Nature and Environmental Security in Philip Onuoha’s “Song for my Mother”

Cite this article as: Iwuji, U.O. (2023). Nature and Environmental Security in Philip Onuoha’s “Song for my Mother”. Tasambo Journal of Language, Literature, and Culture, (2)1, 34-39. www.doi.org/10.36349/tjllc.2023.v02i01.005.


Ugochukwu Ogechi Iwuji, PhD

General Studies Unit
University of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Umuagwo, Imo State, Nigeria


This paper critically examines the centrality of nature and environmental security in the poetry of Philip Onuoha. It deploys the theoretical framework of Ecocriticism to appraise the selected poems from Onuoha’s Song for my Mother. The literary theory of Ecocriticism which was foretold through a seminal article by William Rueckert in 1978 was given breath in the latter part of the 20th century by Cherryl Glotfelty. Since then studies in nature and environmental issues have developed in geometric dimensions. Critics foresee an unimaginably large harvest of literary productions on nature and the environment due to the daily vitiation of nature and its consequences to the human world. From time immemorial, literature has always served as a credible pendulum that gauges the activities of man. This paper, therefore, adds to knowledge forms because it underpins the seriousness of nature in the survival of mankind. Its uniqueness derives from the fact that the poems examined are Children’s works. The age of childhood is an age of innocence hence it veritably serves as a fertile period for the indoctrination of nature ideals. The methodology deployed in the study is qualitative as relevant symbols, exerts and images in the verses are romanticized in the light of their natural aesthetics. The aim principally is for child readers of the works to be taken in by nature and its verities. The psychological effect of this inspires them to grow up to become conscious of the ideals of nature and the environmental security it guarantees. The study thus takes a refreshing approach in the areas of nature and environmental security by examining the representation of nature in selected Children’s poems. It further opens vistas into the centrality of literature in the global fight against environmental security.

Keywords: nature, environmental security, poetry, ecocriticism, literature


This work critically examines nature and environmental security in Philip Onuoha’s Song for my Mother. The twin factors of nature and environmental security are multicultural and contemporary issues facing mankind with the crude realities they portend. Summits on climate change and environmental degradation have become a global affair. Emissions by industries in developed nations are becoming a concern for global authorities. The war in Ukraine has further alerted global stakeholders to the devastating impact of wars on the environment. In Nigeria, the uncontrollable desert encroachment in the north and the rampaging erosions in the south alter the environment in no small measure. What’s more, the exploration of crude oil in the Niger Delta region of the country has brought untold hardship to the people as their natural environment is mindlessly eroded. Oil is spilt by oil companies without adequate environmental security consciousness, just as gas is flared with impunity, thus, destroying the ecosystem in the delta region of the country. Ogoni land of the Niger Delta is currently being cleaned of the many years of oil spillage that had messed up the environment and attenuated their means of livelihood. In Bayelsa, the volume of crude oil that is spilt in its coastal endowments has rendered a lot of fishermen unemployed as aquatic animals either die or take flight far away from the coasts of the Niger Delta.

There is then the Boko Haram and Islamic State for West Africa (ISWAP) war against the Nigerian state that has plunged the environment into an unabated crisis. Farmers live in mortal fear of accessing their farms which are under vitiation arising from the activities of terrorists. The once-reserved forest called Sambisa is now the haven of cold-blooded murderers fighting the Nigerian state. The rampaging devastative effects of war are also in parts of the country. The once peaceful Orientals of Nigeria (East) have been rudely awakened by the environmental devastations caused by angry youths under the aegis of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB). Gory tales of cold-blooded murders hitherto unknown in the region now make regular headlines just as the people live in fear.

Scholars and indeed, scholarships, cannot afford to pay blind eyes to these emergent trends that have endangered the natural environment. The risks and the insecurity that are imminent when the natural environment is altered can be interrogated by scholars.

Ecocriticism as a literary theory

In literature, many theories abound ranging from Structuralism, Post-structuralism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, and Postcolonialism to Postmodernism and Feminism. None had been able to effectively interrogate the relationship between literature and the natural environment until Cheryll Burgess Glotfelty jolted the literary world with a novel she entitled “Ecocriticism,” projected to frontally interrogate the relationship between literature and nature.

Drawing from the seminal works of literary theorists like Joseph Meeker, Neil Evernden and William Ruckert, Cheryll Glotfelty developed what has become a theoretical template for literary critics to investigate the link between literature and nature.

In The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, Glotfelty announced the theory of Ecocriticism. In the main, Glotfelty, (1996) posits that the theory essentially seeks to raise awareness of the insecurity, social injustice and vitiation of the natural environment. Thus, this paper seeks to raise awareness on the issues of nature and environmental security in the Children’s poetic work of Philip Onuoha, Songs for my Mother.

The anthology is a children’s text that contains archetypal verses on nature. The poems on nature tend to raise the consciousness of a child reader to the pivotal place of nature in human existence. The innocence and even precociousness of children make poetry that renders nature themes easily glue to their psyche. Nature is pervasive and offers accessible symbols and images to child readers. Verses of nature predilection with beautiful cadence can readily excite children while appealing to their minds with the nature-centred themes they embody. This is one foundational way of raising awareness about nature and environmental security.

Nature and Security in the Poetry of Onuoha

“The Moon” is Onuoha’s first poem to receive a critical highlight in this study. In the poem, the persona sees the moon as a natural element which glitters to the delight of the children. Impliedly, a night without the moon is a gloomy one for children, as there would be no play or folk song. Children have passion for nature as signified by the presence of the moon. Onuoha’s “The moon”, for instance, presents lines that vividly manifest the love children have for the moon:

I love the moon

It hangs in the sky

Like bulbs on the roof

I love the moon

It brings light to the night

Like the sun’s brightness the day (Onuoha, 2007 p. 22).

The imagery of the moon in this poem is that of an illuminator of the sky, which by extension performs the function of the sun, at night. The simile in line three “like bulbs on the roof” recreates further the image of the moon beautifully hanging in the sky to beam light to the earth on nightly basis. However, while likening the moon to a bulb, the persona does not lose sight of the fact that the binaries of neutrality and artificiality still ring the bell between the two. This he expresses in the following rhetorical questions: “Why the moon does not fall/And break like the bulb/I wonder”(22). Once again, the permanence and timelessness of nature are highlighted in these lines. While the bulb, which in itself is manmade, can always break easily, the moon cannot just fall and break. In an apparent Wordsworthian posture of wonderment at nature, the persona’s rhetorical question on the mystery of the moon further symbolizes the overwhelming beauty of nature. In appreciating this beauty, a child’s sense of aesthetics is further developed and expanded. Mayesky, (2006 p. 392) is apt in expressing that “for the young child, the world of nature is an especially appropriate avenue for a sense of aesthetics.”

The persona further celebrates the moon by unmasking the various recreational activities which children utilize its presence to do:

I know I love the moon

When children gather

On the rainless sand

To sing songs of old

And of heroes who saw

The moon and left it for us (22).

Another veritable symbol of the moon is that it serves as a summon to children to gather for sundry adventurous activities. These activities which are organized and experienced outdoors, in full glare and protective glamour of nature, are symbolic and in tandem with ecocritical ideals among which is to appreciate nature and preserve it. Indeed Mayesky, (2006 p. 399) validates this when she opines that “Getting young children outdoors to touch and experience nature is the starting point of learning about ecology and the environment.”

Onuoha romanticizes nature in “My Antelope” a poem which radiates with admiration for the antelope, one of nature’s gifts to mankind. The persona even uses a celebratory metaphor to describe the antelope:

My antelope

Smaller than the elephant

Bigger than the tortoise

You are not a snail

But walks slowly

Like the king of the forest (4).

The tone of affection for the antelope runs through the poem, prompting the persona to refer to the animal as “My antelope” in the first line. The natural endowments of the antelope are keenly represented in the poem. For instance, the antelope is described as “Bigger than the tortoise,” and even though it walks slowly, “You are not a snail” (4). The persona artistically qualifies its gait as majestic in the simile: “like the king of the forest.” The celebration of the antelope, besides its ecocritical nuance, may have drawn inspiration from the Igbo cosmology of Philip Onuoha, the author, which believes that animals are great endowments of nature. This belief is corroborated by Ezikeojiaku, (2008 p. 44) who writes that “the Igbo perception of the world of nature is characterized by the hills, rivers, mountains, caves, anthills, trees, forests, shrubs, ‘animals’, and insects” (emphasis mine). The foregoing validates the universality of ecocriticism which further buttresses its timeless essence. It is also significant in the sense that ecocritical values have been with people of all races, long before the seminal work by the duo of C. Glofelty and H. Fromm (in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmark in Literary Ecology).

According to Mayesky, (2006 p. 393), children learn a lot when animals are discussed, a fact that may not be unconnected with the reality that animals also constitute nature. And besides its aesthetic purposes, nature is always capable of enhancing children’s creativity. This makes Onuoha’s romanticization of the beautiful features of the antelope even more instructive. For instance, he symbolically advises the antelope to beware of the rain which can cause some damage to its beautiful colours:

Always dodge the rain

That washes your beautiful colours

Remember you are the most beautiful

Among animals of the forest (5).

The tone of affection is witnessed in the first stanza yet reechoes itself in the stanza above. By cautioning the antelope to “dodge the rain”, the persona symbolically expresses his keen interest in the animal, an interest which allegorically amplifies the desire of the persona to protect nature from harm. Consequently, he revels in the beauty of the animal as he reminds it of its beauty, “Remember you are the most beautiful… (5). Having earlier qualified the antelope as “the King of the forest,” a beautiful metaphor that significantly illustrates the beauty of nature, the persona now climaxes his elegant characterization of the antelope in referring it as “the most beautiful/Among animals of the forest” (5).

Onuoha’s treatment of nature is further illustrated in “My Little Puppy,” a poem where the joy that nature heralds are manifested through the potential of the dog. The poet’s persona in this twelve-line poem is in a happy mood as he proclaims the great qualities of the dog:

Father bought me a little puppy

That makes me feel so happy

It plays and runs around

Like a star in the sky

When I rub its hairy back

It wags its tail for me (42).

The elegant cadence in lines one and two symbolically amplifies the tone of excitement which the entire poem radiates. It is this exuberance that spurs the simile in line four where the persona compares the movement of the puppy with that of the star in the sky, thus evoking the imagery of resplendence and magnificence for which nature is acclaimed.

Nature indeed has the power to soothe the feelings of mankind, especially in times of distress and melancholy, a factor which leads the persona to further venerate the wonderful qualities of the puppy thus:

When I’m very unhappy

I love to play with the puppy

When I want to sleep

It keeps me company

That is why

I love my little puppy (42).

If nature is this kind to man, giving him joy in his sad moments, rocking him to sleep in his moments of weakness, it means man is eternally indebted to nature. For a child reader whose interest is the focal point, this poem comes with a great moral to defend nature and indeed preserve it. Instead of viewing the puppy as insalubrious, he will start treating it with care.

The symbol of “love” which runs through the breadth of the poem is significant. One, the poet’s persona sees nature as a piece of beauty which should attract the attention of children, nay adults. This is because one can only love something in which he has keen interest. Interestingly, any phenomenon that attracts the attention of children reinforces their sense of imagination and creativity, a factor corroborated by Mayesky, (2006 p. 576) thus: “…the beauty of nature can’t help but encourage a child’s creativity.” Furthermore, by saturating the poem with the symbol of love, the poet’s persona impliedly posits that nature has a lot to offer him. Little wonder he makes reference to the happiness it gives him, in addition to the company and fulfilment which the little puppy (nature) offers.

Onuoha’s “The Sky” wears a unique stylistic toga as the child persona is filled with awe at the presence of the sky. To him, the sky is quite distant. In his adventurous quest to reach the sky, he fails hence he expresses his frustration:

I can’t reach the sky

No matter how I try

It is so far away

Many, many miles away (50).

The persona’s reflection on nature here is not that of derision, but admiration as he seeks, albeit in futility to unravel the mystery surrounding the appearance of the sky. Like William Wordsworth in the Romantic era in ‘Tintern Abbey’ filled with reverence and awe for nature, so is this persona whose palpable admiration for nature leads him to explore it further. Perhaps, while he can explore other worlds of nature, the persona wonders why he cannot do the same to the sky. Also while he only sees the various changes in the colour of the sky, he cannot touch this same sky. He admits that the sky changes colour: “At times it is white/At times it is bright? (2007 p. 50). Yet, he cannot go near it, a childish puzzlement that makes him end his adventurous quest with a rhetorical question: “But who will tell me why/The sky is still very high?” (50).

The import of the rhetorical question is representational of the curious and adventurous psyche of children, a factor which Heath, (2005 p. 291) recognizes hence she states that “young children are by nature, very active and curious.” For Stephanie Feeney et al (1996 p. 104), this stage of development in children enables children to make sense of their experiences.

Nature is indispensable to man, a reason for which Philip Onuoha’s “The Sun” strikes a remarkable chord even in the psyche of a child. The poem which has four unequal stanzas begins with the persona’s expression of pleasant amazement at the mysteriousness of the sun (nature) which blazes as if it were near when in fact it cannot be touched, “Mother/How can I/touch the sun/For it hangs so far/from us on earth” (6). This pleasant mystery surrounding the sun even makes the child love it more as he expresses:


I love the sun

Because it shines so bright

From a height so far

For any hand to reach (7).

The symbol of the sun is brilliantly encapsulated in the third line where its beam floods the earth with a brilliant light that not only brightens the day but also illuminates the mind of the child persona. This makes the illuminatory imagery of the sun to well transcend the brightening of the day, bringing joy to the heart of the child. Indeed, the beautiful psychological impact of the sun on children could conveniently be likened to that of the moon which besides the brightening symbol for which it stands, also bears a psychological effect of serving as a time for “moonlight stories”, an activity which Onuoha, (2007 p. 59) illuminates in “We love moonlight stories/Because they erase our worries/And bring divided heart together/To sing and dance together.” The impact of this is that nature markedly bears a physical and psychological essence on children, a reason for which William Wordsworth a frontline nature poet reveals that nature “has a world of ready wealth/Our minds and hearts to bless” (Onuekwusi, 2002 p. 40). When therefore, the sun makes an appearance in the day, it is a blessing not just to the adult world but to the world of children. This much is justified in the last stanza of the poem where the persona exclaims:


I love the sun

For it touches everyone

With the light so bright

To make our day so right (7).

The imagery of the sun is taken a notch further as the poet’s persona indicates that “it touches everyone,” which impliedly reveals that nature is not discriminatory as man and his creations. Another import here is that nature is kind to everyone even in the face of man’s indifference to it. For instance, Allen D. L. et al (1978 p. 290) wonder why “people will casually pull off a leaf or a branch for no apparent reason,” without realizing that “One branch may not seem to count, but there are multitudes of people out of doors, these days, and such injuries add up”. William Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” gives a symbolic description of the sun which further corroborates Onuoha’s representation of the sun:

The sun above the mountain’s head

A freshening lustre mellow

Through all the long fields has spread

His first sweet evening is yellow (Onuekwusi, 2002 p. 40).

Symbols of beauty illustrated with the use of “freshening,” “lustre” and “Sweet” as used in the poem validate the respect with which the sun (nature) is held. If therefore, everything about the sun is beautiful, it means that nature is friendly and useful. To this effect, Allen D. L. et al (1978 p. 148) aptly posit that:

Every living thing depends on the sun.

But only green plants, which make food by photosynthesis, can use the sun’s energy directly. A plant eater as a grasshopper on your lawn gets a share of the sun by eating plants. Shrews and other insect eaters obtain energy by eating grasshoppers.

It is easy to deduce from this that the sun effectively powers the energy cycle for plants and animals, and by extension, nature. Accordingly, the survival of man depends on these natural elements which the sun powers. It, therefore, follows that a day without the sun may well spell doom for the existence of man. From this prism, one can then appreciate the celebration of this nature’s gift (the sun) to mankind in Onuoha’s “The Sun.”


The critical need to expose a child to the centrality of nature and environmental security is satisfied by good Children’s literature. In consonance with the ideals of ecocriticism, Philip Onuoha remarkably presents archetypal nature poems that appeal to the sensibilities of a child. Interestingly, too, the poems so far presented are capable of deepening the study of Children’s nature poetry. They embody themes that are not abstract hence they do not estrange a child reader. This is the more reason why children need to be exposed to nature poetry early in life. Exposure, for instance, to the ideals and beauty of nature, fires the interest of children in nature as well as raises their consciousness to protect nature, a commitment that is at the very core of ecocriticism. Beyond this, however, is the stylistic presentation of the poems which gives the totality of the poetry a child-friendly tone and cadence, a feature that appropriately defines Children’s poetry.


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