From There to Here


(Yucatan cenote, Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY-ND)

Here’s the first piece of writing I published, back in 1974, in the academic journal Cytobios, from research I had done as an undergraduate student at Boston University:

Melatonin (5-methoxy-n-acetyl tryptamine) causes the blanching of vertebrate skin in those animals capable of rapid skin could changes, i.e. reversible alteration of the distribution of pigment granules in their melanocytes. Recent evidence suggests that a light-dark sensitive enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway of melatonin, N acetyl-transferase, regulates pineal gland production of melatonin which, in turn, affects the endogenous diurnal rhythms.

And here’s one of the latest, from my 2014 book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive:”

Walking into an apiary is intellectually challenging and emotionally rich, sensual and riveting. Time slows down. Focus increases, awareness heightens, all senses captivated.

Lifting my smoker, I am totally in the present but also connected to memories of friends, fellow beekeepers and innumerable long days in other apiaries when we shared periods of tedium, hard physical labor and occasional glimpses of wisdom. These moments of understanding, penetrating the complexity of our usually unfathomable natural world, still take my breath away.

The first was from the scientific research planet Academic, a globe that rotates around the star Jargon, a dense and impenetrable mass composed of the hottest of air. Academic is a planet of extreme irony, since scientific research purports to seek clarity rather than obfuscation, striving to precisely explain phenomena rather than making them more obscure.

The second piece was written four decades later, and while it used even more long multisyllabic words, its point is clear and the meaning easily accessible to readers who are not experts in bees or beekeeping.

I’m currently involved in a poetry project with bees at its centre, further pushing my comfort zone outside the boundaries of academic writing. I had coffee the other day with my poetry colleague Renee Saklikar, who asked an unexpected question about my transition from academic to public writing: How did I get from there to here?

I was caught short without an answer. I searched my memory banks for the moment I could point to where academic writing began shifting towards the comprehensible, but the origins of my interest in public writing remained clouded in the mists of the distant past.

Until, that is, our turtle died. Ismael was a Mexican turtle that a friend and I picked up while driving through Mexico. Mary Power (now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley) and I were on the scientific version of a vision quest, travelling through the Yucatan peninsula visiting the immensely interesting and unusual terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of that region, hoping to make observations about the natural world that might trigger topics for our graduate research.

Ismael went with Mary when she moved to the University of Washington for her doctoral studies, and she cared for him with great affection until his recent passing. Her email to me reporting his death triggered a cascade of memories from that 1974 trip, coincidentally the same year my melatonin paper was published.

But it was only today that I connected the dots from Renee to Mary, and realized 1974 was the year my writing began diverging from the academic because of a journal I kept from that Mexican trip, “Naturalist Notes.”

It was a small, black hardcover journal, not at all distinguished, but it looked to me like something a 19th century British naturalist might carry into the jungle to take notes. My inspiration was just such a naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, who wrote the 1863 book “The Naturalist on the River Amazons: A Record of the Adventures, Habits of Animals, Sketches of Brazilian and Indian Life, and Aspects of Nature under the Equator, during Eleven Years of Travel.”

Bates published “The Naturalist on the River Amazons” about his expedition to collect species not known to western science, and to provide evidence for the newfangled theory of evolution by natural selection. His book was brilliant, a readable and engaging mix of natural history and astute observations about the animals, plants and humans he encountered.

He described in compelling detail where and how people lived along the Amazon, what plants and animals they used for food and medicine and how the locals interacted with the Amazon river system and surrounding jungle. And he wrote about the exotic plants and animals he encountered, from towering buttressed jungle trees weighed down by vines to the tiniest of beetles and the colorful butterflies from which he developed his now-classic theories of how and why organisms mimic each other.

I was inspired by his keen observations and humanizing language to write clearly, with feeling, in my own naturalist-in-the-Yucatan notes. Copying Bates, I sought clear writing to find that simple formula through which complexity becomes accessible.

My own notes were never published, and certainly didn’t reach the heights of fine writing that Bates achieved, but I did reread them recently and was fascinated to see my very early attempts to emerge from academic jargon into the light of the comprehensible.

I wrote about the Yucatan’s unusual clear water mangrove swamps, the interminably deep limestone cenote sinkholes in which the ancient Mayans used to toss their sacrificial victims, the industrious dung beetles who could clean up fresh scat almost before it’s odour hit the air.

My naturalist notes were intertwined with Mayan history, an advanced civilization that precipitously collapsed, leaving behind ruins now largely taken over by jungle. But accents of their former prominence live on in colorful clothing and the Mayan language, still spoken and preferred by many over Spanish.

We held our breath and dove for lobsters off the coast with Mexican fishermen, astounded by how quickly we came up empty and how long they stayed down before surfacing with a large Atlantic lobster in each hand. We camped out on beaches or slept in cheap communal hotels, sometimes swinging in brightly coloured Yucatan hammocks large enough to fit entire families.

I was writing for myself, but with Bates looking over my shoulder I sought clarity and flow, learning from his example to favor approachable description over jargon. My notes were replete with questions rather than littered with the certainty expected from academic writing. Like Bates, I tried to pose simple questions with profound implications and copied his habit of illustrating with sketches, augmenting my still-forming language with the visual impact of pictures.

I’ve never stopped writing “naturalist notes,” although they eventually morphed into books and blogs, newspaper columns and magazine pieces. Getting from the “there,” academic writing, to the “here,” writing for the public, began for me with Bates, from whom I learned to pass writing through the filter of readability.

I wish all academic writing could evolve towards the model of more appealing writing that Bates provided. A Batesian rewrite of my melatonin paper might start something like this:

One of the most startling occurrences among animals is their sudden lightening of skin colour, sometimes taking less than a second to go from a dark to an almost clear tone. This process is mediated by the chemical melatonin, which in humans regulates our daily circadian rhythms. Remarkably, it’s a simple enzyme in other animals that triggers melatonin release almost instantaneously, regulating these extraordinary changes in skin coloration.

More accessible, right? Here’s an idea, academics: give Bates a good read before starting your next academic paper, and let the engaging writing flow.