In my first collection of poems, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes (2015), I confront head-on many scientific topics, including my own ecological research on the impact of metal mining in the Sudbury area and the impact of fossil fuel extraction (in the form of climate change). I explore extractive scientific processes by mining the language and culture of science. The most extreme examples of poetic extraction in this book are the found poems I made using the text of my own scientific articles. I skimmed my articles and created lists of words from which poems started to emerge. The severe constraint of using only words occurring in the scientific articles creates a sense of endangerment in language. It exposes narratives or energies that remain when the lexicons of science prove to be insufficient to address environmental crisis, or when language itself becomes a stripped ecosystem. Here is an example:
Alienation (The Transferring of Title or of Interest)
Accounts were ignition sources
from within their own perimeter,
but in recent months, climate
without change reduced
the spread of public attention
A media agent increased persistence
but there were no linkages
between abatement and refugia
and park status dropped
below natural levels
The lawsuit may have referred to
the next largest remnant, properties
sorted by size, scattered matrices,
the formation of a complex,
as well as the countless gaps
Criterion A: the wood turtle
taken on a voluntary basis
Criterion B: the two-lined salamander
plotted as two single bars (60)
I found/extracted this poem from “The Scientific Value of the Largest Remaining Old-Growth Red Pine Forests in North America,” a study I undertook with a number of colleagues to establish the Wolf Lake Forest Reserve as an endangered ecosystem. This forest is the largest remaining old-growth red pine forest, but it is prevented from becoming a permanently protected area because of active mining leases. In a case like this, the Ministry for Northern Development and Mines owns and manages everything below ground while the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry manages everything above ground, and these two arms of government can be at complete odds with each other. We undertook the first scientific study to scale up Endangered Species Act criteria to the level of an ecosystem. Whether this scientific work was able to effect change is an open question, but it was cited by many groups hoping to protect this ecosystem. The poem emerged as an alternative narrative, holding the potential to “speak” between the cultures of science and society—an intervention.
Parasitic Oscillations (2022), my second collection of poems, builds towards a body of work to balance the various aspects of living and practising as both a poet and a scientist studying global ecological change in the Anthropocene, a time of unravelling. It takes a focused approach to interrogate (rather than try to extinguish) the inevitability of undesired cyclic variation (the so-called parasitic oscillations from signal processing) caused by feedback (noise) in the amplifying devices of both poetry and science, fields that are still disparate in our world. A new question emerges with my examination of oscillations in birdsong in “Portrait 1”: “How might we utilize these oscillations caused by feedback to bring our multiple understandings of the world closer together, to talk to one another while embracing the inevitability of noise?” (4).
To ground and inform this work, I made an interdisciplinary, modern, yet meditative poetic reading of A. O. Hume’s The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (1889), a strange text I came across a few years ago. Birds are ubiquitous symbols in English poetry, but mainly as fauna of North America and Europe (as evidenced in the 2009 Viking anthology The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee). Thus, my project brings new species and their songs to new audiences. Contemporary scientific knowledge of Indian ornithology is, in fact, still largely due to the work of Hume, a British civil servant who was also a passionate naturalist. With a vast network of collaborators, he collected—extracted, if you will—thousands of Indian bird eggs, skins, and nests during his time in India; these now sit, mostly, in the Natural History Museum of London. Hume’s The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds is a field guide to birds that consists only of very precise descriptions of the nests and the eggs, with no real mention of the birds. This resonates with my examination of the text in a time of unprecedented ecological collapse, when, as I write in “Portrait 2,” “Birds are often no longer direct subjects of metaphor, but rather remain strange, sometimes silent, a kind of menacing and stray capacitance (which can cause parasitic oscillations), but still harbingers of discovery and hope” (6).
Parasitic Oscillations examines intergenerational, colonial, intertextual, feminist, and diasporic relationships in light of climate change and species loss. Extraction is both a method—in found poems and photos of preserved bird eggs and bodies from Hume’s collection—and a theme. For example, in “Partition 1,” “the Natural History Museum of Delhi / goes up in flames,” as it did in 2016, and bystanders and researchers mourn the loss of precious artifacts and exhibits, including a graduate student’s “planned future / exhibit. Climate Change: Effects and Adaptation.” Encompassing but not mentioning the loss of bird eggs and taxidermied birds, and revealing the museum as a site of layer upon layer of extraction, the poem ends with the couplet: “By that time, in the western hemisphere, the present / tense of verbs is erased by an invisible hand” (14). This poem lifts the veil of objectivity and neutrality that often surrounds scientific study, or at least scientific language and culture. It insists on a co-consideration of personhood and the environment, something that traditional scientific practices do not typically allow (there is no I in the scientific paper, only a passive voice). It forces the self not to be separate, not to be extracted from the world.
Anand, Madhur. A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes. McClelland & Stewart, 2015.
—. Parasitic Oscillations. McClelland & Stewart, 2022.
—, et al. “The Scientific Value of the Largest Remaining Old-Growth Red Pine Forests in North America.” Biodiversity and Conservation, no. 22, 2013, pp. 1847-61.
Armitage, Simon, and Tim Dee, editors. The Poetry of Birds. Viking, 2009.
Hume, Allen Octavian. The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds. 1889. Edited by Eugene William Oats, 2nd, ed., London: R. H. Porter, 1890.
Madhur Anand is the author of the experimental memoir This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, which won the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction, and the poetry collections A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes and Parasitic Oscillations. She is a Professor of Ecology and Sustainability at the University of Guelph, where she was appointed the inaugural Director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research.
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