Intelligent Nature: Ken Belford’s Decompositions

Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010

“I transgressed the imagined
and resisted the ordered metaphors
of threat.”
– from Decompositions

          For most of his life, Ken Belford has lived in the rural and wilderness areas of the Nass Valley in northern British Columbia. In his latest book of poetry, Decompositions, his meditations on humans and nature have entered a new breadth of poetic maturity and ecological wisdom that comes from years of sustaining himself from the land and being attentive to the “intelligence of nature” (Belford).
          His poetry is down-to-earth, conversational. But Belford’s self-description as an autodidact—poetically or otherwise—should not be construed as a marker of unsophistication. Here is an ecologically-minded poet whose complex thought arises not only from scientific knowledge of ecosystems, geology, microbiology, and genetics, but also—and more importantly—from a lifetime of observing and meditating on the intricate connections between land and its inhabitants. And in Decompositions, Belford voices his seasoned understanding of the natural world and the human pressures that transform it. It’s poetry that has been decades in the ripening: rooted in long experience, enlightened by keen awareness, and expressed with an original and quietly compelling poetic sensibility.
          I’m fascinated by the uniqueness of Belford’s poetic voice in comparison to that of many contemporary nature poets. And I think it’s important to understand what sets his work apart because of a set of expectations that readers (including myself) may bring to nature poetry and its more current rubric, eco-poetry. So first: what his approach to nature poetry is not.
          Nature poetry can dazzle with lavish description and linguistic pyrotechnics, but in contrast to poets who offer the reader an epiphany of place recognition, Belford asks,

                    says good writing conveys
                    a strong sense of place?

Belford is wary of the type of “possessive poem” that attempts to capture its object through descriptive details:

                    The aggressive impulses of
                    the lyric load the details
                    of the story with what seems
                    to be a post-dating hangover.

Tongue in cheek, Belford suggests that, perhaps counter-intuitively, a poetics of descriptive infatuation might have a numbing effect as one becomes inebriated with the language that tries more to “capture” the lover than to explore and cultivate a mutual partnership.
          Also, some nature poets are inclined to forewarn and prescribe, but for Belford,

                    The apparent attempts at
                    moral instruction from poets
                    who do not own their own
                    lives makes me think that about
                    is control, which is why I’m
                    not convenient, and more
                    temporary, why I long to be
                    idle and purposely dormant,
                    and accelerate from
                    those empty places country
                    does not allow escape from.

Inconvenient indeed, if what a reader seeks is use-value to adorn an ideological or political banner. Belford’s poetry resists the easy sound byte and knee-jerk emotions about nature that may find themselves subservient to causes.
          And nature poetry can lament lost Arcadias. But Belford renounces idyllic worlds that never existed anyway:

                    It’s best to blink and learn to forget
                    if it’s arcadia or aecidia, best to be
                    happy, and forget the topological terms
                    of day, the derivatives of night, and
                    let the pre-existing ideal slip your mind
                    and be bygone, and accommodate
                    the misfit. Images are nomadic.

         In short, Belford isn’t so much interested in generating a sense of wonder about nature, in offering artificially-imaged nature as “a lifestyle Photoshop retouches,” or in engendering a feeling of melancholy or moral outrage about ecological disruption. This is not eco-poetry with an agenda. Belford’s more concerned with exploring with open mind the entanglements of nature (wild or channelled) and human perception, language (including poetic language) and social interactions. And in these explorations, “misfits” are not anomalies, and images—being the product of brains whose plasticity mirrors nature’s own continual shiftings—are not stable.
          “Inter-connectedness” has become an ecological cliché, a vague truism for the web of dependence linking natural phenomena. As Belford questions his relation to his natural surroundings, he avoids such easy sentiments (which might arise from an “about” branch of nature poetry) by meditating on processes of evolution and genetics:

                    [T]he type of contact I lived was not
                    a food, or family, or animal contact route,
                    but evolved from a common ancestor.

His relation to nature doesn’t so much resemble the unthinking and likely accidental “contact route” followed by the spread of pathogens. It’s more like a feeling of relatedness to other beings through the genetic links of common ancestry. He describes his genes as having descended from

                    an old sequence recopied upstream
                    in a new strand that follows flooding
                    and I’m good at attaching to surfaces.

          His arrival from distant ancestors is a traversal of nature in time that recognizes his (literal) inter-relatedness with all beings by virtue of his descent downstream, “follow[ing] flooding,” from common ancestors. Although this kind of genetic transmission is “vertical” in the biological sense of descent from parent to offspring, Belford emphasizes the horizontal links with other beings, forged by common ancestry. He views distant cousins on the tree of life as important a part of his family as great grandparents.
         He also portrays his existence in the world in horizontal terms: he “attach[es] to surfaces” and

                    integrat[es] in through recombinations
                    as a naked piece of DNA in the environment,
                    not passed vertically
                    from generation to generation,
                    but by means of the conjugation of plasmids
                    into the occupation of the new.

          The metaphors of horizontal and vertical genetics offer a distinction that is important to Belford’s outlook. Vertical genetic transfer represents the line of ancestry from which each living being has descended. An emphasis on the vertical thus prioritizes one’s own familial lineage, as opposed to recognizing one’s relatedness to species that branched off from our own line. The image of verticality makes it easier to conceptualize homo sapiens as having a unique and special rank at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree.
          By contrast, Belford likens his being within nature to horizontal genetic transfer (as in the conjugation of plasmids), which involves the passing of genetic material from one cell to another. The receiving cell is not considered to be the offspring of the donating cell though this type of transfer can be a mechanism of evolution.
         Thus Belford envisions neither himself as a child of nature nor nature as his Garden of Eden. Instead, he sees himself and his natural environment as interacting systems of lateral exchange and mutation. And this view allows him to recognize that the human mind is only one instance of intelligence in nature, which has endowed other beings with their own native intellect in negotiating their worlds:

                                      A wolf decided to
                  walk with me. They keep lists.
                  C is for company. You go up and
                  north at the same time. Everything
                  that lives acts in a particular way
                  and has a reason to live.

         As a dweller in the wilderness who has seen the encroachment of loggers and farmers, Belford writes in many poems in Decompositions about the disruption of ecosystems and the ensuing ill effects on nature and humans, especially the poor: deforestation, the decline of diversity, the invasion of non-native species, and the spread of pathogens (“the fevers that go with harm” and that disproportionately affect the poor). The latter is both a literal problem and an analogy for economic forces that pave the way for the dissemination of disease and, ironically, enough, for the

                  good roads [that] bring
                  health care in because the
                  villages are going to need it.

         In the midst of the disturbed soil and leaching toxins that degrade wilderness and disrupt ecosystems, Belford reflects on the ecological philosophy that he embraces, for he’s

                    sympathetic to trans-species, overgrown
                    gardens, and fragmentation and loss, and
                    of the conflicts and pathways toward coexistence.

         I almost glossed over the word “trans-species” but learned that the term refers to an environmental outlook developed by Gay Bradshaw that

                    re-embeds humans within the larger matrix
                    of the animal kingdom by erasing the “and”
                    between humans and animals that has been
                    used to demarcate and reinforce the false
                    notion that humans are substantively
                    different cognitively and emotionally from
                    other species. (qtd. in Marino)

In Belford’s reference to trans-species, I’m again reminded of his emphasis on the horizontal exchange of genetic material. Vertical descent can suggest differentiation among species, notwithstanding the common ancestors that unite humans to every other living being. But horizontal cellular exchange implies, in the here and now, a non-hierarchical stance in relation to other beings and, indeed, the topology and matter of the land.
          Belford’s turning away from the vertical “sequence of ancestors” is also consonant with his more general “shifting trust of order’s / single-file chain of incidents”: He’s no writer of “orderly passages” but of thoughts that “deviat[e] from the expected.”
         I admire and respect Belford’s Decompositions because of its groundedness in science and long experience. And these tell him that inherent in biological and geological processes are constant shifts among order, chaos, growth, and decay:

                                                         The body
                    is weather, the mind is a wetland,
                    instincts come and go, responses
                    evolve, and signals mix.

And it also reminds him that like his poems, to which he attributes “high mutation rates,” his own life is part of nature’s ongoing process:

                    I’m forever in potential,
                    always wandering around, getting to
                    the top, and rolling down the other side.

I’ll give Belford a long last word by quoting a poem, one of my favourites, from Decompositions:

                    I bit into a persimmon and the weather
                    on the other side of town seemed murky
                    and sour, not because it was still and
                    without explanation, but a skip. It’s
                    just what happens. After all, nothing
                    is restricted to straight lines, and
                    the reflective surface of the page is
                    sometimes cool and cold, or warm and hot.
                    And there, by the edge of a weary pond,
                    smelled the ba and bit and breath of life,
                    for the earth does breathe, and flicked
                    a match and smoked in the breathing place
                    where phenomena are not perception,
                    but drag one weary foot after another.
                    And in the fetid air, inhaled and exhaled,
                    and stayed a while, for something like
                    a happy hour in the brush, for a puff
                    of air and a puff of smoke and a rest
                    in the steam and stench of suggestion.

Works Cited

Belford, Ken. “de comp.” Message to the author. 10 July 2011. E-mail.

Marino, Lori. “A Trans-Species Perspective on Nature.” In On the Human: A Project of the National Humanities Center.



Camille Martin

3 responses to “Intelligent Nature: Ken Belford’s Decompositions

  1. Walter K. Lew

    I have always enjoyed Ken Belford’s work and am excited to hear of this book. Which I will definitely order after having read your fine review of it–thanks for the healthy proportion of quoting!


  2. You’re welcome, Walter, and thanks for the response!


  3. The review opens up the book with the most enthralling reflection,
    “I transgressed the imagined
    and resisted the ordered metaphors
    of threat.”
    and brings out all the essential ideas well to reach the poetry lovers..


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