This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here.
Todd Davis knows what people expect from nature poetry.
“I think people always think nature writing, nature poetry, is a place of solace. A place of celebration,” Davis said.
His latest collection, Coffin Honey, does not fit that description, though in it Davis writes about the beauty of the natural world in detail.
Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona, and The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with him about his latest book.
Kara Holsopple: These are not necessarily feel-good nature poems. How would you describe the collection? I hope you don’t take offense to my saying that?
Todd Davis: No, I take no offense to your saying that. This is a book of poems that are grieving. It’s a book of sorrow. It’s a lamentation.
This is my seventh book of poems. All my books are based or rooted deeply in nature and wildness, and at the intersection between humans and that wildness. There were lamentations in the other books. There was sorrow and grief in other books. You can’t write about nature in the 20th and now into the 21st century without grief.
“Every time I sat down to write and engage with beauty, I felt that if I didn’t have that sorrow or that desecration in the poem somehow I wasn’t being honest about where I was in this moment.”
But it’s because of what has happened over the last 10 years: Climate change or climate collapse is more extreme, and the level of extinction, the extinction event and our role in it is highlighted in ways that are more obvious than ever.
When I came to write these poems, every time I sat down to write and engage with beauty, I felt that if I didn’t have that sorrow or that desecration in the poem somehow I wasn’t being honest about where I was in this moment.
Holsopple: One of the characters who appears every so often throughout the book, who sort of lumbers through the book, is Ursus, a bear. Who is Ursus and what are you trying to convey through his storyline?
Davis: For the last 20 years, I’ve lived here in Blair County, right along the Allegheny Front between the villages of Tipton and Bellwood. There are two game lands, Game Lands 108 and 158. They comprise 41,000 acres.
I encounter black bears very regularly here. In fact, halfway through the writing of this book, I had an encounter with the largest black bear I’ve ever had, during the mating season in June. I was in some thick laurel that was all in pink blossoms, and this black bear that definitely weighed over 600 pounds, might have been a little larger, came lumbering through.
We both stopped and we were about 20 yards from each other and gazed at each other for about 30 seconds. He then moved on, which I took as a blessing to keep writing these poems. But black bear have many characteristics that are similar to human characteristics,
Holsopple: Like what?
Davis: Literally the formation of their muscles, the set of their face, some of their mannerisms, the way they can stand on their hind legs. I thought as our largest mammal, here in PA, here in Blair County, what is it like to experience climate change for this bear?
I had written quite a lot in my other books about native brook trout as a very important species indicator of ecosystem health. But I thought Ursus would be a good way to connect with the other story that’s in this book, the human families that are in this book, especially a boy who is going through a trauma. Their stories end up interconnecting.
Holsopple: Ursus is sort of trying to live his life. Can you just talk a little bit about that, and then where it ends up?
Davis: I am a hunter for sustainable, healthy meat to help balance the ecosystem since we’ve taken out so many of the large predators, including wolves and mountain lions. And so I do hunt white-tailed deer. I am not a trophy hunter.
“It’s not what I hope happens, but I project out to a place of quite a lot of devastation in the environment and to our culture.”
The reason I bring that up is very early in this book. Ursus, his mother, is killed and he has to learn to move on his own. Ursus starts bumping into the human world that encroaches on him, including an early poem in which a drone flies over his head and that drone flying over his head brings his mother back in memory to him as he destroys the drone. Sorry for all the drone lovers, but when they encroach into wild spaces, I think, what would a bear do with a drone buzzing around its head?
Then Ursus moves through the book, and in history. There’s a poem, for example, in which Ursus dreams the history of the way so many African-Americans were brought to our continent, enslaved. So Ursus engages with our worst history, our desecration of the natural world, our enslavement of other people, slavery as an institution within our country, and moves towards a more apocalyptic ending in the book.
That ending in the book is me maybe prophetically suggesting what might occur in 10 to 20 or 30 years. Black bears can live up to 40 years in the wild. It’s not what I hope happens, but I project out to a place of quite a lot of devastation in the environment and to our culture.
Holsopple: You write about energy, too. In the poem “Until Darkness Comes,” set in Somerset County (Pennsylvania), you write about the wind turbines there, which now supply electricity to old steel towns. But you also write about fracking wells, where “…fires burn on the drilling platforms, and the prehistoric gas smells like the eggs that spoil in the hutch when the hens hide them.”
You write about a boy there, too, who takes pleasure in the little joys of the natural world, like ants. What are you saying about the nature of energy extraction and the people who live in those places?
Davis: Throughout my many books, coal comes back again and again, because I have lived either in coal country, Rust Belt country, for large portions of my life, or in places that have used coal exclusively.
We humans always leave a footprint. You know, mountaintop removal in West Virginia just horrifies me because a mountaintop can’t be put back. Deep tunnel mining, of course, led to acid mine drainage, but strip mining, it removed the topsoil and it changed topography to some degree, but it changed soil composition entirely, and what species could live there.
“I want to honor that grief of people who have given their lives over to something, maybe generations of it…and what it means to live in that place when that is gone.”
Fracking has had its own devastations, including forest fragmentation, the gases that burn off and contribute to climate change. It would be hypocritical, I think, of most of us unless we live entirely off the grid, not to recognize we are part of the consumption and thus part of that extractive activity.
But I write about it and try to honor the people who have no choices but to work in those industries. We are often born into economies that we have no control over and end up working jobs, maybe working on a mine, for example, without any true sense that there was something else I could move into.
Holsopple: The little boy in the poem says, you know, he’s not leaving this place. He wants to be where his grandfather, where that legacy, lives.
Davis: And as you see at the end of that poem, that grandfather never thought that these fires could go out, that this industry could die away. So on one hand, I may critique extractive industries. On the other hand, I want to honor that grief of people who have given their lives over to something, maybe generations of it, and what that means, and what it means to live in that place when that is gone.
My books swing like a pendulum from more praiseworthy poems of nature and more positive relationships between humans and the other or more-than-human natural world.
This is a dark book. I’ve been writing poems for about a year now since this manuscript went into the production of more hope, more promise. I think of that boy at the end of that poem. What is his life like? What would be a hopeful possibility for that life of living in Somerset County? What can we bring there? I think there are hopeful stories to be told.
Holsopple: You’re an environmental studies professor. How does that inform your poetry, and vice versa?
Davis: I go into the field with students and so often, some experience that I observe them having, maybe for the first time, brings back that sense of awe or wonder – that mystery or mystical part of the natural world – and it leads to a poem.
“All of my work is about attending to that more-than-human natural world. All of my teaching is that same thing: trying to encourage students to attend to it, because devotion, I really do believe, will follow.”
Even in an introductory course, and Environmental Studies 100, with a biologist I team teach with, we have students read poems, we have students try to write poems, we have them try to sketch things in the field – any wary to keep them paying attention.
Mary Oliver, the great nature poet said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” All of my work is about attending to that more-than-human natural world. All of my teaching is that same thing: trying to encourage students to attend to it, because devotion, I really do believe, will follow.
Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona and a poet. His latest collection is Coffin Honey, published by Michigan State University Press.