Sketches of familiar landscapes filled the Steynberg Gallery on Monterey Street Sunday afternoon when the Plein Air Poets of San Luis Obispo County gathered to launch their book “Poems for Endangered Places.”
The reception, complete with wine, music and a live poetry reading, served as a release party for the book, which focuses on eleven Central Coast landscapes considered threatened by extensive ecological change. The group seeks to speak for these lands through their book and the medium of poetry.
The seven Plein Air Poets come from different areas of the county and fill very different roles in the community.
The book’s introduction describes them as a “painter, biologist, jazz musician, urban planner, university professor, community activist, English teacher, educational psychologist, writer and midwife,” and gives readers insight into both their individual and collective influence in San Luis Obispo and its surrounding cities.
Two of the poets, Jane Elsdon and Rosemary Wilvert, were Poet Laureates of San Luis Obispo, in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Each poet has written for other publications in his or her respective field. It is their writing abilities, combined with the love they share for the land around them that ultimately bring them together. “I experienced the lands differently than the other poets,” said Paula C. Lowe, one of the poets. “Our different backgrounds add to the accessibility (of our work).”
The locations in the book were picked by the seven Plein Air Poets who wrote about them over the course of a year. The term “endangered” was used to describe areas of the county that are vulnerable to some sort of detrimental change, whether it be overdevelopment or an oil spill.
The French term “en plein air” (in plain air) is used to describe art that is created in the midst of natural inspiration. Though usually used to classify painting or other visual arts, the writers used the same idea when writing their poetry. Each traveled across the county to spend time in the endangered spaces and wrote about the things that
affected them the most. For some, it was personal memories and experiences that conjured up the most emotions. For others, it was the knowledge of the area’s history or the appearance of struggling natural environments that inspired their verse.
Most of the landscapes included in the book are well-known San Luis Obispo landmarks, such as Bishop Peak, the Eucalyptus Grove in Montaña de Oro and the Irish Hills. They extend across both North and South County and include seascapes, mountains, fields and tree gardens. Some, like the Dalidio Farm and Avila Beach, have been in recent news due to landuse controversy and environmental concerns.
Less familiar landmarks are also included; although fewer people frequent them, they too are threatened by encroaching development and, in the words of the poets, deserve to be given a voice. There is a chapter dedicated to the “downtowns” of the community, which give homage to the locally owned shops and long-established, yet well-hidden, locales that make up the heart of local cities.
Also included is a section on local traditions, highlighting the more human consequences of development and environmental degradation.
What each chapter has in common is a sense of nostalgia and unease, a respect for the precarious nature of the status-quo and a warning of how things can change. While the poems outline nature’s beauty, they also prompt worry in those who wish to retain some of the old and traditional in the midst of a changing landscape.
While there are many different ideas behind the book, Lowe said the main impetus was Measure J, the 2006 ballot proposition that divided the San Luis Obispo community over the proposal of a shopping center and housing units on the Dalidio property on Madonna Road. Still contested today, the measure ignited heated debate on both sides of the issue.
While citizens and politicians argued over the fine print of landuse law, some, including the Plein Air poets, felt that the land itself was getting lost amid the continued fighting. It was then that the idea for the poetry book came to be; the poets decided to use their voice to advocate for something that cannot speak for itself.
While the group is not overtly political, although some of the poets are individually politically active, there is no doubt that the poets are active advocates of nature. The book was not intended to take a side in the landuse debate, but to instead express the beauty of the land being argued over.
“Our role as poets was not to tell the community how to feel,” Lowe said, “We wanted to add beauty to the facts; if it got people feeling, it did what it was supposed to do. I didn’t want to add to the anger (of the debates), but we could make sure the land was at the table.” Poetry was the best medium to accomplish that.
Now that the book has been launched and is available to buy, there are several more events planned in different locations on the Central Coast, including local libraries and coffee shops. There will also be a reading at Cal Poly in early 2009.