Solastalgia, the Domestic World, and Wilderness: An Analysis of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose"

Canadian poetry often evokes images of human experience and its relationship to wilderness. Though she is considered to be an American poet, Elizabeth Bishop holds a place in Canadian poetry as well. The concept of solastalgia, defined as the distress produced by environmental change impacting those directly connected to home, is found in Bishop's "The Moose" and my own poem, "When Salmon Collapse." We feel it as the east coast drums unevenly under our tires, or when we attempt to find peace with the prolonged winter spell that prematurely tugs the day back into the horizon. Coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003, solastalgia “developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced distress” (Albrecht et al. 95). With global changes and human factors altering the course of Earth’s long-term sustainability, it’s pertinent that individuals focus on finding new ways to counteract these effects.

By allowing for reflection - either by writing or reading poetry - individuals reconnect with the ability to process solastalgia. This is the reality of Canadian poetry. In an era of climate destabilization, poets open themselves and their readers to what Sherbrooke University graduate Sherrie Malisch describes as “the beauty and utility of fear, retreat, limitation, and collectivity, both as literary themes and as real-world practices” (Malisch 178). By analyzing solastalgia and the permeability of the border between the domestic world and wilderness - specifically in Bishop’s “The Moose” and my own poem, “When Salmon Collapse” - Canadian poetry unearths itself as a tool that helps individuals process and approach climate change and human experience.

Bishop’s poem tentatively approaches climate change by first establishing precise and true-to-life images of New Brunswick, one of the “narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea” (Bishop 1-2). This detailed documentary - charged with colour - spans the entire poem. Interestingly, Bishop uses two modes of transportation to help colour the province: images of the natural world and domestic world. The natural world is represented by a river that enters and retreats from the land “in a wall of brown foam” (9). The river’s entry and exit parallels the speaker’s home-coming and departure. It also explains how human existence is like a river travelling throughout the landscape of New Brunswick. By using the image of brown river foam, Bishop eludes to poverty and earth. Later in the poem, the speaker notes that New Brunswick’s environment is subject to destitution.

Before she does so, she uses the sun as a natural tool to explore the province with “silted red” light (14). The colour extends to the “red, gravelly roads” that illuminate rows of sugar maples, farmhouses, and churches (20). A dominant color with a stimulating effect, red can draw both positive and negative emotions regarding the New Brunswick landscape. Red may symbolize the speaker’s passion and warmth for home. However, in an era of climate destabilization, nature is fighting a battle of fire and blood, aggression and intensity. Since red has a high visibility, it also symbolizes evident danger concerning environmental instability.

Alongside images of the natural world, Bishop incorporates the domestic world to suggest a shift in the speaker’s connection to home. In the fifth stanza, a bus with a “windshield flashing pink” sends the speaker out west to Boston, far from the dwellings of New Brunswick (28). Here, the permeability of the border between the domestic world and surrounding wilderness becomes evident. For instance, a pink windshield suggests that the domestic world is dependent on the natural world; after all, pink is a derivative of red, the colour used to represent the natural world. As the bus journeys “down hollows, up rises,” the windshield, like a lense, takes a final look of the landscape the speaker holds so fondly (24).

Pink is used in literature to denote love, friendship, and possessiveness. For example, as “a lone traveller gives / kisses and embraces / to seven relatives” it becomes evident that love, affection, and identity are rooted in the idea of home, and with it, the surrounding landscape (Bishop 26-28). The relationship between the domestic and natural world is further strengthened as passengers say “Goodbye to the elms, / to the farm, to the dog” (30-31). Finally, “The bus starts. The light / grows richer; the fog, / shifting, salty, thin, / comes closing in” (32-35). Evidently, the border between the domestic and natural world is permeable to the coming and going of travellers.

Humankind’s possessiveness over the natural world is key to understanding climate change. Even “the sweet peas cling / to their wet white string / on the whitewashed fences,” suggesting that every aspect of nature, no matter how insignificant, is affected by human existence and elements of the domestic world (Bishop 42-44). Additionally, as the pink light recedes to “a pale flickering,” readers are reminded that the continuity of nature is never promised (54). The light fades like “The Tantramar marshes / and the smell of salt hay” as the bus drives away (55-56). Here, Bishop indicates that her speaker is experiencing solastalgia. However, instead of dwelling on the fact that landscape is subject to change or that New Brunswick may not be the same upon return, the speaker is distracted by a myriad of different voices on the bus - each providing insight on Atlantic Canadian life.

The fear of environmental loss may explain the speaker’s retreat into the passenger’s snores and sighs. However, avoiding the environment has its limitations. The speaker seems to be as caught by the natural world as “lamb’s wool / on bushes in a pasture” (76-77). As Albrecht et al. explains, “people who are still in their home environs can … experience place-based distress in the face of the lived experience of profound environmental change” (96). This explains why the speaker seems despondent throughout the journey and is not able to find distraction for long. The article goes on to suggest that “what these people lack is solace or comfort derived from their present relationship to ‘home’” (Albrecht et al. 96).

Fortunately for Bishop’s speaker, there is a sense of collectivity amongst the passengers: each must face a moose that “has come out of / the impenetrable wood” (127). The moose looms in the middle of the road like the looming threat of climate change. If anything can snap the speaker out of the “slow hallucination” of denial and retreat, it is a creature strong enough to penetrate an impenetrable forest (83). The animal also penetrates the passenger’s thoughts, towering over the bus “high as a church” (133). Bishop’s image of a church implies that nature is a sign of the divine. Instead of worshipping the moose for its “grand, otherworldly” stance, the speaker is reassured that it is as “homely as a house ” (134). The moose is a curious creature for two reasons: humanity reveres these animals, but also experiences a “sweet / sensation of joy” and safety of their presence (149-150). Joy and safety are characteristics typically found at home.

Malisch’s research suggests that dense spaces of human habitation are key to understanding climate change. The remedy to this environmental destruction involves the “retreat from certain wild landscapes — for instance, scenic coasts” (Malisch 178). “The Moose” suggests that Bishop’s speaker is on a quest to limit the stress “that humans place on wild areas as climate change unfolds” (Malisch 178). Readers learn that the scenic landscape of New Brunswick is susceptible to change - whether by day entering night, the changing seasons, or the movement of people throughout the province. Even the “bumblebees creep / inside the foxgloves” suggesting that Bishop’s speaker is aware of the environmental shift (45-46). Though climate change does not appear to be at the forefront of the speaker’s mind, the feeling of solastalgia is.

I am haunted by most eye colours, especially blue - possibly the most obnoxious to have. To be fair, I realize that I unreasonably feel threatened by the superiority of blue eyed people. In conclusion, I am haunted by humans.

In issue 201 of Canadian Literature, Nicholas Bradley reviews Tim Bowling’s story of lament for a Canadian fishing community. The Lost Coast makes a stunning observation of salmon. According to Bowling, salmon “can look forward with one eye, backward with the other, simultaneously!” (as cited in Canadian Literature, 2009, p. 144). Bradley suggests that the story is an attempt “to look into the past and into the future at once ... like the salmon, in order to lament the loss of his father’s way of life and to warn of the cultural cost of the collapse of the Fraser River fishery” (144). Bishop’s final stanza brings to mind these salmon and the feeling of solastalgia: “For a moment longer, / by craning backward, / the moose can be seen / on the moonlit macadam” (156-159). As the speaker looks back at the moose - like salmon looking backward with one eye - Bishop is lamenting the shift in New Brunswick’s environment, or the lament for the landscape the speaker leaves.

As the bus drives away, “there’s a dim / smell of moose, an acrid / smell of gasoline” (160-162). The difference between moose and gasoline is the pungent smell. The smell of moose seems to be fading, suggesting that the natural world is losing its liveliness. In its place, gasoline engulfs the speaker’s senses. As Bowling’s salmon looks forward with one eye to warn of the collapse of the Fraser River fishery, Bishop’s speaker looks out at fading natural world and into a state of displacement on the moving bus. New Brunswick’s landscape may not be the same if the speaker returns, especially with domestic world influences.

It was Bradley’s review in Canadian Literature that inspired the title of my poem, “When Salmon Collapse.” A personal poem, the decisions I made along the way have to do with subjective experience. In reality, my eyes are light brown. When the light hits them in a certain way, I like to think that my eyes “curl like citrus” or “mango peels” - that they are more than average (Clark 5-6). I am haunted by most eye colours, especially blue - possibly the most obnoxious to have. To be fair, I realize that I unreasonably feel threatened by the superiority of blue eyed people. In conclusion, I am haunted by humans.

In Bishop’s poem, brown is the earthy colour of river foam. Like the river, I find myself entering and retreating from situations frequently. Unfortunately, many of these situations are perilous to my state of mind. I am far from optimistic: the brown boat that represents my eyes will always brim with muck. Muck is the reality of my life. No matter what appears on my horizon, I generally feel the sting of seasonal depression - all year round. I seclude myself in my room, where I have to imagine that my ceiling is the sky - or an “indigo roof” (Clark 9).

Instead of uncomfortably picking my poem apart, I will conclude with the sentiment that my eyes are like salmon: one eye dwelling on the past and one eye fixed on the perils of the future. Perhaps the environmental stress of climate change is not on my mind, but I make it known that humanity has everything to do with the natural world. Although poets like Leonard Cohen, Don McKay, and Don Domanski are some of my favourite poets - inspiring many aspects of my work - I cannot write with the voice or ideas of another poet. The best work comes from my own emotion and experience. Writing about New Brunswick led to effective and meaningful work for Bishop as well. Perhaps that is why “The Moose” is so descriptive; Bishop was able to reconnect with her childhood in the Atlantic provinces.

While my own poem is not based on solastalgia, I have learned that environmental consciousness is prevalent in most works of Canadian poetry. The domestic world and natural world are dependent upon each other, which is evident in poems like “The Moose.” Out of these works readers are better equipped to process and manage their feelings towards environmental destruction and the displacement from home and safety. Through writing my own poems this semester, I learned that the natural world helps to express human experience as well.

Created By
Heather Clark
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Created with images by Oriole-du-nord - "low tide sea ship"

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