Here Be Dragons

is a retired scientist and novelist and has written about the countryside; for many years. She lives on a small-holding in NW Cumbria. Her latest (non-fiction) book is The Fresh and the Salt: The Story of the Solway (Birlinn Books 2020) Her blog about writing, science in art, and other matters is at Eliot and Entropy; and she blogs about the Solway at Solway Shore-walker 

“Are there dragons?” she asked. I said that there were not. “Have there ever been?” I said all evidence was to the contrary. “But if there is a word dragon,” she said, “then once there must have been dragons.” Precisely. The power of language. Preserving the ephemeral; giving form to dreams, permanence to sparks of sunlight.

This is from Penelope Lively’s novel Moon Tiger (1). When something is named, given its own word, it is made visible, it exists. And, as the Dark Mountain manifesto says, ‘Words … can change minds, hearts, even the course of history.’

During the Dark Mountain event at the Wordsworth Trust, Paul Kingsnorth repeatedly stressed the DM mantra that ‘we must escape the language of science’. Scientists might have felt somewhat beleaguered as criticism and the Romantic poets flitted unavoidably through the discourse, although someone asked if there wasn’t a danger of the writing tending too far towards the spiritual, and ‘putting people off’.

‘Ergs and Bacon … Eliot and entropy’ (2)

Science needs special words because the meaning must be unambiguous; in contrast, ambiguity is often cherished in fiction and poetry. Poets such as Jo Shapcott, Lavinia Greenlaw and Robert Crawford, who have worked with scientists, absorb and revel in the language of science, using its words to open our eyes to new perspectives. As a novelist, but also a former research scientist, I too enjoy and use the language of science in my fiction, even though my novels are not ‘about’ science or scientists.

Scientists might use special words, but very little of the exclusivity of that mid-20th century attitude of ‘blinding them with science’ remains: one requirement of research funding these days is that scientists should communicate the excitement of what they are doing, and why. On the radio especially (where a person’s appearance can’t affect the listener’s judgement – no chance of commenting on that awful hair, that tedious smile, or those sexy legs: admit it, you do it too) you can hear scientists of all ages talking enthusiastically, comprehensibly and often with humour, about what they do and its implications. They use the words of science – but you will also hear them using metaphor, simile, painting visual images with words.

The Dark Mountain manifesto states that ‘creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces’. As mathematician Richard Feynman said, ‘science takes a lot of imagination,’ for although science does indeed require controlled experiments, creativity plays a major part in the scientific process too – the fun of ‘thinking outside the box’, of meeting and talking and exchanging ideas, of finding new ways of seeing. Scientists share ideas with scientists; scientists increasingly share ideas with artists, musicians, fiction writers and poets. Although the term ‘SciArt’ is passé, the collaborations continue; many are one-directional due to differing expectations, but many are enlightening: new ways of seeing, new ways of show and tell – artworks, websites and volumes of short stories (including the new genre ‘cli-fi’) and poems.

Who’s listening? (Where’s the market?)

But if we’re to escape the language of science and find a new lexicon to show what is happening to our world, to our ecosystems, we must select our targets carefully. Who do we want to read the poems, who will visit the exhibition, who will be so enraged and activated as to make a change?

Some of this new work will be read by the middle-class educated, some by the ‘worried well’. Politicans will not read it; those who work the land won’t read it; it won’t influence the Chinese lad with aspirations to own a car, or the Nigerian using poisons to extract gold, or the loggers denuding the Montana hills; nor the fund manager who hedges the price of wheat.

The language of science; the language of the spiritual; the language of profits and the globalised economy – their sentences are all too complicated, too abstract and impersonal.

We need to make it personal, to frame the questions in such a way that we can reconnect with our own ecological niche. The poet John Burnside (3,4) says many interesting things about the link between poetry and ecology, what he – and before him, Rachel Carson – calls ‘the science of belonging’. He also asks the question ‘what is to be done?’, with reference to the ‘degradation of our shared environment’. His answer (‘simple, banal, absurdly unambitious’) is that we walk, and by walking, engage with our environment and see our world as it is. You may want to look through the eyes of the Romantic poets, but you should also see the mundane. Why do dead leaves and a paper cup swirl in that corner of the street? Why is there a patch of strident, virulent green over there on the moor? Why are the molehills red? Why has a mattress been dumped there? Scientists ask questions, so do most (but not all) poets and novelists – and by questioning the mundane we’re forced to use a language that brings the environment closer to each of us.

The dragon in the room

But still the words are not personal enough for us all to act. The dragon in the room is barely visible amongst the throng of humans. We have overgrown our many and varied niches in the planet, there are too many of us trying to consume the dwindling resources.

I suggest that instead of agonising about a language, we should change the topic, stand on tiptoe to see the dragon whose name is over-population, and write about where the main problem lies. We must use the languages of science, of poetry, of fiction, to bang that message home in every way we can – because ultimately the business of having children, and trying to care for and feed them, is very personal. But the solution, through education and sensitivity, is eventually attainable. As David Attenborough says, ‘Just keep on about it, just keep on about it’ (5).The debate matters, and we must use whichever words are necessary.

1. Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger, 1988, Penguin.

2. Edwin Morgan, Pleasures of a Technological University, quoted in A Quark for Mister Mark , p121, eds. Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney, 2000, Faber

3. John Burnside, A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology. p91, in the excellent Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed Robert Crawford, 2006, OUP

4. Wild Reckoning, an anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, ed by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan, 2004, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

5. Sir David Attenborough: If we do not control population, the natural world will; and Is population growth out of control?

  1. Thank you for this article. As a PhD student in science I often struggle with this question of language, and of conveying the mythos in a discipline which has room only for logos. I’ve been in a couple of Dark Mountain conversations where science and scientific writing has been criticised, and it is comforting to learn that scientists can still have a place in the mourning of the world.

  2. It sounds strange to say, but what I like about the over-population problem is that the solution has an awful lot to do with educating and empowering women. So even if we can probably say we’ve already sailed over the edge on the population question, it’s still reasonable to support women’s issues regardless, just because it’s nice. Social evolution is gratifying to watch because it’s more on our time scale than physical evolution. Still, it is brutal, and I know we want to think we can evolve beyond the brutality of evolution… Well, who knows. I am sometimes tempted to think that we receive, almost as a gift, the very problem that we need to solve in order to reach a higher baseline of human understanding. But it’s probably gonna hurt. Like WWII.

    The other good thing about overpopulation is that there is one institution that’s pretty much in charge on that one – the Catholic Church. Should the pope have a “come to Jesus” moment, well, that would almost be proof that there IS a God.

  3. ‘Sci-art’? Art-sci is so much easier to say and believe based on the premise here.


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