Citizen scientist

From as far back as quite early childhood, I have been interested in science: zoology, botany, biology, entomology, physics–if I had been mentored differently, I might have become a researcher instead of a poet. I possess that quality of curiosity that pushes for details, a trait that people refer to as ‘geeky.’ For me, it is fun to contribute my backyard observations to The Dragonfly Woman’s research or to the Eastern Pennsylvania Phenology Project, which asks for assistance from ‘citizen scientists.’ This evening, I am taking some elderly best beloveds to a fundraiser concert for March for Science.

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March for Science logo. The March is April 22, 2017.

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Empiricists have to begin as observers, and here’s where my science and poetry passions twine. Today’s backyard notes involve gray squirrels and the hypothesis that they learn behavior swiftly through their (many) generations.

My backyard is essentially a lawn and meadow, quite open, with two pear trees and a quince almost halfway between the property lines, both of which feature narrow woodlots and brush hedgerows. For 16 years, we had a dog; between the dog’s presence and the fact of hawks–of which there are many–gray squirrels seldom ventured from one side of the property to the other. Both woodlots are replete with walnuts and sumac and wild cherries, so squirrels really did not need to get across the meadow.

As of last year, though, they have learned they can cross the lawn in relative safety, as long as they exert haste and stop nowhere along the way. The dog died, but the hawks are still around.

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Gray squirrels by Beatrix Potter, “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes.”

They may have learned this behavior last summer, when a mid-season drought led to very thirsty squirrels who were brave enough (no dog!) to dash to the pear trees and harvest pears. Juicy!

So now, they race across the lawn…to have sex. Squirrel sex is a frolic of prinking, rolling, tumbling–a bundle of tails and feet, a flurry of gray and white fur at the foot of a tree, dry leaves scattered by the wrestling. Then the pair scurries off side by side. Today is actually the first time I have witnessed squirrel mating, though clearly it occurs frequently to judge by the numbers of these creatures in our yard.

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From Potter’s “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes”

I think of Beatrix Potter as an excellent example of the citizen scientist. While her paper on mycology concerning the reproduction of fungi via spores [“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae“] was not accepted as science at the time she wrote it, her observations were correct.

Her drawings of animals are marvelously accurate, even when she puts them into dresses, jackets, bonnets, and tiny slippers. Though she personifies them, she chooses human attributes that suit animal behavior rather than the other way around.

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Science, then, is close reading of the world’s phenomena, not really so different from literary scholars with their close reading of texts. Poets also view the world with close reading–observation, curiosity, changing perspective–asking questions about what we think we know. And revelations sometimes occur. Like squirrel behaviors, including squirrel sex; like spores, and the life cycle of salamanders, and dragonfly swarms.

Desire

In a comment on my last post, M. mentioned the sensuality of gardening. Truly, there is little that can offer more joys to the senses or more opportunity for sensual encounters of various kinds than a garden. Bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, all those pollinators going about helping the flowers have sex; the pistils and stamens, the ovaries fruiting, the scents and colors and attractions doing the work of creating what is juicy, spicy, tasty, fortifying, fragrant, or gloriously beautiful. While picking beans in the heat of late July or weeding in the dog days of August, however, the gardener may be forgiven for occasionally overlooking these aspects.

ann e michaelBut the garden can be considered sensual–the garden is all about desire. My desire to feed my family with fresh foods, or to decorate my view with blooms. My desire to share the garden bounty with friends, or to try new varieties of vegetables, or to see what happens if I let that volunteer melon grow.

And if plants can be said to possess any so-called human quality, I can easily anthropomorphize them as desirous. The desire to live, and to live in order to reproduce: these are the most basic purposes of our DNA, and of the plant’s. As a gardener, I manipulate the plant’s desire. I pick the beans before the seeds have ripened in the pods, and the bean plant in its urge to produce seed sends out more flowers, more young and tender green beans. It will continue in its desperate output until the roots are exhausted. Quite the pathetic metaphor, I guess.

The plants evolve each to its own specialty. Those that “choose” dispersal of seed via bird digestive tracts grow vivid against foliage, easy to see. Those that rely on maturing into pulpy rot, to ensure their seeds get nurtured in the soil beneath the parent plant, hide under large leaves close to the earth. The hard pit, the soft seed pouch that requires fermentation to germinate, the barbed husk that gets carried off in the fur on a mammal’s leg–gardeners often foil some of these strategies, but only temporarily. We turn them to our own uses because we desire the sweet kernels, the juicy flesh, the ripe scents.

Meanwhile the plants continue making more of themselves. The wind blows, and delicious summer fragrances enhance it as it floats the pollen toward awaiting receptors; the bees collect pollen on their legs while climbing into and out of flowers (how sexy), the female flowers of the squash stems swell…

What makes our purpose any different from the plants’? Maybe we experience desire not because we are human, but because we exist, as plants do, to leave something of ourselves behind. That something will not always be our DNA, however. It may be a system, a process, a work of art, a story. Something, perhaps, that we desire.

 

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