April 27: ghost forest
learn something new
Two weeks ago, my attention economy students and I went on a field trip, guided by an environmental science professor, to the Atlantic White Cedar restoration project on our campus. We spent a really lovely afternoon standing in the sun, warding off ticks (“just check every five minutes or so,” the professor warned cheerily, after insisting we all spray ourselves with repellent), and learning about efforts to re-seed the white cedar, a native species that’s been overharvested and crowded out. And I learned a great new word: ghost forest, the term for stands of trees that have died where they grow because of encroaching brackish water, a result of climate change.
I haven’t done anything with it yet, but I’m storing up that word, the image of those trees. Learning things outside your primary areas of interest or expertise can be so enriching for writing.
I was reminded of that when I read this great feature of poet Eugenia Leigh, who’s this week’s Brooklyn Poet of the Week. The feature focuses on an amazing poem, How the Dung Beetle Finds Its Way Home, and I’m going to insist you click over and read the full poem; it’s gorgeous and heartbreaking, even if you’re certain you don’t want to read about dung beetles. (I’m a Eugenia Leigh super-fan; we included her poem Gold in The Long Devotion, and I’m eagerly anticipating her second book, Bianca, which will be out with Four Ways Books next year.) In response to a question about how she wrote the poem, Leigh explained
This poem took five years to write. Trapped in a writing and reading rut in 2015, I subscribed to Scientific American, which led me to the dung beetles and the revelation that they rely on the Milky Way for direction. My first book was published the year prior. And everything I wrote during that post-book season (including the first draft of this poem) sounded like a synthetic knock-off of my published work. I was trying to mimic the “Eugenia Leigh” already out in the world instead of trusting my voice to evolve. When I wrote this poem’s first draft, I was neither a married person nor a parent. It wasn’t until I landed on that literal stairwell ready to run away from these new roles that I “recalled / the dung beetles” and returned to the draft. I was surprised to find myself unconsciously enacting the conflict I’d wanted to explore in the poem, which had started out more emotionally distant, mostly informational. So I pushed myself toward vulnerability. Then the poem found its way.
There’s two things I love in that answer: first, the seeking of new knowledge (Scientific American!) as a way to get unstuck, and second, the need to shake off the voice she’d developed in her first book, something I deeply relate to.
For today’s let’s focus on the first thing. Let’s learn something new.
Read or listen to something on a topic outside your usual expertise or interests. If you’re looking for something short, I like the NPR podcast Short Wave, which presents “new discoveries, everyday mysteries, and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, every weekday. If you’re up for something longer, I happened to catch a portion of this fascinating Radiolab episode about the origins of life on earth the other day, and I’ll be listening to the full thing on my commute soon.
Whatever you choose, read or listen with an eye toward unusual or beautiful phrases, or compelling facts. You never know when your dung beetle will speak to you.