We dwell inside living languages, as well as built, natural, and cultural environments. Writing connects them all. Most of my writing is hinged one way or another to the remote boreal forest and glaciated mountains of eastern Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias region, in the upper Copper River watershed. I eat salmon that swim inland and drink raw spring water while glaciers recede and succession zones quicken. The longer I stay here and the more I learn about the science of local and global environments, the less remote my home feels. Permafrost melt causes land to slump and slide. Forests suffer under insects and fire. Brush grows and blocks the view. Backyard ice melt contributes to rising seas.
Our bodies and languages are products of nature, and poetry allows us to experience language’s capacity to exceed its own supposed limits. Poems are linguistic paths into the unsayable wilds, where new knowledge can grow (and spread) from the mulch of sensation, thought, and speechlessness. Poems hone a receptivity and perceptivity for all that we might not understand or have names for, and so become a way for the world to shape us after itself.
“For a long time before it becomes a speaking… poetry is only a listening,” according to Don McKay. “This listening involves hearkening both with and beyond language… when poetry does become speech, it turns to the business of naming with this listening folded inside it.” This speaks to my own interest in cross-disciplinary knowing, and to the pleasure and the need to learn how others see the world.
Writing poetry has been a kind of wayfinding, part of a process or practice of immersion in a place whose natural processes are welcome to influence my own poetic, linguistic, and quotidian ones. The utility of independent looking, though, is finite. The acceleration of environmental change, so apparent and acknowledged, demands the insights of science, if one cares to understand their place in the world. Poems, capable of showing people new ways to see while also moving them, are small actions that bridge our species with others, with each other, and with the natural world.
Jeremy Pataky is the author of Overwinter (University of Alaska Press). His work has appeared in Terrain.org, Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, The Southeast Review, and others, plus anthologies like Refugium: Poems for the Pacific, Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds, and Permanent Vacation: 20 Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. Jeremy earned an MFA at the University of Montana and was a founding board member of 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit, where he served for 10 years in various capacities. He works as a publisher and splits his time between McCarthy and Anchorage. More at jeremypataky.com.