Continuing the Legacy: Environmentalism in Twyla Hansen’s Poetry
By Steph Camerone
Female authors have been responding to the American landscape for centuries; acting as heroines looking to preserve the beautiful and mystifying nature that is core to American culture. In an essay published within The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, a collection of texts concerned with literatures representation of environment, is an essay by Vera L. Norwood entitled “Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape”. Within this essay Norwood discusses the texts of nature writers Isabella Bird, Mary Austin, Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard and how their treatment of nature differs from that of male authors.
Through her study Norwood argues that most masculine writers view nature as a wilderness that needs to be tamed by a show of violent action. This is compared to female writes who, Norwood argues, “are concerned not with action on the environment, but with understanding how nature (particularly wilderness) acts on them” (Norwood 344). While the poetry of Twyla Hansen follows this female tradition of using language to understand the influence of nature, Hansen also follows the literary path that uses poetry to vocalize the lasting consequence of human misuse of nature. Within the poem “Prairie: Giants in the Earth” Hansen is concerned with the detrimental impact human consumption has made on nature.
A scientist by training, Hansen earned her bachelor’s degree in horticulture and her master’s degree in agroecology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her instruction in these fields has informed the tone, technical diction, and political agenda present within selected poems. One of the basic laws of ecology teaches that everything is connected and that one change to nature will have ripple effects across an entire ecosystem. These ripple effects are explored by Hansen in “Prairie Giants in the Earth” by making evident the harmful farming practices that have been used in Nebraska and the damage they have done to the health of its ecosystem.
Have we listened long enough to the chattering machine,
can we redeem our losses, redirect back to timelessness?
Time was: a great plain plumed with grass,
now all but gone by way of the steel plow,
first in a lineage that frayed an ecosystem,
fumbling downward one row at a time
into dense and fibrous roots, these soils made fertile
by a massive underground biomass.
Can we now attempt to learn, appreciate the unsullied breeze
above this survivor, ever hope to be as well-sustained?
By beginning her poem with a question the tone of the poem takes on an accusatory and critical angle. It is important to note that Hansen does not disengage herself from the accusations; by using the pronouns “we” and “our” the collective is held accountable for the destruction. This collective, as Hansen imagines, is not broken apart by time but tethered by the generational destruction of the soil, grass and inherent nature done by “chattering machine” and their human operators. The collective is further developed by the use of words “timelessness” and “lineage” because they reinforce this picture of a generations all contributing to the environmental problems.
As it progress “Prairie: Giants in the Earth” depicts nature, specifically the Nebraska grasses, past and present state using parallel verbs to heighten that distinction. The plains that used to be “plumed” with nature are now “frayed”; the image of fullness, density and vibrancy brought about by the term plumed has withered away to flimsy leftovers. Without many words Hansen is able to accurately describe how the ecosystem of Nebraska is slipping away; by not using scientific diction during this section the poem is able to connect to a reader on the most basic emotional level of loss.
By reverting to this emotion Hansen is able to shift the tone of the poem from accusatory, to didactic, and then end with a question that reflects a solemn tone holding hope for change. While Norwood argues within “Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape” that a female nature writer are prone to writing critiques of our haphazard environmental culture, but Hansen’s poetry reveals a critical literature that is still approachable and welcoming to the reader.
Fromm, Harold, Glotfelty,Cheryll. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Norwood, Vera L. 1984. “Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape“. Environmental Review: ER. 8 (1): 34.