Ann Fisher-Wirth's sixth book of poems is The Bones of Winter Birds (Terrapin Books, 2019); her fifth, Mississippi, is a poetry/photography collaboration with Maude Schuyler Clay (Wings Press, 2018). With Laura-Gray Street, Ann coedited The Ecopoetry Anthology (Trinity UP, 3rd printing 2020). A senior fellow of the Black Earth Institute, Ann has had senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden, and residencies at Djerassi, Hedgebrook, The Mesa Refuge, and CAMAC. In 2017 she was Poet in Residence at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA. She teaches at the University of Mississippi, where she also directs the Environmental Studies program--and she teaches yoga in Oxford, MS.
A little backstory: How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments, or what are your primal experiences with the natural world?
I was not an athletic child, but like most kids in the 1950’s, my sister and I were always told, “Go outside and play.” As we ran around the neighborhood with our friends, the natural world sank deeply into my awareness. It was the huge green leaves of the maple tree that greeted my swing as I swung up high, the papery bark of birch trees, mud puddles, rain, breathless hot summer days, the sinking sun as we played Kick the Can, the empty field where I tried to dig to China, pale pink thorny roses by the kitchen door. I lost a lot of that intimacy with nature during my adolescence, but one semester in college I was assigned Walden. I stayed up all night to read it, and staggered rapturous into breakfast the next morning; it was like coming home, for I realized I had always longed for what Thoreau was also seeking. Later, in my 30’s, I lived in the guest house of a 600-acre farm in Virginia with my second husband and various combinations of our five children, and we spent all kinds of time outside exploring the fields, the lakes, the streams. During those years I became increasingly aware of the environmental crisis. And still later, after coming to the University of Mississippi, I joined the nascent Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, in which I have always been active, and I worked with several colleagues to create our Interdisciplinary Minor in Environmental Studies, which I direct and in which I continue to teach a variety of courses. This year, I’ve been PI on an NEH Planning Grant to develop curriculum for “Environmental Literary and Engagement in North Mississippi,” and that has been both exhilarating and very time-consuming. We’ll apply for an Implementation Grant in a year’s time. And finally, I’ve been lucky to travel through the years to many places of incredible natural beauty, and to have a husband, children, and grandchildren who love to be outside.
A love: Share one of your favorite creative pieces you’ve written and the natural environment it responds to.
On my campus there is an enormous catalpa tree. Here is a prose poem about it:
This tree is older than Columbus. Ten years ago my honors students standing in a ring could barely get their arms around it. I took their picture—hands joined, cheeks against the rough wood. Mostly they loved it but one guy told my friend who supervised his lab, She made us hug a tree. It was the worst class ever.
When I think of the tree as a sapling, my mind enters a great quiet. Before the Depression, the yellow fever, before the burning of Oxford, before the University Greys left their classrooms for the battlefield and died or were wounded to a man at Pickett’s Charge, and before Princess Hoka of the Chickasaws set out with her people on the Trail of Tears, this tree sank its roots deep and deeper into the nurturing ground. Generations moved about beneath its boughs, spoke and loved and died as it grew.
And here it is, still, in the clattering present.
Ten years ago I could walk around it, smell it, stroke the lichens on its bark. If I put my hand into the hollow in its trunk right near the ground, it was always cold, always comforting, no matter how brutal the summer, as if some dark, mysterious lungs kept serenely breathing.
Now fences surround it, stakes hold up its branches. No longer do art majors loll on the benches and smoke at the little table under its big-leaf shade. A sign warns NO CLIMBING: KEEP OFF. Still, every spring, wet tender leaves unfurl on branches jagged as broken bones, and the tree bursts out in a froth of white petals.
And every spring, the preachers line the sidewalk near the tree, and thrust their Bibles as we pass by. Repent and be saved, they say. Turn or burn. I want to tell them, Turn around, turn around, and look at the tree.
A lesson: What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?
There’s no one best way to learn to co-create with the natural world, but I’d suggest beginning by thinking back over your life, remembering experiences you have had even since earliest childhood, and asking yourself what you were drawn to, in order to find out what you truly love. Some people love mountains, others love dogs, others love butterflies, others love the ocean, and the list is endless. My husband loves forests. I love flowers. When I was two, I invented a flower called hatchers, which were like upside-down tulips. My first day of first grade, I showed up late to school (in those days even little kids could walk to school) because I had been wandering around the neighborhood picking flowers for my teacher. When my children were small, we would walk up to the plant store and choose flowers for our garden. And during this past Covid year, I’ve spent many hours pottering around with the flowers that line the front walkway; they have given me a lot of peace and have become an endless rewarding source of meditation.
Then, learn about the natural world, both by spending time in it—extensive time, time without a cell phone or other distractions—and by doing various forms of research about it. Make it real for yourself, in whatever form your passion lies. Honor it. Sit quietly, hike, swim, take walking meditations—again, whatever form is right for you. Listen to it, both to the sounds it makes and to its silence. Look, touch, smell, bring your body to the body of earth. Realize that you are part of it, and it is part of you.
Image info: 1: Pond and Geese, Ann Fisher-Wirth; 2: Japanese Magnolia, Ann Fisher-Wirth.