Sunday, September 18, 2011

Consider the Magpie by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

"Maaag!  Maaag!  Merk?"  For background on this communique, I would ask
you to read the chapter "Magpie Days,"  and to ask yourself this: how
would I tell others about an animal that deeply affected me?

I asked myself that about the black-billed magpie.  It was important to
me to convey our stories--those of myself and my big brother Tom--about
these birds in our young lives, but also reliably to convey their
natural history, and the dark tale of their persecution.  But these elements spring from both left and right brains--the personal/subjective (associative, heartful, emotional) and the factual/objective (scientific, reportorial, analytical).  On the face of it, that would seem to present the writer with a conundrum.  But must it?  Not at all.  As Vladimir Nabokov suspected (and lived), there IS a "high ridge where the mountainside of scientific knowledge joins the opposite slope of artistic imagination."  So by striding or soaring along that ridge, dipping into one side, then the other, one ought to be able to do both
in the same essay--and it ought to be all the richer for it, if one's context is clear enough to signal the reader when poet and reporter change places.

At least, that was my experiment with this essay.  So as you read it, note how I have interlarded deeply personal experiences, some funny and some anything but, with historical and biological sequences to try to give a rounded portrait of the bird and its lifeways, as well as the lifeways of two kids on adventure in the world: story holding hands with science.  See if that collaboration across the mental membrane works for
you.  Writing or telling story this way, we invoke what we know or can discover, from Audubon reporting on Clark and Lewis (maybe the last time they were referred to that way) to modern ornithology texts, from bounty figures of benighted days of yore to the color of a '55 Chevy: the magpie contains multitudes.  For my part, I felt I came to know magpies, and myself, much better for having essayed such a convergence.

But this missive also has to do with the black-billed magpie itself, in a more than metaphorical way. _Pica pica hudsonia_ is an elegantly adapted organism, perhaps even one that proliferated beyond its former
estate, since and on account of European contact.  Especially after bounty days were over, it became a veritable neighborhood bird in Denver and many another western town, frequenting cemeteries and parks as well as farms and fallowlands.  Yet, it is not infinitely versatile: it occurs in both Great Britain and the Wild West, but omits the eastern U.S. in between.  Clark and Lewis, Audubon wrote, didn't encounter magpies until they reached the Great Bend of the Missouri in April, 1804.  And though it is a crafty urban habitue, a town & country sophisticate, you won't be able to sneak up on it and snatch one of those iridescent tailfeathers, for it remains much more shy than its fellow corvid, the common crow.  As Audubon described it, "When one pursues it openly, it flits along the walls and hedges, shifts from tree to tree, and at length flies off to a distance."

So here is an animal that has proven extraordinarily adaptable, yet definitely has its limiting factors, both ecologically and socially.  Described as everything from an "unscrupulous roysterer" to "a handsome, knowing, resourceful fellow," it has taken some of the most vicious persecution any American animal has faced, and come back to tell about it: "Maaag!  Maaag!  Merk?"  The black-and-white birds called "magpies" in Australia are successful, piebald birds of similar traits, though far removed from _Pica pica_ genetically and evolutionarily.  Yet just as ours do, they repay close observation and contemplation as
creatures--like the kids one used to find at large in the countryside and the vacant lots--that thrived in the post-industrial wasteland, the agricultural aftermath, the second-hand lands, the hand-me-down habitats
left over after we've had our way with the land.  Such organisms show that the urban wild is not only a story of what's been lost; it might tell a story of evolutionary opportunity: of what's coming back someday.
For such an image taken to its logical extent, read Richard Jeffries' _After London_.  There would be magpies there, in sickle-swoop from one cottonwood to another, scrawling their names across the sky in
opalescent ink. And there would be children at liberty in such a land, wandering at will to see what they could find today.

Some questions to consider:

--What kind of animal made a deep impression on you as a young creature abroad on the landscape?  How?  And how to tell about it?

--Does the evolutionary gift and necessity of adaptation offer us (who are not magpies) anything worth looking forward to?

--In your experience, can heart and science--or as one friend of mine put it, headbone and hormone--cooperate to make a good story?

--What are some books, who are some writers, who make such an intellectual/emotional mingling work for you as a reader?


Ted Schmidt said...

I think the combination of heart and science DO make a good story and it is the heart piece that somehow makes the science more accessible, interesting, maybe even metaphoric (or even anthromorphic) especially for kids who love in their egocentric way to imagine themselves in the story, affecting change, heroic. I think communication in science to the general public would be greatly improved by the use of more metaphor, stories that relate (as in EO Wilson's Anthill book on supercolonies) to the behavior of the creatures we are madly trying to protect from human exploitation and habitat degradation.

Bob Pyle said...

I couldn't agree more, Ted. Nabokov himself was perhaps the only scientist I know of who actually got away with rich, metaphorical language in his scientific papers! More commonly it will be found in narrative literature,such as Carson, Eiseley, Heinrich, Raymo. For kids, your comment makes me think of carl Hiassen's HOOT. Thanks for the good words.

Kevin said...

As I recall, Michael Crichton used the intellectual/emotional mingling to expose what he thought were the political ploys behind global warming. And the public ate it up. In this case the narrative had little to do with science. So while the narrative can enhance science understanding, it can also do the opposite and undermine it.

I can't help Mary Poppins voice popping into my head when i hear arguments of conveying scientific thought through allegory, parable, satire, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, etc, etc, etc,

"Just a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down."

Sometimes, it is best to just take the medicine by itself, and that goes with scientific writing as well.

Bob Pyle said...

Darned good point, Kevin. I too am highly leery of mixing the purposes of science and art, while borrowing from the techniques of both. Bridge designers and doctors (like William Carlos Williams)can be poets, but we hope they won't be writing verse while they're designing bridges or making diagnoses. Nabokov actually managed to employ metaphor and color in his scientific papers, to the advantage of accuracy; but few could do that.

I think all the tropes you mention can be used to great advantage to convey the meaning of what science discovers to general, curious readers, if done with honesty & understanding. Rachel Carson did this, and we might still be laboring under DDT had she not. But the doing of science is something else, requiring a rigor of purpose and language that I call reflective (of the facts) rather than refractive (like poetry). What Crichton did was neither, but rather outright prevarication. It worked all right for his fiction, but came out more like meretricious demagoguery in his politically driven "environmental" brownwashing.

In short, it works far better to integrate scientific facts into literature than it does literary license into science.

Julie Weston said...

Other than you, Bob, one of the best writers I have found who writes the "high ridge" is Ellen Meloy. Sadly, she is no longer with us. Her books, especially the Anthropology of Turquoise and Eating Stone (about studying desert bighorn sheep) fascinate with story and with scientific detail. I am quite envious of this ability and am working to expand my own work in this regard. I think she does integrate scientific fact into literature. What Crichton did borders on scifi and illusion--certainly not fact--as Kevin points out.

Cristina Eisenberg said...

Dear Bob,

Some years ago I found a letter in Aldo Leopold’s papers, from Leopold to the Wilderness Society board. They had asked Leopold about Olaus Murie’s worthiness for the position of president. The board expressed concern that Olaus Murie was an artist, and that that could limit his effectiveness as a scientist. To this Leopold responded that it was precisely because Murie was an artist that he would be most effective as a scientist, and that the best scientists are those whose work is informed by the arts. That includes people like you, Bob, who started out as a passionate lepidopterist and then used writing to vividly share your sense of wonder about nature. I started out as an artist and writer and then became a scientist. It takes all kinds and all perspectives to save nature.

As for Murie, he served as director as the Wilderness Society for over twenty years. He was responsible for laying the groundwork for the Wilderness Act. And he continued to paint and draw and write about nature until his death.

I’ll see you all on that high ridge!

Kevin said...

And as to evolution, let us hope we are one of John Calhoun's "beautiful ones" :)

Bob Pyle said...

Kevin, that's a fascinating article about John Calhoun (I was wondering at first if you were referring to that other John Calhoun, our great present-day scholar of the history of butterfly exploration and nomenclature...). It's interesting that Calhoun saw only the (anti)social aspects of overpopulation, and thought them (in the end) manageable. Well, maybe. But the other model, that of Ehrlich (another great lepidopterist), while perhaps jumping the gun on ultimate effects, still gets my vote: no system can outstrip its resource base and persist. As for Calhoun and others' faith in interplanetary exodus, it seems hardly likely that humans can manage a "screw it up and get out" approach, when they can barely manage to provision and tack together the space station.

Nor am I sure about the desirability of being one of Calhoun's beautiful mice: asexual and preening? Sounds boring! I'd rather be the crone in the corner. It's just a good thing that Calhoun's mice didn't have The Bomb. Anyway, I doubt we'll get to that extreme, because there'll be nobody feeding us to satiety and cleaning the cage. (And that's one problem with scientific modeling: it too often omits some major variables from the model.) In any case, many thanks for the thoughtful refraction from magpies!

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