The Portable Humanist Podcast Series

Listen to Vermont Humanities talks while you’re on the go.

Words in the Woods with James Crews

Poet James Crews reads and discusses his poetry at Jamaica State Park for our Words in the Woods series. A companion video includes visuals taken at the park. Here James discusses the origins of his poems, and offers several writing prompts for those inspired by his words.

Episode Transcript

James Crews: Hi, everyone, my name is James Crews. I’m a poet, I live in Shaftsbury, Vermont. I’ve lived in Vermont for about four years now. One of the things that my husband and I love to do is visit all the State Parks and all the areas to hike in. Since I’m a poet, a lot of what I write is based on those hikes and those walks that we’ve taken together.

Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.

James Crews’ poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Raleigh Review, Crab Orchard Review and The New Republic. His most recent collection of poems is titled Bluebird.

We recently spent a morning with James at Jamaica State Park in southern Vermont, as part of our new Words in the Woods program. The series allows Vermonters and visitors to enjoy our state’s natural beauty while listening to and reading literature in the outdoors.

Due to Covid-19, we decided to record James on our own, and offer the event as a video, and as this podcast episode. That morning he discussed with us the origins of his poems, and offered several writing prompts for those inspired by his words.

Here’s James.

James Crews: I’ll start with is this poem called Leave No Trace. I wrote this after hiking, I believe actually it’s here in Jamaica State Park where we’re filming. I just saw that phrase “Leave No Trace,” that we’re urged to take everything with us. Obviously don’t leave anything behind. But it kind of started to occur to me that we’re always leaving something behind, that there’s always some piece of us left behind when we interact with nature. So that’s kind of where this poem came from.

We break branches and make tracks

on trails that keep the shape

of our boot-soles as we rub stones

that look like faces lifted

out of loam by the talon-like

root-claws of maples growing up      

over them—and then we touch the trees.

Leave no trace, we’ve been told,

though we know this is impossible

when we abandon countless breaths,

threads of conversation

and stray hairs snagged on thorns

which some warbler will soon

swoop in and steal, weaving

pieces of us into her tufted nest

tucked deep inside a willow

we’ll never see.

James Crews: What I would invite you to do for your own poem or your own piece of writing is to just imagine what parts of you are left behind when you go out for a hike, you go out for a walk. What are those little bits of connection and interaction with nature? And just see where that carries you.

James Crews: The next poem I’d like to read you all is called At Stratton Pond. This one was written after an experience at Stratton Pond here in southern Vermont. One of the things that I really love about being out in nature is just being away from my phone, my screens. And I think of it as being kind of in soul time. So this more natural way of being that we can slip in to, especially if we don’t have cell service, which is the case in a lot of Vermont parks. So that’s where this poem came from. And this is At Stratton Pond.

If you’ve ever sat on the dock

near a pond and watched for hours

as salamanders flit in the shallows,

as algae fronds dance back and forth

in time with the current, unfurling

every part of themselves for the water—

 

then you know what it means to move

in real time, to feel yourself inside the caves

the arched algae makes for tadpoles

and minnows to swim through. You know

how noon sun warms the tops of beech trees

so each branch gives up its sleeve

of ice, like glass falling from a chandelier.

 

You’ve seen it melt into copper leaf-litter,

water sinking through softened soil

to touch the roots of trout lilies

about to bloom—and now blooming when you

pass through again on your way back to the car.

 

You’ve learned to take your time, stopping

to rub those tender places on birches

where the ancient scrollwork of bark

has peeled back to reveal the secret

of all existence: To live unbound by time

and mind—to grow, speak, touch and taste

at a pace that feels more real.

James Crews: So for this one, I would invite you all to write about a time when you felt like you were actually outside of time where you were able to escape your thoughts, escape some of the ways that we’re bound by our screens or task lists or things like that. So just think back and see if there’s an experience that you’ve had out in nature or even just walking around the yard, taking a hike when you were able to escape time for a while.

James Crews: This next poem was actually written after I attended a seven day silent meditation retreat. And when I was sitting a lot. We sat for hours each day. I realized that I wasn’t really paying attention to the natural sound. What’s known as the natural silence. And so I got to hear so many new birds, catbirds, phoebe calls that I hadn’t realized were all around me. And then I came home and kind of brought that attention to my own surroundings. This is called Natural Silence.

It’s not easy to find the silence

behind traffic noise and the rush of a jet

dragging its contrails through the sky.

But here it is again in the in-between,

when I learn to listen long enough

to the call-and-response of birdsong,

to wind pulsing in the canopies of trees,

and every wing-flutter of the phoebe

who’s built her cup of a nest out of moss

and mud beneath the eaves of our house.

I know the stillness will last for just

a few beats before the roar of a Harley

takes over, and a tractor rumbles through

the rocky field outside my window.

So I sink into it while I can, as I do into water

so clean and clear, for a moment at least

I swear I can see to the bottom of everything.

James Crews: For this poem, I would invite you to just maybe take five or 10 minutes. And even if you’re in the city, try to sit close to an open window, sit outside near the sounds of nature, and just pay attention to what you hear. See if you can name all the different sounds. The sound of the wind, the sound of certain birds, maybe insects buzzing nearby and then wait for a line to come to you and follow that line wherever it takes you. See if you can write about the quality of that natural silence for you as well.

James Crews: This next poem is born out of the experience, actually, of watching the caterpillars spin their chrysalis outside of our house. We have a lot of milkweed plants on the farm where my husband and I live. And so we’re always watching the caterpillars and watching for those moments when the monarchs start coming out. This poem is kind of borne out of that experience. This is Monarch.

The butterfly does not break free triumphant.

Once it claws through the chrysalis,

it stands there shivering, new wings aching

as they slowly fill with blood. It must keep

its tiny eyes shut tight at first against

the brightness and shimmer of a world

it has never seen before—not like this.

It must listen until a deeper voice whispers:

The flowers are waiting. Leave the skin

of the old life far behind. Open your eyes

and give in to the blue air that will carry you

everywhere you need to go.

James Crews: This poem is called Down to Earth. And this one is written for my husband, who actually works as a farmer. It touches on his ability to be so connected to the natural world and the weather, everything that’s going on. I’ve always admired his connection to that. So this is Down to Earth.

The heart of a farmer

is made of muscle

and clay that aches

for return to earth.

And when the sky

releases a steady rain,

massaging each row

of sprouted beans,

my husband leans out

of the car window

and opens his hand

to hold that water

for a single instant,

his heart now beating

in sync with rain

seeping through layers

to kiss the roots

of every plant alive

on this living, breathing

planet on whose back

we were granted

permission to live

for a limited time.

That’s poet James Crews the author of the new collection, “Bluebird.” Find him online at www.jamescrews.net.