The Thing About Nature

Poetry / Wendy M. Thompson

:: The Thing About Nature ::

You lie smooth on your back, 
a long pier. 
Each bone is a cliff 
overlooking skin, fatty tissue, 
the best parts around the hooked jaw. 
The hairs at the back of your neck, 
small tufts of alumroot,  
were singed by the fire,  
along with feathers, claw,  
and cartilage. 
Smoky with ash, your teeth, and 
an upturned skull in the debris 
were the only evidence they found  
of global warming. 
Because there is never a soft way  
to indicate that  
          Man is responsible for the death of earth, 
they extracted the science first: 
a hair pulled from the lab, 
an entire species folded into extinction  
in the back of a  
leather-bound encyclopedia. 
What is science anyway but a wholly  
irrational, irrelevant, omnivorous,  
long-tailed thing? 
Instead, it was convenient to lie  
while looking for the 
match that ended the world:  
          an arsonist, white male, about 30,  
          wearing camouflage, holding a beer. 
It’s never the tire marks that  
mar your bed of sage, 
or the eventual highway that  
cuts across the height of your thigh, 
slicing through tendon, 
the fur still warm. 
                    New single family homes are being built in this development 
                    New single family homes are being built in this development 
                    New single family homes are being built in this development 
The deer that you carried,  
fractured by headlights, 
have migrated further east, onto  
new land  
slated for development. 
Every hour,  
the ocean drags you further away  
your mother, 
your children, 
until there is no name  
left in the sand but, always,  
bits of shell and the people  
who come  
to collect them. 
Perhaps one of them will listen  
deeply enough to hear you  
calling for your family. 
It isn’t an echo, 
it’s an owl. 
It isn’t an owl, 
it’s a hybrid car backing out of the driveway. 
Night constellations map the fibers 
of your many homes: 
a womb,  
a nest,  
a meadow,  
a new three bed / two bath house 
inside of a cul-de-sac 
that was just built in this development. 
The sky is a quilt,  
is a mirror  
through which you look,  
and ask your ancestors,  
          Who’s the fairest of them all: 
          the gophers that dig up my lawn 
          or my right as a tax-paying homeowner to kill them? 
Because after all is said and done,  
the wet membrane  
from which you crack, 
the yolk that runs down  
the scruff of your throat when  
you (try to) pick up women  
ten years your junior, 
the savage expression you hide  
behind giant luminescent wings  
when your coworker Eric  
claims full credit and is  
promoted over you, 
the sea cave that rages 
in your throat  
when your father tells you  
he’s getting remarried  
to a brunette your brother’s age, 
the territorial way you mark  
your job title,  
your woman,  
your assets, 
even the blood that fills your mouth  
when you make her 
lie smooth on her back, 
a long pier, 
each bone, a cliff 
overlooking skin, fatty tissue, 
your erect jaw and open teeth 
tearing through her best parts around  
the hooked jaw, 
is anything but fully human. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I wrote this poem after think­ing about the inter­re­lat­ed rela­tion­ship between Amer­i­can mas­culin­i­ty, pow­er, prop­er­ty own­er­ship, and nature. There’s this way in which the struc­ture of Euro­pean set­tler colo­nial­ism orga­nized all four into a matrix of dom­i­na­tion, pos­ses­sion, and (over)use that con­tin­ues to shape our lives and world today. Through force and vio­lence, the con­quest of native inhab­i­tants, flo­ra, and fau­na led to the aggres­sive amass­ing of land and resources with the ulti­mate intent being max­i­mum extrac­tion and pro­duc­tion for prof­it. Today, dom­i­na­tion, pos­ses­sion, and (over)use reside as core tenets that define a man’s val­ue and worth in soci­ety: his abil­i­ty to dom­i­nate all liv­ing and non­liv­ing things using direct or indi­rect vio­lence, his abil­i­ty to amass great wealth or prop­er­ty at the expense of the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment, and his abil­i­ty to extract max­i­mum val­ue from what he owns or pos­sess­es. It is an unnat­ur­al way of life that has been made to feel and seem nat­ur­al. It is also the cause of tremen­dous detri­men­tal stress on our nat­ur­al world. 

I begin the poem describ­ing the human body as though exam­in­ing a non­hu­man ani­mal, sit­u­at­ing it in the midst of a land­scape that is per­pet­u­al­ly on fire and marked by human overde­vel­op­ment. Here, I want­ed to link us back to the world we work so hard to dis­tance our­selves from: one con­nect­ed to trees and plants and birds and preda­to­ry mam­mals. I then move to empha­size the way humans have ren­dered our nat­ur­al world unfa­mil­iar, exter­nal, and patho­log­i­cal, an emp­ty excess onto which we can build ever-expand­ing sub­di­vi­sions and cook­ie cut­ter hous­ing devel­op­ments. While we look at nat­ur­al dis­as­ters as vio­lent dis­rup­tions to our idyl­lic lifestyles, we rarely rec­og­nize the vio­lence that is present in our addic­tion to sub­ur­ban sprawl, to widen­ing and con­gest­ed free­ways and express lanes, and to the attack on nature when it shows up in the form of “inva­sive pests” in our back­yards.     

The rest of the poem inter­ro­gates how our man-made sur­round­ings have left us unable to imag­ine or reclaim our link­ages to our ani­mal kin and nat­ur­al world. Wildlife is dis­pos­able when it comes to build­ing new­er town­homes and sub­ur­ban devel­op­ments. And we find our­selves seek­ing out the calm­ing and heal­ing prop­er­ties of nature, dri­ving miles or fly­ing to pre­serves and oth­er wilder­ness sites far away to escape the mun­dane­ness and monot­o­ny of our every­day lives. In writ­ing this poem, I want­ed to stress the fact that we as human ani­mals have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to our nat­ur­al world, that our strained rela­tion­ship to/with nature must be appraised and reme­died, and that our prox­im­i­ty to non­hu­man ani­mals is a lot clos­er than we’d like to believe. 

I end the poem by play­ing with the notion of the “ani­mal,” a pejo­ra­tive term that we apply to humans who we per­ceive as behav­ing in ways that do not adhere to social norms or exhib­it accept­able deco­rum. Here, I cat­a­logue the ways that cer­tain expres­sions of raw human emo­tion, respons­es, and behav­iors are per­ceived as ani­mal­is­tic and can sig­nal our inher­ent wild­ness, chal­leng­ing us to con­sid­er how our instincts sit­u­ate us always close to nature no mat­ter how advanced and civ­il we strive to be. 


Wendy M. Thomp­son is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of African Amer­i­can Stud­ies at San José State Uni­ver­si­ty. Her cre­ative work has most recent­ly appeared in Palaver, the San­ta Fe Writ­ers Project, Rap­pa­han­nock Review, Jet Fuel Review, and Wac­ca­maw Jour­nal. She is the co-edi­tor of Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Pro­gres­sive Illu­sion (Min­neso­ta His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety Press, 2021).