In “Let the Barbaric Flowers Live: Nature and Poetry,” Professor Alice Fulton MFA ’82 spoke on the power of weeds and other plants in literature as part of the seventh annual William H. and Jane Torrence Harder lecture.
Fulton began her lecture saying, “The subject of poetry and nature is so vast that I hardly know how to make it small.” As a poet, she is often more intrigued by the smaller, quieter aspects of life than the larger, abstract ones. She settled on weeds and wildflowers as the main focus of her discourse.
Tying together her identity as a poet and the subject of nature in literature, Fulton quoted extensively from the poems of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and A.R. Ammons, three exceptional American poets intrigued by the role of nature.
In between her literary references, Fulton engaged the audience with anecdotes about her own recent experiences with nature’s wonders and unpredictability. She told of a plant she found in her garden. She insisted it was a weed; her husband was convinced it was a flower.
She also described an injured bird she discovered over Labor Day weekend. She spoke of her somewhat futile efforts to save him before passing him over to the Cornell Wildlife Clinic toward the end of the weekend.
The plant turned out to be a poisonous weed. The bird was healed and eventually let back into the wild.
These stories led Fulton to address complicated issues of humans’ use of animals, plants, and natural resources and her choice to become a vegetarian because of the environmental problems posed by large meat producers. An audience member brought up the other side of the issue, that vegetarian products use a vast amount of natural resources as well.
Fulton alluded to the difficulties of knowledge that is inconvenient, and responsibility versus uncomplicated lifestyles. “Take up anything you find and want as yours,” she said, in reference to a poem by A.R. Ammons.
“It was cool hearing an English professor tie in horticulture,” said Jessica Arcate ’04, a student of horticulture who attends the lectures for credit.
“I thought she was the best one they’ve had that I’ve ever heard,” said Eleanor Barnard, a volunteer at the Cornell Plantations who enjoys poetry as well. “She really involved a few of the issues too. She was very open minded.”
Donald A. Rakow, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds director of Cornell Plantations called it an evening of “literature and nature, good friends, and eventually, food and drink.” He welcomed the audience wholeheartedly and humbly thanked them for choosing to attend the lecture while nature beckoned so strongly. The idea of the annual lecture was created specifically to “celebrate the interconnections of nature and literature,” he said.
G. Peter Lepage, the interim Harold Tanner dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, called it “a superb event that you would absolutely be kicking yourself for missing.” He then passed the bat to Torrence C. Harder, a relative of Bill Harder’s, who expressed the need for environmental lectures.
“I believe the Cornell Plantations can make a big difference in the way we view our environment,” said Harder.
Linda Brown, head of the English department, introduced Fulton. Fulton began as a student at Cornell and later became a professor at Michigan. She rejoined the Cornell community in 2002, where, after A.R. Ammons’ death, she filled a major hole in the English department. Brown said, “We already feel her to be an established… and familiar figure here.”
Following the lecture, Fulton addressed some of the audience’s questions. Everyone concluded with a walk through the Dean’s garden into a tent filled with food and wine, discussion and music from a live band. Both meat and vegetables were served.
The free public lecture was the first in a series of ten, sponsored by the Cornell Plantations, which will continue through November 12, on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Archived article by Stephanie Baritz