Many are familiar with the literary accomplishments of former United States’ poet laureate Robert Hass. His five collections of poetry have all garnered critical acclaim; in fact, his most recent book, Time and Materials, was the 2007 National Book Award winner. A book of essays published in the eighties, Twentieth Century Pleasures, is the most graceful, intelligent, and insightful book about the art of poetry with which I am familiar. His translations of Japanese poetry-the haiku masters Basho, Buson, and Issa-are impeccable, and, perhaps most notable in this field, his translation work with the late Nobel prize winner, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, is an enduring and important contribution to world literature. Simply, Hass’s credentials are as august as any writer to come to Spokane in the last several decades.

What some literary fans might not be aware of is Hass’s deep dedication to environmental concerns. Surely there are clues in his writing; his poetry exhibits exquisite descriptions of the California landscape, and his prose continually reveals a keen eye for detail and wide-ranging knowledge of the indigenous flora and fauna. However, for the last ten years, he’s been involved with a project that strives to combine artistic, pedagogical, and environmental concerns: The River of Words.

Partnering with Pamela Michael, River of Words is an educational group based in California that has been conducting “training workshops for teachers, park naturalists, grassroots groups, state resource agencies, librarians and others since 1995, helping them to incorporate observation-based nature exploration and the arts into their work with young people. In addition to helping improve children’s literacy-and cognitive skills like investigation and critical thinking-River of Words’ multidisciplinary, hands-on approach to education nurtures students’ creative voices as well, through instruction and practice in art and poetry” (www.riverofwords.org).

To put it a different way, the organization aims to find creative methods to connect people-most importantly, children-to their watersheds and the natural world that surrounds them, to forge a relationship between children and plants and animals. These workshops and programs aim to help teachers introduce students to the names of indigenous flora and fauna, as well as the dynamics of how an ecosystem works and thrives. The underlying premise is beautiful: through such contact, our children will develop a stronger connection with the natural world, a connection that will help reverse the exploitative and consumptive habits so ingrained in our culture. What’s even more exciting is that these explorations are driven by creativity: the children write poems, shape sculpture, render paintings that speak to their bond with nature.

About the project, Robert Hass says, “It’s thrilling to see, year after year, these young writers and artists giving us back the places where we live through their words and images. Through their explorations and reflection on their homegrounds, we are all made more aware of the beauty, history and fragility of our natural landscapes.” And the poems are delightful. Consider this example, written by José Perez, a seven year-old in Florida:

Rivers

Rivers splatter,
hitting rocks below.
But don’t be afraid,
there is poetry
deep inside each crevice.

Knowing the names of plants and trees, seeing and experiencing firsthand how toxic run-off affects a watershed, planting and nurturing an indigenous garden: these projects and others are part of the holistic education about which River of Words hopes to get educators and their young students excited.

Of course, in Spokane and the surrounding areas, such pursuits raise issues connected both to historical trauma and future aspirations. Simply, as most know, our river is the literal pulsing artery at the center of our city: without the raging Spokane and its falls, the shelter of the central island, the city may not have come into existence. Today, the river is befouled and, for many, nothing more than a boondoggle to show to visiting friends so that all can ooh and ahh about the pretty falls. River of Words is interested in a much deeper relationship than mere postcard interaction, and it’s that intensity of interaction that is so exciting to consider for our city-how can we get our citizens, our children, this community to appreciate fully the complex and delicate system that is the river? How can all of us learn more about the river’s rich history, biodiversity, and fragility? How can we patiently and carefully choose the best route of stewardship for the river’s future? These questions are not rhetorical. Judicious choices will determine whether our children’s children are able to partake of the rich gifts that our watershed bestows upon us.

How to create relationships between river and citizens is a difficult question; for people to connect fully with the rapids and eddies, perhaps Hass’s translation of the words of the Japanese haiku master, Basho, are worth remembering. Basho wrote, “Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.” What I think Basho meant is that we can only really learn from the natural world by immersing ourselves in the natural world-through observation and careful attention, sure, but also through creativity. Perhaps no human pursuit is as rooted in free action as the making of art: no one can force creativity. Hence, when one engages in creativity driven by a desire to bond with the natural world, perhaps one freely exercises those deepest muscles of the self and through such immersion, empathy-deep and considerate caring for otherness-is possible.

Perhaps. Whatever the case may be, River of Words is a stirring program. Their annual poetry contest-the guidelines are available at the website listed above-has become the largest artistic contest for children in the world. Urge your children and their classmates to flex their creative muscles and enter. Believe me, they’ll be doing more than penning poesy-they may also be writing an environmentalist epilogue in which the story of so much damage, so much pain, is somehow healed.

Robert Hass will be speaking at the Cataldo Globe Room on the campus of Gonzaga University at 7:30 p.m. on February 25th and is free and open to the public. Contact 323-6681 or marshall@gonzaga.edu for more details.