Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #12


Southern Colorado poets presented a session on ecopoetics at last spring’s AWP conference in Denver. We print the essays by Serena Chopra and Juan Morales here.

Where We Ramble: Nostalgia, Science and magination in Ecopoetics

(Serena Chopra)

As a Colorado native, born and raised on the front-range, I feel that what most influences my work is a sense of nostalgia I have with this unique land. It is the diverse geology, allowing for a variety of lifestyles from urban to suburban to quiet mountain top living that appeals to so many people; but, like a Marilyn Monroe archetype, Colorado’s subtle beauty and dynamic landscape creates a destructive curiosity and desire from admirers.

For the past 26 years I have watched the last remnants of the Old West, a time of big land and freedom within and about that land, disappear into shopping malls, soccer fields, housing developments, churches the size of shopping malls, and massive six lane highways: a restricted country of conducted movement. I realize that with the Colorado population boom, especially due to relocation from California in the early to mid 1990’s, Colorado requires such accommo- dations. However, I cannot help feeling nostalgic, cynical, and slightly territorial about the Colorado of my childhood.

Mass development including power and irrigation expansion and the construction of the first Colorado highways occurred around 1920. This also marks a sudden increase in population and development and a shift away from the Old West, into the future metropolitan design. By the 1980’s, when I was born, the eastern plains (including Parker and Aurora) seemed to stand at a crossroads between the Old West and the approaching future. In Parker, particularly, there was a sense of architectural and aesthetic preservation: the shop faces looked like an old-time Main Street, lit with short, globular lampposts; there were large fields of wildflowers hugging the small houses and compact Victorian-style condos; there was a small annual carnival and scattered parades with horse-drawn carriages and truck beds of children; and where the sky met the land in the distance, it was peaceful and undisturbed by mass development. We had a Baskin Robbins and a Target where we knew the cashiers, Smokey and Jill. My bus ride was 45 minutes long, hiked us up a curving, pine tree lined road. Because of the aesthetic that replicated a disappearing past on the surface of modern amenities, my sense of nostalgia emanates from being a child of that generation which saw and dreamed about the Old West through small spaces of relief between shopping plazas along the two lane highways. I watched the last kneeling barns on tightening acres of field and the last mile-marker houses under large drooping trees get replaced with the endless miles of the stucco and beige and cement that you see today.      

My dad, who took me on long road trips all over the state, encouraged my interest in Colorado landscape and history. Though he was an immigrant from India, he had a history to recount for each structure and valley; he knew why each town was named what it was; and though I now find that some of these histories were only his stories, I am fascinated by the way he imagined around the geology. In addition to history, he gave me a fierce respect for the power of the infinitely massive collisions and formations that created Colorado’s current landscape. I wondered at his amazement and made it my own. Today, my writing celebrates the geological lore of the Front-range. I am stunned by facts: for example, the rocky mountains were formed twice—first, 250 million years ago, the ancestral rocky mountains were the result of a collision called Frontrangia, between Laurentia, a northern supercontinent and Gondwana, a southern supercontinent. This range faced complete erosion only 50 million years later, the fine debris piled-high across half the state. The second and final range came up 72 million years ago due to Laramide intrusions, which are magma invasions that lift from underneath the land structures, but never reach the surface. This is an incredible story: imagine the lift of an entire mountain range; imagine the immense heat and momentum gathering and pushing and melting and congealing the eroded land of a flattened mountain range back into an even higher and denser range. Think of the infinite life that was here before us, and the earth shifting around them. Think that it is not impossible for the earth to shift around us. These are the images that astonish me and inspire me. I am inspired to feel humble and to recognize how fleeting is human infrastructure, so easy across the horizon, into the sky, and the image of us building on the wide, patient tongue of a soon-to swallow land. We are no exception to a fine debris piled-high.

I remember standing on the back porch in eastern Colorado with my dad, spotting foxes in the cricket-buzzing ocher grasses and, as the evening sun dropped, a light rain would sometimes brush up to us from the mountains and huddle the thick, muddy smell of the prairie. In the distance, long bolts of lightning illuminated the mountains, our firm horizon, our patient West. It was that distance, that breadth of space and seeing that halted pioneers, it was that mysterious horizon that beaconed explorers, and it was their respect and curiosity that I feel nostalgic for. When I stand on that same back porch today, not even 20 years later, I can see beyond the house across the street, I can see for miles, I can see for 50 miles, the houses rolling up and out, but I cannot see that there is a horizon beyond them.   

For me, the celebration song is one of sorrow and joy. Joy, because we are the land’s thinking creatures, and sorrow because we are the land’s thinking creatures. We can know that we came from the universe, that the water and blood of our bodies, of the Earth, and animals is made of molecules that coalesced 13 billion years ago in a deep haze of space. Additionally, it is this thinking that allows us to think beyond our origin; because we can conceive of a past, we can imagine a future, and achieve it. And it is language that allows us to consider our origin and future. However, between the language of facts and hypotheses, the language of poetry that rambles in nostalgia and wonder, it is our song of joy and sorrow. Poetry is the ecotone of language. It engages in the entropic reaction that unites our origin with our future. Poetry allows us to simultaneously feel nostalgia for our past, while allowing us to re-imagine the past for a better future. For the fragile ecosystems we destroyed, for the cement that depletes the land, for the pollution that makes for oil-stain sunsets over Denver, I feel sorrow and shame. But for the science that teaches us about the greatness of the Earth, giving us an appreciation for our ecological body and designs rejuvenation and protection programs we have implemented, I feel immense joy and hope. Poetry, for me, works between these actions of destruction and creation, and, as a poet, so do I. I cannot provide scientific solutions, but I can be nostalgic and I can understand our history, and I can make a gesture that erupts a new way of being. For me, the Colorado ecotone demonstrates the condition of poetry: it is a home of tension, it is never comfortable and often dangerous; facts may perish, but it is the search for balance that makes poetry the intuition of science.
# # #

Thus: ecopoetics, a “housemaking.” This implies writing what is habitable and undertaking a writing practice that is part of the process of making the habitable. All of this points to place. (Linda Russo, “Writing Within: Notes on Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice”)