Cultivating ecosensitivity


Sonnet L’Abbé explores the language of plants with unabashed gusto. Paul Marck Photograph

Poet Sonnet L’Abbé turned from civil engineering to the field of environmental philosophy

Call her a champion of plant poetics, wielding a scythe to shear down barriers between the humanities and sciences. Sonnet L’Abbé is on a mission, an eco poet in bloom. Graduating with a PhD in English Literature, she fuses poetry with plant science in a bid for literary distinction.

An award-winning poet with two published volumes of work, L’Abbé explores the “language of plants” with unabashed gusto.

“Why are we moved by looking at pretty flowers or majestic trees? Why are we then moved by poems about trees?” asks L’Abbé. “The sense of calm or awe gained from paying attention to nature is physical.

“I had a question about what poetry does in a biological sense, and I hypothesized that analyzing plant-human hybrids in literature might tell us something about how we imagine the relationship of human being to a larger concept of nature.”

“I felt I could be a more effective leader by inventing ideas and ideals rather than inventing technology.”

L’Abbé situates her work in the emerging field of Critical Plant Studies, a branch of environmental philosophy that focuses on understanding the way humankind relates to plants. Her PhD focused on the writings of the late American poet Ronald Johnson that explores metaphors for plants and people.

L’Abbé taught creative writing and poetry at the Okanagan campus this year, challenging students to find their emerging voice as writers through a series of group presentations called The Plant Intelligence Project.

“If science is the discourse that separates everything into its categories, poetry uses metaphor to blend those categories back together, making us think about how we order our world,” L’Abbé observes.

After first trying out civil engineering, she switched to university arts. “I felt I could be a more effective leader by inventing ideas and ideals rather than inventing technology,” says L’Abbé. “I feel that is where I want to be as a leader. I want to create Canadian culture.”

After receiving her degree, L’Abbé will write full time and pursue a variety of cultural projects. This spring she won a Canada Council Grant to Professional Writers that will help her complete the collection of poems entitled Sentient Mental Flower Book.

“We live in times where it is difficult to be creative and take imagination and art seriously,” says L’Abbé. “Being creative is its own treasure. Any practice, including creative practice, nurtures the bushy dendrites of your brain into its unique shape.”

Working with CBC Radio and Via Rail on a project called 2017 Starts Now that looks ahead to Canada’s 150th birthday, L’Abbé will soon embark on a six-week cross-Canada tour to interview Canadians about national identity, and will blog and create poetry about her journey.

Brain Stem

Strong neck the channel through which your roots become branches. Strong neck the trunk through which your impulses flow, tides of perception and reaction. You are a battery of cells, positive of material, anti-positive of nervous potential. You are a dyad of bunches of waving branches and bundled branches, of bunches of searching roots and rooting roots. The spine of your decision-making: a flexible stem of tension between head and heart. You, a moving tree that grows in more dimensions than knowledge: in knowledge’s reach, yes, in its span, but also, if you are lucky, in wisdom’s rootedness, in its pithy density. Your risked neck’s bark has become thickened to injury, and lifts above its veiny heart a tender head of power—its stem ever spring-fond, ever fall-wise—a grey-green cauliflower that loves light.

By Sonnet L’Abbé