May 14, 2013

Event melds poetry with ecology

Science need not stifle the imagination nor spirit – ecology and poetry can go hand in hand, according to a multidisciplinary group of Cornell scholars who gathered recently to discuss the connections between art and science.

Historians and writers joined biologists and conservationists at the table during an April 11 event hosted by the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics (CREST).

Panelists Joanie Mackowski and Amanda Jo Goldstein, both assistant professors of English, and Ben Dalziel, a graduate student in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology, discussed the connections between poetry and ecological methodology.

Excerpt from “Second Growth” by Roald Hoffmann, Nobel laureate and Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus:

A road out of paradise, for you and me
does not stretch ahead on land alone,
it flies with the hawk, and plunges into
every phosphorescent bay, and down
the dark, deep underwater canyons.
We will walk that road, you and I, dance
down it in life's samba, like scuttling crabs
- people, dear people … and manzanita
and machines - aware of the one earth,
comingling strategies and wisdoms,
in slow fixes, earth healing at our touch.

“Poetry is not communication," Mackowski said. "Rather, it's a method of inquiry, a process, that uses language as a scientific, speculative instrument.” 

Poetry and ecology work by analogy, Dalziel said.

“Both try to make sense of the world by processing through sensing,” Dalziel said. “When we experience something new, outside of our realm, we have to compare it to something to understand.”

Aaron Sachs, associate professor of history and a founding member of CREST, said he sometimes asks his graduate students to express their work in the form of a poem.

“In academic writing, there is a template for conveying work. I wanted my students to examine the costs and benefits of a template and think as writers and as scholars,” Sachs said. “It is beneficial to understand how language can be used more effectively in a broader way.”

Poetry can evoke the feelings brought on by the natural world, said Laura Martin, graduate student in the field of natural resources and a founding member of CREST. Sublimity can be expressed through a process of discovery, whether scientifically or through poetry, and these two forms are not mutually exclusive, she added.

“We usually contrast science and art,” Martin said. “But poetry has a methodology like ecological science, as ecological science has a process like writing – it’s a two-way relationship.”

Other panelists agreed, and some compared the process of creating poetry to the natural processes on Earth.

"Writing poems, one pays attention to kinetic energy: to the rhythms, rises and falls that propel vowels – as in the ay to ee back to ay and then oh in 'I wake to sleep and take my waking slow' – moving sounds, sentences and meanings back and forth on the page,” said Mackowski, quoting from Theodore Roethke's poem "The Waking."

“Poetry is a fit medium for showing natural development, sometimes showing science in verse,” Goldstein added, who is working on a book to show how writers from Erasmus and Darwin to Percy Shelley revived ancient materialism to cast poetry as a privileged technique of empirical enquiry.

Poetry can also be thought of as systems of words or a hierarchy, the panelists argued.

Understanding poetry is more than just looking at individual words, but how they work together, much like an ecosystem.

“In ecology, everything is connected,” said Sachs. “It makes sense, then, that we draw upon various fields to understand environmental issues.”

The world is interconnected, he said, and CREST recognizes these complexities, building connections across colleges at Cornell.

Founded in 2010 by Sachs, Martin and Amy Kohout, graduate student in the field of history, with support from the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, the group is aimed at Cornell faculty and graduate students but open to all.

Built on the premise that complex environmental issues can best be understood through familiarity with diverse perspectives, CREST strives to foster open communication, close collaboration and new thinking about the ways in which its members’ “green” scholarly pursuits relate to their teaching and political commitments.

More than 60 graduate students and faculty members, spanning 17 departments within Cornell, have already participated in various events, which range from lunchtime roundtable discussions about the connections between poetry and ecology to evening sessions reviewing writings by Iscol lecturer Peter Kareiva.

“I saw the need for more collaboration with departments in environmental studies,” said Sachs. “We want to foster these connections with Cornell faculty.”

Alex Koeberle ’13 is a student writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.