Biopoetics: Acerum on Fomalhaut b

Public domain/Denny David, link through photo
Public domain/Denny David, link through photo

A big thank you to The Trumpeter for publishing this poem here (listen to it here).

This biopoetics may be a bit of a cop-out but there is a reason for it – promise!

This poem was the beginning. My first – ever – poem that combined science and poetry. What you see in this poem is something that desperately needs unpacking; something beautiful on its own, which gains additional power upon explanation. So why won’t I explain it?

I have. Acerum on Fomalhaut b was the inspiration for the following poems (with their biopoetics linked if available):

Acer saccharum







I: Seedling

I: Matured

And several additional poems in the sugar maple cycle, which were in turn inspired by the poems listed above.

It is important to note that I have been working on unpacking this poem since December of 2015, but have still only unpacked half of the poem in total. The left side of the poem tells the story of a bright planet in our screaming universe – Fomalhaut b.  This side weaves in and out of the right, the story of Acer saccharum – or the sugar maple tree. It is the sugar maple side of the story that I have had the chance to unpack and tell so far in my two years of working on this project. Admittedly, I may have gotten a bit stuck on the sugar maples…oops!

I hope that, reading this poem, you can appreciate the two threads as they come in and out of focus – the way our teeming, lively trees on earth can both parallel and juxtapose the vast emptiness of our universe, the way a planet, a star, or a tree is born, lives, or dies. And I hope the ever-growing web of poems that surrounds this smattering of words helps you appreciate those patterns in a poetic, and a scientific, way.

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Biopoetics: Deepnight

A big thank you to Palaver magazine for publishing this poem; you can read it here (pg 75) or hear me read it aloud here.

Photo by Stanley Zimny entitled ‘Sunny Winter Tree’ (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic), link through photo
Photo by Stanley Zimny entitled ‘Sunny Winter Tree’ (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Deepnight is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Deepnight occurs after the trees shed all their leaves and enter a state of dormancy until the days become longer and warmer again.

While Sunleaves tells the story of the leaves on the trees changing color in fall, Deepnight tells of the tree settling into a period of barrenness, of the very beginning of winter. The story is told from the perspective of the leaves themselves: the sense of betrayal as they are tossed away so the tree can conserve resources (and not worry about the fragility of the leaves themselves) during the winter.

As the days gets shorter, less chlorophyll is produced in the leaves, allowing for the other colorful chemicals that were already there, such as anthocyanin (red) and carotenoids (orange), to be ‘uncovered’. The sap sent to the leaves to grow and sustain them is now instead sent to the roots, stored there throughout the winter to be used to power the next generation of leaves after Deepnight is over. Water concentration in the cells of the tree is reduced (increasing the concentration of solutes like glucose), in order to lower the temperature at which the cells will freeze through disrupting ice crystal formation.

Layers of abscission cells (often with modified, weaker cell walls) are formed where the leaf meets the branch of the tree; this means that, eventually, one hard gust of wind will knock the leaf off the branch.  Abscisic acid plays a role in endodormancy (a non-growing phase for a plant caused by conditions like cold, lack of light, etc) – though that role is currently poorly understood (originally, it was believed to play a role in abscission but scientists now believe it has some other function).

Some parts of the leaf will be actively broken down as the leaf slowly dies, its grasp on the tree being weakened by the abscission cells, until the tree is finally rid of all the leaves and enters dormancy, waiting for the days to grow longer again.

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Biopoetics: Windborne

Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo
Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

A huge thank you to Crab Fat Magazine for publishing this poem; you can read it here, see the form here, or listen to me read it here.

Windborne is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Windborne occurs as the trees begin to let loose their seeds (known as samaras, or helicopters), allowing for them to be carried on the wind across the land (this is known as anemochory).

In Budbreak, adult sugar maples that are at least 22 years old begin to produce leaves and flowers; these flowers cover the entire crown of the tree and contain both male and female parts. However, within a particular flower, only one sex will be functional – even though each tree will contain both sexes of flowers. Sugar maple pollen is carried by the wind from male to female flowers, fertilizing the ovules within the female flowers that will ripen into seeds over the next sixteen or so weeks. Each double samara (two wings) generally contains one seed which is ripe and ready when it turns a nice green color. Over the next two weeks, the ripened samaras will fall – leaving a pit in their coat, called the hilum, where they were once attached to the tree. The shape of the double samara and the size of the ‘wings’ allow samaras to be carried at least 100m!

Seeds are packed with their own food source (the endosperm) to help fuel the plant embryo’s growth. The embryo has several important parts – the plumule (rudimentary shoot), a radicle root that will emerge first upon germination to reach water through the leaf litter, and the first leaves, or cotyledons. In sugar maples (dicotyledons) there are two of them, which I wrote more about here in the Biopoetics for my poem “Dicotyledons”. Seeds typically have only a year to germinate before losing viability so it’s critical they land in a welcoming, wet environment. Seeds that are carried by the wind to extremely dry areas, rocks, or other inhospitable places will likely never germinate – which is why adult trees produce so many samaras. One year in Michigan, 8.56 million samaras/acre were recorded!

Check out the link of the photo, where the photographer has provided a few more maple seed facts in the description!

Main Source:

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Biopoetics: Sapriver

I’m so thankful to Five 2 One magazine for publishing this poem; you can purchase the journal here, read my poem here, or listen to it: here.

Photo by Duane Tate entitled ‘Trees in Winter’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Sapriver is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Sapriver occurs as the ground  begins to warm and winter (Deepnight) starts to fade into spring.

In fall, trees store sugars in their roots before losing their leaves and laying dormant through the short, cold days of winter. ABA, abscisic acid, helps the tree acclimate to the cold winter temperatures and be ‘frost ready‘ (entering a period of dormancy with fallen leaves, closed stomates, and other cellular changes).

During those winter days, sunlight can warm the cells just under the bark, causing them to expand. When night comes, the bark cools and contracts faster than the cells underneath, causing a vertical seam to split the bark open as it tightens over an expanded layer of cells. This heat stress can cause significant cell death and cracks in the barks of trees, sometimes called ‘frost cracks’ or ‘radial shakes’ (though there are also other causes of these wounds). Smaller trees can even die from these wounds, as they have fewer cell layers overall. This is just one challenge faced by trees due to weather conditions.

Longer days cause snow to melt, saturating the soil, and also raises ground temperature. The daytime heating of the ground causes sap stored in the roots (created through photosynthesis by leaves the tree lost in the fall) to also heat up; the sap expands due to the heating, creating pressure inside the finite space of the roots, causing some of the sap to flow up the trunk of the tree through the xylem. At night, when everything cools, there is now negative pressure in the roots – causing water to be pulled into the roots from the environment to equalize the pressure again. This sap and water is used by the tree to begin creating buds that will eventually become flowers and leaves, a process helped along by ‘gibberelins’  – hormones that stimulate stem elongation, breaking and budding, and seed germination after periods of dormancy (in response to cold).

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Biopoetics: Budbreak

A huge thank you to The Waggle for publishing this poem; you can read it here or listen to me read it here.

This is another poem in my sugar maple cycle, and I owe pretty much all of this poem to Margaret Skinner and Bruce L. Parker’s Field Guide for Monitoring Sugar Maple Bud Development. I highly recommend checking out the link, to see the great pictures and descriptions of the leaf and flower buds as they develop from dormancy to ‘Budbreak’. It’s one of my favorite sugar maple resources.

Photo by Eli Sagor entitled ‘sugar maple pointed buds’ (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic), link through photo

When I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I hypothesized what I thought would be important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. In human terms, Sunleaves is fall, Deepnight is winter, and Sapriver – Windborne take up early spring through mid fall.

Dormant buds begin as small conical shells of overlapping scales (that are actually highly modified leaves) surrounding either leaf or flower material. They survive winter by remaining inactive (we discuss this in brief in the ‘Sapriver’ biopoetics). As they leave dormancy into their initial swell, they grow larger but retain their conical shape. Trees exit dormancy when two conditions are reached:

  1. The minimum number of cold days has passed (hence why global warming creates serious concerns)
  2. Warming begins in conjunction with the longer photoperiods of spring

Basically, the longer days of spring can cause the buildup of gibberellin and this is part of the pathway for breaking bud dormancy.

After the bud swells, it continues to elongate and turn green (for leaves, yellow for flowers) and the scales surrounding the bud loosen, preparing for the emergence of what’s inside. In fact, they loosen enough to allow in parasites like thrips, which I wrote about in another poem (Comma after Late Budbreak, Defoliation by an Invasive Pear). Finally, the bud bursts into a group of flowers (called an inflorescence), or a wet-looking set of leaves (reminiscent of the ‘wet’ wings of butterflies right after they emerge from their cocoons). The wrinkled leaves are curled over the bud before they begin to unfold and spread wide, ready to photosynthesize. The flower bundles droop down, covered in pollen, before eventually shriveling up as seeds begin to form in their stead.

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Biopoetics: Euplectella

A big shout out to Eyedrum Periodically for publishing this poem; you can find the link to the poem here, see it with the correct formatting here, or listen to me read it aloud here.

A preface: it seems not a lot is known for certain about the shrimp Spongicola japonica or its host, Euplectella spp. What follows is a loose biopoetics of the ‘science’ that inspired this piece.

Image/Public domain (NOAA)

S. japonica shrimp are small, translucent shrimp sometimes pictured with an orange tint [though it was hard for me to tell if that was their actual color (unlikely) or perhaps some kind of image manipulation or stain]. When they are still very young, and thus small, these ocean bottom-dwelling shrimp find their way inside Euplectella spp. – sponges made of silicon that form a sort of lattice as pictured left. Two shrimp live in a sponge together, a male and female pairing, and grow up eating the nutrients “provided” by the sponge (it’s unclear to me if they eat algae off the spicules or get particulate matter that the sponge absorbs first or…); as they grow bigger and can no longer fit through the lattice of the sponge, they become trapped inside the sponge for life. After the pair reproduces, their young leave the sponge while they’re small enough to escape and go in search of their own place.

Euplectella spp. are thought to live on the abyssal plane (according to this website anyway), about 3000 to 6000 m deep. They are known for their fantastic spicules (what constructs the lattice) which have fiber optic qualities; since the spicules house bioluminescent bacteria, they glow quite consistently and brightly. The sponges grow on mud and hold themselves to it with fibers that grow like a messy ball at the end of the sponge. The sponges are relatively tall and thin, held up by rods (again, the spicules) which are covered in syncytium which seems to be a cob-webby mesh that catches particulate matter. Basically, these sponges are like a deep-sea skyscraper for shrimp.

The sponges can come detached from the mud and, eventually, they can wash up on beaches. In Japan, dried sponges containing two dead shrimp were given as gifts to couples at their weddings, considered to be a sign of eternal love and thus a symbol of good luck.


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Biopoetics: Honey bee dance evolution from Apis mellifera to Apis florea

Whew, what a title! A huge shout out to Slag Review for publishing this poem in 2016 – you can read it here and listen to me read it aloud here. You can find the scientific paper this poem was ‘found’ in here.

Honeybee in Rochester
A foraging Apis mellifera in my backyard this summer. Photo credit/Meghan Barrett; published in 2017 in The Waggle.

This poem is about my favorite organism (though not my favorite species) – the bee; specifically, the honey bee. The paper this poem was found in is titled “Dance precision of Apis florea – clues to the evolution of the honeybee dance language?” and explores the dancing communication behavior of two species of honeybee.

All honeybee species use something called ‘the waggle dance’ to communicate the direction of and distance to new food sources and possible new nests (if the colony is getting ready to swarm – where they take off, and find a new home together). You can see a great video of this behavior here (starting around 1:20) – it’s pretty cute. The duration of time a worker bee spends wiggling back and forth indicates how far away the source is, the direction she orients her dance indicates the direction of the source in relation to the sun, and there is some evidence to suggest that she can also describe how ‘exciting’ her find is with the vigor of her dancing.

Different species of honeybees nest in different locations – some nest in the open, on a branch or cliff face (like Apis florea), and others nest in much more precise locations, like a cavity in a hollow tree (such as Apis mellifera). This leads to differences in how precise the dances of these species need to be when advertising for new nest sites; open nest sites require less precise dances than small cavity nest sites. By contrast, almost all advertisements for food sources do not need to be very precise – usually floral patches are very large (like cliff faces).

This paper studied the dance precision of A. florea and A. mellifera; they found that A. florea workers danced with the same imprecision whether they were advertising food sources or nesting sites. In contrast, A. mellifera increased its dance precision when advertising a new home for the swarm, as compared to food sources. I won’t get into a long evolutionary explanation here since we’re running low on word count, but the authors suggest that their results present evidence in favor of the waggle dance evolving firstly for communicating about nesting sites – and then was later adapted for foraging as well.

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Biopoetics: Strawberry Compositions

I’m so thankful to UnLost magazine for publishing this poem last month; you can read it here or listen to it: here. You can find the scientific journal article it was ‘found’ in here.

Me, working a forest community ecology project in Geneseo, that included lots of black walnut tree hugging.

This poem was directly inspired by a paper entitled ‘The allelopathic effects of juglone and walnut leaf extracts on yield, growth, chemical and PNE compositions of strawberry cv. Fern’ by S. Ercisli, A. Esitken, C. Turkkal, and E. Orhan, published in 2005.

The paper, as the title suggests, looked at the effects of juglone (a chemical produced by plants in the Juglandaceae family, like walnuts) and Persian walnut leaf extracts on the yield, growth, chemical and plant nutrient element composition of strawberry plants. Juglone occurs in pretty much every part of walnut trees – including the roots, bark, leaves, and fruit – and is known to have toxic/growth stunting effects on nearby plants. In my part of the world, it’s why we’ll sometimes see stands (groups) of black walnut trees growing isolated from other species; the juglone in the leaves that drop to the forest floor every year, and in the roots, causes many other species to die off if they are sensitive to juglone (like potatoes, pine trees, white birch, or eggplants).

This paper looked at the sensitivity of strawberry plants to direct juglone treatments and walnut leaf extract treatments (of varying concentrations). They found that the plant’s growth was inhibited by all treatments, and that strawberry plants also produced less leaves and fruits (and smaller leaves and fruits) when subjected to juglone treatments. Extract and juglone treatments also impaired the ability of the strawberry plants to grow roots and uptake nutrients from the surrounding environment. It looked like, based on some of their graphs, diluting the concentration of the walnut leaf extract decreased the negative effect of the extract on plant growth.

The overall picture? It appears that strawberries are pretty sensitive to juglone; if you want a good yield, avoid planting them directly under a walnut tree (particularly black walnuts – which have the highest concentration of this phytotoxin)! The good news is, juglone is not very water-soluble and thus doesn’t travel far in soil. The highest concentration will occur directly under the canopy of the tree – so the further out you go, particularly once you exit the ‘root zone’, the better off your plants will be. Other trees – shagbark hickory, for one – do also contain juglone, but at a low enough concentration to generally not affect even the more juglone-sensitive plants.

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Biopoetics: Ashenhalted II

I’m so thankful to Firefly magazine for publishing this poem last month; you can read it here (pages 8-9) or listen to it: here.

So this poem rose out of my love of the word ‘ashenhalted’ which I coined in my first poem of my Sugar Maple cycle, Acerum on Fomalhaut b, and from learning (via my brother the distiller) that Jack Daniels whiskey is mellowed over sugar maple timbers. I did some research into that process, called the Lincoln County Process, and this poem takes on the nitty-gritty of that charcoal-making, spirit-purifying process.

To begin, a sugar maple is cut down; typically tall trees are preferred, so I would suspect these are trees mature enough to have created their own fruit (the samara). When a tree is cut down, the roots are cut off from the rest of the tree; the roots will run out of the nutrients provided by the photosynthetic leaves and the rest of the tree will dry out without water from the roots, causing cells to plasmolyze (when the cytoplasm shrinks away from the cell wall due to severe dehydration).

The cutting down of the tree will also impact its environment. Heavy equipment used to cut down the tree will compress the soil, which can cause reduced soil aeration and slower drainage rates, along with making it harder for new roots to push through the compacted dirt. The loss of trees can also make it so that nutrients needed for the growth of new plants are more quickly leached from the soil, with no mature roots to take up excess water. Another impact of mature tree loss is increased sunlight reaching the forest floor; while this can be negative (allowing takeover by invasive species, increasing soil temperature, etc) it can also allow the fruit dropped by that tree to be competitive and grow out of the shade of the mother.

Making charcoal at Jack Daniels, Jack Daniel Distillery; Public Domain

The cut-down tree is split into planks (4 feet by 2 in. square), which is, in my mind, the approximate height and thickness of a young sapling. The leaves and smaller branches, a lifetime of the tree’s work, are discarded. Pyres are built by stacking 343 planks on top of one another, and four pyres are burned at a time, set alight with 140 proof whiskey, “each pyre tilted so they collapse into each other” (“Charcoal Mellowing”). They are burned outside for two hours before being doused with water; the lumps of charcoal are then ground up. It takes sixteen pyres to make enough for one charcoal mellowing tank.

This charcoal is what is used to filter out the bitterness that is inherent in the whiskey after distillation; while dripping through the charcoal, the bitterness is taken up leaving a smoother product. After a maximum of six months, the charcoal in the tank is flushed with water to remove any whiskey that soaked into the charcoal and the spent charcoal is used to make barbecue brackets and smoking pellets.

Citation for Quote:

“Charcoal Mellowing.” Diffords Guide, n.d.,

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Biopoetics: Crassostrea virginica

Photo by Jeremy Keith entitled ‘Oysters’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

First, a big shout out to all the sins for publishing this poem in their inaugural issue; you can find the link to the poem here, or listen to me read it aloud here.

Crassotrea virginica is one of five species of oysters. C. virginica is an Atlantic-dwelling species and the northern-growing varieties, living in colder waters, are known for their intense briny flavor. They are the type of oyster that a person eats, which means that they will not produce pearls. Pearl-producing oysters are from the family pteriidae (as opposed to eating-oysters from the family ostreidae) and generally live deeper in the ocean than eating oysters.

Oysters, eaten raw, are considered to be a luxury food – just as pearls are also a symbol of wealth. I found this juxtaposition, of food and inedible material both based in the same type of shellfish and also symbols of riches, to be really fascinating; it was the socioeconomic context of oysters that really pushed this poem into being more than the science.

It’s said that oysters taste better in the winter as they can be kept cold and fresh easily from the moment they’re harvested. Oyster shells, filled with calcium, can theoretically help plants grow in gardens if used as fertilizer; the calcium can reduce soil pH, add need nutrients to the soil, and strengthen cell walls (supposedly – it’s up to you if you trust this source). I wouldn’t recommend just chucking the shells into the garden though; it seems likely they would be difficult for your average soil-living microbe to break down. Crush your shells up first, and you’ll get some healthier, happier plants!

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