Poets for Science
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Driving Over Asphalt





You are sitting in your favorite café in town, telling your friend, that of course you will try to write something for her project about endangered species. She gives you a printed list of all the plants and animals that have been identified as endangered in your county. As you read the list to yourself, at the table in the corner bay window, all you keep doing is bursting out with the words in front of you, astounded by the beauty, humor, and vivid images that leap from the page into your brain. Your friend is charmed by your enthusiasm, she gets it, she beams into your eyes, agreeing with the marvelous sensation of being transported simply by the words on the page.

You take the list home. You stare at the words. You do “Google image” search. For hours, you go haplessly down the rabbit hole. You tell your partner, in spring we are planting Sorbus americana, and Ilex mucronate, not because the common names are cool, (they aren’t: American Ash and Mountain Holly), but because you find them for sale at native plant sites, and you wonder why doesn’t everyone buy native plants? Because Home Depot doesn’t carry them? You are always so saddened that people buy plants from Home Depot—an elitist emotion for sure, but the acres of commercial land used to repeat over and over the same exact plant makes your stomach clench.

You try to write a story, or a poem, because the words are so charming: Warty Spurge, Bashful Bullrush, Pubescent Sedge, Hoary Skullcap, and, simply, Creeper. You try to make the Bashful Rushes Goosefoot it over to the Yellow Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, to sit on the Stonecrop Cliffs and watch the Oscellated Darner and the Mountain Frogs Chorus the Harbingers of Spring. But that isn’t the point. This isn’t a playground for those who are obsessed by language, this is a warning, a red flag—we are losing these plants and animals. These names you find so amusing speak to centuries of research and observation. You could take one of these names and spend days learning it’s story. Erect Dayflower, for example. You don’t need to crack a single book to know that this plant has been observed, classified and cherished by a whole community of scientists dedicated to the categorization of our existence. The dreaded reality of our impact on our environs has been incrementally foretold by the growing list of endangered species you have been so pleased to play with.

You read the latest draft of a poem you’ve been struggling with. A visual timeline of the woods on your property, describing how the leaves change and in what order they fall. The brilliant maples and tulip-trees first, so cheeky and brash, but you have always preferred the last leaves, the oaks, so stubborn and brown and deliciously dark. But now, at this time, late December, the only colors are the faintest of reds on the bare branches. You thought you would be disciplined and learn the Latin names, research and combine this list your friend gave you into this poem you are already working on, but the indescribable “click” — when an idea in your head makes itself onto the page in front of you — hasn’t happened. Instead, you have spent too much time enjoying the game of word play.

The piercing eye of the Lord God Bird is gazing over your shoulder, and you think, these beautiful words already have a whiff of nostalgia to them. All these species are becoming history — a treasure trove we had once — but are disappearing now. Each a tile in a mosaic, a mesh of dependencies, wherein one plant is necessary to sustain one other specific creature.

But we’ve all grown used to driving over asphalt to a parking lot. Your sister says she rinses the Roundup from the roots of the plants she gets from Home Depot—they are precious creatures who need rescuing, she says—but it disheartens you to hear this. Even though she knows her dollars are supporting a system that is unsustainable, she still wants the pretty roses in her yard.

You look out your window at the sloping stand of forest that backs behind your house, and you wonder. Which colorful plant, which vulnerable creature, won’t be there for you to write a poem about next year?