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The scientific method: Rebecca Durham’s experimental poetics

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Rebecca Durham

Rebecca Durham, author of two collections of ecopoetry.

How well do you know the Latin names for plants? Or how to read a dichotomous key? Or how to contemplate the hyperobject of climate change and the nearly infinite impacts on lives that changing climate is having and going to have?

Rebecca Durham has published two books of ecopoetry — "Loss/Less" and "Half-Life of Empathy" — that contemplate the world of plants, time, and a poetry without the interpretation of humans. Durham, a Ph.D. candidate in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Montana, is attracted to the experimental in her poetry, and in a lot of ways directly rejects the lyrical interaction with nature that has driven so many poets to describe the world they see.

“I’m a botanist by education and career, so I have a real close connection with the more-than-human world and the plants, and I spend a lot of time noticing, noticing and appreciating a relationship with a more-than-human world and the current state of grief we’re in,” Durham said in an interview this September.

The noticing is a blessing and a curse, especially when the entire world is in the throes of massive, climactic changes that will have long-lasting reverberations. Durham in particular is dealing with what Timothy Morton calls “slow violence,” the grand sum of climate disaster and change.

“It’s not this one natural disaster or this one wildfire, it’s the general malaise and being at this environmental moment, geographically, everywhere there’s something happening,” Durham said. “It’s a shared risk society, and you can’t just buy yourself out of this.”

If you’ve spent any extended period of time in Montana, you’ll probably have noticed this change. Summers are hotter and drier, fires are more intense and sterilizing, the air quality disintegrates, floods are worsening even though drought seems ever more dominant. For Durham, she has to hold that knowledge in balance with her ability to enter into a viewpoint that, while human, isn’t anthropocentric, which leads her to delve further into the experimental place where her poetry resides.

“On one hand, these plants are so beautiful, and when you are simultaneously thinking about global warming and fire and the personal logic of how you’re experiencing it all, experimental poetry is often a better vessel of creating art that is a better mirror of the complexity of this current moment,” Durham said.

Holding that constant sense of impending doom inside can be an exhausting and sometimes self-defeating purpose, as anyone who has had to consider a future vastly different than their present has experienced. Durham knows it too, which is why she’s doing the little things to keep her grounded, like building a new, large native plant garden in her yard in Whitefish.

“It’s a joy to interact with nature, go out there and look at the plants and look at the insects that are flying around,” Durham said, “it brings a lot of joy and a lot of peace, knowing I did my part here, supporting and doing the best we can … I’m doing what I can, to keep me grounded and buoyed to the natural world.”

Thomas Plank is a former Missoulian and Independent Record journalist. When he is not working for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, he is fly-fishing western Montana's rivers and considering better ways to expand his bookcase situation because let him tell you, he's running out of room already.

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