New Shoots: Plants, Poetry and Place

“We don’t just relate to the world on a purely rational or functional level,” poet Maria Takolander tells me. “There’s something deeper and more mysterious there – this mystery is visible in our relationship with language, non-human animals and plants.”

Maria and I are talking poetry and plants. Two of my favourite things. We’re specifically speaking of New Shoots – a project initiated by Red Room Poetry which first sprouted in NSW last year and is now spreading its tendrils to the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

New Shoots is a celebration and cultivation of poems inspired by plants and place. This year ten poets (including Bruce Pascoe, Maria Takolander, Bonny Cassidy, Autumn Royal, Ryan Prehn, Elena Gomez, Duncan Hose, Chris Wallace Crabbe, Carissa Lee Godwin, and Cameron Lowe) have been commissioned to create works that respond to sites, histories, seeds and spores within the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

The project has been revelatory for Maria, who tells me of how it’s opened up new ways of seeing, and exploring through language, the non-human world around her.

Maria Takolander.

Made in Finland and born in Melbourne, Maria Takolander has always had a deep affinity to language and landscape. She began writing poetry in primary school, as a way of exploring the English language (Finnish was her first language) and her sense of self-expression.

Language appealed to me a something of deep importance, and poetry provided a way of testing out words and my sense of the world,” she says.

Maria has since become comfortable in the ecosystem of words and is a fiction writer, poet, and Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature Studies at Deakin University. Whilst she’d always felt a strong connection to the natural world, she’d not written nature poetry before her involvement in the New Shoots project.

“If I hadn’t written nature poetry before, it is because it is so difficult,” Maria tells me with a laugh. “Perhaps its because the feelings one can have in the face of nature are so overwhelming. They’re probably more fitting to a grand oil painting or a work of music. To try and put these huge feelings into a tiny poem is a strange thing. Part of the fun of the New Shoots project was this challenge.”

Maria has written a series of 10 poems for the project – including one poem about Guilfoyle’s Volcano, and a series of eight haikus. She chose to write about Guilfoyle’s Volcano in part, she says, to address a prejudice: “I had inherited a colonial cultural preference for European plants over the kinds of drought tolerant species—from Africa, Central and South America, and Australia—featured at the location. The subject thus represented an emotional challenge and an aesthetic one, the flora not readily recalling a tradition of feeling and lyricism found in existing traditions of nature poetry that I knew about.”

Maria soon found herself deeply enamoured by the plants growing on and around Guilfoyle’s Volcano. Her haiku poems focused on specific species such as the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), apple cactus (Cereus peruvianus) and medusa’s head (Euphorbia caput-medusae); using the form as a way of breaking down the vastness of feeling into a smaller, more accessible scale. “Haiku provided a propagative technique for growing knowledge about plants—an obvious one, perhaps, given the form’s importance to nature poetry in the ‘East’, even if I was dealing with a different kind of landscape and flora,” she says.

Its skyward forays
thwarted, it lays low, seething—
fires with its own stars.

~ Euphorbia caput-medusae (Medusa’s Head), by Maria Takolander

Another New Shoots commissioned poet, Elena Gomez, was also drawn to the Arid Garden for it’s “gloriously grotesque” plants. She tells of being a “frustratingly inefficient weeder” in her mothers garden as a child, but how “by spending time in the Arid Garden, reading about its inhabitants and especially writing poems through and for them,” Elena writes, “I had a chance to get a little closer to this world in which I felt so otherwise incompetent.”

we grew a little slower sometimes
we needed to protect ourselves
we self-seeded on the cliff face
we splashed out real nice

~ from ‘Enter the Yellow Tower’ by Elena Gomez

Elena Gomez.

“The New Shoots project has definitely enriched my relationship with the natural world,” Maria tells me. She speaks of an encounter following her involvement in the New Shoots project; “I visited the Botanic Gardens in Medellin, Columbia, with a botanist/poet from Mexico, and saw two fully grown ceiba trees—and learned all about their significance to the Mayan people from someone with Mayan ancestry. One ceiba even rained its sacred pollen on us, as a rare breath of wind unsettled the branches—it was magical moment.”

Ancient sun of gold—
smuggled down this studded trunk
to the underworld.

~ Ceiba insignis (White Silk Floss Tree), by Maria Takolander

It seems to me, as a non-poet, that poetry is very much about seeing –  paying attention not just the surface, but all the layers underneath. Digging, excavating, understanding. “We pay attention to football, Facebook and the stock market,” Maria suggests, “yet arguably there is an urgent need right now for us to start paying attention to our environment and the wonder it contains, the wonder that might inspire us to act in ways that are more nurturing, to act with a deeper awareness of how precious and beautiful our world is.”

The acts of gardening and poetry often stem from the same patch of ground and can lead us in the same direction – down a meandering pathway towards the fertile soil of deep attention, awe, action and an openness to dive a little further into mystery.”

The New Shoots project is testament to this. It’s sowing incredibly important poetic seeds that are spreading their small green limbs across Australia, the world even, growing deeper cultural and personal connections to nature.

It may be quiet and it may not be quantifiable but have no doubt; poetry, like gardening, is powerful. Revolutionary, even.

New Shoots celebrates and cultivates poems inspired by plants and place to deepen our creative and cultural connections with nature. A partnership between Red Room Poetry, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and Australian Poetry, New Shoots Victoria, commissioned ten poets to create a Garden of Poems that unearth the secrets, spores and hidden stories of the Gardens.

New Shoots Victoria will be launched with a poetic walking tour in conjunction with Melbourne Writers Festival 2017. Poems will also be ‘planted’ in the garden for people to chart their own poetic paths.

The New Shoots Poetry Anthology is available here with 163 plant-inspired poems from across the world.

Publish your own plant-inspired poems here.