Biosphere 2, Poetry, and the Anthropocene

By Eric Magrane

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Poetic Field Research at Biosphere 2: Series Introduction

A poet sits on a beach and writes. The wave machine churns.

Outside the glass, the desert. A group of tourists exits the rainforest and gazes down at the beach from the savanna.

Some of them arrived after seeing the billboards between Phoenix and Tucson. Where science lives. People lived here too, eight of them sealed under glass in the early 1990s. Most visitors ask about that. Were they practicing for Mars? I heard they snuck pizza in. Did they have sex?

Another billboard proclaims One of Time-Life Book’s 50 Must See Wonders of the World. It’s sublime, something out of science fiction, a Buckminster Fuller-like dome on the western flank of the Santa Catalinas north of Tucson. The four acres above-ground house multiple biomes and a human habitat. The two acres below—the technosphere including the lung—keep Biosphere 2 running, a metaphor for the ecosystem services that support Biosphere 1, a.k.a. the Earth.

After that first “mission,” dubbed the forerunner of reality television for the press that was camped outside and arguably as much a social science experiment or art project as a science experiment, evolutionary geneticist John Avise wrote in 1994 in Conservation Biology:

Herein lies the real message from Biosphere 2. It may be fun and even inspirational to dream of colonizing other planets, but the harsh reality is that we have but one home, and it is getting untenably crowded. Whether based on ethical or purely utilitarian considerations, human societies must learn to properly value our Earth, and quickly. Like the astronauts’ views from space, Biosphere 2 should give us a novel perspective and renewed appreciation of Biosphere 1.

Twenty years later, the evidence is clear we haven’t yet learned to value the Earth properly. Climate change and biodiversity loss are among the litany of human-caused environmental crises we face. A group of scientists has proposed a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, having roughly started at the Industrial Revolution, to mark the fact that humans have literally written ourselves into the strata and atmosphere of the Earth.

But how does science deal with values?

Eric Magrane writing at Biosphere 2
Eric Magrane writes on the beach of Biosphere 2.
Photo by Kevin Bonine, courtesy Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2 holds many narratives. It’s the dream of living on Mars and it’s an embodiment of the importance of taking care of the Earth. It’s an audacious performance with many acts and characters, including an experimental theater troupe and multiple universities. (For an excellent account of Biosphere 2’s life up through its newest incarnation a few years ago, see Rebecca Reider’s book Dreaming the Biosphere.)

And Biosphere 2 is in the midst of another transformation.

The 676,000-gallon ocean, originally a coral reef, is in the process of being transformed into a desert sea modeled on the Sea of Cortez, a project led by marine biologist Rafe Sagarin.

In the Biosphere 2 rainforest, researchers like Joost van Haren take measurements during manipulative experiments that can inform models to project tropical forest responses to climate change. This also allows them to test equipment before deployment in remote locations in the Amazon basin.

In Biosphere 2’s original intensive agriculture biome—the farm from the first mission—sensors now measure the flows of water and carbon through three gigantic constructed hillslopes. By controlling the environment—raising the temperature, inducing a drought—the idea is that researchers can study and model landscape change in the face of climate change, and do so at a scale that cannot be accomplished anywhere else in the world.

And poets have come to Biosphere 2, as well, to do their own research.

In February 2014, I invited a group of poets to spend a weekend there with me and to write from specific locations within the site. The project echoes work that brings scientists and writers together such as the Spring Creek Project’s H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest or their trip to Mount St. Helens. At Biosphere 2, the group received an in depth tour, met with researchers, and then took writing shifts at select locations.

Dubbed the Pilot Poetic Field Research Weekend at Biosphere 2, I wrote my initial reflections on the project for Proximities, a blog on art-environment I write for the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment.

Now, is featuring a series of the poems from those who took part, including poems from Alison Hawthorne Deming, Christopher Cokinos, Wendy Burk, Arianne Zwartjes, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and myself.

Biosphere 2 Human Habitat
The Biosphere 2’s Human Habitat.
Photo by Eric Magrane.

Biosphere 2 is a site that makes transparent the fine edge between human control and lack of control over ecological and social systems. In short, it’s an embodiment of many of the dreams and anxieties of the Anthropocene. Has our pursuit of control over nature led us to this precipice from which we are about to plummet? Or are we just a technological breakthrough away from a finer state of control over nature that allows us to push past the current ecological crisis?

Or is it a social breakthrough we need? Maybe climate change will actually encourage cooperation, and is an opportunity for building societies with more equity and justice, as climate expert Diana Liverman suggests in a recent Huffington Post piece.

Geographer Kathryn Yusoff, in a 2013 paper published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, puts it this way:

It is not a case of “our” responsibility for the Earth, but our responsibility to forms of collaboration within geologic life. This is as much about the reception of new forms of subjectivity and geo-ontologies of the Earth as it is about creation of new energy forms.

What would happen if we were to approach the Earth itself, as well as other humans, as a collaborator? In other words, is it just the beginning of the Anthropocene, or is it the end of it?

These are questions as much for philosophy and poetry as they are for science. Though I didn’t pose these questions directly to the Biosphere 2 poets, I believe they are embodied in the site.

In this context, it makes sense to think about poems as energy forms themselves, as proposed by William Rueckert in 1978. These energy forms may hint at, perform, or contain different subjectivities and orientations to the world.



Eric Magrane is a poet and cultural geographer, the first Poet in Residence at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and the founding editor of Spiral Orb. His work at Biosphere 2 is part of his Ph.D. research in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. He is the co-editor, with Christopher Cokinos, of A Literary Field Guide of the Sonoran Desert, forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press.

Thanks go to the Biosphere 2 Institute, University of Arizona Poetry Center, University of Arizona Green Fund, and the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment and Carson Scholars Program, who all supported the Poetic Field Research Pilot Project at Biosphere 2. Acknowledgements are also due to the NSF- and AHRC-funded study ART/SCIENCE: Collaborations, Bodies, and Environments.

Read image poetry and a conversation with Eric Magrane appearing in

Header photo — Biosphere 2 panorama — by Tyeen Taylor. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.