Invited into the Wonder: An Interview with Heather Swan

This interview, written and conducted by Braden Ross, would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of The Badger Herald, especially the ArtsEtc. Editors Veronica Kuffel and Jackson Walker. We cannot thank them enough.

Each morning, I awake to the sounds of downtown Madison: garbage trucks, street sweepers, construction. I cannot remember the last time I woke up to the silent sounds of nature. I immediately turn on my phone to scroll through social media. From the second I open my eyes, I have an influx of sound and information, but as connected as I feel with the world at my fingertips, I am disconnected from what matters most. Heather Swan helped me realize that.

Heather Swan is a poet and nonfiction writer, as well as a professor at UW Madison. Her work focuses on environmental issues, specifically the rapid decline of pollinators over the past few decades. In her book, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field, she discusses her experiences with beekeeping, and her journey to find solutions to the pollinator crisis. Her new poetry collection, A Kinship with Ash, published by Terrapin Books, touches on the vast impacts of climate change and other environmental issues. I recently spoke with Swan to learn more about how she combines her phenomenal literary work and her interest in environmental activism.

Swan has always been interested in connecting with the environment and “non-human beings” as she refers to them. She was first introduced to beekeeping at a young age when her father brought her to a friend’s apiary, or collection of beehives. “There was this man who was walking around completely calm and the bees were floating around him so peacefully. That moment was so magical to me. I thought to myself ‘Someday I want to be with bees like that’,” Swan explained to me. Later in her life, she decided to finally start keeping bees herself. Swan told me, “When I first started keeping bees, I was so in love with them, with all pollinators. I realized that the pollinators were in decline so I started doing research and writing about how we could help them.”

As we spoke about her experience with beekeeping, Swan opened up about what she’s learned. “Beekeeping taught me a lot about listening first,” Swan explained, adding, “I had to humble myself and become a better listener to all natural creatures.” This message is what Swan hopes to convey in her work. As she learned more about the pollinator crisis and other pressing environmental issues, she knew she wanted to help in her own way. She told me, “I didn’t think to myself ‘I think I want to be an environmental writer.’ The things that I loved suddenly needed this kind of attention that I wasn't expecting.”

Swan’s work points out the disconnect between humans and our natural environment. She explained this saying, “We don’t have time to do it. We’re constantly getting notifications. The constant distraction keeps us from really tuning into all that beauty around us.” Speaking about the environmental crises we’re currently facing, she added, “Part of the reason that environmental destruction is happening is because of this disconnect. So the other project of my work right now is to invite people into that wonder, to remind us of the incredible gifts that are all around us all the time. We take them for granted and we often don’t slow down enough to notice them.”

With her work, Swan hopes to inspire people to bridge this disconnect with the natural world. “Every time I go outside, I discover a new thing and think ‘Wow, we are so lucky to be here.’ I hope that my work helps to maybe interest someone in going out and spending some time outside,” she says, adding, “when an artist works or a writer is writing, they’re speaking their truth and they’re contributing to the conversation that the society is having. The resulting work is like a mirror being held up to ourselves.” Swan aspires to create this mirror through her art to bring environmental issues to the forefront of our conversations. “I hope that my work is reminding us that we are a part of the natural world. We are interconnected, and we need to pay attention to that before it’s too late.”

My conversation with Heather Swan certainly did this for me. As we spoke and as I read her work, I was inspired to be mindful of my own connection with nature. I am motivated to take time without technology and work on just being present. When we are so distant from the natural world, it can be easy to mistreat it. If we take time to be one with our environment, we can appreciate its beauty and value and will be more motivated to save it.

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