January–February 2022

From the Editor

The Art of Science Writing

Observers of the natural world

Chris Clayton

When writer Robert Bly passed away in November, obituaries focused on his versatility, noting his literary translations and sometimes controversial essays. But Bly was a poet at heart. In 1968, the Madison, Minnesota, native won a National Book Award for his collection The Light Around the Body. Throughout his career, he wrote mountains of mystical, lyrical stanzas—many of which turn an eye on nature. I especially love this passage from his poem “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield”:

The sun is cold, burning through the frosty  distances of space.   
The weeds are frozen to death long ago. 
When then do I love to watch 
The sun moving on the chill skin of the branches.

Like the great Mary Oliver, Bly used simple language to address complicated subjects. While working on MCV the day after Bly’s death, I thought about how the best science writing takes a similar approach, unpacking difficult concepts with straightforward, often metaphorical language.

One of my favorite observers of the natural world, David Quammen, is a master at this technique. In an essay about his visit to Florida’s Okefenokee Swamp, Quammen explained how the swamp’s submerged vegetation and peat turn the water black with tannins. “The result is an acidic blackwater tea, the ideal medium for culturing cypress trees, carnivorous plants, and alligators,” he wrote. “On a bright day, that blackwater tea casts back reflections of a complete swamp world seen upside down, as on a surface of polished and oiled ebony.”  

Mary Roach pulls off similar feats in her science writing. Take this delightful passage on penguin digestion, of all things: “Penguins can shut down digestion by lowering the temperature inside their stomach to the point where the gastric juices are no longer active. The stomach becomes a kind of cooler to carry home the fish they’ve caught for their young.” 

In its own humble way, MCV swims in the same waters as Quammen and Roach. This edition includes Keith Goetzman’s easy-to-grasp primer on a complex optical phenomenon (page 13). In his setup to the story, Goetzman writes, “On a clear, frigid winter day in Minnesota, you may spot sun dogs flanking the fiery orb, beaming like mini-suns and often tinted in rainbow-like colors.”

Chris Niskanen’s Young Naturalists story on fur (page 46) describes whiskers as “sensory hairs . . . that can help mammals sense objects and other creatures around them.” This plainspoken summary is perfect for young students, the intended audience of the article. 

Bly once told an interviewer that he preferred to use austere images in his poems—snow, dust, box elder—that he was intimately familiar with. I believe the late author would have appreciated MCV’s attempts to create clear, concise, occasionally poetic stories about the outdoors.