Prose from Poetry Magazine

Green I Love You Green

Poetry and the endless, elegant cycle of nature.

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.”

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
Invisibly into
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.”

Originally Published: July 1st, 2010

Nalini Nadkarni is a member of the faculty at Evergreen State College, where she teaches and carries out research on forest ecology. Her book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees was published in 2008 by University of California Press.

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  1. August 1, 2010
     Ann Wood Fuller

    As a sterward of the language, I bear an immnese burden and a responsibilty to shore up the magnificant power of words and their belonging to the human race. Like science explains the natural world through mathmatics and labatorial tutorials, poetry through its brevity of language, explains the human condition, connection, and commotion as we live and exhume ourselves. How sustainable we are depends soley on our realization of the repsonsibility we have as stewards of it all.
    Whether it be a shard of garbage flung in the ditch, or a careless word wriiten or spoken to a co worker or a child, both demonstrate the power that can either cripple or nurture, it is a choice that we all have as humans beings.

  2. August 11, 2010
     S. A. F. Zeejaah

    It's a great pleasure to know that scientists
    are joining the poets to express their
    concern about the nature.

  3. September 25, 2010
     P. R.

    I completely agree with the assessment
    off the problem, but doubt that poetry is
    the answer. I just suspect that of the
    tiny number of people who actually read
    poetry, the ones moved by nature
    poems are already on your side.

    The science community needs a
    hardcore, no-holds-barred PR

    Think about what you're up against: the
    industries who want to distort science to
    their financial benefit have deep pockets
    and work hard to get the word out. The
    churches ARE PR companies; ones with
    thousands of years' accumulated
    experiences reaching the public,
    including the least educated and least

    This is much bigger than what the
    scientists can handle on their own. They
    need organization and serious outside
    help. And I'm afraid they're not going to
    get the most persuasive help from

    (Keep the poems coming though ... I
    want to enjoy my last days, before, to
    quote the poet Jim Morrison, the whole
    s**thouse goes up in flames ...)

  4. January 24, 2011

    Great point there, P. R. Mohammad Yunus, who is a Nobel Peace laureate, in his book "Banker for the Poor" wrote about incentivizing Social welfare instead of profit, from the point of view of Economy. E.g. you'd have "welfare" shares and you would trade with them, etc. and he has described a whole vision of his in the book.

    Maybe one can do something similar
    with incentivizing "climate" instead of profit, if you will. There are things like how green a company or car is, but being green has to be incentivized properly.

  5. August 3, 2013
     sydney coffin

    "nature" will do just fine, it exists in everything. Humans, however, have another thing coming if we think we are greater than the need to breathe, the need to appreciate, and the need to reflect. Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote it simply here, when he said:

    "I do my best to attain emptiness
    I hold firmly to stillness.
    The myriad creatures all rise together
    and I watch their return.
    The teeming creatures
    All return to their separate roots.
    Returning to one's roots is known as stillness.
    This is what is meant by returning to one's destiny."

    The way of nature will persevere without the way of Man, but the destiny of man will be determined by his willingness to embrace the mysterious ways of nature, not by believing we can somehow overcome them.
    Poetry can be that embrace.