A Recent History of Poetry at Belwin

“…you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something…”

John Ashbery, “Some trees”

Whenever I have been out at Belwin recently — whether I’m hiking under the pines or walking under the snowy branches of Stagecoach Prairie — I can’t help but think of these lines from John Ashbery. They’re from the title poem of his first collection, “Some Trees,” first published in 1956.

To me, these lines mean that by simply being there a tree has value. Just by doing its slow, necessary work, a tree is taking part in something essential. By extension, the time I spend outdoors standing or being present in nature has its own merit. As Ashbery puts it, “merely being there means something.” 

No matter what our experiences in nature are, poetry can help us connect with our surroundings in unusual ways. It can help us “be there” in a way that is new. 

Today, I wanted to highlight four poets that have written poetry at Belwin. From our first artist-in-residence seven years ago to a community poem written last August, these works all have something unique to say about the landscape, animals, and people found at Belwin.

Group of people gathered in nature setting for book reading
Laurie Allmann reads from “An Hour from Now” at Belwin Conservancy in September 2019. Photo by Greg Seitz, originally featured in St. Croix 360.

Laurie Allmann

In 2016, Belwin began its artist in residency program as part of our Arts, Culture, and Ecology initiative. In the years since, Belwin has hosted sculptors, composers, and visual artists. However, this residency program began with a poet.

Laurie Allmann is a Minnesota Book Award winner, poet and nature writer who first came to Belwin in 2016. While at Belwin, Allmann wrote poetry inspired by the paths she hiked, many of which were published in her book, An Hour From Now, published by Nodin Press in 2019. 

Speaking with St. Croix 360 about her work, Allmann said, “I don’t try to be obtuse in a poem…I just like things to be spare and clear and real, and try to do a little justice to the natural world and the people who illuminate it for us through their careful scientific research.”

In her poems, Allmann writes about sandhill cranes, monarch butterflies, and sparrows. She writes about wetlands, hummingbirds, and bullfrogs. In each poem, Allmann is deeply attentive to the natural world and the role we take in it, even writing about man-made facilities near Belwin Conservancy, such as an overgrown cabin, or the prison in Stillwater. 

An Hour From Now is available to order here. Excerpts can be read here.

Field
The fields at the Savanna Center, where Leslie Thomas began her poem, “Restoring Prairie,” at Laurie Allmann’s workshop in 2019.

Leslie Thomas

As part of her residency in 2016, Allmann not only wrote at Belwin, but led a poetry workshop here. In attendance at that workshop was Leslie Thomas. Thomas, an environmentalist and writer, was inspired by Allmann and, after working with her, wrote the first draft of a poem that would go on to win fourth place in Saint Paul Almanac’s Break Through Writing Contest.

The finished poem, “Restoring Prairie,” begins with a diary entry from 1854. It goes on to speak of the great grief that comes when land is stripped and the spontaneous joy of seeing “a ground in transition again.”

Both a talented writer and speaker, Thomas read this poem aloud when she was placed in the Writing Contest and also to rapt audiences at last year’s Night in Nature. 

To read the full poem yourself, click here

Bison running on the prairie
The 2022 bison herd, which poets visited as part of our FamilyMeans collaborations. Photo by Sharon Sykora.

FamilyMeans & Zoë Bird

Laurie Allmann and Leslie Thomas are great examples of poets whose work captures a singular voice. But what about poems written by groups? After all, we don’t always go into nature alone. Often, we venture into the woods with our friends and community.

Last year, Belwin partnered with FamilyMeans, a multi-service, nonprofit organization based in Stillwater. This ongoing partnership is designed specifically to connect people with early onset dementia and their caregivers with the natural world. As part of this partnership, Zoë Bird, creator of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project Minnesota, worked with these visitors to write poems together. They wrote several poems during their visits to Belwin and, with the help of Bird, created work that reflected the myriad voices of the group.

One particular poem was about the group’s visit to the Bison Prairie where they witnessed the 2022 herd firsthand. “The prairie makes you feel small,” one observed, “You never know what you’ll find out there.” 

The entire poem can be read here

Man writing
An audience member helping to write a community poem about Valley Creek at Belwin

Angie Tillges & Our Community

FamilyMeans wasn’t the only group to write a poem together. Last August, Belwin hosted A Celebration of Valley Creek which featured the opening of David Sprecher’s “Roaming Stone” as well as a rewilding ceremony led by artist Rachel Frank. 

This event also featured a community poem, led by Angie Tillges. The poem, titled “Longest Poem for the Longest River, Valley Creek Edition” is part of an ongoing project of Tillges’ to write a continuous poem focused on the Mississippi river with the involvement of community voices. For this event, the project was extended to Valley Creek, a tributary of the St. Croix River that flows into the Mississippi. Guests were presented with a long scroll-like parchment featuring a poem with several words missing. They were invited to fill them in however they wanted.

After audiences finished filling in the words, the poem was read outloud. Lines such as “The Creek welcomes all” and “the moment first feet dipped in was like coming home” spoke to the attendees’ connection with this cherished creek.

To read the entire poem, click here

Eagle
An eagle flying over Belwin. Photo by Sue Steinwell.

These are just a few examples of the poetry that has been written at Belwin Conservancy in recent years, largely due to our expanded Arts, Culture, and Ecology program. However, there have likely been countless others, either from visitors, students, or staff that we haven’t had the chance to read yet. If you know of any poems written at Belwin, or if you have written any yourself, please let us know. We’d love to take a look at them.

We hope the next time you’re out, you take a moment to think of some lines from a poem you love, or even some lines of your own. Of course, if you’d prefer, you can just stand and take in the scenery. You can just enjoy being there.

As Ashbery reminds us, “merely being there means something.”

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