Stretching Attention: Long-Term Science and Creative Writing
By Charles Goodrich
Mount St. Helens
Have you heard this story?
The scientists and government agency reps, along with the linguists and graphic designers they had brought in to consult on the problem, were all wringing their hands, tossing out ever-more outlandish suggestions. If the radioactive waste was going to remain hazardous for 20,000 years, what kind of symbols could they devise that would communicate the dangers to people that far in the future? There were no current written languages that could be relied on to still be understood.
There was one representative from the tribe whose homelands the nuclear reservation was on. He was curious what they would come up with, so he let them argue for some time. But eventually he felt it was his responsibility to reassure them.
He raised both hands, palms outward, asking for their attention. When they finally looked his way and quieted down, he said, “You don’t need to worry. We will tell them.”
Wouldn’t I love to feel that kind of solidarity, of continuity, with my people of the distant future. Western culture has embraced such a short-term outlook that we don’t seem to plan much beyond the next presidential election, or the next grant cycle. Having put under contract every extractable natural resource in sight, we are now auctioning off even the future. We seem to approve of mortgaging our teenagers into lives of debt just to pay for their educations. Our embrace of such radical dynamism may make some limited sense when we think of the brisk deployment of new technologies. But rapid, wholesale change is, in general, not a good idea for ecosystems. The swift transformation of the Arctic Ocean from deep ice to open water, for instance, does not bode well for human beings or polar bears. A few corporations, already bloated with profit, will gorge on fresh opportunities to drill newly exposed stretches of the ocean floor, but the larger impacts will be heavy: new hardships for many, many people, and an acceleration of the deadly carbon-loading of the atmosphere.
Is there any way we can we stretch our attention span? How can we encourage the making of long-range commitments when things seem to be changing so fast? Against the tide of haste and short-sightedness, I want to share a couple of stories from the field about how scientists foster long-term research and how a program that hosts creative writing residencies has tried to adopt some similar strategies.
Charlie Crisafulli is an ecologist who studies everything—from lupines to toads to gophers to elk to meadowlarks—on Mount St. Helens, and has published extensively on their interactions. Rangy and pony-tailed, with a ready smile, Crisafulli has logged something like 20,000 hours of field work, often tramping in remote and difficult terrain. He usually has a few students to help with his summer fieldwork, but he also strikes one as a man who relishes spending time alone in the backcountry.
Crisafulli has also been one of the principle organizers of the big science “Pulses”, gatherings of scientists from every field who get together on the mountain every five years to share data and swap insights. In 2005 and 2010, the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the 1980 eruption, the Spring Creek Project brought a couple dozen creative writers, philosophers, musicians, and others who work in the humanities to interact with the scientists, to experience the volcanic landscape together, and to share insights into the nature of catastrophe and renewal. In 2005 on a field trip to Meta Lake, we listened to Crisafulli describe how the area had been devastated by the eruption, but then, as vegetation reclaimed the ground, how wildlife had returned in abundance. He began naming the bird species that now occupied the surroundings, gesturing casually behind him, to his right, left, overhead. He was telling us that several species, such as meadowlarks, had not lived here before the eruption when this was all deep conifer forest. Suddenly I heard a meadowlark whistling, and I realized with a shock that Crisafulli had been hearing all the bird species he was naming all along, and his gestures were simply pointing in their direction. As a result of his immersive experience with the landscape, he was deeply in tune with the animal life of the place in a way that few people could ever hope to be. He also told the stories of those creatures and their interactions beautifully, with evident respect and care. He understood the importance of sharing those stories, with fellow scientists of course, but also with wider audiences, to help cultivate a community of interest who would care about what was happening on the ground at Mount St. Helens, especially in decades ahead when the drama of the eruption had subsided.
On the second foray, we witnessed other research scientists’ efforts to secure the continuation of their life’s work. Don Zobel and Joe Antos study the change in understory vegetation buried by tephra—all the pumice and dust aerially transported from the volcano—during the 1980 eruption. They regularly visit their numerous permanent sampling plots and record data on tephra fall. Thirty years of research data have yielded a bunch of papers and many solid insights into the how plants respond to varying depths of burial. Further sampling of their carefully monitored vegetation plots would undoubtedly bring new insights. But Don was already mostly retired, so he was using the occasion of the 2010 Science Pulse to recruit and interview young researchers who might be interesting in taking over his and Joe’s plots.
On a field trip to their plots, Don and Joe emphasized how the next generation of researchers could build on their base data, and could also reanalyze the existing data with new tools and new questions. Their courtship was successful. Several younger scientists, understanding that the research was solid, the questions important, and the landscape still changing have indeed assumed responsibility for the plots. As I watched Zobel and Antos with the younger scientists at dinner in the Pulse campground, talking animatedly among a hundred other scientists, students, and our handful of creative writers, I couldn’t help thinking that this joyful and fascinating gathering was a significant part of the younger scientists’ decision to continue the work. The science had to be solid, of course. But if the research came with a big community of interested people, who liked to do fieldwork on the mountain, and play acoustic music by a campfire at night, so much the better.
A hundred and fifty air miles south of Mount St. Helens, ecologist Mark Harmon studies how fallen trees decay into soil. His research works at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades has helped us understand the carbon cycle in forests, giving us a clearer picture about what kinds of forests can sequester more carbon—old forests, full of big trees and with lots of decaying wood on the ground, or young plantations with single species and not much litter on the forest floor. Harmon anticipates that in the wet forests of western Oregon downed logs of some conifer species may take more than 200 years to decay completely back into soil.
And what is Harmon’s plan for maintaining the sampling program for two centuries, you might ask? It’s an excellent and pressing question. The Andrews Forest receives much of its funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), through a program called Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER). Rather than the typical one- or two-year grants that most academic and research scientists compete for, LTER grants are for longer terms. And what is the grant cycle for long term NSF research? Six years. So if Mark Harmon hopes to see his research continued until the last of his test logs have been recycled into forest soils, LTER grants will have to be renewed on six year intervals about 33 times, and will be then be in the hands of the sixth or seventh generation of research scientists.
Ten years ago, the Spring Creek Project, with funding from the U.S. Forest Service, started bringing creative writers to do residencies at the Andrews Forest. Playing off the name of the science research, we call the writing project Long-Term Ecological Reflections. The Andrews is a storied place among ecologists and forest scientists, but not well known among the general public. We wanted to invite creative writers to visit the Andrews not only to help communicate about the important science being done at the Andrews, but also and more importantly, to enable the writers to do original creative work and generate raw literary data that could be honed into finished works of high literary quality. We have begun to assemble a creative record that parallels the scientific record at the Andrews. Taking our cue from Mark Harmon’s log decomposition study, we envision this program continuing for 200 years. How will we do it?
Well, “we” won’t do it, because we’ll retire and die before the project is more than a small fraction of its way to the year 2203. We won’t, that is, unless we begin to think like the Native American in the opening story, who promised that his people would be here in 20,000 years to warn future dwellers of the danger of radioactivity.
Writers who have participated in the Andrews Forest Residency bear witness to the hopefulness and commitment that a long-range vision engenders. The program’s first writer-in-residence, author and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle, used his column in Orion magazine to emphasize the importance of commitment to “The Long Haul.” Pyle wrote that taking the long view in ecological research and reflection, requires “faith in the future—even if you won’t be there to see it for yourself…. Maybe looking to the future is a way of hoping there will still be something to see when we get there. Maybe it’s the only way to make sure of it.”
The long view seems to hearten people, too. Poet Vicki Graham put it this way:
One week. And since I arrived, the weather has changed dramatically. The moon has grown to a crescent. I have seen a spotted owl. Watched a creek. Walked in old growth forest. Sat next to a decomposing log… Two hundred years is a long time. I’m beginning to believe we will make it.
Out of this shared aspiration, and a common method for engaging with powerful places and the scientific research that happens in them, we are starting to coalesce into a community. We are aware of more than 20 sites that have begun LTEReflections-like programs. Some are LTEResearch sites around the country, and others are programs whose chief activities involve the creative arts. We’ve established a website for the community—EcolgicalReflections.com—where programs can profile their work. We are trying to nurture a community that will create a body of inspiring work, that will rise to the challenges of sustaining the effort. The vision motivates people to participate, the method helps create connectivity in a shared language and endeavor.
LTEResearch and LTEReflections share a commitment to long-term inquiry into ecological and human change spanning generations. Both programs are founded on a sense that compelling landscapes—such as the towering, old-growth Douglas-fir stands in the Andrews Forest or the lands profoundly changed by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens—are fruitful places to do this work. And, while both programs have some planned outcomes, they recognize, pragmatically and happily, that interesting insights and consequences often come as surprises.
When we began LTEReflections, we came across a poem by an obscure Chinese poet named Chi Ch’i, which we’ve adopted as an inspiration. Called “Little Pines,” it was written a thousand years ago, on the other side of the planet, but it seems to speak directly to us today. It begins by admiring a plantation of young pines, noting that “already there’s holiness in their coiled roots.” The poem concludes, “A thousand years from now who will stroll among these trees / fashioning poems on their ancient dragon shapes?”
That would be us, a millennium later, a community of scientists and creative writers, who study carbon cycles and fashion poems inspired by the forest.
If research at Mount St. Helens and the Andrews Forest is to be funded and carried out for many decades to come, it will be in large measure due to the proven scientific and social value of the work of people like Mark Harmon, Don Zobel, and Charlie Crisafulli. But it will never be entirely secure, so the likelihood of its success and continuation may well come down to the passionate advocacy of a wider group of people, a community of interest and aspiration, who have learned about these powerful places from the work of not only scientists, but of poets and prose writers, artists and photographers.
In centuries to come, if the forest, the watersheds, and the habitat for wild animals are endangered by human usage and changes in the environment, and someone wants to know why we should care about their preservation, we will tell them.
The Long-Term Ecological Reflections Program at H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest speaks for the Ecological Reflections Network as a whole in their beliefs:
That humanist writers should pay close attention to a particular place-to the mountains, rivers, people and the forests of the Andrews and its environs-because a close study of place will reveal broader truths that go beyond that place.
That we should study that place for generations and learn to perceive the temporal dimension-the presence of pasts and futures-through informed observation.
That storytelling and poetry, observation and experiment, myth and mathematics are all authentic windows on the world.
That there is an unusual richness and joy in the community of art and science, in the coming together of insights from many different perspectives and disciplines.
That there is wisdom to be gained; that the more we know about the natural world and the place of humans in the world, the greater our insight into how we ought to live our lives.