Understanding Climate Change Through Poetry
At first glance, science and poetry may seem like an odd pairing. But appreciation of the potential synergy is growing among scientists, poets, and readers.
Last fall, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most recent assessment of the state of climate science. The report fills more than two thousand pages with detailed, technical language - not a fun read, by almost any standard.
In fact, Dr. Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer with NOAA and lead author of one of the chapters in the latest report, was struggling with the report. So, he created his own version of the report in which each of the nineteen major findings is portrayed as a haiku accompanied by a watercolor painting.
Oddly enough, a poem based on an earlier U.N. climate change report is what poet Len Germinara and environmental scientist Dr. Sarah Oktay credit with sparking their relationship. She heard him recite the poem and couldn't get past a few glaring inaccuracies. He took the criticism in stride, and the two say they continue to learn from each other. The husband and wife team currently runs the Nantucket Field Station, teaching science and poetry to students of all ages.
Germinara says what differentiates his practice of ecopoetics from the long tradition of nature poems is incorporating our scientific understanding of a phenomenon into a poem, rather than simply admiring its beauty. The title of Germinara's most recent anthology of student poetry, Veil of Particulates, is a perfect example, as it alludes to the role atmospheric pollution plays in creating the dramatic colors of sunset. The phrase comes from the poem Motivation, 27 Jan 13 by Connor McKay:
I saw the moon tonight...
Low in the sky, hovering above the horizontal water
orange with the veil of particulates suffocating
our planet. It was beautiful.
It was strange; It provoked me.
Why was it so beautiful?
In its shallow position in the sky, its street lamp luminosity.
What do you want from me?
What more can I do?
How do I make you, this moment, this experience significant?
I'm glancing between my page and the moon now,
high in the Aquarius sky.
and its reflected light now penetrates the atmosphere
in its familiar, its eerie, its eternal cold white glow.
I glance to the street lamp outside my bedside window on Whalers Lane.
The image is a painting in a New England country boutique; in an old folks' homes.
This image is my life now.
I no longer despair for existence.
"The universe is finished." But,
my status is dynamic.
Keep moving, and bring friends.
Oktay says poetry has the potential to convey messages of environmental awareness and stewardship to a broader audience than scientific reports. The practice of writing poetry can also benefit scientists, by heightening awareness of aspects of their research that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Want to get started writing your own poetry? Germinara recommends an exercise he calls "I remember." Write ten (or twenty, or fifty) sentences beginning with those words. Let your thoughts wander freely and write the first things that come to mind, no matter what they are. When you find one you want to write more than a sentence about, that's your poem.
(Spoiler alert: It's harder than it sounds.)