Can the voice and mind of the artist and scientist be combined to form a better understanding of landscape? Alaskan biologist and writer Eva Saulitis thinks so. Eva is the author of Leaving Resurrection, Many Ways to Say It, and, most recently, Into Great Silence; below, she answers a few questions about how to meld two of the world’s great exploratory traditions.
Today, at 4 p.m Eastern, join Eva and poet/scientists Gary Paul Nabhan, Elizabeth Bradfield, and others for a free, live conversation about science and poetry. Register here.
Tell us about your path from science to poetry. Did one come first, with the other following?
My path started with music, actually. I studied oboe at Northwestern University as a freshman, but struggled with the atmosphere of fierce competition among the music students. I also struggled with being trapped indoors, practicing, rehearsing, and making reeds for long hours each day. I’d stare out the practice room’s narrow window at Lake Michigan with intense longing.
So when I convinced myself that I could make another choice, I sought a career path that would put me outside as much as possible. I decided on forestry, thinking it would train me to be a forest ranger. When I realized that forestry was actually about managing trees for harvest, not wandering in the woods in a ranger hat, I focused on fish and wildlife biology.
Poetry and art came into my life during graduate school, thanks to two field assistants who spent months with me in Prince William Sound living on an island and following whales in a small boat, recording their calls and observing their behavior. My first field assistant was a sculptor, and the second was a poet. They taught me how to see in new ways. They asked different questions than the ones I was asking for my study, and those questions compelled me more and more.
Molly Lou Freeman, the poet/assistant, brought dozens of books out into the field to fill our wall tent’s shelf. She introduced me to poets like Tess Gallagher, Moya Cannon, and Adrienne Rich. She wrote daily. From me, by day, she learned the practice of biology. From her, by night, I learned the practice of poetry. Poetry and writing became an integral and essential part of our daily routine.
I realized that I needed a language besides the scientific to express my experience of living in wilderness, studying orcas and coming to terms with myself. I love biology. I love fieldwork. But it is not enough to sustain me. After I received my MS in Marine Biology, I began an MFA program in creative writing, in Fairbanks, Alaska, while continuing to study orcas, write scientific papers and reports, and work in the field. I have no doubt studying and practicing poetry has made me a better biologist.
What qualities make for a good biologist? Are they ever the same as, or complementary to, the qualities that make a great poet?
So many qualities are the same. They are, after all, both creative pursuits. I once made a huge list of them for a talk I gave to graduate students in creative writing, but I’ll just name a few here.
First of all, poets and scientists must be keen observers. In my twenties, the greatest compliment I could imagine receiving from my orca biologist mentors was having “a good eye.” A person with a good eye sees what others miss, detects nuances, is arrested by anomalies in the landscape. My graduate biology work focused on acoustics of orcas, and my musical training had given me a good ear. That, I learned, was essential to the practice of poetry, too.
A second quality that a good field biologist and poet must cultivate is patience, the ability to sit still and wait. Orcas are not always easy to find. I’ve searched for fourteen days straight without an encounter. How you live those fourteen days is, I believe, the crucible, the ultimate test of a field biologist. A poet, likewise, must sit and wait, must cultivate an attitude of receptivity, of not forcing. So many pages lead to nothing, but we write them anyway, knowing, at any moment, a poem may present itself.
And finally, there’s the role of intuition, of instinct. An astounding amount of intuition comes into play when searching for animals and collecting data in the field. Learning to trust one’s instincts is hard-won, and not taught in any degree program. In poetry, my greatest challenge was to learn to trust in the power of the line, to follow the line, and not my rational mind, to tap into instinct, like an animal following a scent trail.
How does your poetry writing and scientific practice interact on a day-to-day basis? Do you wear a lab coat during the day and pick up a pencil at night?
Thankfully for my poetry, studying orcas in Prince William Sound gives one a lot of down time. I go out into the field with my husband for two or three weeks at a time, just the two of us on a thirty-four-foot boat. We are often weathered in during storms, tucked away in a hidden cove at anchor with no cell phone service, no Internet, no distractions of that sort. I’ve written many poems and essays sitting at our galley table, the boat spinning around the anchor in wind gusts, rain pelting the deck.
There’s nothing I love more than staring out the window, scribbling in my journal, drinking cup after cup of tea, until I can’t stand it anymore and have to don rain gear, clear my head, and hike. Nights, when my husband is asleep after a long day following orcas, I often stay up to write. It never gets completely dark in midsummer. That never-night time is when poetry comes.
During the rest of the year, when we’re not out in the field, I have to juggle science writing and poetry writing. I usually do my creative writing early in the morning, when it’s still dark outside. I guess I’m a crepuscular writer. Once it’s full daylight, my rational mind kicks in, and I can more easily shift gears into science mode.
Why did we ever come to believe that science and poetry—these two ways of exploring and explaining the world’s mysteries—were at odds with one another?
We’ve put science into its own special and separate box in our culture, and pushed poetry and other arts to the fringe. They are extracurricular. They are expendable, the first to go from schools when budgets get cut. Technology has so rapidly changed life on this planet that it has become god-like to us. We look to technology to save us from ourselves.
As a cancer survivor, I know this desperate impulse, to obsessively track research progress, hoping for news of a breakthrough, a cure. It is a tremendous distraction from the real and pressing questions: How to reckon with mortality, how to discover meaning in its face.
How did we come to believe poetry and science were at odds with one another? Perhaps because we came to believe so wholeheartedly in the notion of the right brain and left brain, in the splitting of mind and spirit/heart into two halves, and the privileging of one half over the other.
What sort of question might a poet answer that a scientist could not? And vice versa?
Science is a process of overturning conclusions, of refining and revising them as new data comes in. Just when we think we know something definitive about orcas, for example, they do something unexpected. In science, you fail to reject a hypothesis with such and such a degree of uncertainty. You don’t prove anything. It’s a process, a continually evolving understanding of how we imagine the world works. There is no end to it.
For me, poetry moves toward and into uncertainty; like science, it pushes up against the edges of knowing. We write it to find out what we don’t know. We write it to go beyond ourselves. That said, we don’t need poetry to tell the story that science tells, only with line breaks. We need poetry to ask the questions that science doesn’t, and can’t, ask. Because we desperately need as many paths toward knowing as we can follow, now more than ever.
Our times are precarious and science alone can’t save us. The questions that science can’t answer are questions of the heart and spirit. When I wrote my memoir Into Great Silence, about a vanishing group of orcas in Prince William Sound, I was trying to face a coming extinction, the disappearance of animals I’ve come to know intimately over twenty-five years. Science could teach me about the mechanics of extinction, the biological consequences—it could help me wrap my head around the concept. But science couldn’t tell me how to wrap my heart around it. That’s the work of poetry.