I had a redundant epiphany today. One where you suddenly realize something you knew all along but, as David Haskell puts it, the top of your head blows off.
David actually had something to do with it. Haskell is a professor of biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, and author of the recently released The Forest Unseen. Through a grad-school friendship with our own Professor Peter Wimberger, Haskell made a stop at Puget Sound today to talk about his book, the process and results of writing it, and how cool Peter was in grad school.
In common Puget Sound form, I had a chance to have lunch with this scholar (a perk I will certainly miss when they finally kick me out in May–the scholars that is, not the free lunch. Well, both). Haskell told us about how he decided on the ‘methods’ of the book and framed the narrative, how he benefited from the discipline of forest observation and contemplation, and why he saw the need for a biologist’s view of a mandala-size plot of Tennessee forest floor.
Haskell talked about wanting a way to communicate to nonspecialists the stuff about the world that made the ‘top of his head blow off’ and his ‘heart sing’. Although I’ve never stated my feelings about nature in quite that way, I know exactly what he’s getting at. Like how I squeal and exclaim EVERY TIME I watch the leopard slug sex video and throw my hands up in disbelief when other people don’t think it’s as OVERWHELMINGLY AWESOME as I do.
Haskell conveyed his awe with stories about a square-meter of forest floor that he observed over the course of a year. The stories began as observation and grew into contemplations about ecological metaphor and natural implications for human consciousness and connectedness, skillfully drawing a bio-101 event out into the consideration of the cosmos generally reserved for Marxists and monks. The writing was well-crafted and deliberate, to organically mingle ecology jargon with philosophical thought, like well-lubricated cilia tickling Paramecium smoothly through pond scum (see, I’m not as good at it).
Haskell was engaging and funny, well-versed in other disciplines like poetry and philosophy, and clearly hugely passionate about his work and his field. And such a good writer.
I, as a would-be English major turned biology major, who completely planned on being a writer until college (and a few poignant interactions with David Attenborough and David Lupher*), ask myself every time the classwork gets really tough whether I’ve made the right choice. Do I really have the analytical sort of brain necessary for science (even if I have selected the squishiest of sciences, it can sometimes require some hard thinking)? Especially when I find myself writing regularly just for fun, but never doing stats or crafting experimental materials and methods just for kicks. When it comes to pure enjoyment or innate abilities, it doesn’t seem that I really lean toward ‘science’. What I like are all those head-top-blowing-off stories about Life, that happen to be investigated through an avenue of study we call science. Plus, I think words are just the funnest of Lincoln Logs and are truly the media through which humanity builds its finest creations.
So, to hear a love of language from a successful, published (both in science journals and recreational literature), eloquent biologist was (excuse the fluff) both comforting and inspiring.
I left invigorated about biology and the world and writing and people and snails and college and all things good.
And then I went to cell biology.
Specifically, I attended the senior thesis presentation of a very good friend–a friend who I love and respect you and whose work I admire. I even followed along fairly easily with the presentation even though it’s been a few years since I took Cell Biology! But I just couldn’t get into it. Amorphous abbreviations for things I can’t even imagine like gene activators and cell adhesion proteins just wafted over my gray matter without so much as a tremor of enthusiasm, let alone making my heart sing. This stark comparison to the glee I had just left with David Haskell made something I already knew profoundly more obvious: I like big science. But not only do I like big science, I like big science in the context of bigger ideas. And what’s more, that is a legitimate thing! To be honest, I’ve always felt a little guilty about not being excited about tiny bio. Cells and genes and molecules are simply beyond me, at least as a field I could ever hope to advance. But there are other fields for me, like the flooded lawns of north Florida being invaded by giant African snails. I’m coming to save you, Florida fields! Via an expert and unusual understanding of snail reproductive biology and a passion for conveying invasive species information to the public in an entertaining and accessible manner! (says the Mary of the future).
David Haskell’s visit today was a hopeful sign that I will someday find a way to blend my love of writing and ridiculousness with my wonder at the biotic world and its specific medium of study we call ‘science’. This would actually be my dream job, though I’m not exactly sure what that job would be…I suppose it will be whatever creative project I can find to be fired-up about after I’ve established myself as a brilliant scientist.
But as Haskell said, sometimes you have to ‘make your way through cold molasses’ to achieve some practical goals before you get to the fiery stuff. So, I turn back to my molasses.
You see, I’m sitting in my lab on a Friday night, trying to turn into a brilliant scientist using a calculated mix of canned caffeine and the wisdom of the internet. Which sounds like a good way to become a fat kid with no friends IRL, but not to write my senior thesis. Alas, it is what must be done and this blog was an accident.
*I feel like there’s a David thing going on here…This is getting weirdly biblical.