Richard Wilbur: An Ecologists’ Poet

For me, 2015 has been a year of indulging in hobbies.  I’ve dabbled in a range of things, sampling from things I’ve always done, stuff I’ve always wanted to try, and things I used to do a while ago. Among the hobbies that have resurfaced, reading poetry is one that seems to be sticking.

Curiously, though, the reason for the return of poetry to my life is not because poetry provides an escape from my work as a behavioural ecologist, but because the two are so very deeply connected. In particular, I’ve found special resonance between my world–the world of an ecologist–and the world of Richard Wilbur‘s nature poems.

Wilbur writes about nature often, and these nature poems reveal a way of looking at the world that is startlingly similar to the mindset I’ve been trying to cultivate when I spend time outdoors. It’s a mixture of careful observation of the details in nature that often get missed and exploring the possibility that these details can have giant consequences. It rests on making outrageous connections, which in turn rests on proposing, interrogating and, often, shooting down metaphors. This mindset is a lofty goal to aspire to–I’m nowhere near as close to it as I want to be. But in trying to construct this approach to nature, I know that Richard Wilbur’s poetry will be one of my favourite blueprints.

To see what I mean, here are two of my favourite Wilbur poems. First, a poem that will sound familiar to any ecologist who thinks about competitive exclusion or niche partitioning:


Some would distinguish nothing here but oaks,

Proud heads conversant with the power and glory

Of heaven’s rays or heaven’s thunderstrokes,

And adumbrators to the understory,

Where, in their shade, small trees of modest leanings

Contend for light and are content with gleanings.


And yet here’s dogwood: overshadowed, small,

But not inclined to droop and count its losses,

It cranes its way to sunlight after all,

And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.

And here’s witch hazel, that from underneath

Great vacant boughs will bloom in winter’s teeth.


Given a source of  light so far away

That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,

Would it not take a proper fool to say

That any tree has not the proper spirit?

Air, water, earth, and fire are to be blended,

But no one style, I think, is recommended.


Next, a poem that, to me, nearly perfectly describes both the good and bad parts of how we do science


Mind in its purest play is like some bat

That beats about in caverns all alone,

Contriving by a kind of senseless wit

Not to conclude against a wall of stone.


It has no need to falter or explore;

Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,

And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar

In perfect courses through the blackest air


And has this simile a like perfection?

The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save

That in the very happiest intellection

A graceful error may correct the cave.


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