By Elaina Friedman

You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World. Ed. Ada Limón. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2024. $25.00

Walking home from a friend’s house in Seattle in the spring of 2021, I spotted a small grayish bird sitting in the middle of a busy sidewalk. It blinked its shiny black eyes fixedly toward a row of bushes as if it were waiting for something to come out, looking unbothered by the rush of commuters dodging its inconspicuous perch. An onlooker in decidedly authoritative nylon pants claimed it was a junco who probably had the avian flu spreading from Canada, leaving it flightless and disoriented. In its state of isolation and stillness—of dying—I felt the bird’s aliveness in a way I hadn’t when it existed solely in my periphery as a dark flash flitting between branches, dashing past my bedroom window, or hopping across the park lawn I cut through to get to work. Here was a creature utterly familiar to me who I’d only just learned the name of; whose feathers I’d only just registered the color of; whose absence I now felt. A chapter in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) came to mind, in which a town once filled with wildlife and birdsong falls silent after a “strange blight crept over the area,” begetting “a spring without voices.” After that, watching birds and naming them doubled as an act of restitution and a way of looking at my surroundings with newfound alertness. Other elements of the natural world—trees, plants, flowers, insects—also came into focus. 

My junco encounter happened to coincide with the paperback release of Ada Limón’s The Carrying, a collection deeply informed by an awareness of nature undercut by a sense of loss or mourning that, as nature does, circles back to newness. “When all the shock of white / and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave / the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath, / the leaves come,” reads “Instructions on Not Giving Up.” The tree attached to those newly greening leaves voices a caustic acceptance in the speaker’s mind: “Fine then, / I’ll take it,” it says. “I’ll take it all.” 

Three years later, the natural world is still central to Limón’s poetics, as are the manmade forces threatening its survival. As part of a national poetry project with the Library of Congress as the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate, Limón asked a group of celebrated poets — including Joy Harjo, Jericho Brown, Carl Phillips, Laura Da’, and Victoria Chang — to generate new work for an anthology built around the idea of “communion” with nature, borrowing the use of the word from fellow Kentucky writer bell hooks.

In her introduction to You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World, Limón describes the slender book as “not just a community, but a living ecosystem that is made stronger by all its parts.” Fittingly, its contents run the gamut of form, style, and subject matter, notwithstanding a few shared throughlines. Among them are indigenous land, tradition, and language (see: Laura Da’, Rigoberto Gonzalez) and the relationship (sometimes congenial, sometimes not) between nature and human identity. Carrie Fountain represents the latter in her poem “You Belong to the World.” An excerpt reads: 

The hands 
that put a peach tree into the earth exactly 
where the last one died in the freeze belong 
to the world and will someday feed it again, 
differently, your body will become food again 
for something, just as it did so humorously 
when you became a mother, hungry beings 
clamoring at your breast, born as they’d been 
with the bodily passion for survival that is 
our kind’s one common feature. 

It’s apt to open the anthology with a poem that seems to put the reader on the same plane as any living thing with a “bodily passion for survival.” It might even lay the groundwork for an ideal state in which to read the poems that follow: one in which certain barriers between plants, animals, and people are somewhat diminished, allowing readers to find more connection and urgency than they might otherwise in poems about the natural world. More bluntly, to quote the poem’s next lines, “You belong to the world, animal.” 

A few pages later, the speaker in Victoria Chang’s “A Woman With a Bird” experiences a shift in perception after a period of disconnect while watching magpies attack a bald eagle’s nest: “In Alaska, my life was with me again, attached for now.” In Eduardo C. Corral’s “To a Blossoming Saguro,” the speaker weighs America’s value of precious cacti against its value of Mexican immigrants. “You have more rights than the undocumented: / I need a permit to uproot you.” And in “Bad Wolf” by Laura Da’, the speaker imagines what a slice of land might have looked like before it became lined with houses. “I uninvite to receive more clearly what / the fringed prairie might have been / with its controlled burns and bone games / and berries.” 

While it’s not all gentle paeans to quiet rivers, it’s worth noting that the theme of a dying planet is less explicit than one might expect. Still, Limón hopes the anthology will “reimagine what ‘nature poetry’ is during this urgent moment on our planet.” If nature “is no longer the rustic retreat of the Wordsworthian poet,” but rather a “pressing political question, a question of survival,” as Jay Parini writes in his introduction to Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry (1993), You Are Here does its part by drawing attention not just to scenic destinations sprawling with natural beauty — such as the national parks where, as part of the project, Limón will set up benches inscribed with poems — but also to the parts of the natural world that, like a dying bird in a city or a municipally planted tree trading blossoms for leaves, exist everywhere. The book says: Take it all.


Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962)

Limón, Ada. “Instructions on Not Giving Up.” The Carrying. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions 2018)

You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World, ed. Ada Limón. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2024)

Parini, Jay, and Robert Pack. Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry(Hanover: Middlebury College Press/University of New England Publishing, 1993)

Elaina Friedman is a writer from Oregon living in New York. She enjoys sensationalizing her local reservoir and eating Raisinets.

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