Arthur J. Stewart has assembled a collection of his poetry, which draws on the experiences that led him to biology, the insights he has gained, his involvement in the natural sciences – and, perhaps most interestingly – how those experiences and insights affect him as a scientist and a human being. As a scientist myself, I don’t feel particularly qualified to critique the technical aspects of his poetry, so in this review I will focus on the content of his poems. I can, however, share how the reading of this poetry caused me to reflect on my own experiences with the natural world. The fact that his work shed new light on that personal connection for me seems an indicator of artistic value, even if it is not a detail of meter or rhyme. I found that many of the poems caused me to consider my own choices and the interplay between my life and my vocation. Not all the poems spoke to me equally – some seemed to force their metaphors a bit strongly – but overall I found the poetry accessible, and I think most readers, from high school students to adults, would feel the same.
The book is arranged in three roughly chronological chapters, each containing a dozen or so poems or essays. Chapter 1 is a retrospective piece on important events that made Stewart the person and scientist he has become. This section may be especially helpful to teachers in guiding students to find their passions and use them to develop a career. While we don’t all have the same experiences as the author, reading these passages made me recall my early experiences with nature. His early interest in puzzling things out and his fascination with the natural world were encouraged through the mentorship of his father. The first poem, “Elementary school,” might be enough to help a middle or a high school student consider whether they have the passion to be a field biologist. While details will vary, a student may recognize some salient experiences of their own that had a similar impact to those of Stewart in terms of building or feeling a personal connection with nature.
The poems and essays in the second section are reflections on the learning and doing of science and may, in a novel way, help students understand what a career in science would be like. But beyond a prosaic description of practical details of scientific work, Stewart often seeks to convey the emotional fulfillment of such a career. That fulfillment can be what ultimately sustains the practicing scientist through the inevitable obstacles and challenges of real-world science, so it is important to illustrate it to students who might pursue this career. The third section, reflecting on how our careers have affected our outlook on life, is very suitable for us as teachers and scientists but may seem less relevant to our students. But, of course, understanding that scientists look at the world like scientists, and that businesspeople look at the world like businesspeople, is certainly fodder for thought for both us and our students.
I struggled when I first received this book to rate its merits in teaching biology, beyond a reflection on the careers we have chosen. Quite frankly, I wonder if Millennials (and maybe now post-Millennial children) may have a difficult time relating to much of what is in these essays, as attitudes toward unsupervised play and interaction with nature have changed in our society. However, a recent presentation on our campus helped me realize that this could be part of the value of such a book. The presentation was by environmental educators from our local city nature centers, on the value of “Nature Play.” They emphasized the importance of outdoor experiences in developing healthy, well-adjusted children, and especially the role of both unsupervised outdoor activity during childhood and knowledgeable, encouraging mentors in developing adults with an appreciation and understanding of the natural world. Stewart states in the introduction that many of the poems are the result of reflecting on the life and loss of his mentors – his father and his thesis advisor. So the value of this book for us as educators could be to remind us that we need to provide our students with both a chance to experience nature, in both structured and unstructured ways, and to serve as potential mentors for our students or encourage them to find other such mentors.
Finally, we can use these poems to show students where others have found their passions and encourage them to develop their own, whatever they may be. As scientists, we may reflect on how “who we are” affected the career we chose, but we can also understand how that career has in turn affected who we have become. I have a better appreciation of that, having read Circle, Turtle, Ashes. Perhaps you and your students will too.