The poetry of earth is never dead

John Keats portrait by William HiltonFebruary 23, 2021 marks the 200 year anniversary of the death of John Keats. Although his life was short, he has had an outsized influence on English poetry and literature in the years since.

But he was not always so beloved, and like many artists before and after, he was anything but acclaimed during his lifetime. In a blistering review of his epic poem Endymion, the magazine Blackwood’s called him “the most worthless and affected of all the versifiers of our time” and his poem was described as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.”*

There was a prevailing theory at the time that only aristocrats had the capacity and sophistication to be poets. Keats’s father managed a horse stable, and although he was by no means impoverished, Keats always felt the weight of his humble beginnings. He originally wanted to be a doctor and went to medical school, but quit the profession before he even started, in order to devote himself to poetry.

Keats was inspired by nature, like many poets of the time, but his works evolved to tackle many different themes as he tried to break free of the sentimental stylings of his early work. Throughout his life he fought an internal struggle between his ambition and his ability, but he continued to work hard to become a better writer.

Many events are being planned in commemoration of the anniversary of his death, including a BBC radio play and a virtual tours at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.

But perhaps the best way to appreciate this poet on his anniversary is to read his work. The sonnets are perhaps the most accessible of his poems, taking on subjects as varied as nature, books and authors he liked, letters to friends, or even how he was feeling that day. In the poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” he muses on nature and how it persists in inspiring us:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
  When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
  And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
  In summer luxury,—he has never done
  With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
  On a lone winter evening, when the frost
    Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
  And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
    The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
You can read more poetry by Keats here at the Poetry Foundation.

I also highly recommend the biography John Keats, The Making of a Poet by Aileen Ward, if you can find it. The biography won the National Book Award in 1964, and focuses on the poet’s creative development as well as the events in his life.

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Trees and plants in storytelling

Hawthorn Tree by Arthur Rackham

I’ve written on this website about trees before, they permeate the arts throughout history. There were trees in early cave paintings, and they appear in art traditions around the world. And they aren’t just background images, trees and plant are often characters in themselves. Trees have taken leading roles in myth and folklore. They inspire strength, resilience, wonder, and can even teach us about human relationships. (Above, illustration by Arthur Rackham who specialized in trees.) 

Author Richard Powers has expanded the mythology of trees by incorporating them into his novel The Overstory, which has won praise from both readers and scientists. In the following interview, appropriately conducted beneath a towering oak, he explains how his book was inspired by nature.

In one particular quote, Powers says, “This book is about taking the non-human seriously. It’s about realizing that we are not alone on this earth, and the rest of creation is not there simply to be a resource to us.”

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The Kingdom of Plants by Julie-Anne FountainFor the younger crowd, Julie-Anne Fountain’s middle grade novel The Curse Of The Nightshade: The Kingdom Of Plants Book One, is a fantasy where plants take center stage. In a hidden world known as The Kingdom of Plants, young Laurel discovers she comes from a long line of seedmages, who can control plants using magic. As she searches for her kidnapped mother and battles deadly Nightshades (half-human half-plant), she learns to harness her powers and gain confidence.

The book is full of botanical references, and the Latin names of plants are used to cast spells. Seeds are a powerful source of magic, and can be made to grow into nearly any shape while keeping the properties of the original plant. The city in this fantasy world is also built from plants, with towering trees that form ascending layers that hold streets and buildings. It’s a world that any plant-lover would want to step into.

Facts about trees and seeds are scattered throughout the book, without slowing down the story. This volume will inspire many a young reader to learn more about the natural world of plants around us.

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I’ve neglected this blog a bit lately, to work on other projects, but I hope to still update it once in a while with interesting examples of nature in art. You can also check out my personal website to learn more about my own stories and art.


Two great poets of nature

I began this year with high hopes of posting on this blog often, but life got in the way. Not that there hasn’t been a lot going on in the area of art and nature, it’s almost too much to keep up with.

As the year draws to a close, I want to remember two great poets of nature who passed away recently.

Mary OliverMary Oliver (1935–2019) inspired multiple generations with her keen observations of nature and the human spirit. She didn’t just write about nature, she lived it, often writing outdoors while walking through the woods.

In an appreciation in The New Yorker, Rachel Syme writes: “Oliver lived a profoundly simple life: she went on long walks through the woods and along the shoreline nearly every day, foraging for both greens and poetic material.”

She wrote of nature not only to celebrate its unique wonder, but to plumb the depths of the human condition, to understand life itself, as in this poem, “I Go Down to the Shore.”

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do?
And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Here she reads one of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day”:

And here is a video of Mary Oliver reading another of her well-known poems “The Wild Geese”

Mary Oliver gave few interviews, but this 2015 interview from the radio program On Being provides a glimpse into her creative mind. She says that creativity is important, but so is discipline, the act of sitting down regularly to work. She says, “I think we’re creative all day long. And we have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page. Because the creative part of us gets tired of waiting or just gets tired.”

Listen or read the entire interview here. You can read more about her life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

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W.S. MerwinW.S. Merwin (1927-2019) was another acclaimed poet who passed away this year, who also wrote and cared about nature. He lived his final years in Hawaii, where he and his wife purchased land on an old pineapple plantation where the soil was depleted by chemicals and erosion. Together they planted trees and slowly restored the land into what is now The Merwin Conservancy, 19 acres of lush palm forest preserved as an arts and ecology center.

In his poem “October” he describes the magic of nature in autumn:

 What peace! To the sharp black poplar comes
a bird and sings. A cloud frays
colorless, and a single butterfly,
a light, sinks in the light…

Once asked about the role of the poet in today’s society, he said,

“We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing, dumb vision that I felt after writing The Lice; one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.”

Here he is giving a talk about connections, between poetry and modern life, between humans and the earth we live on:

You can read more about Merwin’s life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

Despite the loss of these two great writers, poetry is still very much alive today, with countless poets pursuing their art. Here is a great online compilation of poems inspired by nature, many by contemporary poets. If I continue this blog in the future, I hope to highlight more of them.

Thanks for reading!

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Last of the Curlews, a book for the ages

Last of the Curlews book cover

There are some nonfiction books that encompass themes far beyond their particular subject matter. Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth is one of those books.

On the surface, this little book is deceptively simple in its straightforward and observational narrative. It describes the everyday life of an Eskimo curlew as he arrives in the Arctic to stake out his nesting territory and look for a mate. The prose is precise, detailed, and often poetic, as in this passage from the first chapter:

The curlew set his wings and dropped stonelike in a series of zigzag sideslips. The rosy pink reflections of ice pans on the brown river rushed up toward him. Then he leveled off into a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the riverbank.

We soon learn that the curlew has come to this spot for three years without ever seeing another of his kind. Even as hundreds of other shore birds arrive and feed and nest, the curlew remains alone. As time passes and the short mating season comes to an end, the curlew instinctively knows it’s time to migrate south, and so begins his journey. Typically he would join a flock of other Eskimo curlews, but there are none to be found, so he takes off on his own.

In flight, he encounters a flock of golden plovers, powerful birds who follow a similar flight path as the curlew, and so he joins them and they accept him without question. Flying as part of a flock is hugely beneficial, especially during the most treacherous part of the flight, the 2,500 miles non-stop across the Atlantic ocean to South America. In the following passage, they face freezing temperatures and zero visibility.

The snow clung to their wings, packed into the air slots between the flight feathers. Wings that a few minutes before had responded deftly to the gentle, rhythmic flexing of the breast muscles were now heavy and stiff, and they beat the air futilely like lifeless paddles, driving air downward in a waste of energy instead of deflecting it rearward for the horizontal airflow essential to flight. Their flight speed dropped until they were hovering almost motionless in a disorganized, bewildered cluster, now almost a mile above the sea.

As the book continues, we witness the harrowing flight across the ocean, the arrival along the coast of Venezuela, and the continued journey south to Argentina. After this arduous trip of over 9,000 miles, it is soon time to head back northward again, back to the Arctic tundra in another attempt to find a mate. The descriptions of the journey are so immediate and harrowing, the narrative becomes an emotional page-turner, as you wonder if the lone curlew will survive.

Illustration from Last of the Curlews, © by Abigail Rorer
Illustration © by Abigail Rorer, based on original drawings by T.M. Shortt

Along the way, we learn many facts about curlews, migration, weather, and natural history. We encounter other birds on the journey, and a larger picture emerges of how millions of creatures cross the continents each year in a massive interconnected system that has continued for eons. Interspersed with the story are short excerpts from historical reports from the 1700s to the 1900s, and we hear firsthand how the great flocks of curlews steadily declined through unsustainable mass hunting. The Counterpoint Press edition of the book also includes exquisite drawings by Abigail Rorer, based on the original drawings by T.M. Shortt, that help bring the curlew’s journey to life. (See above.)

Although written in 1954, this book feels even more relevant today, and inspires larger questions about the meaning of existence. Why does the curlew continue to make this treacherous journey every year, with little or no hope of finding a mate? With the fate of his species on the line, wouldn’t it be wiser to play it safe, to adopt the habits of a less ambitious seabird? Or would that be giving up his true nature, his sole purpose in life?

There are so many moments along the journey where the curlew might easily perish, and yet he perseveres. Like so many other creatures facing extinction, he doesn’t give up. Would I be as steadfast in such a situation? Would any of us?

The beauty of this book is that it does not offer analysis or proselytizing, it simply tells a story with great detail and power, and the themes emerge naturally. It’s the story of one bird, but it’s also the story of all of us.


Unfinished Earth – music inspired by nature

Unfinished EarthNature has provided inspiration for countless musicians over the centuries. Award-winning composer Douglas Knehans has just released a new CD entitled Unfinished Earth, which evokes the raw and powerful forces of nature.

It contains two works, the first is called Tempest, a concerto for flute and orchestra inspired by three specific winds. The first part is entitled Ostro, which is named for a southerly Mediterranean wind. The second part is Mistral, a powerful wind blowing from southern France into the Mediterranean that can reach speeds of 115 mph (185 kph). The third part of the piece is called Etesian, inspired by strong dry winds through the Aegean Sea.

Gareth Davies, Principal Flute of the London Symphony Orchestra, talks about this challenging piece in the video below.

The other major work on the CD is Unfinished Earth, a work for orchestra comprising of three movements. Part 1, Tempering, is inspired by the formation of the earth itself. The music is in turns tranquil and explosive, always with a sense of motion, of elements shifting and coming together. The second part, Eternal Ocean, is inspired by the sea in all its vast, flowing serenity. The final part, Tearing Drift, is about the formation of the continents, a thunderous soundscape with moments of quiet calm that build to a dramatic climax.

These monumental forces of nature are almost beyond human comprehension, even when we know scientifically why things happen the way they do. Music is a powerful way to explore such forces, to bring us to a deeper understanding of their true essence.

Mikel Toms, who conducts the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra on these recordings, says that Unfinished Earth is unlike anything he has ever conducted before, and follows in a rich tradition of artists inspired by landscape for their work. See his interview below.

The earth truly is “unfinished,” and is still moving and changing beneath our feet. Our cities and monuments, which we’ve built over centuries, seem fragile and almost trivial in comparison to the seismic forces beneath the earth’s surface. And we humans seem even more fragile, which can be a scary thought. Perhaps we can never truly appreciate the larger forces of nature, but the music of Unfinished Earth brings us closer.

To learn more or purchase the CD, visit this link.

Winter in the untended garden

Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer

Hello nature friends, welcome back to my blog! I’ve been taking a break from here lately, as other projects have pulled me away. The original purpose of this website was to discuss works of art that are influenced by nature, in all media. But it takes a lot of time to properly research and write about each topic.

Over the past five years, I have seen a huge increase in books and media about nature, so there is obviously an interest among both creators and consumers. But we (as a society) still seem to hold nature at a distance, as something to visit and appreciate in very controlled situations, while we continue our lives set apart. We like nature, but we aren’t necessarily close to nature. That’s something I hope this blog can help remedy, by showing how art can bring us closer to nature.

I hope to wrote here more frequently in the future, as I think there is a lot to discuss. For now, I will leave you with the magical winter paintings of Belgian artist Valerius de Saedeleer (1867-1941.) There is a cold stillness to his work, but also a warmth. Nature is frozen but alive, asleep but awake. His compositions are striking in their stark angles, their mix of large empty spaces and crowded detail. You can see more of his work here

Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Artwork by Valerius De Saedeleer


Tending the untended garden, and appreciating small moments in nature

Small Daisy flower

The Untended Garden has been truly untended lately. I’ve been focusing on other writing projects this year, and it’s been hard to find time for this blog. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been plenty of nature-inspired books, art, music, films, and other media to talk about.  In fact there’s almost too much. And the internet does a great job at letting us share these amazing things. It makes me wonder about the direction of this blog, and where I want to take it.

Eventually I will come back to it regularly, but for now, here are a few recent nature photos of my own. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the small moments in nature, and how they often seem to encompass the entirety of the natural world in their own way. The smallest flea struggles to survive, just like a bird, or a lion, or a whale, and they all play their own part in the giant tapestry of the natural world. I also think that the more we understand the natural world around us, the better we can understand ourselves.

I put some of these thoughts into an article about how to reconnect with small moments in nature. I call it The 60-Second Nature Challenge, a way to observe the tiny pieces of nature in order to better understand the whole. You can read it here.

That’s all for now, I hope you can all get outside this summer, and find your own inspiration!

Tiny bee on flower

Bunny under fence

Butterfly on a burr flower

Queen Anne's Lace

Skipper on a leaf



Maria Schneider, music inspired by nature

The Thompson Fields by Maria Schneider

Jazz composer Maria Schneider draws much of her inspiration directly from nature. Her latest recording, The Thompson Fields, is inspired by the prairies where she grew up in Minnesota. As she said to NPR’s Here and Now, “The sound of my music is what it is largely because of the natural landscape I grew up with, and people who made me appreciate it so much.”

Her work incorporates elements of jazz and classical music, with improvisation from the musicians in her ensemble. Tracks like “Walking by Flashlight” and “The Monarch and the Milkweed” evoke nature and the feelings one experiences in nature.

The album was developed through the ArtistShare web community, which allows artists and fans to connect and support each other. It has recently been nominated for a Grammy Award.

Here is the official trailer for the album The Thompson Fields:

Here is the full interview with Maria on NPR’s Here and Now.

Here is an excellent profile in the New York Times from 2013.

And here is a great interview with Maria from the Detroit Jazz Festival, also featuring clips of her orchestra in performance:

This is my last post for 2015 at The Untended Garden. This site has been a little more untended than usual lately, but I hope to get back to it more in 2016.

It seems like more and more people are rediscovering nature as a balance to the world of technology we live in. Artists have been in touch with nature since the beginning of time, and I think they can play a big part in our understanding of the natural world.

Happy New Year!

Artists supporting nature

I’ve been neglecting this blog in recent months, as I’ve been trying to focus on my art and writing.  Thank you to all my loyal readers for staying connected. I have a backlog of interesting artists to feature in the coming year, so stay tuned for more posts.

Today I want to tell you about some artists who are supporting nature directly through their art. Cathy Berman has long had an interest in art and the environment, and after retiring she founded a website called For Mother Nature, which features artists who donate some or all of their proceeds to environmental causes. Below are three of the artists on the website.

Ann Kruglak, who creates sculptures in polymer clay, donates all of her proceeds to the Rainforest Trust.  Her donations have saved over 200,000 acres of rainforest.

Art © by Ann Kruglak

Floris van Breugel is a landscape and wildlife photographer as well as a scientist, who has traveled all over the world capturing images of nature. His work supports the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Photo © by Floris van Breugel

Eileen Doughty creates quilts and intricate sculptures out of thread, focusing on the concept of “place”. Her work supports The Potomac Conservancy.


Art © by Eileen Doughty


There are seven artists so far on the For Mother Nature website, and founder Cathy Berman hopes it will grow to include many more artists and environmental organizations. A lifelong artist herself with a degree in Environmental Conservation, she also hopes that her website will encourage visitors to build a stronger connection with nature. You can visit the website here:

If you’re looking for more ways to support the environment through art, check out Artists for Conservation.

Also the National Wildlife Federation has an online store where you can adopt a polar bear, plant a tree, and support our earth in many ways.

Do you know other artists or organizations who support nature through their work? Share them in the comments!

The magical Strandbeests – art comes alive

Strandbeest by Theo Jansen


The kinetic sculptures of Theo Jansen are unlike anything else in the world. They seem to defy category, they are art and machine, but also works of theater on a grand scale. And although they are are not sentient beings, they seem to have a life all their own, and people connect with them.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is featuring the first major American exhibition of Jansen’s work, before it travels on to Chicago and San Francisco. In a statement on his website, Jansen says he is trying to create “new forms of life” with his sculptures, and seeing them in action makes you think he might actually get there.

Part of the magic of these creatures is that they are self-propelled, and their limbs seem to move like those of animals or insects, and yet their movements are unique to themselves. It is truly like seeing a new species, and it makes us think about what it means to be “alive.” Designed to walk on the beach, some of his creations can detect when they are walking on wet sand, and thus avoid going into the water. There is a kind of artificial intelligence here. How much “intelligence” is necessary before we say that something is alive? Computers have far more artificial intelligence than the strandbeests, and yet because they move around like giant animals, we somehow relate to them more as intelligent beings, we want them to be alive.

From a purely visual standpoint, it amazes me how “natural” these creatures appear, both in their structure and movements. Despite the fact that they are entirely built from human-made materials (PVC pipes, plastic bottles), they seem like creatures that could occur naturally in the world. And yet some of their parts are purely mechanical — no animal uses a wheel and piston to propel their legs.

Here is a short documentary on Jansen and his art:

Theo Jansen from Salazar on Vimeo.

In the film, Jansen says, “To make my animals, I try to make a new nature, I don’t want to copy the existing nature, but it’s hard to avoid that.” He finds that when he designs the working parts of his creatures, he inevitably winds up with elements like those of living creatures — bones, muscles, legs — because that is the most efficient way to propel an object over uneven ground. He thinks of his creatures as going through their own evolution as he perfects them, much the way nature itself has gone through evolution over a much longer period of time.

The exhibit will run from September 19, 2015 through January 3, 2016 at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Here is a TED Talk by the artist: