These Poets Reckon With Drought, Displacement, and Despair—and Then Make Space for Hope

Four writers explore their place on our troubled planet and treat us to readings of their poems.

From left: Rasheena Fountain, Jade Lozada, Eliza Schiff, and Miriam Mosqueda

Credit: Credits: EJ Mercado; Courtesy of Jade Lozada; Courtesy of Eliza Schiff; Mama Leti

In January, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recited her poem The Hill We Climb at the presidential inauguration to a nation reeling. The moment reverberated around the world and served as a clear reminder that poetry can act as both a salve and a call to action in times of crisis—whether we’re dealing with a pandemic, social unrest, or a slow-burning climate catastrophe.

April is National Poetry Month, and to mark the occasion, we asked four poets to offer a window into how they view their place on the planet. Through their poems, written for NRDC, they cope with the trauma of here-and-now climate impacts—like fire, drought, and displacement—while passionately defending their homes. “Art is the language I know how to use,” says poet Eliza Schiff, who performed her first piece of spoken-word poetry at New York City’s Apollo Theater in 2019 as part of the Climate Speaks collaboration with the city’s Climate Museum. “It’s the way we convey this urgency. It’s intimate and vulnerable. It contains a plea and, perhaps, touches upon something meaningful within the heart of someone who otherwise imagines climate change as something all too impersonal and distant.”

* * *

Eliza Schiff

(Poughkeepsie, New York)
Schiff is an environmental studies and theater student at Vassar College. After living temporarily in Portland during the pandemic, she now works remotely as a youth climate impact engagement organizer for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Of the Heart and the Hearth

In the morning, there was red
Red in my eyes as they opened to a blistered moon
Red through the windows of our little green home
Casting curtains in the living room of
in my friends that stumbled from their bed, red faced, choking on
thick air sick with smoke and
red in the siren shriek of engines
under red drooped sun setting as it rose
Red like I wish I could run
Like do not enter
Like here is danger
Red like wounded
like something is not right

In our little green home,
The first home,
Where we would learn to be grown,
red with the morning
We boiled rosemary and remembered to breathe
Our power out
Heat of early fall rotting the food in the tepid fridge
We followed reports of the rising air quality index
But felt it in our chests
weighing heavy with each
Coming up empty
We wondered, as we sat around the dining room table if maybe we should make a plan to run
If the dry wind were to crack its whip and send tendrils of forest fire knocking at our door—
We gathered
At the dining room table of the house where we had settled our belongings
Speckled wall with paintings
Learned to call these bones our own.

Maybe we should make a plan to run
She said
And he agreed
And maybe we should
Leave behind what we had built for one another of feathers and twigs
Of coffee cups and carpet stains
Of ramen and roasted broccoli
Of late night bodies finding bodies and fried eggs in the morning
Leave behind the apple tree with its roots laying blankets in the backyard
With branches furled and reaching up to the late august sky above,
Earlier that week, casting cool on the dry ground where we could sit together under the clutch of summer
When soft heat found its way through pores and under skin, filling our cheeks with rosy light making tea pots of sun-loved hearts
Before old pine turned to tinder and Nature shattered in broken mirror pieces
between the bramble unpruned, in the arms, twisting from the cradle of a thick green, the autumn promise of honeyfleshed fruit,
which we would eat as the milk turned sour.

I feel my body in the house on fire
Its green walls like skin to bone
In the hour of heat this burning runs like blood
Turning sky red
And eyes red
And beating hearts red with battlecry
What won’t be done for a body beguiled?
For a home besmoked?
For revolutionaries that grow from grassroots
Here, is not where it ends.

Rasheena Fountain

(Coast Salish Land, Washington [Seattle])

Fountain is a multi-genre writer, an MFA candidate and predoctoral instructor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the founder of the environmental publication Climate Conscious Collabs. Originally from Chicago, she often explores Black environmental memory, which she tentatively defines as the “recollection landscape of Black people’s relationship to and interactions with the lands they construct.” Fountain also enjoys highlighting Black stories by writing about the work and achievements of Black environmental professionals, including for NRDC.

Hope Isn’t a Vacant Lot

In memory, my feet feel planted in place
city soil hugs my shoes
freedom lives with the gusts of the earth—
a celebration of voice that I don’t question
you give gifts so gold: a northern cardinal’s red hue
my monarch, a butterfly who flew north to dreams anew

Home is where footprints survive and all life thrives

In grief, hovering clouds turn bitter like milkweed:
natural winds blow to the tune of boisterous fire truck sirens
changing tides carry the screams of lake trout schools
a silent prairie misses its dances with bison herds
growth, a shapeshifter threatens its muse,
displacing people, the lands, and more than humans
nature, now a novelty so increasingly trendy
concrete, more abundant than green in my Windy City

Home is where footprints survive and all life thrives

In my dream, Chicago blues join the songbirds in melodies of hope,
a vision I imagine as skyscraper promises to you, the skies
I wish in new heights, in treetop rebellions the oaks and maples offer
to the children, from our ancestors, for the continuation of breaths
I love beyond white picket fences into avenue streets
I reenvision vacant lots as forests—spaces where we can plant new seed

Home is where footprints survive and all life thrives

Through an Earth Month partnership between NRDC and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, ensemble cast member Lencia Kebede brought Fountain’s poem to life in a performance featured on Hamilton’s Ham4Progress Instagram feed. “The performance really helped me hear my words in a new way,” Fountain notes. “And I love that the video was a collaboration of artists.”

Miriam Mosqueda

(San Jose, California)
Mosqueda is an artist, poet, and advocate for Indigenous rights and environmental justice. She works with Native youth in the San Francisco Bay Area at a local Native health center and is an advocate for the liberation of incarcerated humans. Some of her collages are featured in our “Pandemic at Work” series.


Where I call home

Corn stalks stretch to the sky
Intertwined with cables
And rooftops

A backyard
Not a farm or a field
But we still call this home

For the corn seeds and for us

We both ended up here

Trying to find new ways to be
New places to plant
To grow

We still call this home

Even if we live in diaspora

Forced displacement
On ever changing land
That we’re in relation to
And never in ownership of

As guests
On this soil that so graciously hugs corn seeds into sprout into stalk into life
For us

The year our skies were red with rage from wildfires
Ash fell from above
Floating down and coating our garden gray
Smoke in the air and our lungs
We still placed corn seeds to earth

When a refinery was built next to our family home in Mexico
Out the window we could see it
On the other side of large brick walls were tanks and metal cylinders
trucks moved in and out
Things we’ve never seen before
And we still placed corn seeds to earth

600 gallons of oil were spilled into the water near us this year
Closing access to waterways
poisoning all it touches
A danger greed refuses to see
And we still placed corn seeds to earth

We still call this home

Dad says corn is the gold
Our little soil bed of memories
A prayer held in seeds
Thousands of years old
Corn gives us life when life around us
is changing

We both ended up here
Trying to find new ways to be
New places to plant
To grow
And grow
And grow

We still call this home

Jade Lozada

(New York, New York)
Lozada, like Schiff, participated in the 2019 Climate Speaks spoken word project. She is headed to Harvard University in the fall of 2021 and works as a policy director at TREEage, a youth-led organization mobilizing for progressive, just climate policies in New York City and at the state level.

The Worst Crime

The worst crime I know men have committed is to turn nature into an oppressor.

I tend land; concrete gorges in Earth, pillared steel and brick,
burdenless and guiltless below its sky—the first witness and
last native to this island
at the joint of the ocean’s palm and the Hudson’s stretch
into us. An exodus from the diaspora for sins
of skin darkening for lack of sun and barren pockets.
Somewhere, we search for home. So we bleed joy into summers
enclosed in our beating heart labyrinthine barrios.
The croon of a singer who never kissed his mother’s land goodbye
laces and tangles treetops in the night,
glides into the southern current of the sea,
waters the pores of my concrete.

Cascading lyrics from our windows return
in lush plátano leaves on the sill.
When our words melt into English arroyos,
pavement, that mutilation of Manhattan island,
breaks open nature’s bounty: Grotesque, undulating heat
reverberates from asphalt, ricochets off brick
into the heartbeat of car stereos;
Diesel clouds halo above us;
Toxins pumped from Earth’s troves poison our breath.
Of their sear on our skin, their imprint on our lungs,
their toil in digging deep graves for early deaths.

Here lies the fate of the first natives:
To be mutilated as someone’s ancestors
mutilated Manahatta — razing forest,
burying water with families,
forcing brown bodies thereafter
to swallow oceans in order to taste home.

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