I have mentioned my academic crushes before…the great E.O. Wilson of eusociality, Tracy Langkilde of the dancing lizards, Walter Tschinkel of the ant nest architecture, Hugh Possingham of the adaptive management…to be honest, I have a great many academic crushes.
“When netting bees, there can be no hesitation!”
Today, I thought I would talk about Sam Droege. I admire Sam for his skill at identifying bees (he talks in “bees per hour”) and natural history know how (he started out studying birds and is now known as one of the foremost bee experts in the Eastern US), but also for his poetry savvy and musical skills.
In West Virginia.
Sam helped to design and coordinate that most excellent online bee identification software (for the eastern US), discoverlife.org. He also manages a list-serve about bees where many a great (and sometimes quite heated) discussion on bee biology and ecology has taken place. He teaches a course on how to identify bees for amateurs. (He is the one who taught me that, “in an emergency”, you can use the coolant in your radiator to collect and preserve bees. It is hard to imagine the emergency in which I would be willing to do that, but I’m sure I will understand one day.)
At the same time, Sam manages a list-serve for nature poetry (I once got into a poetry war with him), plays in a blue-grass band, and runs barefoot. Scientists, you see, are multifaceted people.
I’m going to steal something that he wrote here without his permission, so if he ever comes across it, I’ll just have to beg for forgiveness. The topic that came up on the bee-monitoring list-serve was whether poetry should be used in conjunction with science in a class.
Here is Sam’s response:
Yes, poems would be great to addition to your class. They reach the metaphysical in all of us in a sneaky way, processing our feelings about things without us knowing it.
I would say that almost any nature poet worth their salt has dealt with the split between man and nature, between duality and oneness.
Mary Oliver is one of my favorites and a great interpreter of nature and our experience in nature…here is a good one
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
- Mary Oliver
Emily Dickinson was no fan of the natural historians of her time and preferred the direct observation and relationship rather than that of capture and study. She would have been an interesting correspondent on the topic of animal names or names for anything given, as an example the poem below
“Arcturus” is his other name—.
I’d rather call him “Star.”
It’s very mean of Science
To go and interfere!
I slew a worm the other day—
A “Savant” passing by
“Oh Lord—how frail are we”!
I pull a flower from the woods—
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath—
And has her in a “class”!
Whereas I took the Butterfly
Aforetime in my hat—
He sits erect in “Cabinets”—
The Clover bells forgot.
What once was “Heaven”
Is “Zenith” now—
Where I proposed to go
When Time’s brief masquerade was done
Is mapped and charted too.
What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I’m ready for “the worst”—
Whatever prank betides!
Perhaps the “Kingdom of Heaven’s” changed—
I hope the “Children” there Won’t be “new fashioned” when I come—
And laugh at me—and stare—
I hope the Father in the skies
Will lift his little girl—
Over the stile of “Pearl.”
- Emily Dickinson
On of my favorites is a grand tongue in cheek meeting of “nature” and “man” by Barrington, even more relevant today with the addition of electronic distractions
“I Met a Lady in the Wood”
I met a lady in the wood.
No mortal maid, I knew, was she;
She was no thing of flesh and blood,
No child of human ancestry.
Her beauty held my eyes in thrall.
I spoke to her sweet words, soft-toned.
She answered me no word at all,
But only looked at me and moaned.
I spoke to her about Exchange,
Of Sterling and its recent rise.
The subject was beyond her range;
She stared at me with haunting eyes.
I touched upon the price of Rye
And its effect upon the Pound.
She walked beside me silently,
Like one that treads on charméd ground.
She witched me with her elfin grace.
I spoke of Wages and the Dole
And briefly sketched for her the case
For International Control.
She gazed upon me as I talked;
Some elfin thing she seemed to be.
I knew her, by the way she walked,
A creature of the Faëry.
Through green and leafy glades we went,
Knee-deep among the dewy ferns;
I touched upon the Law of Rent
And of Diminishing Returns.
And, as we wandered through the wood
Mid oaks and elm-tree boles rotund,
Explained to her as best I could
The workings of a Sinking Fund.
I said that Rubber was depressed
By recent rumours from Malay.
She only moaned and beat her breast
And cried aloud, ‘Alack-a-day!’
I said my brokers had foreseen
A rise in Oil, and asked her view
As to the trend of Margarine,
She only answered ‘Willaloo!’
I took her to a green-lit glade
Where tall trees twined their branches high
And a moss-muted streamlet made
And there I paused awhile; and there
I offered her my heart and hand,
And bade her take me in her care
To dwell with her in Fairyland.
I said I was a Whale-oil King,
With gold and goods and gear in plenty.
She said she was a Mrs. Byng
And had a family of twenty.
She turned and left me where I stood.
While round her elfin pipes were fluting
She walked away into the wood,
And I walked home to Lower Tooting.
– Patrick Barrington
The Asian philosophies attempt to heal our splits with nature, but it remains a theme that is represented over and over in both short and long poems
Woodcutters and fishermen know just how to use things.
What would they do with fancy chairs and meditation platforms?
In straw sandals and with a bamboo staff, I roam three
Dwelling by the water, feasting on the wind, year after year.
Or Rumi, perhaps getting a little too close to what it is we as scientists do with nature
Excuse my wandering.
How can one be orderly with this?
It’s like counting leaves in a garden,
along with the sound notes of partridges,
and computation become absurd.
Bill Holm wrote an entire book of poems on Boxelder bugs and those poems chase many themes along these lines. He had students compose poems about them too, which might be a good “homework” assignment
Poets and Scientists Find Boxelder Bugs
Useful for Both Metaphor and Experiment
Crush a boxelder bug.
After the little snap
a tiny liquid drop
the color of honey comes
out on your thumb.
The boxelder bug does not
hear this sound.
The red racing stripes on
his black back, like decorated
running shoes, finally don’t
run anywhere, anymore.
You, on the other hand, had done
what your life prepared you for:
kill something useless and innocent,
and try to find some beauty in it.
– Bill Holm
Gary Snyder on the futility of modern life
Eating a sandwich
At work in the woods,
As a doe nibbles buckbrush in snow
Watching each other,
A Bomber from Beale
over the clouds,
Fills the sky with a roar.
She lifts head, listens,
Waits till the sound has gone by.
So do I.
- Gary Snyder
And from earlier times, Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
Similarly Thoreau was constantly at a loss in his struggles between life in society and life in Nature
The Inward Morning
Packed in my mind lie all the clothes
Which outward nature wears,
And in its fashion’s hourly change
It all things else repairs
-Henry David Thoreau
And so it goes that the poets and scientists keep dipping back into the endless well of Nature
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.