An English class rooted in the natural world

Two student sit inside Global Flora, surrounded by plants and writing in their notebooks.
Image credit: Nicole Valenti ’25
Author  Aidan Reid ’24
Published on 

As part of her course ENG 242: From “Nature Poetry” to Ecopoetics, Alison Hickey, associate professor of English, took her class to visit Global Flora. There, the students sat among the plants and wrote in their notebooks about the nature around them. Hickey says she wants to inspire them to “think about their own relation to nature” while studying how others have put that relationship into words.

Ecopoetry, Hickey says, has been defined in many different ways. The poet and environmentalist John Shoptaw calls it “nature poetry that has designs on us, that imagines changing the ways we think, feel about, and live and act in the world.” In her class, Hickey challenges students to reimagine their own ways of relating to the natural world.

Cross-listed in environmental science, the course is supported by a grant from Wellesley’s Paulson Ecology of Place Initiative, led by Suzanne Langridge, which encourages students to interact with the environment. Hickey’s students will also make paper in the Book Arts Lab using phragmites, a type of reed found in meadows around campus. When the weather warms, they will spend some of their classes in those meadows.

At Global Flora, Hickey asked students to respond to three simple writing prompts that are a staple in nature education: “I notice … ,” “I wonder … ,” It reminds me of ….” “Don’t think you’re not equipped to say something because you don’t have the right vocabulary,” she said. She encouraged them to take a similar approach when reading poetry. “Poetry can feel intimidating, but its medium, language, is one that we all use every day. Start by giving yourself the time and mental space to notice and wonder—in both senses of the word—and take it from there.”

Erynn Lau ’26, who is taking Hickey’s class, says the course gives them a different perspective on their geoscience major. “The things we talk about in class remind me of what science could be,” they say. “I would love for my geoscience to be enhanced by the ideas we discuss in Ecopoetics. I think that poetry has a place in science.”

One of Lau’s favorite aspects of the course is the community Hickey has built among the students. “We spent a good amount of time learning each other’s names and getting to know each other,” they say. “I’ve spent semesters where I’m only sharing an intellectual space with my classmates, but we have an opportunity in this class to share a community.”

Maggie Erwin ’23 took Hickey’s class in spring 2022 because at the time she “was thinking a lot about the intersection of poetry and our engagement with the natural world, poetry and the climate crisis, and the environmental humanities,” she says. “I wanted to explore those ideas more.” As an English major, she sometimes felt a bit removed from the world, and “ecopoetry is a way that you really have to grapple with what it means to be human and to be doing human things in this world that we live in.”

The experience inspired Erwin so much that she wrote her thesis on Seamus Heaney’s poetry, with Hickey as her advisor. “A lot of what I learned in ecopoetry informed my thesis and made me want to write it,” she says. Erwin gave a presentation on Heaney during the second part of the course, where students all choose a poet to present to the class.

“Poetry and the humanities do not exist in a vacuum,” says Erwin. “They are an important part of how we understand things like the climate crisis. A lot of what is communicated through poetry is the way we understand our place in nature, because a lot of it we can’t explain. … Reading and writing poetry are actually critical parts of thinking about things like climate change.”