NFN18: “Science and Storytelling”

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Panel Participants: Mark Rozema, Peter Friederici, Holly J. Hughes, Lawrence Lenhart

Marc Rozema opened this panel by complimenting recent science writers on their abilities to include emotion, suspense, plot, and character into the presentation of scientific data.  “Facts are engaging when contained within narratives,” Rozema said, echoing one of the basic principles of creative nonfiction.  He described how the journey towards scientific insight begins with curiosity and wonder, and he lauded the practice of portraying these qualities – a practice that can be seen in much of today’s science writing.

While science writing has succeeded in a number of ways, it has also failed in its ability to effectively promote action in the process of communicating the reality of climate change.  Peter Friederici expressed concern about modern media outlets’ inability to adequately raise the alarm around this issue, and he proposed that the structure of storytelling has contributed to this failure in two important ways.  The first is the “sense orientation” of science writing.  Because we cannot viscerally feel the effects of climate change (they are more intellectual and abstract than sensory and embodied for us than, say, a big storm), Friederici said, we aren’t compelled to act upon them.  Metaphor, too, has failed us, according to Friederici.  Because we human beings have never experienced anything like climate change before, we lack appropriate metaphors to use in describing it.  In his own writing, which he shared with the group, Friederici has been using the metaphor of a river trip to describe our current predicament – largely because it offers a “no way out” model.  At the same time, he recognizes the limitation of this metaphor: river trips are fun, recreational experiences, not the game-ender that climate change may turn out to be.

Holly J. Hughes emphasized the importance of attentiveness and listening in her work.  Hughes’ recent chapbook profiles fifteen extinct birds, and she described both the process she went through in deciding to write about these creatures and in determining how best to give them voices.

For the last several years, Lawrence Lenhart has been spending time with scientists that study the black-footed ferret, one of North America’s most imperiled species.  He admitted that working on the reintroduction of this mammal to the intermountain west is an endeavor that requires a high level of what E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia”; the project is a struggle, and it is likely to fail.  For Lenhart, what is most significant about the ferret work is why scientists choose to engage in it, despite the unlikely odds of its success.  “The human force of will that makes this work happen,” as he said, is the heart of the story for him.  With that in mind, he read selections from his upcoming book about black-footed ferrets.

Perspective shift seemed to be a focus of the discussion that followed the presentations.  Friederici described how Germans refer to climate change as “the energy transition,” a semantic decision that allows them to argue about solutions rather than problems.  Similarly, Hughes recommended that we look for positive work on local and community-based levels, because within that framework, there is much to be optimistic about.  And, assuming the really big picture view, Rozema mentioned that when he gets depressed about the future of the planet, he thinks in geological terms.  The earth will last, he said, even though the ecosystems that inhabit it may not.


Bridget A. Lyons is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University while also working as an editor and composition instructor. A graduate of Harvard University, she has had essays published in Atticus Review, Wanderlust, 1888 Center, and Elephant Journal and recently received a grant to travel with and write about bird biologists in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


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