One Square Foot of the Earth


When I was an English teacher, teaching poetry was one of my favorite activities. For my sophomore classes, I decided to do nature poetry. Each day we read and discussed some famous and not-so-famous nature poems. For inspiration, we studied nature photographs and went outside for walks around the campus and across the street to the little pond.

While outside, each of us made a list down the middle of a piece of paper of the things we had seen or heard, and when we got back into the class room, on the left side of the paper, we wrote down three adjectives for each living creature or thing we saw and three adverbs for each sound we heard. We couldn't overuse any adjectives or adverbs and they had to be descriptive. On the right side of the paper, we wrote similes or metaphors describing the noun or sound.

Then, choosing words from our list, we each wrote a poem. These usually came out well, and the students were amazed that, although we had all looked at the same things, the poems were very different. I always participated in these poetry-writing exercises alongside my students. Their poems were often better than mine, a fact that amazed them and delighted me.

We did this exercise every year, and I looked forward to it. I wanted my students to think of poetry not as something rarefied that took exceptional talent, but as a way of communicating anyone could use.

During one class, to push them, and myself, a little harder, I borrowed rulers from the art department and we went outside, spread out, and each measured off one square foot of ground. We marked the corners with debris we found or stuck pencils in the corners.

Then we each got down close and looked long and carefully in our square foot. A square foot is pretty small, but we found amazing things. Ants, lots and lots of ants: red ants, black ants and red-and-black ants. Worn-down grass with roots twisted at the surface competed with spindly weeds for a bit of sun and space, and dead pine needles crisscrossed each other, making delicate patterns on the of the ground.

Dried bits of seeds, bark, and tiny twigs filled in spaces, and here and there rocks and stones pushed up through the gray dirt. In some of the squares we found beetles; once someone found a spider with eggs. It seemed that everyone found pieces of acorns or the husks of seeds. We all wrote down our observations of our square foot of earth.

Back inside the classroom, I had the students read quietly to themselves the poem, "To Look at Any Thing" by John Moffitt, which begins: To look at any thing, If you would know that thing, You must look at it long.

Then for homework, I asked them to use their observations of their square foot of earth to write a free-verse poem between 10 and 20 lines. I struggled with my poem until I simply focused on all that was going on in that one square foot of earth and how amazing each thing in it was, and then I wrote it as if that one square foot was all there was to the Earth.

When we read our poems to each other, a quiet reverence filled the room. No one laughed or said anything crude or cruel. After we shared, one girl said, "Who would have thought we'd see all that in one square foot of earth!" Who indeed.

So go outside and, as Moffitt advises, "enter in to the small silences between the leaves." Let the natural world around you and beneath your feet fill you with wonder. You don't need to be a poet or a student to learn to have an appreciation for nature. Just imagine all the earth in square feet, imagine all the life teeming within each square foot, and tread carefully.

By Sheila Roberge, UNH Cooperative Extension NH Outside Volunteer