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Re-envisioning a “poem forest”

Continuing with today’s theme of almost-fresh tree news from New York City, a friend sent me this link to a blog post from something called the BMW Guggenheim Lab about a poem trail through an old-growth forest in the New York Botanical Garden. I thought at first this might be hyperbole, but the Wikipedia bears it out: “Sightseers can easily spend a day admiring the serene cascade waterfall, wetlands and a 50-acre (20 ha) tract of original, old-growth New York forest, never logged, containing oaks, American beeches, cherry, birch, tulip and white ash trees — some more than two centuries old.”

Anyway, it seems that they recently finished refurbishing the trails through this tract, and asked artist Jon Cotner, the author of the piece, to “do something poetry-related on site” in conjuction with the Poetry Society of America. He wanted something that would actively engage visitors and lead them to pay closer attention to the forest around them.

So I “installed” 15 lines pulled from 2,500 years of poetry along a trail through the old-growth forest. Visitors spoke each line (printed on a handout) at specific locations (marked by small orange signs) to which the lines corresponded conceptually or physically. For example, near the start of the self-guided walk, people would recite Pythagoras’s maxim “The wind is blowing; adore the wind” to clear their heads. Or just as the Bronx River came into view, people would recite Gary Snyder’s verse “Under the trees/ under the clouds/ by the river” to grow closer to the landscape. At the final spot, above a waterfall, people said Ch’u Ch’uang’s “Waterfalls, with a sound/ Like rain” to sharpen the auditory sensation.

Walking Poem Forest took about 20 minutes. Several participants had long histories with the Garden. They felt surprised by how intimately they encountered a landscape that had seemed “familiar” or “known.” A bench near the waterfall became an informal classroom, where we discussed their experience. The overwhelming message was that the poetic lines encouraged everyone to slow down, to see and sense more clearly, to inhabit the present more deeply, and to fill with enchantment.

The post includes photos of each spot, evidently taken in November, paired with the corresponding quote. There’s also an audio compliation of visitors reading the lines. Pretty cool!

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