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Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry

How can an Amy Clampitt poem contribute to diabetes research? How can science lend the missing puzzle piece to a group of song-poems about jimsonweed and thorn apple? Can poets and scientists join forces to save the ironwood forest? Gary Paul Nabhan, award-winning poet and conservation scientist, explores these questions in Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry.

Skeptics might respond with questions of their own such as: shouldn’t we entrust medical breakthroughs to scientists who know what they’re dealing with? Because writers and scientists inhabit different discourse communities, it would seem that empirical research and art would not intersect very often. Yet, Gary Paul Nabhan dares to ask, “Where would science be without research? The same question can be said about art.”  In his book, Nabhan explores the possibilities of looking at the world through a bilingual lens. Using the language of science and poetry, Nabhan arrives at conclusions that wouldn’t have formed without the cross-pollination of two disciplines.

Before diving into the content of the book, one must take a moment to admire the shape of the narrative. Cross-Pollinations is set up like a musical score, beginning with an “Overture” that presents the objectives of the work. Following the overture, Nabhan goes into the first movement, a chapter that tells us why poetry needs science. The second movement tells the story of why science needs poetry, and the conclusion orchestrates the contributions of both disciplines to serve a common cause. Nabhan couldn’t have chosen a better format. The setup of a musical score is an extended metaphor in itself. Music is the product of artistry and the science of acoustics; thus, its metaphorical presence in Cross-Pollinations underscores the message that true artistry is backed by science and vice versa.

In the “Overture” of his book, Nabhan draws our attention to the necessity of creating dialogue between discourse communities. Nabhan writes, “Artists and scientists also need cross-fertilization or else their isolated endeavors will atrophy, wither, or fall short of their aspirations.” We are reminded that science brings new metaphors to poetry, and poetry brings humanity to empirical research. Nabhan turns to Alison Hawthorne Deming as an example. Deming, one of the poets to whom this book is dedicated, writes through a bilingual lens. Using the language of poetry, she gives readers access to the earth’s biodiversity. In these moments where Nabhan leads us to existing cross-sections of science and poetry, he invites the audience to celebrate the work that shows us how the two disciplines become fuel for each other.  

Unfortunately, science and poetry have been placed on two different pedestals, the former being raised higher than the latter. Nabhan explains how views toward science and poetry have evolved during the 20th century: since the advent of space exploration, funding for the sciences has grown, while funding for the arts has diminished. Only in more recent times has there been a renewed interest in joining forces: “Indeed, I feel fortunate to live in a time when a growing number of scientists are increasingly inclined to consider the work of poets, and vice versa. And yet, I often wonder why they ever fell out of dialogue with one another at all.” Now, more than ever, it is vital to keep asking why the dialogue should continue. This is where Nabhan’s scholarship comes into play.

In his chapter entitled “Why Poetry Needs Science,” Nabhan presents an example of how science helps to decode a song-poem translated from the O’odham language. The English translation, “Pima Jimsonweed Song,” was used in a study of the Pima Indians of Arizona:

At the time of the White Dawn;
At the time of the White Dawn,
I arose and went away.
At Blue Nightfall I went away.
I ate the thornapple leaves
And the leaves made me dizzy.
I drank the thornapple flowers
And the drink made me stagger.

A close reading of the song-poem suggests that insects which pollinated the datura blossoms experienced altered behavior, hence the dizziness and the staggering depicted in these verses. In light of this interpretation, ecologists were led to evidence about the source of mental and physical disorders in people who consumed certain honey products. If humans consumed honey that was made by wasps that fed on datura blossoms, their behavior would be affected by psychotropic alkaloids found within the blossoms. This occasion is a prime example of what can happen when poetry is integrated into scientific study: “By cross-pollinating the linguistic, ethnographic, and poetic understanding of the song with insights from field ecology and neurobiology, we can now celebrate the song-poem in all of its dimensions.”

The following chapter mirrors the previous one by detailing why science needs poetry. In this chapter, Nabhan draws our attention to the fact that some of the highest rates of diabetes occur among the O’odham tribes. Is this an epidemic with a solution? Is this a mystery that science can solve on its own, or could poetry offer the missing puzzle piece? In response to these questions, Nabhan leads us to the last place we might think to look—a poem by Amy Clampitt. What happens next is creative research at its finest. In the Amy Clampitt poem, Nabhan finds a simile that moves in two directions. Nabhan realizes that he must think in the same pattern, attacking a problem from different angles in hopes of recognizing patterns that were previously unseen. This leads Nabhan to ask, “Is there anything that most desert plants need to survive that then might have benefits in the diets of people prone to diabetes?” His findings reveal the following answer: what helps the prickly pear slow digestion is what can slow down sugar absorption in humans, thereby helping to control diabetes. Nabhan says of this process: “Perhaps none of it would have happened if I had not been simultaneously looking at night-bloomers, reading Amy Clampitt, and thinking bilingually.” In these case studies, Nabhan’s clear-cut prose breaks down barriers between disciplines. The language is not overly specialized, making it so that the research and textual analysis are accessible to readers who come from various backgrounds. Does anyone object to this harmonious intersection? Speak now or forever hold your peace.

For those that aren’t completely sold, Nabhan reminds us that cross-pollination is the key to reaching a wider audience when it comes to environmental conservation. Nabhan’s final chapter documents how artists and scientists join forces to conserve the ironwood trees of the Sonoran Desert. Speaking on behalf of this movement, Nabhan hits the message home: “…science, in and of itself, is seldom enough to reshape public opinion. People have to feel some visceral connection to an issue to act upon it; they have to have the images of an ironwood forest in their heads and hearts.”  In a triumphant collaboration between discourse communities, the environmental crisis becomes more tangible, and the combined efforts bear fruit.

Cross-Pollinations makes important contributions to both scientific and literary scholarship. It guides both fields in a direction that merits more attention—a direction in which our academic specializations do not remain isolated but become lenses for each other. Through these lenses we can begin to solve problems in a new light. – Joanne Mallari

Also available by Gary Paul Nabhan: Coming Home to Eat; Chasing Chiles; Where Our Food Comes From; The Geography of Childhood; Gathering the Desert; The Desert Smells Like Rain; Why Some Like it Hot; Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land; Cumin, Camel, and Caravans; Enduring Seeds; Cultures of Habitat; Food, Genes and Culture; Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves; Arab American; Desert Terroir; Plants and Protected Areas; Tequila, A Natural and Cultural History; Singing the Turtles; Last Water on the Devil’s Highway; Conserving Migratory Pollination; Canyons of Color; People, Plants and Protected Areas.

Tags: Nature/Poetry/Science and the arts/Amy Clampit/ Pima Indians of Arizona/Desert plants

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