On trees, poetry and humankind’s relationship with nature

In conversation with Mandy Haggith, poet in residence at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

On a recent winter night, Mandy Haggith made a presentation about global paper production and ways to conserve the world’s remaining natural forests to a room full of interested listeners at the Hongzhi Café, in a fancy, futuristic building in central Beijing. The day before, she and her colleagues from Indonesia and Italy had met with representatives at Chinese banks to dissuade them from investing in businesses associated with forest destruction.

As the author of Paper Trails: from Trees to Trash, her advocacy on behalf of forests naturally became the focus of that night’s sharing. But Ms Haggith’s other role has created an even deeper connection between her and the trees. As the poet in residence at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, she is well-known for her unique “tree poems” that she reads to visitors. After the talk, Ms Haggith spoke to chinadialogue about trees, poetry and her understanding of the interrelationship between literature and nature.

chinadialogue (CD): First of all, why did the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh set up the position of Poet in Residence?

Mandy Haggith (MH): The Garden is a scientific institute that teaches people about botany and plants. They not only want to educate people’s minds about plants but also to reach their hearts. So they had a project where they had a poet in residence to read poetry to people, encourage people to write poetry about plants, and do walks around the garden where we would read poems about particular tree species.

I’ve written a lot of poems about trees. A lot of poets don’t know one tree from another but I spend a lot of time studying trees and really love them. I guess that’s why they chose me.

There is an ancient connection in Scotland between trees and writing. In the ancient alphabet that was used before the Latin alphabet, the letters were in the form of little twigs. Each letter corresponds to a certain tree, such as the birch or pine. The birch, in folklore, is about “beginning”: if you want to light a fire, you should use birch. At the end of the alphabet, the yew tree is associated with death. It’s the tree planted in graveyards. It’s as if all of life is represented in the tree species of the alphabet.

CD: Is “tree poetry” an established genre or is it more of a specialty to you?

MH: It’s a specialty to me, I think when I did this big anthology about tree poems, called Into the Forest, I discovered that for hundreds of years there have been poets all around the world who write about trees. Lots of Chinese poets have written poems about trees.

I used to joke that you can’t qualify as a Chinese poet unless you’ve written a masterful poem about pine trees – there are so many fantastic poems, particularly in the Chinese tradition, about this tree. I think it’s because their endurance represents the connection between Earth and Heaven in some way, by living longer than us. They kind of transcend time in the same way that writing can transcend time. If you write a poem, hundreds of years after your death somebody may still be reading it and be thinking your thoughts, in the same way that pine trees stand on the hills.

CD: The value of your tree poems certainly goes beyond just being educational. What’s your view about this broader relationship between literature and nature? 

MH: In my poetry, particularly, I hope to encourage people to wonder. For me “wonder” has two meanings. The first is that sense of looking or feeling or tasting; to be amazed or appreciative of beauty and to recognise that nature is inspiring. But also “wonder” has a second meaning in the sense of asking a question.

Often the reason I write is because I’m trying to ask a question about our relationship with nature; how our lives impact on nature; and how we can maybe become closer to nature. When we engage with nature we can find really interesting and deep questions about time. You hope people slow down a little bit when they read poetry, and maybe reflect on the questions that we should reflect on.

CD: What are some of the questions that people should reflect on in our time?

MH: My first book about bears (The Last Bear) is about extinction. We used to have bears [in the United Kingdom] but they are now extinct. And my question was how did that happen and what we human species did that made us no longer able to tolerate living in an environment with bears. Bear Witness asks a question about whether it would be possible to reverse that. Could we find way in the future of being able to live in harmony once again with bears? The questions about paper are very much about whether we can find a way to satisfy our needs in harmony with the rest of nature, rather than at the expense of it.

CD: What’s your response to Amitav Ghosh’s arguments in The Great Derangement which basically criticises the whole literary world for its collective failure to represent climate change in literature and for “concealing” climate change from people’s imagination?

MH: It’s hard to say that authors have such a responsibility. Ultimately if you try to write, particularly poetry, to a forced agenda then it kind of loses its inspirational soul. But I do think that the arts have got an important role to play for helping the society to imagine a future where we actually behave differently. I don’t feel that I’ve tackled it very much myself, yet.

I take his point. I think the more of us who are aware of the issues and problems and can try to communicate it in inspiring ways, then the more chance we have of averting the climate crisis.

The arts have got an important role to play for helping the society to imagine a future where we behave differently

There has been a really bad culture about climate change of being quite negative about the whole issue, of blaming and shaming lots of people. I’m not sure if it necessarily helps. I think there is a real role for work that does not necessarily explicitly talk about climate change but encourages people to love nature and draw their own conclusions in their own time.

CD: What brought you to China this time besides giving lectures about paper and meeting bankers and the environmental community here?

MH: I’m also going to the Sichuan Provincial Botanic Garden which has a sister link with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. So I’m very excited to go there!

CD: They certainly don’t have a Poet in Residence there [laughs]

MH: Not yet! I’ll persuade them to set one up and I’m fully intending to write a poem while I’m in Sichuan.