April—every day a new flower scent to try to identify; every day warmer—and I’m thinking yet again about a perennial conundrum. Amid distraction, and amid so much information, how to hold in mind the many present threats to ecological balance? How to remember all we have lost of the beyond-human world, all we might lose? In her essay “Metamorph,” Anya Groner talks about the chytrid pandemic that’s devastating frog populations, and how her twin sister, a biologist, has devoted her life to studying it. “Even after Maya explained her research,” she writes,
it took me a long time to understand the stakes. Though amphibian decline had gotten a decent amount of press, to laypeople like me, the scientific rhetoric obscured the severity of the crisis. And with so many scary stories populating the news, a disease that didn’t directly impact humans had serious competition for my attention.
To keep feeling the import of so many catastrophes and potential catastrophes is challenging even if one has considerable economic and social privilege. Add health troubles, financial strain, threats to personal dignity and safety, and environmental harms—all likely to affect large numbers of people in this affluent country—and it can be even harder to keep the plight of frogs dying from chytrid, or bats dying from white-nose syndrome, or redbay trees dying from laurel wilt disease, in mind.
Partly what’s needed is systems awareness—the realization and re-realization that those white-nosed bats might be feeling environmental stressors that could affect people too, or people’s food supplies. Partly what’s needed are good explications of scientific work, in all its slow, messy complexity. (Friends in science, I hope y’all know I would apply that phrase just as readily to poetry.) And partly it’s writing and art that show us the personal effects of engaging with and understanding ecological interactions—both for scientists themselves and for people trying to understand their work better.
So it makes me happy to have, in Ecotone’s pages, essays like “Metamorph”—work by writers who are engaging with scientific research, bringing both fascination and patience to the task of illuminating that research for our readers.
Just as important as conveying the winding trails of scientific stories is bringing to the page a sense of the wonder earthly phenomena can inspire. Linda Hogan writes, in this issue’s Poem in a Landscape department, about Pablo Neruda’s love of stone, and about her time working in the Laboratory of Chemical Evolution at the University of Maryland, not long after the first moon voyage. A moon rock kept in a glass case in the lab draws her and fascinates her, as does the work of the researchers she supports. What Hogan discovers for herself—a lifelong path of exploring the universe in poetry and fiction—she appreciates in the paths of scientists. The impulse behind both kinds of work, she suggests, may be the same—a love for Earth’s places and phenomena that instills the desire to know them more fully.
The impulse behind both kinds of work, she suggests, may be the same—a love for Earth’s places and phenomena that instills the desire to know them more fully.
The danger, of course, with writing about science (not to mention doing it) is that it’s so easy to get it wrong, or incomplete. How we talk about data and statistics, how many and which studies we cover, which researchers we talk to on which days of the week—all these factors affect scientific storytelling. This is part of the reason our staff diligently fact-checks the work that will appear in Ecotone. We dive deep into databases, available thanks to our university library (bless you, library, and thank you, databases). When we can’t discern what’s what, we find somebody who knows, and we call them. Even with hours spent on a single essay or story, we may still not get it right every time, but we can try.
And we must try. At the risk of sounding alarms that have been ringing continuously this past year, telling stories well and truthfully and completely—finding, you know, facts, and presenting them in contexts that are both clear and accurate and also compelling for readers—is essential. It’s essential for keeping ourselves informed about what’s happening in the world, on our finite planet. And it’s essential for good writing, about science and about other things too.
One big fact: climate change is real. It’s upon us, it’s happening, and to avoid both denial and despair, a little humor is also needed. A little art. An iceberg delivery service, Polar Possibilities, for instance, run by the couple at the heart of Nick Fuller Googins’s story “Another Life Initiative,” which reminds me of the horror and strangeness of climate change even as it relieves me of a bit of that horror.
A sense of history helps too—of the work done by other storytellers and seekers after answers. I am thankful to be returned, in a poem this issue by Regan Huff, to the world of Maria Sibylla Merian, who catalogued and painted the caterpillars of Suriname at the turn of the eighteenth century.
Speaking of slow, messy, and complex, more poetry never hurt: the metrical acrobatics of Mary Cresswell’s double dactyls, the enervating variations and reiterations of A. H. Jerriod Avant’s poem of superlatives, the respite of Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s rondeau of unmowed weeds.
A sense of purpose helps too, an antidote to distraction. Also in this issue, Jennifer Tseng describes her longing for the kind of immersive reading experience not mediated by knowledge of the writer, or by social-media chatter about the writer’s work. And Marilyn Nelson offers a prayer of sorts, an invocation of our defenses against the pull of technological distraction:
Help me reclaim in simple solitude
the whistle of nothingness in my ears . . .
Give me the commitment to being alone
with the thought of the cavernous cosmos.
Bolstered by all this, we must return to science, to data, to bring it into our lives and art. That takes all kinds of writers and artists, all kinds of people, telling science stories or bringing them into the picture of writing on other subjects. When this is done well, it’s good for research itself, good for writing, and good for readers.
And not just for sobering wake-up calls about the limits of Earth’s capacity. The sciences can also bring us back to the beauty of what’s here, and what was here before. As the alarm bells continue to ring, we can fret, or we can issue ourselves a challenge: as readers, to seek out writing that engages with the world, with scientific research, with the dilemmas we face. As writers, to let the facts in. To see some of what’s happening and try to convey it—with as much care and accuracy as we can bring—in our own stories and poems and essays. And as editors, to help writers realize their best work, both in factual accuracy and in fidelity to the writer’s particular inclinations and ideas. Each of these requires the kind of love Linda Hogan reminds us of—a love that seeks to know better, to find out what is there, to offer that back to the world.
Along with these challenges, a shout-out. My colleagues David Gessner, Emily Smith, and I would like to offer thanks to an editor who keeps the editor’s charge, of helping writers find their writing’s best form, always close. Beth Staples, your work is invaluable to this magazine. Many Ecotone contributors can attest to this, and it’s a joy to reaffirm it here. I hope our readers will join us in congratulating Beth on her promotion to senior editor for Ecotone, and editor for Lookout Books. It’s our privilege to work with her.
And with that, I give you our newest issue. In it there’s plenty of sobering stuff, some much-needed respite from present events, and a lot that falls between those places. I hope it suits your summer. May facts—and may love—prevail.