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The poetry of Janet MacFadyen - where Science meets Art

photo © by Stephen Schmidt

When Science meets Art

Scientific and artistic activities have had a long and incredibly complicated, we could say "love-hate" relationship throughout human history. From time to time, they were promoting and enhancing each other, whereupon an epoch of mutual criticism and condemnation followed. Nowadays, most people imagine Science and Art somehow separately, as two distinct and incompatible essences of the human mind. As though one is dealing with the objective reality and the other with an amalgam of material world and imagination, hence the former have to be superior in reasoning to the latter. Now, that would be the case if we take the presumption that the physical world is somehow dead or could be taken out of the ceaseless motion of the Universe to be examined as an object. However, Nature is alive and in constant interaction with all of its inhabitants. 

We could speculate that the negligence towards the living character of Nature was indeed one of the main reasons we ended up with a climate crisis. Nevertheless, with the emergence of climate and environmental issues, a new vision appeared, or maybe an ancient one manifests once again. There are tendencies among various scientists and artists, in which both perspectives reconcile and bear new forms of perception towards Nature – more like a dialogue instead of research.

Janet MacFadyen – an American poet and scientific researcher – is one of the many who feels the need to change our attitude towards, and concepts of, natural phenomena. She gracefully expresses that feeling. MacFadyen transforms scientific perception into vivid poetic imagery that invokes deep insights into Nature and our connection with it. Her poems transmogrify hills and rocky formations into cities, stones and crystals into ancient teachers, rivers and brooks into the circulatory system of our living and breathing Mother Earth.

Below you can enjoy and reflect upon Janet MacFadyen's statement and meditative poetry!

The Poet's Statement

Since I have anthropomorphized nature in these poems, let me take on the subject. I could say: that when nature is cast in human form, it makes the scientific processes undergirding it easier for most people to understand, more comforting for them to absorb, and so easier to love. And if we humans are moved to love, then we are often moved to protect and save — which would be a good thing in this time of environmental degradation.

But that implies a certain analytical process when first drafting poetry and the analytical brain inevitably shackles any deep insights trying to arise against our previously held expectations. The truth is, I have always found it easier to talk to other creatures than to talk to people. Partly, I do this in the way older people and children talk to themselves, not really expecting an answer, and partly because I don't see much difference, really, between myself and the ants, or the white pines behind my house, or the onions in my cupboard. Nature is a good listener, whereas other people often are not. I try to return the favor and be a good observer of nature myself. It is possible, I find, to open up my pores to try to experience the fundamental natures of other inhabitants of our world.

For example, what might one intuit from a rock? At Yosemite National Park I camped with my husband in the Tioga Pass in below-freezing weather. Exhausted from lack of sleep and with a head-cold, I spent an afternoon laying on the sun-warmed surface of a slab of granite, drifting in and out of focused consciousness. I could hear people talking; I could hear the wind; I watched an ant close-up walking the perimeter of the visor on my head. I felt my body press against the hard body of rock, feeling all that granite rise up to meet me and myself sink into it, as if the stone had arms and I belonged in its embrace. At some point, I became aware of a kind of buzzing in my fingertips. It seemed the stone was vibrating with— something, I don't know what. Was I vibrating or was the stone? And was there any difference?

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental and forest biology and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes extensively of the animate inspirited world, including things in Western tradition relegated to the category of "its." When I suggest there's not much difference between myself and a rock, that might mean the rock has some spirit close to my own, as I choose to enjoy in my poems "The Boulders of Lyell Canyon" and "In Defense of Stones," and in the vegetable kingdom in "Cascade." Or conversely, perhaps there is not much difference between life and death at all.

Nature is the greatest poet or four poems by Janet MacFadyen

photo © by Stephen Schmidt

In Defense of Stones

For instance, take that stone
by the guard rail over there. One day
it will break down into sand, won't it?
And be mixed with leaves and leached

by water, oh slowly, but for sure?
Then won't a root suck it up with its long
flexible straw, powered by the secret
green lips of the plant? Won't it suck

with all the fierce joy it can muster?
And if the plant were a bean, perhaps I eat
each pod, feeling the rightness of it,
and one day this whole stone will be inside me,

and I speak from prior knowledge
of generations of stones lodged in my gall
bladder, the knowledge that I too will be ground
in the dark gizzard of the world.

I chew this notion over and over, how it happens
that I could end up food for a rock
or the rock itself: rigid and grey
and alone. But maybe stones

are just another way of living—
you could say a different style—
and if only we knew how to listen
to such enormous or tiny sounds,

we could hear their low, age-long conversations
at cliff bottoms or along riverbeds;
or feel how they embrace life so fiercely
they batter themselves to bits.

So I wonder, who is the stubborn one here—
the boulder in the field refusing to budge
for anyone, or me in the road,
arguing with myself, refusing to live?

(Оriginally published in Sanctuary, The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society)


photo © by Stephen Schmidt

The Boulders of Lyell Canyon

I name them Upright, Lengthwise, Split
Down the Middle: these granites strewn
like milky stars. You could orient by them, find
your way through creek, meadow, and wood.
This one is here, and that one is there, its neighbor
next to both, old friends grinding down shards
of philosophy. It could take a million years
to see the argument to conclusion, points
split finer and finer, rubbed to a sheen
into pebbles, then to sand in an hourglass.
They record the course of floods, huddle
together beneath parent slopes where they
were wrenched and scraped by glaciers, shaped
and molded by teachers of ice, which explains
their patience and hardness, having been milled
so interminably slowly to an exacting rule.
Now they languish, sun seeping into feldspars
and micas, into the quartzes until they quiver
with pure excitation—in heat and cold, wind
and stillness, through minutes and millennia,
and still radiate impassiveness.

(Originally published in Scientific American, May 2020; and on their online site under the title "Teachers of Ice")


photo © by Stephen Schmidt

Cascade

Like tangled hair over stone, roots
    hold trees against a stream. The current loosens
its gorgeous fall, braids and unbraids
    against the rock while roots draw water
to the crown, a fountain and a glory.
    The falls pull water downward
from their spring, the spring
    rises and overflows; leaves
push outwards; the weeping willow
    greens. Cascades swell with rain and spill
their shimmering ringlets down, fall
    and fall all summer long until trees
let down their hair and leaves
    are loosed, lips call sap
back to the earth and all
    stands dark and silent.
Frost grows, the current
    swirls and slows under lacey ice
but does not stop. A tree's heart
    does not freeze in its quiet
sleep. So close and so
    far under. I lay
my hand on root
    and rock. I dip
my hand in water
    and the sap
wells up.

(First published in SWS Social Sciences and Art & Humanities Blog)


Fisher Towers, Moab; photo © by Stephen Schmidt

The Earth, at Work

At the feet of towering cliffs, facades
soar like city blocks, civilization
self-created, unthought —

The ancient seas worked hard and long
to lay the sediments down — each breaking wave

left riffles in the sand,
inch by inch, eon by eon. Through sheer

repetition the cliffs are wrought—
warp and weft, across and down—

interlacing fingers of water and wind
weave a fabric
from the dust of rock.

(First published in SWS Social Sciences and Art & Humanities Blog)


If you are also captivated by the irresistible rendezvous between Science and Art, you could check out our annual SWS Vienna Art conference.
Thoughts to reflect on: I think, therefore I am
DOI - The ID Card of any Scientific Publication: 3...

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