by Kim De Wolff
If you google “Maya Khosla” you will find an Indian poet living in America, the co-director of the Turtle Diaries film project, and a Senior Field Biologist. And you will likely be impressed to learn that they are all one and the same person. In her seminar, “Ways of Water, Lives of Those Who Depend On It,” Maya Khosla demonstrated this accomplished breadth in a presentation of prose, poetry and film surrounding her work on sea turtles. Both project and approach reach across divides between researchers and publics, science and art. In what follows I pull out three themes that emerge in and from her work that help us grapple with questions about the practice of being interdisciplinary in a time of ecological crisis.
- Communicating “More Than” Science
Though trained as a biologist, Khosla explicitly leaves space for something “more than” science. She writes that arribada, “defies logic, and to some extent, defies scientific understanding,” and deploys scientific concepts as poetic metaphors. The ecotone, for example, as transition area between two bioregions, between land and sea; and as a kind of transcendent boundary space, something bigger and older than humans, than science. The project assumes a natural world that sometimes exceeds our capacities to understand it, and demonstrates a commitment to environmental communication that requires more than the conveyance of measured facts. This stands in contrast to approaches that privilege scientific understanding alone; it is a kind of resistance against the tendency to reduce problems in the word to matters of scientific accuracy (This is an interesting contrast to our first presenter of the seminar, Emmanuel Vincent, who emphasized accuracy and/as credibility as crucial components in climate change science communication).
Like all interdisciplinary endeavors, however, there are tensions between ways of making and sharing knowledge. In an interview, Khosla acknowledges this outright, pointing to the delicate balance between science and values and pushing toward a broader set of questions: what are the relationships between ways of knowing, caring, and acting? Does accuracy matter if it precludes action? Is awareness enough?
- Making Ourselves Present
Another way we can think about these tensions is by looking at the variations in writing styles between two short pieces. The Arribada article, for example, leans more toward the conventions of science or environmental writing. It presents a phenomenon in the world: the wonders of turtles coming to nest; a threat to this continuing as returning turtle numbers decline; and the researchers trying to understand it all. The author, as the researcher-writer is a mostly outside observer, describing what is happening on the beach. The article is written in past tense, and even draws on bits of passive voice.
Where the Arribada article opens with images of turtles and turtles alone, the fieldnotes article in Flyways begins with the writer herself very much present: she is “shin-deep” in ocean and turtles and darkness. It is unapologetically written in first person, opening with a declarative sentence that effectively says: “I am here.” Where the Arribada article gives a sense of how the beach looks, here we get a sense of how it feels: little claws digging into human skin and grains of sand that stick to everything; the excitement of scientists and the rubbery smell of baby turtles. The writing is far more emotional, and the author so very human: someone who hopes and cares and struggles and fails. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the devastating moment where a night of successfully leading baby turtles toward the sea by flashlight, ends in the daylight revelation of just how many more remain disoriented and exposed.
Faith. Doubt. Failure. All of these things, of course, are not standard fare in natural science writing where they would be seen to undermine the project of sharing objective knowledge. When and why do we write ourselves in and out of our work? What disciplinary or generic conventions and politics are enacted as we make ourselves and our experiences of research, of interpretation, of emotions, present or not?
- From Awareness to Global Change
My final big point returns to the question of the ‘how’ of rasing awareness. Sea turtles are an example of what biodiversity and science and technology scholars (among others) call Charismatic Megafauna: the kinds of species more likely to get attention from publics and policymakers than others. They tend to be large, cute mammals with big eyes. Think pandas, baby harp seals, polar bears. Anything that makes a good plush toy. Like their furry counterparts, a turned around baby turtle being torn apart by a crow – has the capacity to elicit urgent emotional responses in a way that the slow and dispersed effects of ocean acidification cannot. There’s no question, that these are effective strategies for raising awareness, and in the case of organizations like Greenpeace, significant funding. In theory, this funding is then used to protect whole ecosystems.
Yet, as poster-creatures for the ocean, charismatic species like turtles are more likely to be studied, protected and positioned prominently in environmental campaigns than say, the blobfish. Which, if you haven’t seen one, looks like a sad-faced melting pile of pink slime . In response, we could simply adopt the blobfish as our mascot, like the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (Yes, that is for real). But this kind of thinking still leads toward single species-specific problems and solutions. You can see this in the last question asked by the interviewer from Flyways: what can we do to save the turtles?
My final question, then, (and it is a big one) is how do we move from awareness to global change? From having more people on beaches with flashlights to turtle populations that do not need human intervention to thrive. And how do we move from saving specific turtles to addressing the much broader challenges – of climate change, of inequality, of capitalism – at the root of the threats themselves? I do not have the answers – but if it is turtles all the way down, then turtles are an excellent place to start.