Conversations with Plants: An Exercise & Reading List

As I prepare to go on a pretty extended book tour, I have been thinking about what one loses in these frequent vagabond periods that are so often for many of us part and parcel of the writing or academic life.

For a time I felt trapped on a farm in rural Missouri in a county where I had a hard time connecting with the conservative community around me. I developed a habit of talking to the plants in the pasture behind my house to ease this loneliness. My ways of listening in these conversations took the form of observation, research, sustainably harvesting wild foods and medicines, and learning the stories cantankerous hags and witches like me had been whispering about them for as long as people and plants have been friends. And I’m far from the only poem who interacts with her botanical muses this way – Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora, and Melissa Kwasny’s Thistle are all books of poems born of sustained company and conversation with plants. It might be fair to say that Emily Dickinson is the gardener who first showed us the way.  

Since I left that place, I have been developing a new exercise in writing and living to create connections and a feeling of connectedness on the road. I thought maybe other poets would find it fun to try. Or that folks using Rue as a text in their creative writing classrooms would like to share this exercise with their students.

  • Find a plant you recognize from home (or one of your previous homes, if like me you’ve had many). If you are using this exercise in a classroom or workshop, ask the students to bring a plant with them from their front yard, a green patch in their neighborhood, or found on the commute to your meeting place. Ever since I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s chapter on plantain in Braiding Sweetgrass I look for plantain first. She describes it as a respectful naturalized plant, offering its many medicinal uses and, unlike many other invasive species, plantain manages not to displace indigenous species as it spreads. “Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds.” I aspire to be this kind of wayfaring stranger.
  • Make a contour drawing of your plant without looking at the page – keep your eye on the plant and slowly trace its shape with your eye as your hand tries to track your gaze on the page. If you are honest and resist the urge to peak, your drawing will be very strange, but you will have really seen this plant for the first time. You could also try this exercise using touch, tracing the plant with one hand and translating the sensation to the page with the other.
  • Using field guides or google, research the biology of this plant. Learn its reproductive methods, its pollinators, preferred soils and drought tolerance, the other plants and animals with which it shares these ecosystems. Fill a page or three with your notes.
  • Search for the folklore of your plant and find out what stories people have told about it. Many of the plants you meet will be invasive, many will be indigenous. Be ethical and respectful as you decide which of these stories to retell and how. Remember how colonizing nations sent their priests and anthropologists to steal knowledge that was used to enable soldiers to follow stealing land. Be mindful of what histories you reenact and what futures you make possible with your words by considering the context around the plant stories you encounter. Consider your own lineages, resistances, complicities. Appropriating stories that are not yours to tell will only exacerbate the pains of history and increase your loneliness; honesty may have the opposite effect.

    This part of the research process always reminds me how deep and fresh the wounds of history are. I think often of Layli Long Soldier’s poems in Whereas where she writes of the grasses that are so important to prairie ecosystems, which means writing of the 38 Dakota warriors the U. S. Government hanged over those grasses, which means writing of the missing and murdered indigenous women, which means writing of racist cruelties. I learned from this book to hear how the grasses indict and demand restitution and restoration.  I also think often of Ross Gay’s “To the Mulberry Tree,” and how he can’t talk about the tree whose fruit he loves without noting the frayed rope among the debris in the park, before finding deep among the branches a hopeful vision “that none of us will ever die terribly, / but stay always like this.” In a meadow where I loved to walk, ironweed roots are filtering last century’s acid mine drainage from the creek waters above the defunct coal mines even as the ground around them trembles with fracking-related earthquakes. After doing this portion of research, write a paragraph or a page about what you have learned and what you hope to keep learning.
  •  Ask someone from the place you have reached to tell you the name of another plant you are seeing for the first time, one growing near your familiar. (If you are doing this writing exercise in a group, partner up and share the work you’ve done so far.) Ask this person what else they know of the plant that they’d like to share. Ask field guides about its biology and ecosystems. Write what you have learned and what you feel, enough to fill at least a page. Write about your own stories and the people you have met in this new place. Plants are precious, but you need not be precious about them or construct the lie of a human-less world around them. Tommy Pico writes, “It’s hard to unhook the heavy marble Nature from the chain around yr neck when history is stolen like water.” Read more from his book-length poem Nature Poem and remember for better and worse we are in this ecosystem with the plants and bees and candy wrappers and microplastics together.
  • Repeat this exercise every day you are on the road.
  •  Repeat it again when you return home, a changed person, to a changing place.

Poets Talking to Plants, A Reading List

David Baker, Swift: New & Selected Poems. Norton, 2019.

Wendy Burk. Tree Talks. Delete Press, 2016.

Lucille Clifton. Good News About the Earth. Random House, 1972.

Emily Dickinson. The Gorgeous Nothings. New Directions, 2013.

Camille Dungy. What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Red Hen, 2016.

Judith Farr. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Nicky Finny. Rice. Triquarterly, 2013.

Vievee Francis. Forest Primeval. Triquarterly, 2016.

Ross Gay. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. University of Pittsburg Press, 2015.

Jody Gladding. Translations from Bark Beetle. Milkweed, 2014.

Louise Gluck. The Wild Iris. Ecco, 1993.

Kimiko Hahn. Toxic Flora. Norton, 2011.

HD. Sea Garden.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly. The Orchard. BOA, 2004.

Melissa Kwasny. Thistle. Lost Horse Press, 2006.

Sandra Lim. The Wilderness. Norton, 2014.

Ada Limon. Bright Dead Things. Milkweed, 2015.

Layli Long Soldier. Whereas. Graywolf, 2017.

W. S. Merwin. Garden Time. Copper Canyon, 2016.

Aimme Nezhukumatathil & Ross Gay. Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens. Organic Weapon Arts, 2019.

Tommy Pico. Nature Poem. Tin House, 2017.

Aaron Shurin. Flowers & Sky. Entre Rios, 2017.

Tess Taylor. Work & Days. Red Hen, 2016.

Brian Teare. Companion Grasses. Omnidawn, 2013.

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.

Virgil. Georgics.

Maya Jewell Zeller. Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts. Entre Rios, 2017.


Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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