Long walks in nature have long been a source of inspiration for writers and philosophers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Henry Thoreau. However, few have associated poetry and nature to the extent of creating a poetry garden near their house. This is the case with Canadian environmental artist Marlene Creates, who has transformed a patch of Newfoundland and Labrador boreal forest into an open-air collection of poems.
In A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden, Creates proposes a multi-sensorial and intermedial experience through 16 video poems. Designed to be enjoyed from a screen, each poem is accompanied by sounds and a video showing the artist walking through the forest or performing her poems. Thus, poetry becomes ecology embodied and connects the poet to the forest, rustling leaves and flowing water to spoken words, colors to sensations. Interested in “the relationship between human experience, memory, language, and the land, and the impact they have on each other,” Creates explores how new possibilities arise from the dialogue between all these elements.
The importance of place
Upon entering the website, the specificity of the location is immediately evoked through a map, showing the precise location of the artist’s work. It is Portugal Cove, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. A small rectangle shows where to click to start the experience. The work of art itself invites the viewer to interact with it right from the beginning.
The importance of place clearly emerges from the following map, which shows the precise location of each poem. Consequently, these poems are site-specific: they do not belong to paper but to a specific place within the forest. Moreover, the forest itself is not static but a living organism, alive with sounds, smells, and colors. If smells are harder to convey, sounds and colors do not fail to figure in the video poems. The ensuing experience is all-round and immersive. Thus, the poet accompanies her audience on a journey of discovery of a patch of forest, which reminds one of Thoreau’s invitation to observe and attune to nature in Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
An evolving soundscape
As Creates says in the introduction to her work, a sonic relationship links her to the Boreal Poetry Garden. Hence, sounds are a fundamental part of her videos. The sound of words, wind, leaves, and water mingle and complete each other. The resulting soundscape is not static but ever-evolving and taking new shapes. Hence, as Blood and Sun in Love & Ashes and the duo Dead Can Dance in Garden of the Arcane Delights, Creates’ poems establish a dialogue between sound and environment. However, if in these two albums the wood and the garden are a background, in Creates’ work, the forest is a real protagonist.
For instance, the title of the first video poem is White-throated sparrow and it lasts 37 seconds. During this time, numerous sounds concur to create a melody: a white-throated sparrow’s call, an axe cutting wood, matches lighting, and the poet’s voice. Her words accompany the sounds of nature, either describing them or evoking them through onomatopoeia. Their structure resembles that of a Japanese haiku: there are 17 syllables, and each line is evocative of the wood:
White-throated sparrows call.
Thud! a yaffle of white birch
dropped on the woodpile.
The birdsong opens and closes the poem linking it to the following one, The rattling brook path, which also starts with a bird call. Here, again, human-made sounds (the poet’s voice, steps, chattering, and laughs from the public) mix with the burbles of water and the whoosh of the wind. Although fixed in a video, these sounds convey the liveliness of the forest.
As recalled in its title, Creates thinks of her work in terms of a poetry garden. Consequently, the reference to gardening is essential: instead of planting seeds, she plants poems. Her act of gardening takes place on a metaphorical level; she does not physically alter the landscape, but she “stories” it, giving meaning to and establishing connections with particular places. For this reason, scholar Carmen Concilio has defined the Boreal Poetry Garden as an open-air museum to walk and discover with the poet herself.
In this way, Creates’ garden is unique and challenging: she invites listeners and viewers to really see, to notice every element making up the wholeness of the experience, from a single leaf falling to river water flowing and steps pounding. In this process, sounds and images merge: landscape, poet, and poems become a garden together. Because of that, the poems in A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden could be defined as forested: they are embedded in the forest as if covered by its vegetation and participating in its life.