Science Stories: The Art of Scientific Storytelling
Series Introduction by Alison Hawthorne Deming
Science Stories showcases the impressive literary work done by graduate students who participated in the first run of “The Art of Scientific Storytelling,” a new course I taught in Spring 2020 at the University of Arizona. The course, developed in collaboration with my Creative Writing program colleague Christopher Cokinos, was eligible for credit in the new Graduate Certificate in Science Communications offered by the College of Science. Its aim was to inspire creative works that were science-smart, works that might enhance science literacy among readers. The class read contemporary writers who covet the perspectives of science and the personal stories of scientists who write for non-technical audiences. We read memoirs, essays, op-eds, and poetry. We read works inspired by chemistry, astronomy, paleobiology, traditional indigenous knowledge: Primo Levi, Hope Jahren, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Lightman, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Maggie Nelson, among others. The students came from a range of disciplines including optical science, astronomy, geography, climate adaptation, hydrology, mathematics, speech pathology, and creative writing. The conversations were rich and the talent abundant. They surprised me each week with their inventive and insightful takes on writing assignments. We offer this showcase of our experiment in the meeting of art and science.
Maybe it was the peacocks in the desert, that unexpected encounter after a long drive across the arid San Rafael Valley. Behind the peacocks were the crumbling adobe settlements incorporated into modern buildings. The place was an oasis located in parched mountains. I remember the lean hound that cautiously greeted me as I drove up. The dog was followed by chickens, followed by the peacocks, followed by the woman who wore a cowboy hat that shadowed suspicious eyes. The woman wore red lipstick, and thick mascara was painted on her weathered skin and thinning eyelashes. I asked to sample her well, and she said she did not know enough about me but took my information and gave me her phone number and sent me on my way.
I left the home intrigued and perplexed, perhaps because the peacocks. I felt as though I had stepped into a magical realism novel, with so many questions resulting from such a brief visit. I wanted to know more about her, to know the history of that land, what it was like to live in a 150-year-old house, how she felt about the industrialization of the mountains, how she managed a ranch at her age, where the peacocks came from, how she sustained an oasis in the desert.
The adobe settlements make up what is now a ghost town, though the town still exists on maps, as if to imply it is a destination. The town used to boast a population of nearly 2,000 residents, and I later learned it now has a population of two. Two old women, sisters, likely in their 70s, both keen and cautious. When I met them again, they dressed like they were headed out to the saloon, but they didn’t have a neighbor living in a mile radius.
Four months after that initial visit I called and told the sisters more about my work and they invited me out for a second visit. We had agreed on a 1:30 p.m. meeting, and as I drove towards their oasis with a friend from the Audubon Society, at 1:31 I received a call asking if I was still planning on heading out. When we arrived, the sisters were waiting for us, and we were politely invited into their house.
It was like stepping back in time: decor from the mid-century, a phonebook on the counter, a magnet on an old refrigerator, EAT BEEF. We sat around their kitchen table and I did my best to explain our work, my friend from Audubon jumping in to clarify when my explanation fell short. They listened intently. One sister had been a schoolteacher in the neighboring town and from years of teaching seemed to have learned how to listen. I told them of our research, that we were collecting data from wells and springs to better understand groundwater flow paths and recharge patterns in the mountains. They repeated what we told them back to us, and their eyes did not falter at the mention of isotopes, tritium, and groundwater recharge. They told us of the artesian well that supplies water for the house and animals–and the cottonwoods and ash, by the looks of it. The well had lost its artesian nature recently, the result of groundwater pumping from the aquifer, or changing climatic patterns. They were interested in our work, and I collected samples from their well.
At the end of our visit, they had us sign their guest book, a custom for all their visitors. They were record keepers, scientists themselves in a way. They told me that they had signed me in the last time I had visited, four months ago. I opened the book and there I was, my name written in artistic penmanship, with a subtle ripple, reflecting the wrinkles of the hand that signed it. I passed the book to my friend and he signed in fluid ink in the empty space below my entry from four months ago.
They walked us to the gate, followed by the peacocks, the chickens, the hound. We shook hands and drove back into town. We passed through the adobe ruins of the ghost town.
I took the samples to the lab for radiocarbon dating, which provides what is known as an isotopic signature to water, which can be used to date groundwater age. The results indicate that the sisters’ well contains the signature of fossil water. Their property and the surrounding oasis are sustained by rain that fell before they Egyptians built their pyramids. The sisters had punctured an ancient aquifer, disconnected from modern precipitation. When I called the sisters to let them know the results were ready, they requested that I mail my report to their post office box.
I have not yet pinned down exactly the magic of their land, but the sisters and their land are undoubtedly distinct. What we do know is that the water they drink, use to irrigate their trees, fill cattle tanks, sustain livestock, and keep a flock of peacocks is ancient and is of finite supply. Like their aquifer, the sister’s land and lifestyle seem disconnected from the rush of modern convenience, offering a rare and valuable perspective. However, the surrounding world is encroaching, and groundwater pumping in the mountains could expedite a drop in pressure of that ancient aquifer.
The mountains are changing and that once-verdant oasis may become a topographic wrinkle, next to the name of the ghost town, a reminder of past abundance.
Sean Schrag-Toso recently graduated with an MS in Hydrology and Water Resources, with a Certificate in Water Policy, from the University of Arizona. His graduate research focused on groundwater movement in the Patagonia Mountains of Southeastern Arizona, where he worked closely with partner organizations to formulate and complete the research. Sean is a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Panama, where he worked on improving access to safe drinking water. Recently, he joined the Bureau of Reclamation’s Binational Program and continues to work on the allocation of water resources in the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.