Reflecting on Joy Harjo’s Poem, “Don’t Bother The Earth Spirit”

For this reflection I will be discussing a wonderful poem titled; “Don’t Bother The Earth Spirit”, written by Joy Harjo. I was introduced to Harjo through reading assignments in class and became more interested in her work because of her poems’ vivid detail, imagery, and emotion. While reading her poetry bibliography online, I noticed she has written two chapbooks in her career. I fell in love with poetry chapbooks a few years ago when I read my first few in a class with Professor Ahl. One that stood out to me, and that I still have on my shelf is; “Life Without Furniture” written by Sharon Fagan McDermott. I had my copy signed by her and it is one of my favorite treasures. I will never lose my passion for poetry and the stories and secrets that other poets share within them. Joy Harjo’s collection of poetry is impressive and I hope to read her chapbooks someday soon. I have read a few of her works online for class, and narrowed down my list of favorites for this essay assignment, and finally landed on quite an interesting choice.

Don’t Bother The Earth Spirit” was published in ‘89, and is a piece with heavy nature themes. In this piece, I am in love with the idea of a female Earth spirit entity tirelessly working on the oldest story in the world. I am left wondering what the story could be about. Upon first reading I assumed it was the story of the world. I pictured the spirit as a mother Earth type character. I re-read the poem many times seeing what I could glean from the words in front of me. I began to instead imagine the spirit almost as a universal being, scribing down all the tragedy and beauty that she has witnessed overtime. As I kept reading, the imagery in my mind of the Earth spirit kept changing and evolving. I think that is an amazing talent for an author to have. I believe that an author’s ability to play with the reader’s imagination is something truly fascinating. 

Another interesting turn that my imagination took while reading “Don’t Bother The Earth Spirit” was that I began to imagine the Earth spirit as a sort of tree nymph, almost like a Dryad. It may be a long shot, but I do have some textual evidence, along with some basic research, that supports my thoughts here. Dryads originate from Greek mythology and are described as; “a nymph or nature spirit who lives in trees and takes the form of a beautiful young woman. Dryads were originally the spirits of oak trees (drys: “oak”), but the name was later applied to all tree nymphs.” (Britannica). In the poem the spirit is working on a very old story, considering Dryads can live just as long as their host trees, which could be centuries, that may be how the spirit is able to keep up with writing such an old story. 

The exact location in the poem is never specified and only ever referred to as “here”, leaving the interpretation to the reader’s imagination. While Dryads do not live like humans do, a Life Without Furniture, so to speak, I do believe that this line; “If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen.”, can be explained by the fact that Dryads are known to act mischievous in order to protect their host tree and the surrounding forest. I like to imagine a protective Dryad concocting this whole coffee and bread scene just to keep a mortal human away from their home. “The Dryads mischievously and fiercely protect their trees as well, and mortals would do well to not act foolishly around any tree inhabited or protected by a Dryad.” (Geller). Dryads are not a minor spirit, they are very strong. “Dryads are considered minor and mortal goddesses who have exceptionally long life spans but are deeply and supernaturally connected to the trees they call home, and are limited to the space of the tree or the forest the tree grows in. If the tree dies, then the dryad could die along with it, which is a tragic vulnerability that is acknowledged by the gods. If a mortal causes the death, then that mortal is usually punished unless he or she attempted to make peace with or appease the Dryad.”  (Geller). Perhaps their power is the reason Harjo’s poem is titled; “Don’t Bother The Earth Spirit”, perhaps it is a warning to the readers not to mess with powerful spirits of nature.

The last lines of Harjo’s poem left me a little confused and curious about the meaning every time I read it, but I think I might have come up with some type of explanation for the meaning of Harjo’s words.  “It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.” I think that when most people imagine someone turned to stone, they think of Medusa because she is one of the more well known mythical creatures capable of petrification. While Dryads may not have that power, in the natural world, oak trees can become petrified overtime. “Petrifaction is the result of a tree or tree-like plants having been replaced by stone via a mineralization process that often includes permineralization and replacement. The organic materials making up cell walls have been replicated with minerals (mostly silica in the form of opal, chalcedony, or quartz). In some instances, the original structure of the stem tissue may be partially retained.” (Wiki). This information relates to the stone finger in Harjo’s poem because, perhaps someone’s spirit, Dryad or mortal, tried to escape from the tree and became petrified as consequence, hence the leftover stone finger. That theory may be a bit of stretch to some, but I am trying to have some creative liberty in interpreting the meanings within this poem. I imagine the Dryad inviting a mortal, likely seen as a threat, into their area, and trapping them in with her age-old story. Once they realize their tragic fate they attempt to escape and end up petrified by the tree as punishment for threatening the Dryad and her home in nature, which she would passionately want to protect.

In my research I was able to find an amazing scholarly paper in pdf format that is a detailed analysis of Joy Harjo’s poetry titled; “Ecofeminism and Cultural Memory in Joy Harjo’s Poetry: Writing in the “Enemies Language”. I have sampled a passage below which I think helps summarize and better express my thoughts I tried to articulate in my own essay. “Don’t Bother The Earth Spirit”– tells us the Earth spirit is working on a story. The poem is not only reaching for a more biocentric way of talking and writing about the Earth, but an actual land based language. The Earth spirit is a storyteller, she literally has a voice. But she is not simply a benevolent, pastoral personification of Nature. The poem opens with a warning not to bother the Earth spirit who lives here. She has a personality, maybe a temper, and a job to do. She also lives here, which connotes a certain place. She is part of a particular landscape, part of local stories. She is revealed through those local stories; she is revealed through memory.” (Winn). Many thanks to the author, Trisha Winn, for managing to say what I could not figure out how to.

I can almost guarantee that when Harjo was writing “Don’t Bother The Earth”, she wasn’t imagining her character as a Dryka or even thinking of the Greek mythos at all. Harjo is a native american woman descending from the Muscogee Creek nation. Many native tribes are known to believe that spirits and or their ancestors spirits live within trees and forests for different purposes. The Muscogee Creek tribe is known to have harbored their own beliefs, spirituality, and mythologys. It is quite possible that the character in Harjo’s poem could stem from an old legend or something of the sort. I think the story of the Earth spirit is meant to teach respect for the earth and the power of her natural abilities. When discussing the Earth spirit character, Winn writes that “she is revealed through those local stories”, which I believe relates back to the idea that the earth spirit might be part of a story the Muscogee creek tribe may have told. Winn also writes that, “-she is revealed through memory.”, which leads me to my final point. This essay serves as a thought experiment of sorts. When I was reading this poem over and over looking for meaning, my mind took me in all directions imagery wise. The theory of Death of the Author exists for work like this. Creative freedom in art interpretation is so important. It can also prove to be entertaining, like in this case. My mind kept wandering, creating associations, opening new possibilities in interpreting this poem, and after a while I thought of an idea. What if the reader tries to envision the earth spirit as a Dryka? In what ways would it be similar to Harjo’s description, and in what ways would it be different? Can the Earth spirit even be interpreted into such a strange creature? I would say yes, because of the local stories idea that Winn describes. Harjo says earth spirit, here I say Dryka, but could even say imp or fae creature. It all depends upon local stories that have taken root in our minds, and the associations we have learned regarding nature and spirituality. Different interpretations are all wonderful, though nothing could replace or compare to the lovely character that Harjo has created with the poem, “Don’t Bother The Earth Spirit”.


  Sources Cited

Britannica. “Dryad-Definitions, Types, Names, & Facts.” November 3rd, 2021.


Geller. “Dryad-Tree Spirit of Greek Mythology”. Mythology.Net. April 18, 2017. November 3rd, 

2021. Web.

Winn, Trisha.”Ecofeminism and Cultural Memory in Joy Harjo’s Poetry: Writing in the

 “Enemies Language”. 2013. November 4th, 2021. Web.

Wikipedia. “Petrified Wood”. En. October 13th, 2021. November 3rd, 2021. Web.

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