Creative Science Writing at Biosphere 2

A creative writing MFA candidate interprets science.

Process November 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Esme Schwall @ 9:13 am

I bought a package of white index cards, a package of yellow index cards, a package of pink index cards, and a package of blue index cards. Baby shower colors (minus baby shower green).

On the pink cards, I recorded notes, quotes and arresting details about Biosphere 2, past and present. These cards say things like: “planes, curves, spheres possible from multiple pyramidic geometry”; “lungs: ‘variable expansion chambers’”; “respiration/soil temp. relationship found to be a loop, not a line.” I’m interested in how and why the place was built, and what kind of research is happening (or has happened) there.

The blue cards contain scientific research and theory that have informed the work done at Biosphere 2. In particular, I researched Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of the biosphere, the Gaia hypothesis, and studies involving feedback loops between biotic and abiotic elements of an ecosystem. These cards say things like: “multiplication = autonomous energy of life in the biosphere = transformation of chemical elements & creation of new matter from them = GEOCHEMICAL ENERGY OF LIFE IN THE BIOSPHERE”; “ecosystem engineering theory [...] avoids conflation of process and outcome”; “how is homeostasis of Earth possible given ‘faint young sun’?”

On the white cards I’ve written the things I need to look up. For example, what is stochastic variation? And what happened at the 1988 American Geophysical Union conference when J.W. Kirchner supposedly burned a text on the Gaia hypothesis? (I also needed a refresher on the chemistry of photosynthesis.)

And the yellow cards. These have to be the heart and core of the essay. These are my musings, my interpretations, my translations. Not my renderings of science, but the things the science leads me to see. I’ve been thinking a lot about the physiology of family. The feedback loops within a family. How principles of entropy and mass and biotic/abiotic interactions have to do with our own lives and personal environments. Family as ecosystem. My family.

The next challenge (once I’ve finished the six white cards left to research) is to start braiding the pink, blue and yellow cards. This is where the art will happen. This is the mysterious part.



Filed under: Uncategorized — Esme Schwall @ 8:51 am

I have read and mined the following sources:

1. The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2 by Jane Poynter

2. Biosphere 2: The Human Experiment by John Allen

3. The Biosphere by Vladimir Vernadsky

4. “World in a Bottle” by Reed Karaim

5. “Biospherics and Biosphere 2, mission one (1991-1993) by John Allen and Mark Nelson

6. “Gaia and evolutionary biology” by Connie Barlow and Tyler Volk

7. “Hands up fo the Gaia hypothesis” by James E. Lovelock

8. “A goddess of the Earth?: the debate on the Gaia hypothesis” by Stephen H. Schneider

9. “Ecosphere, biosphere, or Gaia? What to call the global ecosystem” by R.J. Huggett

10. “Vernadsky’s biosphere concept: an historical perspective” by Alexej M. Ghilarov

11. “The Concept of Organisms as Ecosystem Engineers Ten Years On: Progress, Limitations, and Challenges” by Justin P. Wright and Clive G. Jones

12. “Positive and negative effects of organisms as physical ecosystem engineers” by Clive G. Jones, John H. Lawton, and Moshe Shachak

13. “Alternative states and positive feedbacks in restoration ecology” by Katharine N. Suding, Katherine L. Gross and Gregory R. Houseman

14. “Can biological invasions induce desertification?” by Sujith Ravi, Paolo D’Odorico, Scott L. Collins and Travis E. Huxman

15. “A Frontier in Earth Surface Processes: Dynamic Interactions of Life and its Landscape,” a National Research Council Report submitted by Douglas J. Jerolmack on behalf of MYRES III


Icosahedron November 4, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Esme Schwall @ 10:44 am

Eikosi, hedron.

Twenty, seat.

Twenty identical equilateral triangular faces.

Thirty edges.

Twelve vertices.

Dual dodecahedron.

One of five platonic solids.

A pattern of edges and vertices.


Formal Pressure

Filed under: Uncategorized — Esme Schwall @ 9:32 am

Ander’s suggestion: triangulate.


The Biosphere is a geodesic dome. So the idea will be to use the form of the Biosphere to inform the form of my lyric essay. The dome is made of triangles. So I’ll employ triplets or triptychs and interloch these triangles. The number of triangles needed to form a dome could determine how many triplet sections I create.


The triplets will be made of three threads. I haven’t chosen the three yet, but I’ve narrowed it down: 1) my own experience, thinking, perception; 2) scientific concepts and bio/eco/geo/chemical processes (Gaia, group selection, soil respiration); 3) Biosphere history and structure; 4) questions; 5) research happening now; 6) found texts–things others have said about the Biosphere.


Ander also suggested some lyric essays to read that might further inspire my process or influence the formal pressure I bring to bear on the material: “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss, and “The Answer That Increasingly Appeals” by Robin Black.


I’ve got my index cards of many colors. I’ve got my articles and books. I still don’t know where I’m going, but I know how to proceed.


Fear November 3, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Esme Schwall @ 10:09 am

I have my idea, but I’m finding it very difficult to begin writing. I think I’m afraid. Afraid because I’ve never done this kind of project before. Afraid because I don’t know what I’m making, or what I’m writing toward. Afraid because I’m a beginner and a novice and I don’t want to make a mistake. Afraid because my audience (the one I imagine, filling the auditorium at Biosphere 2) knows more than me. Afraid that I might sound foolish.


I only acknowledged this fear earlier this morning, while I was running around Himmel Park. Oh, I realized. It’s not that I’m lazy or procrastinating. It’s that I’m afraid. I’m used to other things in life—grief, conflict—rendering me fearful. It took me a while to recognize what I’m experiencing now as fear. And now it’s strange to admit it. How could the charge to create something make me afraid? Shouldn’t it be empowering? Exciting? But I don’t feel giddy or propelled. I feel stuck.


So, what to do? I’ve been trying to read my way through fear, as though knowing more, packing more facts in, will give me more power. While the reading—about Gaia hypothesis and soil respiration and volatile organic compounds—is interesting and conceptually stimulating, it’s not sharpening my focus yet, or giving me the starting gun signal that will fire my legs around the track. I need a way of writing myself back into the material. I need to get back inside.


I’m going to visit Ander Monson’s office hour today. I hope he can give me some freewrite prompts or a received form to play with—something concrete to push off from. I’m also mulling over my notes from Fenton Johnson and Ander Monson’s workshop on The Inspirational Fact, which they conducted last night at the Poetry Center. I’m thinking about patterns; about what threads to braid; about distillation.


Feedback October 8, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Esme Schwall @ 10:20 pm

And here’s where this blog takes a turn. Up until now, I’ve been trying to capture my limited understanding (and unlimited appreciation) of some of the science happening at B2. I’ve been lucky enough to interview a number of passionate, bright thinkers, and even tag along in the field on occasion. And all this time I’ve been searching for a wink from my notebook, a raised eyebrow or a significant glance that says I’ve found the thing—the image, the concept, the starting point—for the creative piece I’ve agreed to make, having been inspired by science. And after a few months of learning about woody plant encroachment and desertification and interdisciplinary science and non-linearity and the water cycle and volatile organic compounds, I think I’ve found the thing that will launch the creative work ahead.


Sujith Ravi, who is now completing a post-doc at B2, is to thank. Following our conversation about global trends in the relationship between the fire cycle, biological invasions and accelerated soil erosion on the desert margins, he emailed me a PDF of a report submitted to the National Research Council in September, 2008. The report, titled “A Frontier in Earth Surface Processes: Dynamic Interactions of Life and its Landscape,” discusses “the consensus view of a select group of early-career researchers” arrived at during an NSF-sponsored Meeting of Young Researchers in Earth Science (MYRES). (Sujith also passed along a book recommendation—Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery; I haven’t read it yet.)


I’ll quote from the abstract of the report: “A long-standing paradigm is that physical processes sculpt a landscape and set the template on which biological agents occur; these biological agents then interact with each other and with their environment within the constraints of this habitat template. However, it is increasingly recognized that biotic agents can actually shape the abiotic environment directly, leading to the important recognition that life and the landscape interact and feedback upon one another over a wide variety of temporal and spatial scales.”


And that’s what I want to write about: biotic/abiotic feedback. That’s my wink.


I don’t know how I’ll approach it yet. I might look at the research summarized in the MYRES report and create prose poems that evoke the various examples of feedback. I might stick with this paradigm as it relates to the research I witnessed at B2. I might do both.


The struggle for me has been that as a fiction writer, the things that move me to write are characters who take shape in my mind. I hear them and see them and witness them in some sort of situation or predicament, and the story begins to form. I haven’t heard any stories stuttering forth from my B2 experience. I’ve been fascinated by the passions and personalities of real people and their work, and intrigued by the evidence of the interconnectedness of life and systems on our planet. But a story hasn’t started in my mind. So I’m trying something new. I’m starting with a concept. I’ve got a purple Post-It note on my desk that says FEEDBACK and has arrows connecting to form a circle.


Epiphanies September 3, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Esme Schwall @ 9:38 pm

To provide an environment for epiphanies.


That is how Javier Espeleta describes his role as Associate Director of Science at Biosphere 2. Contrary to the cold lab-coat-and-beaker stereotypes that even scientists can hold about themselves, Javier sees science as self-expression. “You have to get the questions in your mind,” he says, “and find a new way to say them.”


A theme runs through Javier’s questions: integration and connectivity. Even as a medical school student (he quit before completing the program) he was interested in how the parts of the human body work together. This interest in systems relationships led him to work in agriculture and plant physiology. How do plants work, and how can we understand and describe their interactions with the environment? How do agricultural and wild plants adapt to their environments? What traits do they develop, and what’s the evolutionary importance of these changes over time?


Javier believes in question-driven—as opposed to problem-driven—science. The problem-solving paradigm leads too easily to dichotomous thinking, when really science is about exploring complex, non-linear, uncertain processes. While policy and politics might demand biased, or at least definitive, appraisals of a system so as to assert a clear recommendation or point to a probable outcome, Javier’s brand of science is about investigating a dynamic feedback loop of variables.


For example, the Hillslopes project under construction at Biosphere 2 will allow for examination of a system’s evolution in real time. How will the soil change with varied water flow and alterations in climate? How will the changes in soil in turn affect the water? And so on. An integrated study is less efficient than a traditional lab study where inquiry happens at a more microcosmic level. But interdisciplinary work is also less diluted. If we know plants regulate water, carbon and nutrient cycles, then it is important to know how plants are affected by climate change, and also how changes in plants affect global cycles. There isn’t one solution to discover, but rather a dynamic process to observe.


This sounds like storytelling. When we read a short story about a troubled relationship, it isn’t problem-solving (“How can they fix it?”) that drives the narrative. Instead, systems questions propel the story (“Why is this happening? What will they do about it? What will happen as a result of the actions they choose? Am I so different?”).


Javier’s eloquence made me curious about his own epiphanies. What breakthroughs came reaching for him, and what was it like?


He said he hasn’t had any. Yet.



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