used as a vessel for the poetic mind. I guess my question to you is how should the poetic mind orient itself in the present moment with the issue of climate change or in that relationship?

MS: Its tricky because it’s got to be alluring in terms of poetry, but at the same time it can’t be obscure. We’re kind of in the obscurest era of poetry. It’s an interesting experiment, and any experiment in poetry is a valid thing to do. But if you want to address climate change in your poetry, you have to accessible and straightforward to your audience. Not romantic, you cannot romanticize. You have to do the opposite, you have to show people the ravages. I read the other day that we have maybe 40 years. It’s our responsibility to be accessible so people can relate.

JD: You taught a course at Iowa State University about environmentally inclined drama, which ended up producing Farmscape and culminated in multitudes of productions of the pay.

MS: I did! I went into class and said we’re going to collaborate on this project and its going to be about an environmental problem and you are going to tell me the problem. And we’re going to figure this out through interviewing people. We can’t go to the Amazon so we have to do it right here in Iowa. I sent them out the first week, and they came back with the issues of urban sprawl, nitrates in the rivers, soil erosion, all the aspects of climate change in Iowa. They quickly saw these are aspects of a changing farmscape.

JD: In the context of coaching your students about climate change, did you have shift your approach to teaching?

MS: Oh, it totally shifted my pedagogy! I was sick to death of ‘you write your story and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it,’ we weren’t getting anywhere with that. I wanted my students to do something bigger, bolder, more innovative. The workshop approach works to a degree, but we tried something new. We collaborated. There was no hostility or ‘one-upmanship.’ We initially had the one performance scheduled, and the students pulled it off. And the next day the phone was ringing, we got a grant to do three more shows. That turned into a dozen more shows.

JD: I guess there is a thirst for theater dealing with the subject. Theater is effective in bringing communities together in a single place to talk about such issues, but how can an individual writing poetry reach towards that?

MS: That’s the challenge, being able to explore climate change while being able to be clear about your vision. But really just having fun with it as a poet, trying to get it to work. But you also need an audience. One of my biggest problems with the poetry world today is that the audience is shrinking. Where now we’re almost just writing for other poets. And we’re pretty bright intelligent people, we don’t really need to educate each other on climate change. I want to connect with the farmer down the road who is going to vote in someone who is going to nix our climate agreements. It’s a matter of outreach, I think.

Take the poetry that was going on during the Vietnam war. It was kind of raggedy and uneven. We fell into those traps of being preachy, didactic, all of those things. Some of it was really good, some of it was really awful. We could go back to that, study it and find out what happened.

JD: I think the idea of outreach is a good question. We’re lucky enough to have a show at the end of the year, but how could the work resound after the fact? How do you maintain the audience after the fact?

MS: Well the good thing about being digital is you can reach a whole lot of people online. I would mind that as much as you could. Things can go viral and reach people you never could in the past.

Jack Project Outline

Deforestation is typically portrayed in the light of the logging industry, either legal or illegal, stripping hinterland of its natural hardwood. This can directly correlate with notions of the regenerative city, with attempts at restoring canopy in either the urban setting or within the vicinity of the city being a core mission of regenerative initiative.

Though, I’ve found this a topic potentially too vague or large in scope to tackle with a poetic narrative, so I’ve decided to focus on a quieter, though just as devastating culprit of deforestation: the Emerald Ash Borer.

The Emerald Ash Borer’s presence in North America is a direct result of human activity, and thus its effect on the natural environment is indisputably human caused. It also presents a complex case of nature consuming itself, in a sense. I think this could be a powerful metaphor for the plight of climate narrative: where the act of deforestation (in the sense of removing the afflicted ash trees) is an act of climate “resilience,” if not regeneration. The Ash Borer is also an issue especially pertinent to the Midwest.

On a conceptual level, I would like the poem to unfold into three parts: addressing the life cycle of the Emerald Ash Borer, the Ash tree, and that of human interaction with canopy. Rather than packaging these three sentiments neatly into each their own part, I would like to thread all three sentiments into each of the three parts, as every issue concerning climate change is seemingly endlessly tangled into on another.

As far as form, the poem will likely be free verse and without meter. I’ve found that I have the most success in this approach. Rhyme (not forced, only as a means of maintaining music) will likely be present, along with all the usual suspects (metaphor, simile, paradox, assonance, alliteration). I would like to keep the poem accessible as well, as some examples of poetry can be as foreign and confusing as the scientific language we are trying to which we are trying to build bridges.

Upcoming Urban Forestry Renewal Interview

My first interview will be with Michael Dugan, the Forestry Coordinator of Openlands. The organization is a Chicago based non-profit working to renew urban ecology through the simple act of planting trees, an act which also not only builds greener communities, but also unites communities.

I would like to explore the social justice implications of urban forestry initiatives and connect this to the notion of a larger, nation-wide reforestation initiative and how this could resonate within the American consciousness.

Is planting a tree a revolutionary act? I think so, but I’d like to hear what a person who does it for a living thinks.


American Forests: North American Forests in the Age of Man

American Forests is a non-profit working towards the reforestation of woodlands both nationally and globally. Though, their “Community Releaf” program is where they shine. With these green endeavors, the organization “aims to bring national attention to the value of our urban forests and reaches geographically distributed and culturally diverse communities across the United States.”

Their community inclined projects typically work to restore tree canopies in urban areas. With their project in Oakland, they intersect social justice with ecological justice.

Here’s an excerpt from a report on the matter:

“Several studies have found correlations between city trees and public health in neighborhoods with low tree canopy — increased respiratory illness, particularly among children and senior citizens, and more incidents of diabetes and heart disease. In terms of psychosocial benefits, a lack of access to green space can negatively impact mental well-being and stress levels, the latter a foreboding allusion to the potential climate change risks highlighted in the recent IPCC report.

Recognizing that tree canopy can be an important factor in understanding and addressing income disparity and supporting sustainable development — both environmentally and economically — a recent study by American Forests examined tree canopy by Oakland council district in correlation with several demographic and socioeconomic factors, including income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, population and age. The information that was derived can help identify the districts where additional trees can provide the greatest positive impacts for communities.”

They have also published a digestible history on the American forest since human civilization has taken root. Here’s a look:

“Human impacts, from colonial times to the present, have drastically changed not just the size, but the nature of American forests, whether you consider the baseline for what is natural to be 1492 CE or 15,000 BP.

The trees in mature forests are adapted to soil characteristics, light intensities and moisture levels created by the forest’s species themselves. Remove these species, and all those factors change. The resulting forest is now composed of pioneer species — those first to grow in a tree-less location, like aspen, birch and alder. The old-growth forest species must wait until the pioneer species recreate their required soil, light and moisture conditions to reemerge. Similar changes in forest composition are created by natural events such as fires and wind storms, and the mature forest regenerates naturally. The difference is that most managed forests today are harvested so frequently that they never reach the optimal conditions for the species that prefer mature conditions. Instead of a complex, old-growth structure of multi-layered canopies with a spectrum of young to ancient trees and tree fall gaps, decaying down wood, standing dead trees and high species diversity, forests today have relatively young, dense, even-aged and even-canopied stands of fewer species.

Simply replanting trees does not always mean the forest has returned. In places where timber companies have replanted with native trees — whether in rows on a plantation or less orderly in wilder areas — the new forest is a monoculture of commercial species that lacks most of the biodiversity associated with the original forest. Smaller patches of forest, or forest fragmentation, has also reduced forest biodiversity because the smaller fragments cannot support wide-ranging wildlife species. In addition, the small, isolated populations of other species, including some trees, are more susceptible to local extinction.”

Dugan Project Idea

I have chosen to utilize poetry as a means of exploring human efforts to both decimate and restore American woodlands. Whether or not I will hone in on a specific wilderness, I have yet to decide.

I would like to try out a new approach to free-verse poetry through the use of what I’ve decided to call “layered poetry.” Of course, all poetry has multitudes of layers, both in language and content, though what I refer to is the physical form of the piece.

I would like to print each page on translucent paper, which I hope will provide a more striking and direct dialogue between the pages, as the poem in it’s entirety will be visible to the reader before flipping pages.

This will allow the reader to directly participate in the dismantling of the language, as each page turned removes language from the greater visually-represented dialogue. Ideally, this act can translate to an “emotional deforestation” of the reader’s experience.

However, this experience remains pertinent to the single act of each individual reading. The final presentation of this will prove challenging. Perhaps this is where collaboration comes in?

– Jack

Daily Iowan: “UI Ready to Shun Coal”

Earlier this week, the Daily Iowan published an article detailing University of Iowa’s President Bruce Herrald’s announcement that UI will be coal free by 2025.

Here’s a bit of the article:

“University of Iowa President, Bruce Harreld, announced on Feb. 20 the UI will be coal-free by 2025.

According to a press release, Harreld said, ‘It’s the right choice for our students and our campus, and it’s the surest path to an energy-secure future.

‘In 2025, we expect to have diminished our reliance on coal to the point it is no longer included in our fuel portfolio.’

The UI will continue its efforts to advance energy programs to ensure there is ‘an abundant supply’ of alternative-energy sources, he said.

The UI has taken steps to reduce its dependence on coal — in 2008, the university established seven ‘sustainability targets’ to be achieved by 2020, according to the press release.

Since the 2020 vision’s inception, the UI has managed to reduce its use of coal by 60 percent.

This correlates with one of the sustainability targets, which seeks to derive 40 percent of the UI’s energy from renewable resources — a far cry from a university once dependent on fossil fuels, according to the UI sustainability website.”

The coal industry’s destructive tendencies towards global climate is well known, and this plan to shift away from using the energy source as a means of powering our university remains to be small, but important step in combating climate change.

Ideally, given Iowa’s inclination towards wind energy, we’ll see more institutions making the shift away from dirty fossil fuel.