Human // Nature A look at Sue Goyette's "Eight" and Karen Solie's "Tractor"

As an Environmental Studies major I am interested in how poetry can be used to mobilize people into taking action to protect the environment. Our relationships with the natural world are complex and they determine how much value we place in the environment. Modern human society is becoming more and more physically separated from nature and this is causing us to lose our emotional connection with it as well. I chose two poems by Canadian poets that examine this multi-faceted relationship we have with nature. “Tractor” by Karen Solie offers a perspective from the prairies on our relationship with the land, while “Eight” by Sue Goyette provides the Maritime point ofview on our relationship with the ocean.

We rely on the land for our basic survival and yet, we take it for granted. Much of modern human life is completely separated from the agricultural processes that bring us our food. This separation and distance from the origins of our sustenance allows us to ignore our complete dependency on the land. We lose sight of the time and labour that is required to grow and harvest the crops that we depend on. With technological advances, tractors and other machinery can now do this work much faster. This efficiency however, comes at a cost: “What used to take a week / it does in a day on approximately / a half-mile to the gallon. It cost one hundred / and fifty grand” (9 – 12). This is a great financial cost to the farming family, but also a huge cost to the environment. This ecological cost is explored in the second stanza. The first stanza embodies the excitement surrounding the marvel of design and technology that is this tractor, but the middle stanza breaks away briefly and goes into the darker consequences of this machine. The last stanza redirects back to the tractor itself and its benefits: “But I was speaking of the Buhler Versatile 2360 / Phase D!” (29 – 30). This brief sidetrack of thought represents how humans ignore the negative impacts that so many of our modern practices have on the land. We depend on the land and yet we continue to destroy it.

Our relationship with the ocean is a more emotional one, less about dependence and more about fear. We desire an emotional outlet from the sea. We want to appreciate its beauty, but from a safe distance. Barriers are put in place to separate ourselves from it just enough so that we can enjoy its wonder in safety. Or, at least perceived safety. We attempt to control the ocean and pretend that we have any ability at all to calm its wrath. Goyette represents this separation in her opening lines: “The trick to building houses was making sure / they didn’t taste good. The ocean’s culinary taste / was growing more sophisticated” (1-3). The poem continues with this idea that the ocean’s appetite must be satisfied and that we humans are attempting to do just that so that it won’t feed on us. We desperately try to appease this dangerous beast for our own safety. While we try to protect ourselves from the ocean, we also love it and draw comfort from it. Goyette writes: “[the ocean] ate promises and rants” (6), and “Quarts of bottled song / were used to sweeten the brew. Discussions between / preschool children and the poets were added” (10 – 12). We go to the ocean to work through issues in our lives. We write songs and poetry about it. We choose to live close to it even though we see the destruction it’s capable of. We live with the worry in the back of our minds, nagging us throughout our daily lives. A sense of anxiety that we often ignore in the same way that we ignore our impacts on the environment.

In today’s world, it’s difficult to avoid hearing about climate change and catastrophic environmental damage. It’s always on the news or in conversations around us. We are aware of it but for the most part it lies somewhere hiding in the back of our minds: a threat that seems far off. It creates a sense of looming dread within us that we mostly ignore in our day-to-day lives. The anxiety that comes from our impact on nature is represented in “Tractor” when the damaging processes of fracking are brought up. Solie writes of this destruction in the second stanza of the poem. It creates a sense of discomfort and dread. Solie describes fracking as: “literal tons / of a fluid – the constituents of which / are best left out of this” (19 - 21). When we choose to ignore the horrible things we are doing, we leave out details so that we can continue with our way of life. When we are faced directly with the destruction we know how wrong it is as Solie writes: “It silences the arguments of every living thing.” We get the sense that this is very wrong and there’s no denying it’s impact on the Earth as a whole. But, this doesn’t stop us from participating in these destructive methods. Solie said in an interview with Michael Ladd that her poem “Tractor” represents the bad side of farming in the Canadian prairies. Although she loves her family farm in Saskatchewan, she was unsettled by the darker side effects of modernized agriculture that she witnessed growing up on the farm. (Solie qtd. in Ladd).

The sense of dread and anxiety is obvious throughout Goyette’s poem “Eight”. There is a sense of desperation in Goyette's description: “We had a squadron of cooks / specifically catering to its needs” (7 – 8). As if we are doing all that we can to satisfy a great beast that we can never truly control. Jeffrey Donaldson describes this anxiety we have towards the ocean being a reflection of our anxieties of climate change. Something we feel so desperate to control, but always seems impossible. Donaldson describes the poem as “humorously absurd” while still feeling very real. The lines “It ate boats and children” (4) may be absurd in the sense that the ocean is “eating” these things but it is also something that is known to us as the ocean has, in fact, taken lives and caused great damage. (Donaldson, 2014). This is a real fear that humans have concerning the ocean. The nagging sense of dread is summarized perfectly in the last lines: “And then the ocean would be calm. It would sleep. Our mistake / was thinking we were making it happy” (17 – 18). Although we may do everything we can to keep ourselves safe from the dangers of the ocean, we can never truly control it. So why then do we feel so drawn to it? Perhaps because its size and power comforts us.

Humans often gravitate towards aspects of the natural world that are larger than ourselves as we find renewed perspective from those experiences. Suddenly, our problems seem much smaller and insignificant. It’s a humbling experience. While this may be true in terms of our relationship with the ocean, it is often the opposite when it comes to the land. Solie’s “Tractor” presents a situation in which we humans are the large powerful force. Nature can sometimes seem so immense and powerful that we find it hard to believe that we are capable of having any impact on it at all. One little farm doesn’t make a difference in the whole grandness of the prairies. But, with modernized practices we have become more powerful than we ever could’ve imagined. There is a sense of this terrifying, grand power in the line describing oil extraction: “The ancient seabed will be fractured to 1000 feet” (18). The fact that we are capable of something so drastic is almost sickening. We get the feeling that we’ve done something horribly wrong and there is a cry for help in the lines: “The earth shakes terribly then, dear Houston, dear parent / corporation” (24 – 25). Calling to “Houston” in reference to a space mission gone wrong. There is a feeling that the earth as whole has been violently harmed at the hands of human beings. Even the air is described as “concussive, cardiac, irregular” (26). In this relationship, we are abusers and the Earth seems hopeless.

The dynamic between humans and the ocean is very different in this sense of grand forces. Goyette represents this relationship in which the ocean is clearly the massive and powerful force at work. We are drawn in by the grandness of this mighty entity. We choose to live close to it in order to keep ourselves humble. This humility brings with it a sense of awe and fear that we crave. As terrifying as it is being so close to something so treacherous and uncontrollable, it also brings us comfort. It allows us to discard our daily worries, as they are so small in comparison. The ocean is “eating” all of these everyday anxieties such as: “the occasional shoe. Pants. A diamond ring.” (5). These mundane objects bring along with them the issues of domestic life. The ocean, in all of its immensity, can wash away our meaningless worries as it provides us with a “big picture” perspective. There is a bit of irony in the sense that we are put at ease by the ocean because of its great power but that is simultaneously what we fear.

Although these poems are very different, they both achieve the same thing. They allow the reader to examine their relationship with the natural world around them. Both look into what we desire from different natural elements, the anxieties involved in our relationships with these elements, and the power dynamics between humans and nature. Spending time with these poems was frustrating as they brought up a lot of the difficulties involved with environmental activism. We can so easily push down our worries and turn a blind eye to the horrors that we are inflicting on our environment. Still, they also gave me some encouragement that through art we can hopefully open our eyes and understand the importance and beauty of our home, the Earth.


Created with images by uvc2 - "northern germany coast north sea" • PublicDomainImages - "soil tilling farmer" • Pok_Rie - "wave water ocean" • Pexels - "crop cropland farm" • Chill Mimi - "Tsunami" • andreas160578 - "agricultural machine arable agriculture" • kreuzfeld - "beach sea sunset" • kateausburn - "Peaceful action at site where AGL want to frack CSG at Gloucester" • supertonna0 - "concordia island lily shipwreck"

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