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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 2014 > Article Detail

ARTS LAB

A New Language for Ecology

To accurately convey the interdependence among all the agents in an ecological system, we may need to break free of standard scientific discourse.

Robert Louis Chianese

Gains to Science of an Eco-Language

2014-07ArtsLabChianeseFp256.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe possible advantage to science of this sort of writing is the evocation of the energy of the bird in its static and then kinetic phases, the way the dive flows rapidly from the hovering, and the effects of air on each phase. One can state it, but to evoke and convey it with imitative language adds the dimension of immediacy and emotional excitement, with possible further scrutiny as a consequence.

Excitement is often considered anathema in science writing, because it interjects the science-observer’s emotions and values into the work. One should not easily abandon the hard-won objectivity of science, but often this cool, dispassionate stance can cloak more than it reveals. A description of the mating behavior of wigeons by conservation biologist Gwenda Brewer is a case in point.

Brewer carefully avoids anthropomorphic statements about the male’s and female’s amorous designs on each other. She eschews personal opinion and emotional reaction to this rather elaborate sex ritual, and avoids interpreting what the bird behaviors mean. The two ducks become isolatable, almost mechanical entities, one a “target” of the other. In forcing objectivity and using awkward technical prose with nominalizations and passive tenses cluttered by references, she obscures the very process of foreplay, with the birds seeming curiously uninterested in each other:

Preen-behind-the-wing was typically preceded by dipping the bill in the water and shaking the head, and the tail was often wagged after the display (performed broadside to the target). At close distances, a sharp whir could be heard as the wing was snapped open and the male placed his bill behind or just above the speculum.
Males sometimes Chittered before they performed Preen-behind-the-wing. Turn-the-back-of-the-head (Johnsgard 1965) was seen rarely. Males performed an exaggerated Display Shake (called Introductory Shake by Johnsgard 1965) broadside to the target bird.

2014-07ArtsLabChianeseFp257.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBrewer’s distanced prose, focused on each duck singularly without noting their inter-reactions, never appreciates that the birds are engaging in the most interactive process of all, nor do we have the sense of how their local watery environment plays a part in it. This leaden, impersonal style lacks ecological vision and language and hence does not provoke one’s curiosity to pose the key scientific question, Why do they do that to each other?

By radical contrast, poet Pattiann Rogers in “The Hummingbird: A Seduction” imagines herself a female hummingbird, one with human consciousness, mesmerized, dazzled, and finally seduced by a male in full sexual display (below, right).

These erotic fantasies have as their basis some actual ruby-throat mating behavior, the female sitting still while the male high above dives at her, arcing near her elliptically and flashing his colors. But the poet pushes the imagery and depicts the male’s display as a “storm” of sex and procreation, which evokes the near-aggressive quality of his descent but employs radical, fanciful synecdoches—“swirling egg and semen in the air,” “sunlit sperm and pollen”—where parts stand for wholes. This makes the cavorting male stand for both the male’s and the female’s sexual essence together as well as bird sperm and plant pollen. Rogers fuses the sexuality of both birds, the male’s actions, and the flowers he is associated with in a shower of color and sexual energy.

Poetic language conveys the interactive process of subject, atmosphere, and associated features, until the bird seems to color the air itself with sexual excitement as Rogers calls him her “breathless / Piece of scarlet sky.” Along with the imaginary erotics, we read about and vicariously experience vivid hummingbird mating behavior, a form of knowing that can lead to profound insight for poet and scientist alike.

Science may shun such language as a distortion of its core conceptions, but as these evolve and as ecological models dominate, a more interactive form of expression may need to evolve as well. Explaining how things work in an ecosystem should be easy: An organism exists, acts, and causes something else to change or respond, while the first reacts to being acted on and acts in response to that, and so on to others. What really happens, though, is that many diverse entities interact in multiple, simultaneous, and complex ways.

Visual illustrations can help. In academic texts, the interactivity of an ecosystem is often depicted as a web, or a diagram with multiple vectors pointing forward and backward to various members of a system. Perhaps future scientists could animate their charts to reveal all these effects taking place at once, with everything under the influence of everything else, moving in the form of a mysteriously choreographed ballet. But surely there is a place for more poetical language here as well.

Or, dare I suggest, the whole explanatory program of ecological systems could shift to musical sounds, a polystylism for science! Budding sci-art composers, get on it.

Bibliography

  • Brewer, G. L. 1997. Displays and breeding behavior of the Chiloe Wigeon Anas siblatrix. Wildfowl 47:97–126.
  • Hopkins, G. M. 1967. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, fourth edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. New York: Random House.
  • Rogers, P. 1995. The Hummingbird: A Seduction. In Shared Sightings: An Anthology of Bird Poems, eds. Johnson and S. Golburgh. Santa Barbara, CA: John Daniel Company.
  • Ward-Smith, A. J. 1984. Biophysical Aerodynamics and the Natural Environment. New York: Wiley.
  • Welty, J. C. 1982. The Life of Birds. Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing.








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