A fellow Twitter user and science writer (@philonotis) encouraged me to stretch myself and engage poetically with a paper in the journal Nature, on plants recognising pathogens (Rezzonico, Rupp, Fahrentrapp 2017). This was daunting; a ‘proper’ science paper in a field I knew nothing about.
I had to read the paper several times to understand it, but as I did several themes emerged that set the course of the poem. The first was the idea that ultimately all communication depends on the interaction of physical elements in biological systems, even visual stimulii. This was illustrated by the use of different colours representing different states of ripening (a physical process) and the diffusing perfume text.
The second and most important idea in terms of the form, was that the researchers fragmented the plants at a molecular level in order to extract a jumble of internal messages – the signs of genes being expressed in response to invading pathogens. This seemed analogous to putting a book through a shredder, to see what words came out, and led to a deliberately cut-up, collage style. The phrases are fragments without punctuation or capital letters, and do not follow a clear rhythm or rhyme structure, but together they can be interpreted as a story.
The final theme was that the plants ‘remember’ their attackers (the pathogens), with the disconcerting suggestion that they may also recognise on some level, the researcher who both cared for and injured them. The different choices (tend, infect, cut) available to the researcher within the confines of the protocol were presented as a drop-down list, with the infection of grey mould shown as encroaching grey pixels arising from that choice.
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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.
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The inspiration for this poem wasn’t slime mould, but graphs of the human population increasing on Earth, combined with decreasing fertility and increased connectivity via internet usage. This suggested a species rapidly reaching the limits of its environment and forming some kind of escape plan. At least, for some lucky individuals.
Comparing humans to slime mould is completely subjective. It’s impossible to prove or disprove such an idea and so it is not ‘scientific’. Its appeal is rooted in pattern matching – certain shared traits between the species – and it’s hard to ignore the pattern once you see it. There’s a good chance the next time you hear about the increasing population, or lack of resources, you’ll think “slime mould!”
I decided to embed the poem inside the mould’s life-cycle, with the circular area suggesting looking down into a petri dish. This resulted in the disembodied narrative voice of a scientist or a lecturer. This was intended to raise the question (I’m not sure how successfully) of whether anything may be looking down on us in our ‘dish’, and where our ‘spores’ might travel to.
More about slime mould
Cellular slime mould are fascinating organisms that are neither plants, funghi nor animals. They live as single cells hunting bacteria, until the food runs out, whereupon they emit a signal that causes thousands of them to band together into a giant slug, which crawls off in search of food.
If the slug can’t find a better location and is going to starve, it develops tall towers in which spores are formed, to drift away on the wind. This is a group endeavour but only the spores escape.
Another weird feature of cellular slime mould, is that the individual cells are a like predatory sperm or eggs. They are haploid, meaning they only have one copy of their genetic code, like sperm or eggs cells. They only get another copy (becoming diploid) when they fuse together with another slime mould cell.
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I wanted to make a piece exploring how closely related we are to different species and to eachother, and had the idea of a bar-chart, containing the lines of the poem. The data was found in this article in National Geographic by Carl Zimmer about the percentage of genes we share with different species. The data originally came from gene sequencing at the European Bioinformatics Institute.
Whilst we are no longer surprised that we share 90% of our genes with chimpanzees (although even a few decades ago that would have seemed incredible to some), it is thought-provoking that we share nearly half our genes with fruit flies, and around a quarter with a grapevine! Given how complex these genes are, it is good evidence that we are all distantly related, with the degree of similarity correlating to our proximity on the family tree.
The percentages in the article’s infographic gave me the idea of using a bar chart, with the lengths of the bars dictating the size of the lines. I worked through several drafts omitting some species until I found a combination that used most of them (sorry, yeast!). I decided to pick out the letters of the nucleotide bases A, T, G and C in a different colour, just for extra geekiness.
The idea of a writing metaphor emerged from consideration of the letters, and the ‘words’ (genes) they made up, with the constant revisions and deletions over time. Poetry too is about the arrangement of a limited number of letters and words, sometimes through happy accident.
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