Malaise Traps is a blackout poem on the declining insect population as reported in Hallmann et al (2017). Unlike traditional poetry, which is an additive exercise, a blackout poem takes found material and subtracts portions to leave a poem behind. In this case the material was the abstract of the paper, and 75% was eliminated to reflect the loss of insects over the period covered.
The title comes from the ‘malaise traps’ used to catch insects in the study. Poetically the phrase suggests an inescapable sickness and the poem references materialism (abundance and decline, status and trends), which underlies the degradation of the environment.
Insects are vital components in all terrestrial ecosystems and food webs, as pollinators, scavengers predators and prey. It is alarming that such a reduction could occur without the general population noticing, although many have commented on the loss of specific species. Complex systems tend to have feedback loops and balancing mechanisms that can accommodate changes up to a point; but once that point is passed, the consequences can be catastrophic.
Ouroboros depicts rising global temperatures since 1880 in the context of a cycle of consumerism and estrangement from nature. The title references the snake that eats its own tail. This hints at the self-destructive cycle of consumption that fuels anthropogenic climate change and also the unusual circular form of the poem, made possible by the animated ‘barrel’ data visualisation.
This piece was a collaboration between Kev Pluck, a coder and data analyst who developed the data visualisation, and James Stone, an amateur poet and founder of Poetry in Data.
Kev says “I’m a software engineer who has, in the past year, become obsessed with climate data trying to find new and innovative ways of presenting it to the general public. I like that after 20 years of coding experience I am still learning techniques especially now that I have started animating data. I feel that what is happening to the environment is too important to ignore and that these animations are my small contribution to nudge people into improving it.”
The difficulty in tackling climate change can be seen not as a failure of science, but of communication. The science is robust, but only speaks to the converted, or those inclined to listen.
I wanted to create a datapoem using a graph of rising sea-levels, because we are all familiar with that theme and have probably seen similar graphs, to the point of saturation. It ceases to shock us. I hoped that by overlaying it with a haiku, it might provide an emotional jolt, to make us take notice and consider the future.
The title of the datapoem ‘Mercury Rising’ refers to both increasing temperatures and the planet Mercury, which is inhospitably hot. Mercury is also the messenger of the Gods, and the poem is intended to communicate a warning.
The 3 lines of the haiku cover record-breaking temperatures becoming the norm, drought and floods wiping out humanity, and our future regret.
Visually, I wanted the poem to feel like it had run out of time and space by the end, reflecting our increasingly cramped world and the possibility that it may already be too late to act.
This datapoem looks at the massive deforestation of England since records began and its consequent loss of biodiversity. This manifests not only in the visual landscape, but the auditory one as well, as birdsong is often absent in intensively-farmed areas.
Since the 1920s there has been a concerted effort to reforest parts of England, which is now around 10% wooded. A better understanding of ecology has highlighted the importance of varied habitats for supporting wildlife. This in turn benefits agriculture through more resilient and varied pollinators, and the preservation of species that might have useful traits in future.
The poem is a haiku. Traditional elements of a haiku include a seasonal reference and an unusual juxtaposition of imagery. In this case the endless Autumn refers to the loss of leaves over the centuries, and the green clouds are the canopies of new trees, as seen from the forest floor. The visual grain is intended to evoke a slight nostalgia, whilst adding the texture of distant leaves to the green graph.
I was researching extinct species on Wikipedia, and it struck me how poetic and arcane the Latin names sound. You can imagine Harry Potter reciting them as a spell. I thought that a roll-call of extinct species might form a poem in itself. I wasn’t sure whether to add the common names and dates of extinction, in case it detracted from the flow of the names, but on balance I think it helps to appreciate what has been lost and adds the ‘data’ to the poem. Try saying it out loud three times in a mirror.
This set me thinking about the evolution and extinction of species on a geological timescale, and how humans might be a flash-in-the-pan. I drafted the poem without knowing how to integrate it with data, but when I saw that the block-like stanzas looked like geological strata, I decided to bury it in the fossil record.
There are four stanzas, equating to four eras, going 1 billion years back in time. The problem was that the eras are different sizes, with the older ones being much longer. I tried laying out the poem on a vertical timeline and it was ridiculously long; there was a good chance people would just stop scrolling before they reached the end!
To compress the timescale more at the end I tried using logarithmic scales. I experimented with different bases (having the opposite problem with base 10, that made the end segment wafer thin), and it was base-2 that gave the most evenly sized layers. Base-2 is used extensively in genomics and computer science, so using it to format a digital poem on natural history pleases me greatly!