My work in this world is to understand forests through the approach of science. “Science” comes from the Latin scio: “to know as thoroughly as possible.” When I visit my forest field sites in Costa Rica, I don mountain-climbing gear to ascend tall trees to study the rarely seen plants and animals that live high in the forest canopy. I then design experiments, gather data, and report quantitative findings to my scientific peers.
However, with the increasing environmental threats of human activities on forests—such as harvesting, fragmentation, and climate change—the definition of science must also include dissemination of information and extending a sense of mindfulness about trees to non-scientists. This communication must particularly include those who are unaware or only dimly aware of the importance of trees and nature, i.e., people who rarely visit a botanical garden or watch a nature documentary. To many of those people, the language and style of scientific communication are rarely compelling. What other vocabularies might scientists use to engage the public with the importance of nature and the enterprise of science?
“Poetry is prayer and good medicine,” wrote a colleague of mine, Craig Carlson, when I asked for input on a book I was writing about the relationships between trees and humans. He was right. Consider Robert Morgan’s “Translation,” which is just one example of how a poem can capture a complex topic and integrate its rich meaning. Morgan describes the dance of organic matter from trunk to soil and back again to leaf. This poem parallels my own scientific papers, which explain the storage and transfers of nutrients in the endless and elegant circle of nutrient cycling:
Where trees grow thick and tall
In the original woods
The older ones are not
Allowed to fall but break
To be absorbed by next
Of kin and feeding roots
Of soaring youth, to fade
The shady floor in their
Translation to the future.
Poetry can make listeners aware of critical connections between humans and our biosphere. In the deceptively simple “inside out,” Bill Yake reveals both the structural redundancy of form between human lungs and trees and their parallel function of gas exchange:
trees are our lungs turned inside out
& inhale our visible chilled breath.
our lungs are trees turned inside out
& inhale their clear exhalations.
Poems can also distill the compelling dualisms that exist in trees and in other parts of nature. For example, trees exemplify both strength and fragility. They both provide and require protection. Pam Galloway’s poem “On Galiano” conveys their strength, and their inspiration of strength:
This tree stands
like a fork of lightning
shouting to me
of all that I could hold, look: the entire sky
if I would open up my arms, stretch
If I would let the air smooth my skin,
let it peel, knowing
there are stronger layers beneath.
But the fragility of trees must also be acknowledged. Scientific studies document that the tiny mandibles of a bark beetle can bring quick death to a jungle giant. A tropical fig tree species can go extinct if humans pump enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise the global temperature a single degree. Gail Mazur evokes this fragility in “Young Apple Tree, December”:
What you want for it you’d want
for a child: that she take hold;
that her roots find home in stony
winter soil; that she take seasons
in stride, seasons that shape and
reshape her; that like a dancer’s,
her limbs grow pliant, graceful
and surprising; that she know,
in her branchings, to seek balance;
that she know when to flower, when
to wait for the returns; that she turn
to a giving sun; that she know
fruit as it ripens; that what’s lost
to her will be replaced; that early
summer afternoons, a full blossoming
tree, she cast lacy shadows; that change
not frighten her.
Perhaps the deepest value of poetry for scientists is its articulation of the feelings that scientists themselves harbor for what they study—passion, deep curiosity, and a sense of stewardship. We would only rarely reveal these emotions to our scientific peers if we relied only upon the vocabulary of science. But poetry sets them free. “Verde que te quiero verde,” as Federico García Lorca famously wrote, encapsulating the joy and the ultimate reason for my searchings. “Verde viento. Verdes ramas.”