The World Leans In: Reading Poetry on Trails 

Over the years, I’ve read poems in many different settings—libraries, grade schools, universities, nursing homes, restaurants, museums, even aboard city buses, but never on a walking trail, not until a…

Over the years, I’ve read poems in many different settings—libraries, grade schools, universities, nursing homes, restaurants, museums, even aboard city buses, but never on a walking trail, not until a few weeks ago, when I had the opportunity to lead two Next Indiana Campfires.

One of the hikes was through McVey Memorial Forest in Randolph County and the other along the shoreline of Syracuse Lake in Kosciusko County. In both instances, I phoned someone beforehand, someone knowledgeable about the trails, so I could match poems to the landscape. Julie Borgmann at McVey and Megan McClellan at Syracuse explained what we would encounter on our hikes: waterways, plants, habitats, bridges. . . . The trail through McVey Forest would pass through much wilder territory than the trail around Syracuse Lake, but even between neighborhood developments, we’d see views of the lake and some woodland and marsh. With a list of details in hand, I paged through books by Indiana poets, searching for poems that might link to what we’d be seeing.

At the start of both hikes, I read the poem, “Refuge” by Mary Fell. This poem suggests how you can attune yourself to nature: “Practice / brotherly silence with / the trees, or collect / in the cup of your ear the language / of water over / fossil stones. I’d always read this poem indoors. Fell’s words took on more urgency in the context of a group ready to set off on a trail. And they were even more powerful with water, stone, and trees bearing witness.

A glacier carved Syracuse Lake and leveled the land in Randolph County, so I chose to read Jared Carter’s “Glacier” on both hikes. At McVey, as we stopped at the forest edge, looking out upon a field, Carter’s evocative words took us back in time: “Last night I saw it form again / Along the woods’ dark edge; / Heard it gathering out of a wind / From the northwest.” When I finished the last line, Barry Banks, the founder of the Red-tailed Land Conservancy, said to look behind us. There they were—two gray boulders left by the glacier. Why hadn’t I noticed them before?

I recently listened to a friend speak on public radio about a meditative poetry form called the haiga. Kyle Craig, an Indianapolis poet, explained how this Japanese form unites haiku with visual artwork like a painting or woodcut. On the trails, I wasn’t reading haiku, but I was linking poetry to visible, natural elements that interacted with words to form new connections. Is it too much of a stretch to think of this as facilitating a type of haiga? A living haiga?

The poem “Give Us This Day,” by Todd Davis speaks of “the visible world / that feeds us, that makes / an offering each day: / beach plum or pawpaw, / morel or puffball. . . .” There weren’t any pawpaws on the saplings that grew where I read this poem, but people commented on the beauty of the leaves—bright green parasols with sunlight shining through them.

Some of the connections that occurred were humorous. At McVey Forest, I hadn’t gotten further than stating David Shumate’s title, “Bringing Things Back from the Woods,” when someone said, “Look here,” and pointed to her jeans plastered with green burrs.

In the parking lot of an abandoned warehouse in Syracuse, Jessica D. Thompson’s poem, “Future Home of the Mega Church” served as an elegy to animals and plants displaced or lost due to development. “Blessed the trees now marked / with X’s,” I read in the absence of anything green.

The third stanza of Nancy Pulley’s poem, “Sand Creek,” begins by saying, “The world leans in.” The trees along Bush Creek leaned in as we stood on the footbridge. They were leaning in to capture more sunlight, of course, but by leaning in they also invoked the emotional truth of Pulley’s words.

As I spoke poems aloud in the open air, words felt akin to tufted seeds, the “small paratroopers,” Elizabeth Weber describes so beautifully in her poem “Milkweed,” another poem we enjoyed along the trail. Weber sets these “tiny whirlwinds of light / against the great roll of the prairie.”

I want to continue linking poems to places in nature. I think it might become an addiction. This summer in my poetry workshops at Fort Harrison State Park, as an Arts in the Park Poet in Residence, I’ll not only offer writing exercises as participants walk along Fall Creek and Camp Creek Trails, I’ll also read poems that intersect with the landscape.

If you are someone who loves poetry, I hope you will consider bringing poetry to a trail you walk. It’s not hard—link one element with another and . . . the world leans in.


Next Indiana Campfires is a unique way to connect nature, literature and Indiana’s Bicentennial. The program is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires. Indiana Humanities is supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the National Endowment of the Humanities. 

This post is part of the weekly blog series devoted to the initiative. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about Indiana’s great environmental literature, find out interesting facts about Hoosier stewardship, get all the latest program details and more.