Cross-Pollinations: Exploring Scientific/Poetic Metaphors

Cross Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry by Gary Paul Nabhan

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A good friend of mine who’s been following the progress of my project here (i.e., exploring the overlap between science and fiction, with the goal of writing a novel based on the same for National Novel Writing Month 2012) was gracious enough to lend me a book she thought I might find of interest, Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry, by Gary Paul Nabhan.

As serendipity would have it, Nabhan is one of the more distinguished alums of my undergraduate alma mater, Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment (I refuse to add the ‘and Social Justice’ they’ve tacked on of late, it’s just too much). I knew him primarily as the author of Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods, and as the founder of Native Seed/SEARCH, a nonprofit seedbank dedicated to preserving rare seeds, particularly those of the indigenous Southwest.

What I came to understand over the handful of essays that compose this slim volume was that these accomplishments are really the tip of the iceburg in terms of what Nabhan has accomplished in his life as the author of sixteen books of natural history, essays, and poetry, scads more scientific articles (many of them groundbreaking in the field of ethnobotany), and as a key player in a number of important conservation victories, including the designation of 129,000 critical acres of desert habitat as the Ironwood Forest National Monument during the Clinton administration.

What’s more, Nabhan claims poetry as an important catalyst in a number of his scientific breakthroughs–hence the focus of the book, on the concept of cross-pollination. For Nabhan, cross-pollination is more than what plants need to ensure healthy offspring, it’s about the way we are all dependent on relationships for our own health and well-being.

In one instance, Nabhan was challenged by one of his Tohono O’odham friends to use her tribe’s traditional food and medicine plants to figure out why her people were dying in such great numbers of diabetes in modern times. A tall order, and one that stumped him, until he read a poem by Amy Clampitt entitled “Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration”:

An urn of breathing jade, its

gilt-embossed exterior the

intact foreboding of a future

intricately contained, jet-

veined, spangle-margined,

birth-wet russet of the air-

traveling monarch emerging

from a torpid chysalis. Oh

we know nothing

of the universe we move through!

My dead brother, when we were

kids, fed milkweed catapillars

in Mason jars, kept bees, ogled

the cosmos through a backyard

telescope. But then the rigor

of becoming throttled our pure

ignorence to mere haste

toward something else.

A lovely poem, and a tricky one, as it’s hard to tell where the urn ends and the chrysalis of the butterfly begins. Apparently this quality of the poem is what had such an effect on Nabhan–more specifically, the fact that the metaphor moves both ways, from brother to butterfly and butterfly to brother.

This led him to an idea. Rather than analyzing how chemicals protect desert plants from the stress of drought and seeing if any of the same chemicals reduced diabetic stress on the human metablolism, why not take the foods that best controlled diabetes and see how chemicals in those foods might help to protect desert plants?

As it turned out, this solution provided a shortcut to the answer. Many of the foods in the traditional diets of desert-dwelling tribes contain extracellular mucilages that slow down water loss from their tissues. (A handy feature for a plant that may endure long periods of drought on a regular basis.)  These same mucilages slowed absoption of their sugars when consumed by humans, protecting the tribes that consumed them from diabetes. (This was found to be true with the aborigines of Australia as well). Rather than painstakingly testing plant after plant for the effects of its components, why not ask what those desert foods already known to help diabetes were doing to help themselves?

It strikes me that both creative artists and scientists are occasionally faced with these kids of problems, which are tough to crack with the brute force method. Nabhan here shows how the kind of bi-directional thinking behind a poetic metaphor got him thinking differently about a scientific problem–which roused my curiosity. I wondered, Can writers use scientific thinking to help to crack the maddening problems of lit

I am reminded of a very powerful metaphor developed by Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, the cosmologists who co-wrote The View from the Center of the Universe: Understanding Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. In it, the authors posit that money can be seen as subject to gravity, a force in the universe that causes like things to attract more of the same. A massive star or black hole attracts more stardust; as a result, thinly populated regions of space become even more thinly populated. As per the Bible, Mark 4:25: Whoever has shall be given more; whoever has not, even that much will be taken from him.

Not exactly the message that Jesus brought, is it? And yet, according to modern physics, it’s a simple statement of fact. If you look at the ongoing debate about wealth distribution in our country (and the world as a whole), it’s largely about the fact that money attracts money–to them that has, more shall be given.

Primack and Abrams offer us a way out of the hot-button issues of blame and greed by looking more deeply into the metaphor in search of a solution. What is it, in the universe, that keeps everything from collapsing and sticking together under the force of gravity? The answer they provide is ‘movement.’ Movement is what keeps matter from coalescing in one big lump, allowing diverse stars and planets and other heavenly bodies to form. In extending the metaphor, they call for legislation that mandates the movement of money–if you’ve got a certain amount of it, you’ve got to spend a certain amount of it, to make it available to others in one form or another, rather than simply sitting on it. A concept very much in tune with natural ecosystems here on earth, which constantly keep resources in motion.

In fiction, I believe, thoughts like this (at the very least) make for interesting characters.

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