University of Minnesota Alumni Association

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Telling Nature's Stories

What happens when a scientist and a writer get together to exampine the wold around us? Beautiful things.

Photo by Sara Rubinstein

In 2018, poet and essayist Kathryn Nuernberger moved from a farm in her home state of Missouri to the Twin Cities to start work as an assistant professor in the creative writing program at the University of Minnesota. As a writer who often seeks inspiration in the natural world— her most recent poetry collection, Rue, is about plants that have been historically used as birth control—living in a new ecosystem led to a host of new storytelling possibilities. For instance, she spent time contemplating the mussels that are native to the Mississippi River and musing on the grasshoppers at the St. Paul Frogtown community farm near her home.

Nuernberger talks about nature with enthusiasm and specificity. On a springtime walk through campus, her voice speeds up as she describes a day early in her tenure when she was researching “mutualism”—the interactions of two or more species where each species benefits—for an upcoming collection of poems. She had read an article about lava crickets, which are volcanic bugs she calls “loners out there, eking by on almost nothing.” While she understood that lava crickets have almost no relationships with other natural things, she wondered if perhaps they were symbiotic with lava itself? It was a notion she felt would be especially poetic.

Intrigued, she drilled deeper into the scholarship of lava crickets only to find that an evolutionary biologist at the College of Biological Sciences named Marlene Zuk is also an expert on crickets.

Nuernberger contacted Zuk and asked to meet. That chance encounter was the start not only of a good friendship but a rewarding professional collaboration, which included Nuernberger visiting Zuk’s U of M lab to meet her lava crickets in person.

“When you walk anywhere with Marlene, she sees bugs,” says Nuernberger, pointing at a fence where Zuk had once stopped to examine mayflies. “And not just bugs—she sees everything. She has an incredible eye for detail. I think because she spends so much time looking at these tiny crickets, she notices the smallest flickers.”

But this ongoing sharing is not just Zuk downloading scientific information into Nuernberger’s poem-spinning brain. In fact, Zuk is also a writer. “What I’m interested in is more what could be classically called creative nonfiction,” Zuk says. “[My writing] follows in a great tradition of people who have been scientists but who also write about the natural world in a way that speaks to people but is infused by what we know about science. ... What we want to do is say, ‘Okay, how can being a scientist inform the way you write? And how can an understanding of what scientists do and how science works help poets see the world more clearly?’”

That back and forth was the inspiration for The Watershed Workshop, an honors seminar the duo taught this past fall. A creative writing class that explored the Twin Cities campus along the Mississippi River, the course included writing exercises and field trips to natural and lab spaces on campus. On the first day, the group went for a walk and Zuk pointed out 13 turkeys near a patch of meadow next to Burton Hall, an experience that definitely got the attention of the students.

As part of the course, each student chose a “sit spot,” a place outdoors where they could return each week during the semester to write notes about what they were observing. The hope was that this purposeful observation would change the way the students’ experienced a landscape that often gets overlooked in the dash to classes—an exercise Nuernberger and Zuk hoped would let nature be the star of the story.

The class attracted its fair share of nature lovers, including two students whose summer jobs involve scuba diving in the Great Lakes. But Zuk says there were also students who were a bit hesitant about spending so much time outdoors because they considered themselves indoor types.

That chance encounter was the start not only of a good friendship but a rewarding professional collaboration, which included Nuernberger visiting Zuk's U of M lab to meet her lava crickets in person.

This August, Nuernberger and Zuk are taking a version of the class to the University’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories in Itasca State Park for a course called “Writing the Wild.” They're also collaborating on a research grant with the Research and Innovation Office’s (RIO) inaugural Artist-in-Residence program, which brings art and science together to illuminate important questions and big ideas.

For the RIO project, which is called “Katydid Songs and Silent Crickets: Poems in the Grasses,” Nuernberger and Zuk will walk through nature and have conversations about pond and grassland habitats. Nuernberger will use these conversations and Zuk’s scholarly work to write poems that “answer the griefs of climate change and mass extinction with songs of hope and beauty.” They'll hold a public reading at the end of the project.

Nuernberger is clear that this effort isn’t about anthropomorphizing nature but about bringing a deeper understanding to bear. She has challenged herself to not use any metaphors in her poems, which means relying on specifics. She’ll turn to Zuk to answer such questions as “Do crickets dream?” and “Can I call a cricket’s exoskeleton ‘skin'?”

Nuernberger and Zuk hope their collaboration helps students appreciate the natural world, an experience they say made an impact on several students who took the Watershed Workshop. One student admitted she initially thought she'd hate the course because she wasn’t outdoorsy. Over the semester, the student’s perspective shifted. She started to think about all of the creatures that live along the river. One day as winter approached, she walked down to the Dinkytown Greenway Connection bridge, made sure no one was looking, threw her arms open and shouted, “I love you, Mississippi!”

Thinking about that student makes both Nuernberger and Zuk emotional. Says Zuk: “For me as a biologist, anybody that appreciates nature more, that’s a win."


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