Sonoma County Poet Laureate Elizabeth Herron bonded with nature at a young age while wandering in the woods in her free time, but it was witnessing firsthand the devastating environmental damage wrought by the Dunsmuir Spill in 1991 that galvanized her to dedicate years of her life and work to the study of certain aspects of the environment and, later, climate change. “I became conscious about what was happening to the natural environment,” she says of the experience.
Born in Chicago and raised in Hawaii, Herron earned a master’s in counseling at San Francisco State University, then studied biopoetics, earning a doctorate in psychology from the University for Integrative Learning. After a brief stint at San Francisco State University, she worked at Sonoma State University, first at the counseling center and later in the creative writing department.
By 1991 she was living in West County. That was the year of the Dunsmuir Spill, which pushed her to devote a decade of her work to the study of wild trout and salmon and threats to their survival. Today the topic of climate crisis infuses her work, and she tirelessly advocates for nature through her essays, poems and readings.
As local Poet Laureate for the 2022–24 term, Herron initiated the Being Brave Poetry Project. She writes, “As Poet Laureate I offer workshops to foster the writing of being brave poems where people who may never have written a poem before can find words for what being brave means in their lives. The workshops include conversation about what our poems tell us of what it means to live courageously. Along with each workshop a reading can be arranged.”
“What does living bravely look like in a time of radical climate change, war, inflation – flood and famine, and violence that invades our churches, our schools, our local grocery and even our neighbor’s house?” she asks, adding, “Aldo Leopold, father of the modern environmental writing, famously observed we take care of what we feel affection for, and Toni Morrison says that, ‘Beauty makes the unbearable bearable.’ My own poetry is always an effort to find the beauty that compels affection, even when the subject is otherwise unbearable. We want our hearts awakened, and poetry is about the heart.”
Her three-hour workshops are designed for groups of 5 to 25 people and include an introduction with samples of being brave poems, time for writing, time for sharing and facilitated conversations. Herron holds the workshops anywhere she is invited, be it a cafe, a house, a church or a community center. Contact her directly with questions or requests via her websites at www.elizabethherron.net or www.elizabeth-herron.com.
“Being Poet Laureate for me is an act of service; it’s a way of giving back and it’s a way of expanding the role of poetry in our lives,” she tells me.
When I ask her if she has any advice for young writers, she pauses before answering. “Write every day. Ten minutes, five minutes, so that writing is a habit so that when you are ready for the graced material that comes to you from the muse or outer space you are ready, you have your chops,” she says at length. “I write first for myself. Some of us writers, we’re led first to writing to find something in ourselves we wouldn’t find any other way.”
Her latest book, In the Cities of Sleep (Fernwood Press), is her contribution to EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss, a global creative project dedicated to exposing all forms of extractive industry and consisting of 50 intertwined exhibitions and events throughout 2021 and beyond. A collection of climate-crisis poems, her book addresses the bigger picture of dwindling resources and resulting discord in our rapidly warming world, pushing us, as humans, to look for more viable alternatives to our present path.
Join Herron for her In the Cities of Sleep book launch at Occidental Center for the Arts on Sunday, Jan. 29 at noon. Admission is free and all donations will be graciously received. The talk and readings will be followed by a Q&A, book sales & signing. Refreshments, including wine, beer, coffee and tea, will be available.
Herron’s own involvement with OCA stretches back decades, to when she first moved to Sonoma County. “The volunteers there have been fantastic,” she says. “Suze has been fantastic. She works so hard for the center. I have huge respect for that. And much appreciation.”
“I’ve maintained that very strong sense of ‘these are my people,'” she says of Occidental itself, though with her current title she now seeks a more encompassing, county-wide identity. “I’m reaching for parts of the county I’ve not had so much to do with, beyond Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol.”
What’s next for Herron, after her sojourn as Sonoma County Poet Laureate ends, in the summer of 2024? Perhaps a return to simplicity and nature is in order. “I’ll write, keep writing. And I’d like to expand the animal household,” she tells me. “Right now we are down to one cat. And maybe there will be some time for me to wander through the woods, to gather Hawthorne berries to make heart tincture for my friends. I will probably want more solitary wandering.”
Sunday, Jan. 29 at 2–4 pm, Occidental Center for the Arts presents a Celebration of Elizabeth Herron, our new Sonoma County Poet Laureate, and a book launch for her recently published book, In the Cities of Sleep. OCA, 3850 Doris Murphy Way, Occidental. 707.874.9392. Occidentalcenterforthearts.org
Mark Fernquest lives and writes in West County. He spends his free time communing with his friends in a post-apocalyptic town with no name in Arizona’s magical Painted Desert.