Contributor Spotlight: Todd Davis
Environmental Indicators, Or a Middle-aged Rant Explaining
the Making of “What My Neighbor Tells Me Isn’t Global Warming”
Don’t get me wrong. There’s more than enough evidence of abuse in this tract: in the last 150 years it’s been timbered, quarried, and strip-mined. Trashed so many times it’s hard to keep count. The only reason it exists today as public land, the reason why the game commission could even afford to purchase it in the first place, is that it was so wrecked nobody could figure out how to ring one more penny out of it. Abandoned, it’s begun to take on some ghostly semblance of the wild place it was 200 years ago.
Of course, now we’ve figured out how to frack, how to break the plates of the earth, to drill down and release the natural gas, that slumbering giant we try to bend to our will. Some nights I wake in a sweat to the thought that the game commission will allow drilling in this forest, seduced by the idea that more money might help with later conservation projects.
Many of the people I live among, people I love and work with, kids my boys go to school with, even some of their teachers, don’t believe in global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call this uncanny shift toward ever hotter temperatures, crazy storms, and rising sea levels that science tells us we play a significant part in.
My mother had a wall-hanging in our house when I was growing up that said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and I try to do just that. I really do. But I also believe in science and democracy, and I fret over the forests that help keep me sane, that let us breathe clean air and drink clean water.
I want the president I voted for to do more to save us from ourselves as we devour most everything in sight. I’m tired of advertisements telling me that if I only consume more I’ll be happy. I’m tired of being told that we can have a “green economy” but still continue our gluttony. Maybe I’m just tired and cranky. After all, I only have two more years before I’m 50.
Of course, that’s not what my poem is really about. There’s my friend, the poet Jim Daniels, and his snow peas blossoming too early in Pittsburgh. There are those donkeys who follow those horses all around the pasture, the courtesy and respect they show one another. Mostly there’s my love for my wife who I’ve known since I was 12 and the speckled wood lily (Clintonia umbellulata) that reminds me of her beauty.
And the attraction of a poem is that it doesn’t have to move forward in a straight line or a logical order. It’s pretty clear that we aren’t a logical species. We wouldn’t be in this mess if we were.
So through association, that blessed leap-frogging our brains tend to do naturally, a wood lily enters the poem, and when that happens—outside the borders of what I’ve written—I find myself walking a path along Bell’s Run, a trail that follows this stream that’s never been maintained, only used over and over again by humans and animals, their hoof prints and paw prints and foot prints beating a groove in the earth to follow.
Depending on the time of year, I’ll find the prodigious huckleberry scat of black bears, the brown pellets of deer that look like chocolate covered raisins, or the sawdust scat of porcupines, maybe even the comma shaped excrement of a ruffed grouse or the segmented leavings of a bobcat.
With this much fecundity littering the ground, no wonder wood lilies and foam flower and painted trillium rise up in ridiculous numbers. This small, hidden place at the center of those 40,000 acres has been protected because the mountains come shuddering down to the streambed so steeply deer have a hard time clambering up it, and the path is forced to narrow to less than two feet in width, and the machinery of destruction can’t slide its haunches into such a tapered space to wreak havoc. Here I must stop and make the blessed sign of problematic topography and give thanks for those it spared.
And then I’m at the mailbox again, or sitting in the barber’s chair, listening to folks tell me that tree huggers will be the death of us, that regulation only stops economic growth. Sometimes I’m disgusted with my neighbors, with all our ways of neglecting the truth, of not caring for the places we live in, of only caring about tomorrow and our insatiable appetites. Sometimes I weep over my complicity in the debacle, or get pissed that what I do best is write poems. How impotent my scribbling seems when I descend into such foulness.
I can’t even stand myself for long in these moods, and if I take a step back and am honest with myself, I have to say poems have saved me, saved my marriage, my relationship with my sons, even with my neighbors.
I’m not sure where I’d be if it wasn’t for those few remaining tracts of land I can lose myself in. It’s in the quiet of water purling around stone, in the bird song of warblers migrating, that I remind myself not to rant to my wife until she flees the house for relief. After all, this poem really is just a way to say I’m sorry to her and to the next generation as well.
Todd Davis teaches environmental studies and creative writing at Penn State University’s Altoona College. He is the author of four books of poems, most recently In the Kingdom of the Ditch (Michigan State University Press, 2013) and The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010). He also edited Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball (Michigan State University Press, 2012) and co-edited Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010). His poetry has appeared widely in such places as American Poetry Review, Poetry Daily, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Iowa Review.