When Earth and Sky Intermingle : Science and Poetry – By Michael G. Smith

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Poetry has never revealed its full face to anyone. Its beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. It defies any attempt at a deft definition and hence is capable of yielding itself to myriad interpretations of its nature and utility.

Michael G.Smith, a Chemist and Zen Buddhist Practitioner, is also a Poet. In this article, he explores how Science and Poetry share common bonds. In a forthcoming article to be published in Modern Literature during the last week of February 2018, the author will share his thoughts on how Zen Buddhism and Poetry complement each other.

 

    I am shoveling snow for the third time today. The flakes landed so softly during the storm’s last spell that individual ones lying on edge are now visible because their crystalline shapes split the white light emanating from a streetlight into spectral colors. Blue, green, purple and red lights pepper the white-shrouded earth. Because I am a chemist who grows crystals in a laboratory, these mini-prisms intrigue me.

     And yet science, like any endeavor, cannot tell the entire story of a snowflake’s being. Thus, because I am also a poet, my mind shuttling between science and poetry, I am interested in the light snowflakes shine onto things. Poet Paul Valéry wrote1, “Like a pure sound or a melodic system of pure sounds in the midst of noises, a crystal, a flower or a sea shell stand out from the common disorder of perceptible things.” From a roiling gas or liquid, a crystal grows one atom at a time, each atom bonding to its neighbors. So, I invite you to imagine a poet’s rangy, prowling mind and exchange atom by word – a poem, a word assemblage equivalent of a DNA molecule, can happen. Thus, a homology exists between science and literature, between the dreamer of crystals and the dreamer of poems. Each bringing order to the disordered, don’t both attempt to explore a curiosity and desire amazement for their efforts?

     And what wonderful gifts are given to the conscious effort-maker, for as art critic and essayist Walter Pater wrote2, “life itself is conceived as a sort of listening.” Nature is always audible, from echoes of the distant Big Bang in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum to the chorus of birds flitting about the backyard trees. Philosopher David Rothenberg says3, “Hear bird sound as music and there is always some mystique to enjoy. Hear the world as music and you’ll find we live inside a plethora of beautiful sounds.” Rothenberg, who is also a composer and jazz clarinetist, goes on to say, “How many other creatures are waiting for the chance to jam?” Dreamer-scientist waiting with recording equipment, the dreamer-poet adds would-be jammers populate the non-biological world ­– waterfalls, wind, ocean waves and mountain avalanches.

     The crucial word in Pater’s statement is conceived. What does it mean to conceive? It is the synthesis of essential ingredients resulting is something new and different. Today’s snowstorm is the result of many ingredients – temperature, humidity, air pressure, mountains, and dust particles water vapor can crystallize around. Some of these physical conditions are relevant to the growth of laboratory crystals. This scientific endeavor is challenging, the crystal’s being and my success existing partly due to a hefty amount of luck. For example, no crystals will form from the mix of chemicals if I choose a furnace temperature off by several degrees of what Nature has deemed appropriate for their growth. I weave a way through a dizzying range of possibilities – temperature, chemical composition, pressure, reaction vessel type and time – with no guarantee of success. Experimental gems, my crystals are often only a millimeter or two along their longest direction in stark contrast to the large beauties Nature grows in her secret chambers.

     Agents promoting conception’s potential are implicit in the word conceived. Perhaps the most important mediums nurturing a scientist’s kernel of explorations are curiosity, imagination and dreams. A scientist may be surprised of the influence of dreams, but what is ruminating about a set of data or a potential experiment? They too are forms of daydreaming that result in aha moments encompassing a spectrum of multitudes. Questions spew forth. Can the tiny shift of atoms in a crystal passing through a magnetic transition, i.e. an attractive transition, be measured? How do we synthesize this molecule, for example taxol, a natural cancer-fighting agent produced by yew trees? Can we build this device (think Hubble Telescope or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN)? Can a theory as startling and world-view changing as Evolution or Special Relativity be developed to explain this observed phenomena? I quiver knowing unknown possibilities lie latent in the minds of scientists.

   The poet’s path in writing a poem, which may be a roadmap of  his unconscious awareness, is analogous. An image or a fact strikes, is remembered and dreamed about. But these are just first steps towards the conception of a poem. After expounding on the importance of memory to a poet, Brigge says4 in Rilke’s semi-biographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

     And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

    Thus the poet is a synthesis, a chemistry, a crystallization of a timeless unconsciousness whose workings are namefree. Everything in Nature namefree, her instruments of communication are thus wild, and when listened to by scientists and poets, they become adjectives and verbs pulling on us, continually calling to stay abreast with her like running legs  stimulate the heart to match them stride for stride. Experiencing and absorbing the world, the poet clarifies it in marvelous ways, for as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard says5, “Forces are manifest in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge.” And forces are reminiscent of science, and of Sir Isaac Newton who identified their long reach and furthered mankind’s motion within a spacious universe. Using tongues versed in resonance and rhythm, it is no wonder that science and poetry have so much repercussion, the reverberations bringing about changes in self, culture and society.

     Attentive to Nature’s dynamism, we ask, Can any explanation for her elegance and beauty – be it a scientific theory or a poem – be satisfactory? Dreamers of science and poems, their dreams facts of the imagination6, know their work is not complete. An image of a theoretical physicist scribbling and erasing equations on a marking board comes to mind, the daydreaming hand moving symbols representing complexities in magnetism or dark energy theory around. Doodling one might make of it. Are the firing circuits of his mind any different than that employed by the poet thumbing through his dictionary or the daily newspaper, picking words, images or facts, arranging and rearranging them according to rules he feels? Which embodies larger truths, a poet’s poem about a river feeding off snowmelt or the hydrologist’s equations modeling its turbulence and flow during spring flood? Both are doors open to spacious vaults that neither can completely envision.

     No beings inhabit and travel the universe as much as scientists and poets. Have I stepped out on a thin limb? Then I do so willingly because one component of the job description of poets and scientists is the desire to work at the edge of things. The terrain unfamiliar and humbling, we expose ourselves to vulnerability. All conceived things being vulnerable to their environment, vulnerability is a reflection of how Nature is continually being re-conceived. Thus, having considered a bit of how the scientific and poetic processes overlap, I’d like to briefly discuss a poem of mine that imbues science and moves alongside it in order to shine a bit of light on what it means to be human in a finite world.

     Ancient Fir, Climbing7 recalls the experience of climbing into a 200-foot cedar tree during a writing residency at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, a federal forest that has been studying the processes and beings that turn a mature forest into an old-growth forest for decades. I was invited to climb by my good writing friend Andy Gottlieb and his wife Jenny. Andy had been a previous resident of the Forest, and they were there on a return visit. They had hired a tree-climbing guide service and suggested I join them. Knowing I’d be hanging by a single rope eighty feet above the ground, I had to make myself vulnerable to whatever might happen. I am glad I did.

Ancient Fir, Climbing

Carabinered to a braided rope and dangling

ten feet off the ground, things change,

 

like suddenly there are too many questions

about the physics of friction versus gravity,

 

but the shy, awkward boy zips through space,

waves from above the first fan branch eighty

 

feet higher than ground. You have game

you say, the only matter is repose into harness,

 

lift the ascenders, push against the stirrups

body bent, extending, bent againagainagain,

 

an inchworm climbing. You pray to the physics

of friction, you pray to the molecular bonds

 

of rope. Twenty sweaty minutes later

you touch fan branch’s built soil, rub lichen,

 

lobelia and fern, then find yourself shaking

laughing man’s soft hand on this wispy

 

April day, wind and rain sweeping in.

 

     The reader will note we climbed a cedar, but the title says fir. The tallest old-growth trees in the Andrews are Douglas firs, several of which are 700 years old. Thus, the poem is a paean to these ancients and their ability to pierce the sky. Furthermore, fir resounds off the tongue better than cedar. To climb high up into one of these large trees one uses a rope that is passed through an ascender attached to stirrups by a harness. The ascender allows the rope to pass down through it as you climb. A locking mechanism stops the rope from slipping, which would result in a free-fall to the ground. Pushing one’s legs against the stirrups does the work of climbing. I envied the guide, younger and very practiced, as he climbed with little apparent effort. When we reached the stopping point eighty feet above the ground he told us a story about a shy teenage boy who had climbed the same tree several weeks earlier on a school trip. Because I have embodied the experience of climbing in a myriad of forms and still have the sense of the challenges a shy, awkward teenager faces, these emerged as themes as I wrote the poem. If I hadn’t listened to the guide’s story this poem may have never happened. And it is worth noting large trees such as this cedar fuse earth and sky together, bonding concrete reality with nutritious dreams.

    The last thing I’d like to say is that the poem recalls biological attributes of old-growth trees elucidated by science, for example, the soil that builds over many years on fan branches from the decay of organic matter fallen from above and the unique, miniature biomes dependent on it. Thus, the poem is an acknowledgement of the revelatory work performed at HJ Andrews8 and voices moral and practical reasons for protecting the remaining remnants of old-growth forests in the United States and the world. Clearly this and other imperatives are loud and convincing vocalizations to listen to the prismatic creations of scientists and poets,  as the 21st century marches on.

References

  1. Paul Valéry, Sea Shells, translated by Ralph Manheim (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 22.
  2. Walter Pater, as quoted by Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 59.
  3. David Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 8.
  4. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 91.
  5. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), xxi.
  6. , p. 115.
  7. Michael G. Smith, Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 2, April 1, 2014, http://ciderpressreview.com/cpr-volume-16-2/ancient-fir-climbing/#.UztE1q1dUsY.
  8. For excellent overviews of HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, its history, ongoing research and creative works from past writing residents I encourage readers to visit https://andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/ and to read Forest Under Story: A Decade of Creative Inquiry in an Old-Growth Forest edited by Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich and Frederick J. Swanson (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

About the author:

Michael G. Smith is a chemist. His poetry has been published in many literary journals and anthologies. He has authored three books No Small Things, The Dippers Do Their Part (haibun and katagami co-authored with artist Laura Young) and Flip Flop (haiku co-authored with Miriam Sagan). The Oregon Poetry Association selected his poem Disturbance Theory for the fall 2017 New Poets Award.