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NIFA-Funded Drought Research Inspires Scientist’s Poetry

Nifa Author
Lori Tyler Gula, Senior Public Affairs Specialist

It’s not often that we learn about a scientist who was so inspired by her NIFA-funded research that she is moved to pen poetry. So when we learned about scientist Jess Gersony’s six poems that have been published in four literary journals, we wanted to know not only about her research but the pieces that it inspired.

Now an assistant professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, Gersony conducted NIFA-funded research as a postdoc at the University of New Hampshire with long-time NIFA-supported researcher Scott Ollinger, UNH professor of natural resources and the environment. Her NIFA-supported project is titled, “Understanding Drought Sensitivity in Eastern U.S. Forests to Inform Sustainable Forest Management Practices.”

How Trees Respond to Drought

A mountain range in the Northeast.
A mountain range and lake in the Northeast.  Photo courtesy of Jess Geronsy.

Droughts are occurring at increased frequency and intensity in the Northeastern United States and are projected to get worse in spring and summer because of human-induced climate change, according to Gersony. She and Ollinger are investigating how trees respond to these droughts.  

Specifically, they are investigating how much water stress it takes to cause tree leaves to wilt in nature. The point at which tree leaves wilt influences their ability to photosynthesize during drought – so it has large implications for thinking about how much CO2 trees can absorb in the future under different drought scenarios. The researchers are seeking to identify which species are more robust (e.g., don’t wilt as easily) in the face of drought, and how that scales up to whole-tree and ecosystem functioning.

“This research is important because forests take up about 30% of carbon emissions, globally,” Gersony said. “So, understanding how forests will change in the face of climate change, and how these changes influence carbon cycling, is necessary for the accurate forecasting of climate change and its impacts on humans.”

So far, the scientists have found that there is a large array of drought tolerances between species in the Northeast. For example, red oak leaves can handle significant water stress before they wilt. In contrast, red maple leaves wilt much more easily. Within certain species, there can be a significant amount of variation. Additionally, they found that wilting is generally directly related to a whole-tree’s drought response (in the form of growth in tree rings).

“The two ultimate goals of this work are to inform models that predict how much CO2 forests will uptake in the future and to inform forest management practices by providing information about drought resilience of different tree species,” Gersony said.  “This work will give us a better understanding of the role forests can and will play in the carbon cycling of the ecosystem and help us manage for more climate-resilient forests.”

Research Inspires Poetry

Gersony spends the bulk of her time at work thinking about water: projections of drought, its availability in the soil, how it flows through plants, how plants respond to its presence or absences, and how necessary it is for life.

“I find myself processing my experiences in the context of water, and as a result my poetry is saturated with it,” she said. “For example, a few of the poems

that I published during this post-doctoral experience are titled, ‘Introduction to Hydroscapes.’ Hydroscape is a term that comes directly from the plant physiology scientific literature, specifically relating to when plants wilt. It is a way to think about plants’ responses to droughts.”

Illustration by USDA-NIFA of a person diving into water with trees, plants and deer in the foreground. Drawing is representing hydroscape is a term that comes directly from the plant physiology scientific literature, specifically relating to when plants wilt. It is a way to think about plants’ responses to droughts.”
Illustration by USDA-NIFA.

Introduction to Hydroscapes

It was the day you tried to hold on
to individual ocean waves.

It was the day after a satellite
was probably launched,

or volcano. An animal was born.
Did you ever think

to not think harder? I thought
to erase water.

But the animals, any animals,
the animals didn’t believe any of this.

(Originally published in Willow's Wept.)

 

“For me, it can also be a parallel way to think about my life in the context of stress. I found that the term could define my ‘landscape’ of poetic thought. I find myself processing human interactions, human-planet interactions, animal-planet interactions in terms of hydroscapes,” she said.

Consider the final couplet from her poem, “Ancient Tillites:” “I drag myself to the river / and I drag my river home.” This idea came to her as a way of thinking about how water is always in us, as it is always in trees. It is life-giving. Gersony said she also loves to see what her subconscious reveals. “I’ve thought about water stress so much for this research that, now when I’m thinking about my own stresses, it comes out in the writing as a form of drought.”

Illustration by USDA-NIFA of a woman sitting on a stool staring out a window. A river scene is the floor and a mountain view is her home wall. Illustrating Jess Gersony's perspective of water is always in us.
Illustration by USDA-NIFA.

Ancient Tillites

Yes, I believe in geology.
The igneous, the sedimentary,

and the metamorphic. You sit
at the kitchen table, exhaling.

“At least try to fill the space
of your container.”

My head tilts to its shoulder
with weight.

Outside, a boulder, a glacial
deposit.

I drag my feet to the river
and I drag my river home.

(Originally published in the Sycamore Review.)

Currently she is working on a series of poems that explore the life of a leaf. Written in the third person, the poems seek to expose the poetic nature of the daily goings-on of leaves. “The idea behind this project is that the reader isn’t invited, in a traditional sense, directly into the poem – because there is no ‘I’ or ‘you’ to step into. But that means the reader has to find a way in through the world and experiences of the plant. And hopefully that ‘way they found in’ can permeate their daily lives when they see other plants and open up a new realm of empathy for the natural world,” said Gersony.

Love of Writing Poetry

Gersony said she has been writing poetry “since I can remember.” She became more serious about it at Columbia University after taking multiple poetry workshops and doing an independent study with poetry professor Joseph Fasano. While earning her Ph.D. in plant biology at Harvard University, she took eight poetry workshops with Josh Bell and Jorie Graham.

The goal of Gersony’s poetry is to “gently nudge people to be more tender to nature, in their daily actions, in their discussions, maybe even in policy. We are nothing without nature, and we are not that different than the plants I spend all day studying. To me, trees and humans are just different forms of water bodies. And the more art that is out there relating us to our carbon-based nature, the more likely art might have the ability to nudge us in a more tender direction regarding our relationship to the world. This is more important than ever in this time of human-induced climate change.”

Poetry and Arts Inform Teaching About Climate Change

Illustration by  Smith College student Carolyn Sicbaldi.
Illustration by  Smith College student Carolyn Sicbaldi.

Poetry and the arts also have contributed to Gersony’s teaching and educating others about climate change. She recently developed a course “Understanding Climate Change through Plant Biology and the Arts.” The class is based in scientific understanding, and information is processed through art making and the study of nature and climate change art.  

The class is Gersony’s dream course. “I really wanted to use this opportunity to explore how scientific and artistic perspectives can have some synergistic and potentially multiplicative impacts on our understanding of climate change, and to ground the class in an environmental justice perspective,” she said.

Top image: Illustration by Smith College student Marge Poma of a tree surrounded by tall buildings.  

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