One summer’s day several years ago, I noticed a dead sparrow. It seemed to have suffered a brain hemorrhage, most likely from hitting a window on the back deck of the cottage I was renting. I started to write a poem about its death, for the sparrow, for me, and for humans trying to understand their relationship with birds more generally.
I was upset that the bird’s life had ended that way, because of human presence, but I was also upset that I could not even identify it. While I’m an ecologist, my scientific work, so far, does not extend to the study of birds. My research focuses on forest ecology and theoretical ecology (mathematical and computational models) of invasive species, climate change, and other global ecological changes. On life, death, and their interrelatedness at all scales. But I’m no birder, and I had to look up how many species of sparrows we have in North America (over forty), and I still could not identify it. I had of course seen birds come to their ends this way before, but that day I felt struck cold by the encounter. I did not know how or whether to honour a dead bird at my feet, and the uncertainty made me consider mortality in general. As I wrote in a poem months later—which appears in my new book, Parasitic Oscillations—“We are worse witnesses for death / than for life.”
At this time, I had also been thinking about my mother’s eventual death—she’d had some falls and was hospitalized. I had embarked on a mission to write down everything I did not yet know about her life, or at least attempt to fill in some of the unimaginable gaps between my life experience and hers. The poem I ended up writing about the dead bird simulated, in my mind, my mother’s next bad fall, her seemingly inevitable future brain hemorrhage and what I might attempt to salvage in advance of it happening, which it did. An early warning signal, with its “what-ifing / of zoology, eulogy,” the poem started me on a path of grieving for the loss of her life, which I sensed was drawing near, and toward an awareness of a greater loss I might try to palliate.
I realized, through poetry, that this specific grieving for one bird, for my mother, was connected to my general grieving for the loss of biodiversity globally. For over twenty years, I’ve studied human effects on ecosystems ranging from the Negev desert to the boreal forest to Brazilian tropical forests—negative impacts that are not abating. In the past ten years, I have decided that fundamentally revising our relationship to the natural world requires more than just a scientific understanding of declining biodiversity. We need a better understanding of human behaviour and social systems. We need to understand what motivates people to change at all levels of society. We need more empathy. This realization has led my colleagues and I to study coupled human-environmental systems, where we look at the positive and negative feedback between humans and the environment, including climate change, by addressing the very things that make us human.
I have often wondered if poetry plays any part in understanding that feedback. Maybe the distinction between science and poetry is less sharp than once believed. Poets and scientists both use language and patterns to communicate complex ideas, but few formal mechanisms exist for scientists and poets to talk to one another in a meaningful or direct way. I found that writing poetry could be an early warning signal, an inexplicably accurate index for measuring and sometimes even predicting our world through oblique observations. Following the death of her twenty-five-year-old son, Danish poet Naja Marie Aidt wrote about the eerie realization that certain “images and signs” in her poetry had anticipated his passing. In her book When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, Aidt describes the experience of writing those poems as the “feeling of knowing something that you can’t understand yet or connect to anything in reality. As if poetry makes it possible to move freely in time, as if linear time is suspended while you write and a corner of the future becomes visible in a brief and mystical moment.”
Early warning signals are the subject of my current scientific studies as well, and they include something called “critical slowing down,” an index that measures the rate of ecosystem recovery from perturbations. When the recovery rate becomes slower and slower, the system may be approaching a tipping point. The measure of the changes in recovery rate can be used to predict the fate of ecosystems, economies, and the human heart. There have been times in my life, like contemplating the dead sparrow, when poetry felt like an index for predicting catastrophes—so much so that this was the title I chose for my first book of poems, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.
T he Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2022 report spells out what we need to do right now to curtail species extinction—reduce emissions—and exactly how to do it. As a scientist, I ask myself: What more is there to say? What else needs to be known in order to change behaviour?
Decades of awareness and warnings from the scientific community have had little effect. Protocols and agreements have been struck but not adhered to by governments and society at large. The COVID-19 pandemic is known to be related to human encroachment on wildlife habitat and the resultant zoonotic disease exposure, and it is thus also related to the climate emergency. Yet not enough action has resulted from our attention to these root causes. In a recent paper, my collaborators explored how human behaviour could influence climate-modelling projections. We found that increasing the rate of social learning (how fast humans spread ideas, such as how to reduce carbon emissions, to one another) could have a dramatic mitigating effect on global warming—higher by several orders of magnitude than biogeochemical interventions, such as carbon uptake, alone.
And, still, we do little. I liken this inaction to a kind of apraxia, a medical condition where the brain can no longer perform tasks when asked to do so even though the request is understood and the person is willing. In response to a request, a person suffering from apraxia can’t pick up the phone to make a call. Yet, when the phone rings, the same person, on their own, can perform the action without thinking. We need to learn how to pick up the phone even if it isn’t ringing. Perhaps it’s less about what we say than it is about how we say it to one another. Is this, then, where poetry can help us overcome our collective apraxia? By communicating in ways at least as complex and vital as those of science?
One year after the death of the sparrow, I observed robins nesting on my front porch. For hours at a time, I noted their orientation in the nest, timing their stays and flights. I indicated the cardinal direction of their beaks, when their red breasts could be seen and for how long, and where my mind wandered during this process. I found my own way of meditating, using the robin as my focus. But there is more to this observation than simply meditation. When I did this, I was reminded that poetry is not only a catastrophe index but a form of knowing that escapes my current scientific processes. Poetic observation forces me to ask different questions and to ask those questions differently. It takes me down new paths of discovery. Does it lead to insights? Yes, but in the sense that aesthetics has Greek origins in the meaning “to perceive” or “to sense.”
For two weeks in August 2020, between the first and second waves of the pandemic, I traded one kind of self-isolation for another by undertaking an abbreviated residency at the Al Purdy A-frame in Ameliasburgh, a rural village in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The late poet’s home, which Purdy and his family built by hand, is a time capsule filled with his books, record albums, fine china, and photographs. It sits on the edge of Roblin Lake, a body of water dating to at least the last glacial period. Purdy’s poems and diaries, too, are records, in many cases, of a past climate. In North of Summer: Poems from Baffin Island, he describes his trip in the 1960s to Baffin Island, Nunavut, and his opportunity to “drift with the tides on Cumberland Sound and its blue fjord,” where icebergs “range in size all the way from bucket sized ice cubes too large for a martini, to bergs a couple of hundred feet across.”
During our stay—as we dipped into and out of Purdy’s bookshelves and the lake’s limestone shelves—my family and I submerged ourselves in what I can only call an apandemic time. Every morning and evening, dozens of songbirds made their presence known through their songs. I asked each member of my family of five to write a poem titled What Do Birds Think? None of them are in the habit of writing, or even reading, poems. But I firmly believe that, in a time like this one, when everything must be questioned anew, poetry can communicate at least as well as science, maybe better. Here is what my son, Kiran, age eleven, turned in:
There are many questions that can be asked.
A small boy may ask for a toy.
A foolish man may ask for valuables he cannot afford.
You may call me a foolish man.
I sleep in the outdoors even though I have a house.
I listen to the sounds of the birds in the morning.
They are such curious creatures.
I step into the broad daylight.
The birds are now shrieking.
I came up to a mother robin in her nest.
She doesn’t move.
I don’t move, either.
I ask the only thing that comes to my mind.
“What do you think?”
Not as in “What are you thinking about?”
But “What do you think of me?”
There was a moment of silence.
I had a bond with this particular robin.
It has been said many times and in many ways that the environmental crisis is, in part, a crisis of the imagination. My son did not actually see a mother robin in her nest at Al Purdy’s cottage. But he did remember the nest outside our home and my robin observations from two years prior, in prepandemic times. He also knew enough to ask the birds. And he got an answer.
At 11 a.m. on October 23, 2020, as I was likely working on revising a scientific manuscript, my son came into my home office and said there were two birds trapped in a covered portion of our front porch lined entirely with windows, which we call “the Florida room.” He told me the birds were trying to get out but kept hitting themselves against the glass. I told him to open the porch door, but he insisted I come see for myself. I barely glanced at the birds, my attention impaired by the violence of the thuds, my focus on the solution. I did not try to identify them. I ran to open the door, and within seconds, the birds escaped. My son gasped as though he had witnessed a new truth. Perhaps he was caught up in the spectacle. It is true that sometimes even the warning signals of poetry are unbearable. But we still know how to act.
Last August, I returned to the Purdy cottage to finish up the second half of my residency. As I completed a long poem, I witnessed another bird death, another thud against the very window I sought inspiration from. I could recognize it: American goldfinch. I saw it take its last breath. This did not even make it into the poem.