Stanford University
Audience listening to a reading on in the field.

Rooted Words brings poetry and prose back to Earth science

BY Miles Traer
ClockMarch 14, 2016

Our earth is very old, an old warrior that has lived through many battles. Nevertheless, the face of it is still changing, and science sees no certain limit of time for its stately evolution... And the secret of it all—the secret of the earthquake, the secret of the “temple of fire,” the secret of the ocean basin, the secret of the highland—is in the heart of the earth, forever invisible to human eyes.

-Reginald Daly, Our Mobile Earth (1926)

No rocks are unchangeable; even the most resistant yield under the attack of the atmosphere... hence all forms, however high and however resistant, must be laid low, and thus destructive process gains rank equal to that of structure in determining the shape of a land-mass.

-William Davis, The Geographical Cycle, Geography Journal (1899)

Since the period 1890 to 1900 the theory of the geographic cycle of erosion has... strongly influenced the theoretical skeleton of geology as a whole.

-John Hack, Interpretation of erosional topography in humid temperate regions, American Journal of Science (1960)

It wasn’t long ago when scientists, such as Daly, Davis, and Hack, communicated their research with lofty prose. Earth was magnificent to behold, and its processes could only be described with metaphors that read like Greek poetry. But it seems that with each passing generation, metaphor and ambitious descriptions have been continuously expunged from scientific articles. On Wednesday, February 24, a group of scientists, writers, students and local community members joined together at The O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm to share excerpts from their own writing and, in some small way, bring poetry back to Earth science.

The ongoing series is called Rooted Words, organized by Professor of the Practice Thomas Hayden and a small group of others in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “Rooted Words is about connecting enthusiastic writers and storytellers, whether they are aspiring environmental journalists, research scientists, or community members who have been here for 60 years,” said Hayden. “We are trying to create a gathering place for a community that loves science, and loves the words we use to talk about science.”

The first event held this past Wednesday featured readings that captured a sense of place. “It was fitting to have our event at the Stanford Educational Farm,” said Hayden, the director of Stanford Earth’s new Earth Systems Master of Arts, Environmental Communication Program. “We already have many places that nurture our science and analysis, from the laboratory to the field. But writing deeply about the world we study also requires a locus and a community of practice to support it. The farm offers an ideal environment for that community to come together. It is deeply connected to the rest of campus but a little separate from it, too.”

Some two dozen people sat around large wooden picnic tables as the sun set over the largest greenhouse.  They let their feet drag along the soil and took in the scent of fresh vegetables that traveled on the breeze.

The handful of speakers told stories and read poems across a huge range of topics. When writing about owl ecology, one undergraduate spoke of “blushing skies” and the “infinite carousel of time.” When speaking of elephant conservation in Kenya, an Earth Systems alum described how the rain would “jumpstart rivers” and how certain pachyderms “walked with amped up swagger.”

A Palo Alto native spoke of her 60 year relationship with droughts and “miles of water stretching across the sky.” A geophysicist spoke tongue-in-cheek of volcanic eruptions and “walls of firey death rock.” A farm ecologist researching sustainable agriculture spoke of her crops and how “post harvest feasts aren’t just for people; you have to feed the soil.” And poet and former Stanford visiting scholar Kevin Hearle pointed out that the title of his book, Each Thing We Know Is Changed Because We Know It, is “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in [Shakespearean] iambic pentameter.”

“Science is firmly rooted in description and observation,” said Hayden. “From microbes to plate tectonics, we’re forced to comprehend scales and processes that aren’t immediately accessible to us. But through our observations and descriptions, we make sense of the world around us. Writing deeply about that experience is the most powerful way I know of to be sure we truly understand what we think we do, while also reporting back from the intellectual journey. Why wouldn’t you use the full power of language to share your insights and enthusiasm and inspire interest in your field of study?”

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