The science guy stands in a clearing in the woods. He stops walking, stops talking long enough to listen. He listens to the array of life hidden in his surroundings, invisible but for their chatter. The sounds of these woods begin to take shape as a ghostly chorus backed by a tinny ghostly orchestra. It is not a revelation to say that it is moving to stand still sometimes and simply listen. But it is moving, even watching the science guy do so. It is poetry.
Living things take hold everywhere they can.
The science guy is explaining the tenacity of life on earth. A grasshopper on a cattail, seaweed clinging to anything, everything it can.
The science guy is also tasked with making sure we understand its vincibility. He’s made a chest-high Jenga tower covered in images of various species. As he takes blocks from the tower, some carefully, some quickly, he demonstrates how reliant we are on each other. This is a universal we, a we signifying all of us, everyone. It is a we that withholds blame and steadies responsibility, like the needle on a swaying tower, over everyone.
The science guy is very good at this. He says, When we manage an ecosystem we have to be very careful, or there won’t be a place for us, focusing closely on sliding blocks from the tower. The metaphor is physical. When it falls, we feel it.
There’s a game you play to teach your students metaphor. You play a game because for many the idea of two unlike things representing each other is not just difficult, but impossible. In the game, each student is tasked with imagining an original image or object to explain an abstraction: Loneliness is, Friendship is, Love is. One student judges the metaphors, picks a winner, and that winner becomes the next round’s judge. It’s not a complicated game. Your students love it. They make metaphors like:
Life is your mouth. It sucks sometimes.
and Fear is diarrhea. It keeps you up at night.
and Love is a tangerine: so sweet, so orange.
Some are more successful than others, but you find kernels of success in each one. You see metaphors everywhere—nothing is only itself. That would be not just strange, but impossible.
You would not want to play the metaphor game with the science guy. He sits at a desk topped with a lamp, word processor, mug of pens, and more—fully stocked—in the middle of a pond, surrounded by lily pads, the water up to his waist, just below the desk’s top. Nature’s problems are our problems, he says. We’re part of nature. Maybe it’s not so much a metaphor as it is an actualization, but the effect is the same, his purpose poetic, the image sublimely supplanting the abstract.
In 1955, Pati Hill published “Cats” in the Paris Review. A very fancy publication for a very fancy subject. In the essay, Pati Hill writes: “In fact you might say one of the best features of a cat is that it is in every way an animal….[E]ven a dog is maddening when he understands a little yet misses the point. With a cat there can be no deception. A cat is just a cat from start to end and does not even trouble himself to find out which of you is master.”
This is the ultimate pro-cats argument, the one cat cohabiters try and fail to articulate on, it seems, a nearly daily basis. It is also directly in line with the science guy’s concerns: Nature’s problems are our problems.
Why have we chosen to domesticate wildlife, and why these specific wildlife to domesticate? There are moments when your own cat acts especially catty—hunts you as you prepare for sleep, or hides inside the dryer, or paws at the fridge when he knows there’s fennel somewhere inside—and you wonder at the contract’s inherent silliness. The complete mangling of two biospheres’ purposes, molded to fit within each other like a wet jigsaw puzzle. Peak biodiversity. An experiment either gone horribly awry or proving a hypothesis that nobody has made.
The science guy is a poet. He draws together disparate imagery to prove a point in efficient, sometimes enigmatic ways. The minute you read “the science guy is a poet” you either rolled your eyes or wanted to know why, which tells you everything you need to know about where you stand re: poetry.
But he is—and if he isn’t, then at the very least he’s a metaphor machine. A pregnant Sylvia Plath once wrote I’m a riddle in nine syllables, / an elephant, a ponderous house, / a melon strolling on two tendrils. If the science guy taught a lesson on human gestation, his use of an elephant or a field full of tendrily melons, in some capacity or another, would only make sense.
It’s what humans do, how we make sense and make excuses. I’m a human, the science guy says, over and over again, each time appearing as a different cloned version of the same science guy as before. Which is to say, the same cloned version. And I’m a human. And I’m a human. On and on, not until infinity but until the point’s been made. Until we understand the impact of greedy bodies on the earth. Long enough until the metaphor’s run dry, and not before.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.