Environmental writer Mobi Warren reflects on the science and pedagogy of nature poetry.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the fall of 2019, environmental writer Mobi Warren taught a community-based writing class called “The Poet as Citizen Scientist.” This essay—originally published in the February 2020 issue of Voices de la Luna, a special 50th anniversary commemoration of Earth Day called “Earth in Peril / Earth in Praise”—captures Warren’s reflections on the class, embedding her students’ work within larger reflections on the pedagogy and ethics of intertwining scientific and poetic ways of knowing. Enjoy!
As a writer/educator, I want my work to witness to the damage wrought by climate chaos and habitat loss—realities caused by the relentless human drive to consume and profit. I also want my work to imagine ways of living that honor and offer healing to our threatened world.
As many do, I straddle territories of grief and gratitude. I live out of a broken heart. Yet curiosity and wonder remain strong medicine for me, and I find inspiration in a joined nexus of science and poetry. The very fact of being alive strikes me as so improbable and mysterious, I believe we have an obligation to live fully and to find as many ways possible to assure that other beings, human and non-human, may also live fully the lives they have been given.
Science and poetry are both fueled by curiosity and wonder. Both look for patterns. Both employ metaphor. Products may differ, a poem or a graph, but practiced in partnership science and poetry provide a vivid and precise vocabulary to celebrate the world.
One of the resources I am most grateful for is the mindfulness practice I learned while working for many years with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. It seems to me that the origin of human-caused extinction of animal and plant kin begins with the loss of truly seeing and sensing the world we inhabit. So for several years I have led mindfulness walks, often combined with writing short poems, in natural areas such as Government Canyon and the Headwaters Sanctuary.
Every July I lead a poetry walk at Phil Hardberger Park. My hope in offering these experiences has been to encourage participants to slow down and enter silence in order to engage more deeply with the natural world. Such walks hone the senses, make the mind more alert, and nourish the heart. They might also spark a greater sense of urgency to protect irreplaceable resources and relationships. In addition to leading walks, for several years I have volunteered as a citizen scientist collecting data on Monarch butterflies. For me, mindfulness, science, and poetry are like three strands in a braid, a woven whole.
When Gemini Ink invited me to design an environmentally-themed class this past fall, I took inspiration from ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan (Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry) who is both a working scientist and poet, and other writers such as Sharman Apt Russell (Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World) and the late Ellen Meloy (Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild).
I designed a four-part series—an experiential workshop that would be spent as much outdoors as in, and that would give participants a chance to combine scientific and poetic ways of looking at the natural world in order to deepen writing while making a real contribution to science. The class was offered in October which allowed us to participate in the Texas Pollinator BioBlitz—class members quickly honed skills in using the iNaturalist app in order to record sightings.
Ode to a Toad
our eyes met.
I posted it
Blissing Out on the BioBlitz (with a nudge from Gary Paul Nabhan)
Out for a good time, out to win, out to up my score, phone in hand,
I scoured drought-stricken scrub brush to catch nature unblurred by motion.
Photos clear, motives blurry, I felt flighty as the fritillary I chased across a crunchy field
where it paused above white-capped frostweed, hovering,
as a green flash of iridescence bent my eye.
I followed the sweat bee toward a placid pair of hairstreaks sipping nectar mid-blossom,
watched dotted wheel bugs and cucumber beetles creep along the edged floral roadside-
and walk away with my conscious mind.
They carried me off on a voyeuristic voyage, a visual feast,
so I stood oblivious, stuffing my senses,
until stereophonic buzzing swung past from left and right.
I came back to myself surrounded by bees,
deeply rooted within the shriveled grass, rough stems flailing my ankles,
the hot silence of late afternoon rusting into dusk.
Immersed in images I’d discounted for years, beside a road I’d twisted down daily,
I recalled hearing Earth needed more inhabitants, fewer tourists,
but realized I’d changed my perspective by becoming a visitor to my own backyard.
Indoors at Gemini Ink, we held billion-year-old stones, examined a basket of ball moss, peered at a small collection of cicadas (I gather the lifeless husks of their pea green bodies at summer’s end when males have ceased drumming and females have laid their eggs).
Poetry in Science
Inside a small white box,
the citizen scientist carries jewels
glimmering in the bodies of four cicadas—
emerald bodies, diamond patterns,
gossamer sheen in fragile wings—
admiring four distinctive designs.
Nature’s brilliance noted in every cicada born.
We looked at the seed-heads of upright coneflowers, shook black pods of mountain laurel, rolled live oak galls in our palms. I first invited participants to simply write from the experience of their senses. Then I provided geological or biological information and we looked at the same objects employing a scientific lens. Class members were encouraged to revisit the poems they had written and to find ways to weave in scientific modes of understanding. Participants, for example, learned the unsung benefits of ball moss. (We were also startled, and a bit disturbed, to learn that entrepreneurs can make a profit by collecting and selling online this ubiquitous and often maligned native plant.)
Notes on Ball Moss
Strong winds push trash and ball moss down my street
Torn from their branches and tossed to their fate
Rolling and skittering
Like lemmings to the sea
Seeds caught in the blowing dust
Will land on trees, fences, utility lines
And grow into homes for insects and havens for birds
The lovely little epiphytes.
The wrens’ twittering seemed, to him, as though they sang in gratitude for the break in the heat. He appreciated the sentiment, still, he found the day’s temperature tolerable only in the shade of the live oaks. He set down the can he held and pushed off from the tailgate of the worn and faded blue truck whose color and condition matched the snap button shirt and jeans he wore. Reaching behind him, he drew a metal ladder from the truck bed, hoisted it across his body, and shuffled his way across the dusty ruts of a country road to the pair of oaks that stood sentry on either side of the gate. Up on the hill, on the other side of the hay pasture, was the old dairy barn. He leaned the ladder against the centuries-old oak and kicked its leveling feet secure. He returned to the truck and pulled out his chainsaw. With scarred and calloused hands that summarized every moment of his life’s work, he fiddled with the tools’ knobs and controls until satisfied he could make no more improvement; and then, pulled the soiled nylon starter rope. One long draw was followed by several more aggressive yanks until the motor caught. He revved the small engine, backed off the choke, and listened to it stabilize. Without looking into its reach across the sky, he strode to the tree and climbed the ladder with one hand before twisting his body towards the nearest outstretched branch. He did what he came to do; slicing through the rough outer bark before adjusting the blade and attacking the limb from above. The impaired branch cracked and fell and, he followed it down the ladder to the ground. Setting the saw down, he gathered all the spiky, green gray orbs he could, tucking them into the crook of one arm and retraced his steps to the tree.
A maligned but benevolent epiphyte
ball moss clings to branches beneath crowns of trees.
Ball moss clings to branches beneath crowns of trees.
No killer but a life bringer, a refuge.
No killer but a life bringer, a refuge.
Wrens, chickadees dart among wispy spheroids.
Wispy spheroids shelter insects, feast for wrens.
Chickadees, cardinals join banquet, build nests.
Chickadees, cardinals build nests near grand banquet.
Ball moss attracts multitudes, takes only air.
Houses multitudes, moss returns nitrogen.
Lavish giver of gifts, ball moss supports life.
Lavish giver of gifts, ball moss supports life,
A maligned but benevolent epiphyte.
We visited the Botanical Garden at the height of Monarch migration and silently walked trails at Hardberger Park, while recording the presence of native pollinators: bees, wasps, hoverflies, butterflies, beetles.
Quiet Walk in the Park
Shadows and light make room
for each other under the trees
lying quietly side by side
breathing in and out
their togetherness lacing
a pattern of here and now
of what can be when we
grow still and listen.
Four weeks passed quickly but served, I hope, as an initial invitation to take on a citizen science project and by so doing, enrich one’s writing while making a helpful contribution to scientific research. It is important that we truly notice what is here and document what changes are taking place. Mindful data collection helps map climate shifts and habitat loss and may offer us tools to mitigate damage. And because hard facts need emotional resonance, the voice of poets may help awaken us.
Mobi Warren is co-founder of the environmental writers and artists collective Stone in the Stream/Roca en el Rio and author of a science fiction novel for tweens, The Bee Maker, that concerns endangered bees. Information on future mindfulness walks and classes can be found at: http://www.mobiwarren.com.
TAKE ACTION: Want to participate in an international citizen science project to document the world’s biodiversity? It’s as simple as downloading the free iNaturalist app and taking and uploading photos of plants and animals you encounter—in your yard, neighborhood, local parks, along streets and greenways. Join the City Nature Challenge 2020, which takes place April 24-27, 2020. Cities will compete to see which can document the greatest number of species.
You can join with local groups for this outdoor activity, but it is also something you can easily do on your own (given current recommendations for social distancing due to coronavirus and uncertainties regarding whether group events will be held.)
If you are in Texas, check out this website for more info. If you are not in Texas, simply google “City Nature Challenge 2020” to find links for where you live.
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