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An Ecologist and a Poet Consider the Nature of Values and the Value of Nature

The Ucross Experiment is an ongoing venture to see what happens when artists and scientists collaborate in the mutual making of authentically shared works that reflect both of their insights and understandings (see video below). This year, the composer was paired with the shrub ecologist, the choreographer with the microbiologist, the sculptor with the physiological ecologist, and I was paired with the poet. Harvey Hix is a wickedly smart, incredibly well-read poet whose work has been nominated for a National Book Award. When I grow up, I want to be like Harvey. We decided to craft some short pieces (maybe for future publication—we’ll see) about the challenges of how we do (and should) value the natural world. To give you a teaser/taste of what I’ve been writing, here’s a draft of a micro-essay that I’ve titled, “What, If Not Story?”


I keep a treasured pen in my desk drawer. It was mass produced in the 60s. It no longer writes, the ink having dried out. It has “Sandia Laboratories” printed on the barrel. It was my father’s pen. After high school, he left a dysfunctional home, worked his way through college, and became a scientist. He took tremendous pride in working for a national laboratory during the Cold War. I found the pen in his desk drawer after he died. The pen is a useless, unremarkable bit of detritus. And it is part of my story.

The Shirley Basin in southeast Wyoming is a sagebrush speckled expanse of grassland. It takes a football field of this rangeland to feed a cow and her calf for a month. If this land has intrinsic value, then so do the fleeting clouds and the asphalt highway. Nobody would call this harsh, austere landscape pretty.

But the basin holds memories of white-knuckled drives through ground blizzards, of a thunder storm sweeping over a ridge like a curtain of night slashed by lightning, and of hitting a golden eagle when his desperate efforts to take off and my panicked efforts to slow down failed to prevent a broken bird and a broken heart. The value of this place defies universal formulations. It’s value is particular and storied.

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