Nature is brutish, downright ugly, coastal steward Anthony Snider says. “We tend to have this holdover from the Romantic Age, that we look at nature in a certain way, and it’s benign. Frankly, it’s not. I have been working with the writing community to try and dissuade some of that, and also to make them more aware of how setting can affect writing, especially in prose fiction, but also in poetry.”
With a Ph.D. in forestry and considerable exposure to more watery ecosystems since coming to Wilmington as the southern site manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve, Snider is amply equipped to set the writers straight. There is no question he knows his stuff.
Snider the poet knows his stuff, too.
His poem, “Panegyric” is, at least on one level, an exercise in just such teaching, and is compelling enough in message and delivery to have won last year’s Bridport Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for poetry, and, since, it is accompanied by a £5,000 check, one of poetry’s more rewarding.
Panegyric “is a poem with such a singular and coherent voice that its complexities are worn lightly,” contest judge and fellow poet Lavinia Greenlaw says. “It risks collisions of concrete and abstract, actual and figurative in ways that are illuminating rather than muddying. …The poem’s language ranges across the full compass of such feeling, and each line is properly balanced and measured.”
Snider risks collisions of the concrete and abstract, the actual and figurative, on a daily basis, the inherent collision between enabling people to enjoy coastal reserves while protecting those reserves from … well, people.
Snider oversees stewardship activities on the two southern National Estuarine Research Reserve sites at Masonboro Island and Zeke’s Island and the two Southern Coastal Reserve sites at Bald Head Island and Bird Island.
“There is a lot of trying to figure out how to actually maintain the ecosystem and how to continue to permit access that doesn’t undermine the mission of reserve,” Snider says. “That is the balance that we have, particularly in this area, of trying to get those two to work in tandem.”
To that end, Snider is currently working on developing a structure for the reserves whereby requests for activities can be authorized. “We were kind of blindsided by the Fourth of July last year when there were 2,000 people on the north end of Masonboro Island, and law enforcement officers were attacked,” he says. “We realized that we needed to have some sort of administrative structure in place to vet activities taking place on the island. Hopefully, these changes will go through.”
Meanwhile, he is putting the final touches to his first manuscript of poems — and his second. “I have enough for a book-length manuscript,” he says of the former. “In the next few months, I should be able to finish up and start shopping it out” to publishers.
The poems being selected for the first book are mostly of recent vintage, but there are some that had their inception in his undergraduate days.
“To steal a great line from Czeslaw Milosz: ‘I am a poet because I am always thinking of something else,’” Snider says with a smile. “There is a back burner that is going all the time, and if someone says something in a conversation that is an interesting turn of phrase, or I hear somebody put something together that is interesting, I’ll write it down and put it away in a little journal of snippets.” Sometimes, he says, poems are just begging to be written, “everything flows through.” The poem that won the Bridport Prize was one such, coming almost as a whole, he says. It begins,
“Praise to the red-bellied woodpecker
its chipping after grubs, and the grubs
snug in their oak-boled tower.”
“I was walking in the woods in Vermont last winter, on New Year’s Day, by myself, and happened to see a red-bellied woodpecker trying to get the grubs out of a tree,” Snider recalls. “I was thinking about the Romantics, and it just snowballed. By the time I got back to the dorm, the thing was almost done.
“I don’t do the disciplined thing; I am not the ‘you must write an hour a day or three hours a day’ kind of writer,” he says. “Most of my stuff comes in the middle of the night. Something wakes me, and I have to get up and turn the lights on and write it down before I lose it. Then I have to go back and see which of those pieces belong together and which of those pieces play off each other, then build a poem out of those.”
In what could seem to be a dichotomous life, Snider the scientist is working on Bald Head Island on an amphibian study. “We have been trying to figure out what amphibians are out there; no one has ever recorded them,” he says. “We just finished our second year of data.” Simultaneously, Snider the poet is working on a pilot program with the creative writing department at UNCW, in which he is hoping to clarify scientific issues for the creative community. In his figurative lab coat, he is working with turtle monitors on Masonboro Island and offering support for a bird-banding program there; in civvies, he experiments with a new approach for his second book.
“I am trying to develop a voice in that manuscript, a persona,” he explains. “Instead of working out of my life, which is what the first collection is, I am trying to form a specific voice, to see if I can actually do that and make a coherent whole of poems.”
The persona, he says, is someone “plagued by religion, someone who cannot get it out of his head and is not even quite sure he wants to, but wishes that it didn’t affect his life to the degree it does.”
Truth be told, the second book may be as personal as the first.
Snider was raised a Christian, the grandson of a Baptist minister. But he is now a Buddhist, sitting regularly in zazen [meditation] with the Wilmington Zen Group at the Unitarian Universal Fellowship on Lake Avenue. “Religion,” he says, “is a very big part of my work, actually.”
Buddhism is a spiritual practice that intuits that art and science are halves of the same coin, not opposites, as the Western mind might understand them.
As a scientist, he understands better than most the challenges that await us, locally, nationally, globally. “If we do not deal with the infrastructure to handle this, we are doomed,” he says of Wilmington’s growth — and the sewer and road systems that are failing to keep pace. “The amount of sewage that is going into Hewletts Creek is stunning. We are killing that ecosystem,” the scientist in him says.
If we do not deal with global warming, one of the most severe “negative consequences of how fast we have grown in certain aspects of our lives,” we are likewise doomed.
Making these cases, however, may be the purview of poetry more than science.
In the short term, scientists need to continue to speak out. “In the long run, having a different perspective on living here and what our responsibilities are, has to come from more of an ethical side, and I think poetry speaks more to that than science does,” the poet in him says.
“This is a discussion I have with both my scientific and poetry friends, whether or not as a species we are on a trajectory of decline or growth. I honestly believe that, overall, we are getting better. We are becoming more compassionate, both for each other and for the environment. It is just a long, slow process, and there are bumps on the road, like global warming. But I think in time we will deal with them.
“I am optimistic; I do think we are on a positive trajectory, both as a culture here and as a species as a whole. It is just going to be rough for a while as we figure out how to make it happen.”
That process, like the processes he so keenly observes and records from the natural world, is likely to be brutish and ugly. “It is going to be hard, and we are going to lose a lot of species, we are going to lose a lot of biodiversity before we figure this out. I don’t think we are going to collapse, but we are going to have a huge retrenchment, and it is going to cause great problems in the economy that will lead to social problems, as well,” Snider muses. “But we will get through it, and we will be better as a species for it, despite the losses in the natural world.”
Praise to the red-bellied woodpecker
its chipping after grubs, and the grubs
snug in their oak-boled tower
Praise to the brown-headed cowbird
her cunning interjection
into nests of diligence
Praise to the rape of the squirrel
the thin twigs on which she escapes
the males shouldering each other
along the shivering limb
Praise to the snow that breaks her fall
and the next tree in which the act is repeated
Praise to the urge for orgy in us all
the communal wish to sow our seed
to broadcast and rejoice in the planting
Praise to the tiny militants
ants holding other ants in thrall
the vanguard forces of honeybees
pillaging the next hive’s honey
and stinging their queen to death
Praise disease winnowing our numbers
so that we may swell again
Praise the mosquito
for vectoring both
small pain and large scale epidemic
Praise to Henry David Thoreau
and all the bobble-headed Romantics
safe men of New England
soft men of the Lake Country
chartered engravers of London
holding nature aloft as a sun
Praise their rejection of reason
the way we speak fences
around our exhausted fields
There are both environmental aspects and cultural aspects,” poet Anthony Snider says of the fertile Wilmington area that is so nurturing to the arts. “It is hard to beat the beach, and we are right here on a river, as well. It is a great juxtaposition of water elements, and that is just fantastic. It is the background for everything that is going on here.
“Socially, this is a fairly liberal area. It has a strong contingent of the creative class, much more so than in just about any other town in the state. When I think of three places in North Carolina where I could live, one is Asheville, a second is Carrboro, where I used to live, and the other is Wilmington. They have a lot in common in their willingness to experiment with ideas socially, and in their willingness to support the creative class. I think that’s unusual for the South and unusual for North Carolina in general — to this degree, at any rate.
“Having a willingness on the part of the community to engage in the arts is an integral part of what goes on in Wilmington, and it is just fantastic. That’s not going to happen in many towns in the state — or in the country, for that matter.”