Allow me to introduce one of my favorite writing tools: my boots!
I have always been a hands-on learner, so after reading widely to gain a foundational understanding of a new subject, I pull on my boots and head out into the field.
As a science poet, immersive, experiential learning enhances my research process in essential and surprising ways, enriching the art and craft of my science poetry collections.
For my newly-published collection SUPERLATIVE BIRDS (Peachtree, 2019), I packed my boots and binoculars for a weeklong field course held at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A dabbler since 9th grade (duck pun intended), I joined a group of 15 eager birders ranging from newbie to nonstop.
On day one, just outside the “Lab of O,” two yellow-bellied sapsucker chicks fledged right before our eyes! Lab staff had been watching the nest cavity for weeks to catch sight of those chicks leaving the nest; their excitement added so much to mine. Here are the sapsucker chicks on a page from my field journal:
Birding together each day, my classmates and I learned to access all of our senses to find and recognize clues for bird identification, including habitat, activity, body shape, and glorious song. We participated in a bird-banding demonstration where I held a fluttering heart fashioned from air and feathers in my hands.
But really, who held whose heart?
I had always been interested in birds. Now I was smitten.
My theme for SUPERLATIVE BIRDS—bird-world record-holders—sprang from the poem “Turkey Vulture,” which I wrote for Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong’s Poetry Friday Anthology series. Turkey vultures have the keenest sense of smell of any bird tested, and writing that poem set me to wondering about other bird superlatives.
I asked my “Taking Flight” companions at Cornell to share their thoughts about the most impressive birds. Two of our instructors told me the black-capped chickadee was the BEST bird.
The ubiquitous chickadee? What was so superlative about it? The chickadee is social, the instructors explained, also cute (I agree!), populous, and probably the most-studied bird.
I learned that nearly every bird in the Northeast understands “chickadee,” and some other animals do as well. When a chickadee gives its warning call, chickadee-dee-dee, the forest takes heed. Now, that IS impressive. Learning about chickadee-speak has forever changed the way I listen to this anything-but-common little bird’s call.
At home I continued reading about birds. I began birding regularly, learning to send observational data to eBird, Cornell’s ever-growing citizen science database. I joined Audubon bird counts and met new birding friends. I wrote poems about the fastest, the loudest, and the smelliest birds, and kept coming back to the engaging, loquacious chickadee. It didn’t fit any of the neat “bird-ness” categories I was scouring for superlatives. But I desperately wanted to include this “best” bird in my book to honor the instructors and my superlatively life-changing experience at the “Lab of O.”
I reread my notes from a class discussion about features that are unique to birds. I’d listed our guesses in my field notebook: eggs? no; beaks? no; claws? no.
I kept thinking: chickadee…unique bird traits…until I had a superlative “aha!” moment: I could create a riddle thread running through the poems and science notes and challenge readers to identify those special traits belonging only to birds.
And since “everyone” understands chickadee-speak, the chickadee would be the “spokesbird” for the riddle thread (brilliantly given life on the page by illustrator Robert Meganck). In addition to informing and supporting my writing, the connections I’d made through my experiential research had provided a structure for the entire book!
Throughout my research as a science poet, I have had the great good fortune to meet and interview scientists working all over the world. Their passion and generosity of spirit always contributes to the foundation of my writing, and certainly influences the difficult process of choosing what does or doesn’t make it into each book.
Everyone who pulls on their boots, literally and figuratively, in support of birds—especially my fellow learners and the faculty and staff I met at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—inspired SUPERLATIVE BIRD’s final poem, “For the Birds” It’s a heartfelt plea to protect the Earth for our beautiful, essential, and vulnerable feathered friends.
Leslie Bulion has been playing with the music of poetry since the fourth grade and has been a hands-on observer of the natural world from the moment she could peer under a rock. Leslie’s graduate studies in oceanography and years as a school social worker inform her science poetry collections Leaf Litter Critters, At the Sea Floor Café, Random Body Parts, Hey There, Stink Bug, and Superlative Birds as well as her science-infused middle grade novels Uncharted Waters, The Trouble with Rules and The Universe of Fair. Follow Leslie out to the field and into nature poetry on Facebook and Twitter or at her website www.lesliebulion.com.