Where Science and Poetry Meet

Science makes discoveries when it admits to not knowing, poetry endures if it looks hard at real things. Nature writing, if such a thing exists, lives in this territory where science and poetry meet. It must be made of both; it needs truth and beauty.

-Tim Dee
Covering a story in the Solomon Islands for Coral Magazine

For much of the past 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to make my living as a freelance magazine writer. Much of that time has been spent as an independent journalist and, more specifically, a science writer covering ocean issues and fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. I’ve had the opportunity to write about everything from high performance liquid chromatography to white band disease. I’ve covered “Mercury-Laden Fish Floated for School Lunches” (editors write titles!) and human rights abuses in the seafood industry. I’ve written about sharks in the Gulf of Maine and lionfishes in Florida, an 800-pound grouper threatening Florida’s reefs and a tiny coral reef fish from Sulawesi threatened by humans. I’ve travelled from Canada to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia to Belize covering fascinating stories about science and scientists. I’ve been fortunate to make my living this way, and I’ve been lucky to have the support of some fantastic editors along the way.

And yet there is something missing for me: Poetry.

Okay, not actual poetry because I’m a bad poet and the world absolutely does not need more bad poetry. What I mean is crafted language–beautiful language full of imagery and metaphor. Language which is sometimes used in unconventional ways to express what conventional language cannot express. I’m talking about narrative and storytelling–more than “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Can that type of writing be incorporated into science writing? Into journalism? Of course it can, but often it isn’t (and often for good reason, I should add).

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good science writing–even masterful writing–in the pages of National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, New Scientist, and Smithsonian to name a few magazines I try to read regularly. I aspire to be as good as Oliver Sacks, David Quammen, Mary Roach, Sy Montgomery, Natalie Angier, Siri Carpenter, and many other science writers I admire. But I also increasingly have a desire to inhabit the space that writer Tim Dee defines as existing “where science and poetry meet.”

In the soon-to-be-published book I wrote with white shark biologist Greg Skomal, I had the opportunity to go beyond the who, what, when, where, and why and tread into the subliminal space of the imagined and the beautiful, something I don’t often get to do in short-form science writing for magazines. Chasing Shadows is the story of the resurgence of the white shark population in the western North Atlantic seen through the eyes of Greg, a leading white shark biologist. What most attracted me to the project is that it’s a too-rare conservation success story about restoring an apex predator to an ecosystem. As far as I’m concerned, it’s too big a story to be contained by what some may consider the conventions of science writing. Toward that end, we open the book firmly in the shark’s world:

The morning sun cut through the green-hued water, casting bright down-shafts of light that undulated along the slate-gray back of the eleven-foot shark. It moved effortlessly—or so it appeared—but also with inimitable purpose. If a fish could swagger, this is surely how it would look. From the side, its pointed snout, large dorsal fin, and crescent-shaped tail disclosed its identity, but it’s the color—the abrupt demarcation between dark upper and glaring white underside—that is unmistakable to even the most casual observer.

The white shark is commonly called the “great white,” because the mere mention of its name conjures up larger-than-life imagery. In the face of those jaws or that dorsal fin—those are, of course, the most common tropes—anything short of hyperbole falls flat. The shark’s confidence becomes arrogance. Its efficiency, aggression. It’s frequently called “mythical,” and while it does occupy a central role in the mythologies of many cultures, there really is no need to idealize or embellish. The actuality is enough.

The hard reality is that this animal is about as close to perfection as any animal in existence today. Everything about the white shark is purpose built to excel in one of earth’s most inimical environments, as it has done for millions of years. The white shark swam here when Glacial Lake Cape Cod was still draining—when humans emerged and when the dinosaurs went extinct. The white shark’s ancestors managed to survive every mass extinction since they arrived on the scene more than 450 million years ago. To call the white shark an evolutionary success story would be like saying Leonardo da Vinci was a reasonably competent artist.

The white shark is no myth. It is no accident or aberration. It is the result of a sequence of precise adaptations achieved over millions of years, and it has culminated in this—a near-perfect, albeit little-understood, animal swimming steadily north along the Outer Cape on a mid-September morning.

I am beyond appreciative that Greg and our editors at William Morrow/HarperCollins allowed me the space to delve into the shark’s world throughout the book in these vignettes where we little by little reveal this extraordinary animal to the reader. There is, of course, also lots of great history, science and policy in the book, not to mention many incredible stories from Greg’s career and the careers of those who inspired and came before him. My hope is that we created a space in Chasing Shadows where science and “poetry” meet and that it’s a space you would like to inhabit with us for a time.

Chasing Shadows is available for pre-order now at Amazon or wherever you get your books.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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