Communicating Science: Make it Creative; Make it Relatable
by Star Coulbrooke, Millie Tullis, and Shaun Anderson Mar.15, 2017
BEFORE THE DAM
All along the river we were young
and walked the dirt roads barefoot
Night and day we wandered
the riverbank, plunged off its edges
Followed the ditchbank where it curved
around hillsides on its way from the headgate
Drank from springs and waded
up to our knees in pasture water
Hiked the steel-banded siphon, waterjets
fluming down gorges through fields
Always rocky corners of fields,
tattered sagebrush and prickly pear
Deer hiding in juniper scrub,
grouse and pheasant startling up
Already what we knew was vanishing,
all but the bravest of birds and furred souls
Bald eagle nesting in cottonwoods,
red fox denning in sidehills
Beneath the grass along the river
bones and implements, the shards we bury
Star Coulbrooke, forthcoming in Thin Spines of Memory, Helicon West Press, Logan, Utah, 2017
Activism goes hand-in-hand with science. After fourteen years of steady vigilance, the seemingly inevitable dam in this poem was finally denied—it took that long for activists and scientists to prove the value—and the reality–of all that would have been destroyed by damming that stretch of the Bear River through the Oneida Narrows. It also took a lot of human emotion related through personal stories from the locals, most of whom were morally and vocally opposed to environmentalists and scientists throughout much of the process. Without that element of local public interest, without the locals and the scientists working together in the end, the dam permit might have been granted and that stretch of river would be lost forever.
WALKING THE BEAR
I walk on water, take the river
from its high Uintas
down Utah’s cascades,
wander Wyoming’s meanders,
to Soda’s hair-pin curve
where thirty-thousand years ago
lava turned the Bear
away from Blackfoot’s Snake
and sent it down to Grace.
Doubling back from Gem Valley
to Cache, I walk the river’s cobbled bed
where tributaries surge, rowdy Cub,
Little Bear, Beaver-headed Logan,
six-tined fork of Blacksmith.
Down the length of floodplains
I pass, through wetlands
of cattails and bulrushes,
to bottomlands leveled and drained,
where the river silts in, slows down,
its honeyed pace tamed for grain.
On the river’s gliding current
I travel miles each step,
a dreamlike passage
through cedar and cottonwood,
hawthorn and chokecherry,
lifting like a heron over dams
and sluggish lakes
that halt the river’s breath.
I walk the Bear all summer
as it builds strength again,
widens into marshes, joins
in lush bird-heavy congress
with the great peculiar Salt,
a lake that would surely die
if not for this river, this path,
this milk and honey.
Star Coulbrooke, Published in Walking the Bear, Outlaw Artists Press, Price, Utah, 2011
Science tells us that without historically mandated flows from the Bear River, the Great Salt Lake would be depleted and the human population could be subject to caustic dust from accumulated metals that have migrated to the bottom of the lake. How do scientists convey that kind of information to people who don’t want to hear it? And yet, the public interest IS there. The facts just need to be presented in such a way that people hear them emotionally. They need to relate.
I’ll read one more poem and we’ll talk about it a little bit before we go on to do some writing and then hear from Mille and Shaun. This last poem is a metaphor for … I’ll let you decide what.
SKY’S THE LIMIT
Take the mountain range, times it by twenty
and you have the size of clouds, frothy white
whipped with gray, swirling, breaking off,
re-forming new shapes this first day of spring.
Along the greening roadside, sun
warms soil enough for sprouting new growth,
plants doubling their size daily,
hugging the ground, aspirating chlorophyll.
The air breathes pungent mud, damp spores
and rotted seeds wafting into windows.
Spring calls what’s lain embedded and sluggish
so it surges on the waves of thaw,
releases stuck emotion, washes the senses
like dishsoap flushes aphids from curled leaves.
By summer, grief will be as dry and hollow
as June-grass waving in the passing traffic,
the dead riding in our minds, back-seat drivers
whose voices we question—how they know
which curve we should take, they who’ve deserted us
at the end of a desolate season, given us the wheel
and gone off satisfied into another luminous blue.
Star Coulbrooke, published in Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, Issue 13, Brockport, NY, October 2010
Poets use imagery and metaphor to convey scientific information, to make the facts memorable, to get at the truth of what they’re describing. They find connections with the everyday-ness of life, what they see around them, how they relate to family, work, friends. They note the change of seasons, lament the fickleness of love, anticipate the finality of death. They often incorporate research into their observations of the world, but their language is spare. Active. See-able. Poets work hard at making every word count.
Let’s talk about what the poem conveys to you. Don’t worry about being right or wrong in what you say. Any answer you give is going to be correct—because once a poem goes out to readers, it’s subject to their experience, their interpretation according to how it strikes them emotionally.
(Metaphor, imagery, detail, meaning, science, personal experience, speculation, what you could write in response.)
Writing poetry can be great practice for writing about science—even for writing lab reports and literature reviews, because it trains the writer to include the most meaningful detail and to be concise. The practice of poetry writing can improve “communication, critical thinking, and attention.” Science and the creative arts are a great combination for training physicians, for instance. Medical students are taking poetry workshops to “hone their ability to describe observations with nuance and precision, to effectively articulate their ideas to patients and colleagues.” If doctors can learn from poetry…
When I’m composing a poem, I don’t think about science or facts or truth—I imagine a scene or a place or a memory and let my emotional response to it guide my writing. I simply describe it, adding details I might have to research later. But I don’t worry about that part until I’m revising. I just let the words flow until they tell me something I didn’t know, something I needed to know. Scientists are like poets, in that their work reveals something we need to know.
First, imagine yourself in a place that has special meaning to you. Try to picture everything that is or was once there, from the smallest bits of soil or insects or water droplets to the largest notion of landscape.
Placing yourself inside the scene, as in my poem, “Walking the Bear,” describe what you see as you move within that space. It doesn’t have to be a poem or connected prose; it can simply be a list. Include elements and objects such as water, grass, rocks, trees, animals, birds, fish, and so forth. Think of how you might start describing colors, textures, sounds, smells, taste.
Later on, you can add location, personal history, family, facts, action. Your scientific knowledge should easily occur inside the paragraphs and lines. Eventually, if a poem didn’t come out of the first writing, you might like to revise to make it more poetic, even memorize the poem you’ve written. You can take it with you wherever you go.
Think of the people who might share your appreciation for the place or scene or object you wrote about, and how your poem might enhance their appreciation. Sensory detail, structured by musical lines and clear imagery, can help people relate to important scientific knowledge that might otherwise be lost in dry technical terms.
Shaun and Millie lead a discussion on the following creative pieces:
- A Knot of Snakes
Swarm sounds like warm with the serpentine arabesque of a hiss spiraling around the word. Like the heat-sleepy tangled knot-work of baby garter snakes languorously coiling and uncoiling—corded shoelaces tying and untying themselves on a sunbaked concrete sidewalk.
The hiss a slight edge surrounding the protective bubble of communion to those held within the collective safety of the swarm.
Swarm rhymes with warn, as if to convey a sense of threat—think of the 1978 sci-fi disaster movie The Swarm starring Michael Caine and Katherine Ross, in which a swarm of deadly African bees terrorizes American cities. But it also sounds like sworn, as if to convey agency, intent, determination.
Taken from “Swarm,” Lee Ann Roripaugh. http://www.terrain.org/2017/nonfiction/swarm/
One time, many years ago, when the world and I were young, I spent a day in a tiny cedar forest with my sister and brother. This was in the marshlands of an island the first people there called Paumanok. This little cedar forest was twelve city blocks long by two blocks wide, for a total of eighty-four acres, and there was a roaring highway at the northern end, and a seriously busy artery road at the southern end, but when you were in Tackapausha Preserve you were, no kidding, deep in the woods, and you couldn’t hear cars and sirens and radios no matter how hard you tried. We tried hard, my kid brother and I; we sat silently for probably the longest time we ever had, up to that point, but our sister was right, and we were deep in the wild.
We saw woodpeckers and an owl and lots of warblers—this was spring, and there were more warblers than there were taxicabs on Fifth Avenue. We saw what we thought was a possum, but which may have been a squirrel with a glandular problem. We saw muskrats in the two little ponds. We saw a hummingbird, or one of us said he saw a hummingbird, but this was the brother who claimed that saints and angels talked to him in the attic, so I am not sure we saw a hummingbird, technically. We did not see deer, although we did see mats of grass, which sure looked like places where deer would nap, like uncles after big meals, sprawled on their sides with their vests unbuttoned, snoring like heroes. We saw holes among the roots of the white cedars, which were so clearly the dens of animals like foxes and weasels and badgers that one of us looked for mail addressed to them outside their doors. We saw scratch marks in the bark of trees that one of us was sure were made by bears, although our sister said she was not sure there were bears registered in the Seaford School District, not to mention badgers either.
We saw many other amazing small things that are not small, and we wandered so thoroughly and so energetically all afternoon, that my kid brother and I slept all the way home in the back seat of the car with our mouths hanging open like trout or puppies, sleeping so soundly that we both drooled on the Naugahyde seat, and our sister had to mop up after us with the beach towel she always carried in the trunk for just such droolery, but my point here is not what we saw, or even the excellence of gentle patient generous older sisters; it’s about what we did not see. We did not see a fox. I can assure you we did not see a fox. I could trot out my brother and sister today to testify that we did not see a fox. With all my mature and adult and reasonable and sensible old heart, I bet there were zero foxes then resident in Tackapausha Preserve, between Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road, in the county of Nassau, in the great state of New York. But I tell you we smelled Old Reynard, his scent of old blood and new honey, and we heard his sharp cough and bark, and if you looked just right you could see his wry paw prints in the dust by his den, and if we never take our kids to the little strips of forests, the tiny shards of beaches, the ragged forgotten corner thickets with beer bottles glinting in the duff, they’ll never even imagine a fox, and what kind of world is that, where kids don’t imagine foxes? We spend so much time mourning and battling for a world where kids can see foxes that we forget you don’t have to see foxes. You have to imagine them, though. If you stop imagining them then they are all dead, and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?
“Imagining Foxes.” Brian Doyle. Brevitymag.com/nonfiction/imagining-foxes/