Poetic Field Research at Biosphere 2

February 20, 2014
by Eric Magrane

Recently, I conducted an art-science experiment in which I invited a small group of poets and writers to join me at Biosphere 2 (B2), meet with researchers, and then be ‘installed’ in writing shifts at specific B2 locations to write.

Eric Magrane writing on the beach of the writers seemed particularly enthralled by the lung. I think it’s something about breath. Poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson wrote a series of lung tanka, a five-lined Japanese form that is like a haiku (five syllable, seven syllable, five syllable) with two added lines of seven syllables each. The short form is like a long breath and this lung, at the far end of the underbelly of B2 known as the technosphere, embodies much of the audaciousness and sublimity of this world under glass.  

Here’s one of Josh’s lung tanka:


          Now what gives you your
          voice to trouble each passage
          with whose methods would
          you carry on without our
          knowing, with what slow creature?


In the design of this pilot experiment (publicized as a “Poetic Field Research Performance Weekend”), my methods grew out of close attention to the site of B2. Particularly, I wanted to work with the idea that B2 is both a research site and a site of science communication. The tourists who visit B2 may encounter researchers doing science, as well as the various apparatuses of science, such as the mesocosm or “blue barrel” experiments or the Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO). I wondered what would happen if I shifted one variable, placing the practice of poets and writers on public display much the way that science is on public display.

B2 morning panorama: photo by Tyeen TaylorIt's kind of absurd. Watching a poet write a poem probably sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Michelle Nijhuis, an environmental journalist who joined us for writing shifts at the beach, desert, and lung, joked about napping and daydreaming (and checking Facebook or standing in front of the refrigerator) as part of her normal writing process. Writing of her experience in The Last Word on Nothing, she noted how “parts of the writing process—like some parts of the scientific process—can be performed, but the most important and interesting parts can never go on display.”

In part, it’s the image of a writer sitting on the beach of the B2 ocean, or at a table in the lung, or on top of the mountain in the rainforest, or behind glass in the apartment where one of the original Biospherians lived, or underneath one of the LEO hillslopes, that is completely fascinating to me. It’s like a scene from a Fellini film, as my geography advisor Sallie Marston commented when I walked around with her to get her take on the experiment. But it also brings up some of the questions embodied in this project: What are the writers doing there? What is the relationship between the process and methods of science and the process and methods of writing or art? And in a broad sense, what is really going on in how we interact with each other and with the environment, and can an odd experiment like this help jar or disrupt us into different ways of thinking and approaching environmental issues in effective ways?

The pilot experiment, for me, was largely about encounters—between creative writers and scientific researchers, between poets and the site of B2, between creative researchers and the public. In my field of cultural geography, the idea of encounter is a useful way into studying and imagining the various interactions at a site like B2. (See, for example, the work that geographer Harriet Hawkins is doing on creative geographies.)

Arianne Zwartjes writing on the beach

The poems, essays, and writing generated from the project themselves become a place of encounter, as well. In the next weeks, I’ll be gathering excerpts from some of the work written to mail to a large number of B2 visitors who were curious and signed up to receive pieces of the writing. Ultimately, the creative writing generated at B2 can help communicate the science and reflect on the cultural and emotional aspects of how we might adapt our ways of thinking in Biosphere 1, the earth we all call home, in the face of environmental challenges like climate change.

I conceived of this pilot as a blend of creative practice with social science and environmental fieldwork. The experiment produced a lot of data, such as field notes on the encounters, the poetry and writing generated, and a UANews feature video, as well as videos and recordings taken by Tyeen Taylor, an expert on the B2 rainforest who, having inventoried all of the plants in the rainforest a couple of years ago, agreed to play the hybrid role of a scientist interviewing the writers on their processes. In that sense, it’s also a means to study the process and interactions of art and science.

It’s tricky to employ hybrid methods such as this, and it will take some time to unpack all of this data and write about the project’s methodologies in an academic form. However, one of the other goals of the pilot was to demonstrate again the work that art and writing can do in engaging with environmental issues and environmental research sites. Creative research adds to the depth and strength of human knowledge and also points to ways that we might help turn that knowledge into action. One way may be a renewed understanding of the intricacy of our interconnections with the processes of the earth.

Arianne Zwartjes writing on the beachThat brings us back to the lung, originally designed to help regulate air pressure so the glass wouldn’t burst when B2 was a sealed experiment. Walking into the lung, one goes through the technosphere, filled with myriad pipes and containers moving and circulating water and air. This, essentially the circulatory system of the biomes under glass above, is a reminder of how much we humans rely on the often invisible services of the energy and water systems of which we are also a part. We are entwined with those systems in our daily lives, and how we make and apply knowledge is not outside of those systems. Examining them with a sense of playfulness and imagination, and with the cognitive leaps that poetry, art, and writing can embody, is crucial.

My gratitude to all the poets and writers who joined me at B2 for the project: Wendy Burk, Christopher Cokinos, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Arianne Zwartjes, and Michelle Nijhuis. Thanks also to Matt Adamson, Kevin Bonine, Franklin Lane, and the many researchers who joined the group for conversations, including Rafe Sagarin, Joost van Haren, Greg Barron-Gafford, and geographers Sarah Kelly-Richards and Laurel Bellante, over local and organic meals provided by Sara Jones from the Tucson CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). I would also like to thank the UA Green Fund, UA Poetry Center, Institute of the Environment, B2 Institute, and the School of Geography and Development, who supported this pilot experiment.



Eric Magrane writing on the beach: photo by Kevin Bonine

B2 morning panorama: photo by Tyeen Taylor

Arianne Zwartjes writing on the beach: photo by Tyeen Taylor

The Lung: photo by Christopher Cokinos