Data science and poetry

During the first years of my postdoctoral research at the University of Oslo, Norway, I worked extensively with data management and formatting, similar to what people are now publishing, tweeting, and otherwise communicating regarding GBIF and other digital data.

The data I worked with, at the time, were not entirely included in GBIF (though now many are, at some degree of spatial resolution). They comprised curated data, making them unique though still with formatting issues to contend with. From the databases of each European country we had access to, I formatted and merged them together into a “meta-database,” linking in open-source, additional environmental data.

It was computer work. Office work. Alone work. Me-work. Day-after-day-of-only-me-work-on-the-computer-alone-with-the-data-work.

Suffice it to say, I found it painfully dull.

I knew that there was a reason for what I was doing. I could see the potential in the results, just so long as I could accomplish the required computational efforts. Thus, my mind on fungal ecology and global change, incentive propelled me forward – despite the day-to-day boredom.

Much of science is, actually, mind-numbingly dull. The ideas are amazing. The effort is high. And the drudgery is surprisingly mucky, like trudging through 4-foot tall (1.2 meters) shrub thickets rooted in sinking mud while, after first being comprehensively bitten by mosquitos and with ticks crawling all over, rain-snow-hail pelts down in sequence, propelled by high winds and lightening, wearing cold, drenched cotton clothing and with water squishing out of one’s boots with every step (the right one coming apart at the toe from the sole, providing space for twigs to poke into). I would have preferred the latter. Actually, it sounds a bit like my undergraduate field work.

At one point during the data processing, made even more lonesome by the fact that Norwegians celebrate a massive amount of holidays in the spring but, being from the US, I worked with “that type” of work ethic, I was going through different descriptors for the locations that the fruitbodies were found in, and resolving them into a uniform field. I noted some interesting observations related to the data sources, because languages varied as did the extent of information provided.

When it came to the British dataset, I found inspiration in the record descriptions, where my US-formed mind began to think about the history of Europe, especially Great Britain, while it encountered unknown vocabulary from the Queen’s English, and all set within a botanical and mycological context of descriptors.

What does a bored scientist, with botanical and mycological training, working in Norway during their spring-time holidays, then, do when formatting such data?

They write poems in-between cleaning up the fields, of course!

At least, I did. It saved me from the soul-destroying boredom that was my actual work.

Based on the specimen name, location, notes, and ecological knowledge, a few of the poems I created with a mind to be fairly transparent for anyone and ideally at least of some minor amusement to read, e.g.,

VII. ----------------------------------------------------------
Palette for acrylic painting

There’s an artist in everyone
even the earth’s slime.

On the Isle of Wight little grey-white spheres
are powdered kin clustered on the top of black stalks.

October 14thin 1989 Didymium nigripes picked
an artist’s pallet
as its home
and raised a family.

Rotting logs can be
so cliché.

<Didymium nigripeson ‘artists Stay Wet` palate’>

XVII. ----------------------------------------------------------
The unremitting scientist

You are more a mycologist than most
will ever be.

To collect Melanotus horizontalis
from the bottom of a plastic industrial waste bin.

What else was on that wet rotting paper and card?


Most, though, required a bit more scientific knowledge (utilizing my own, which was otherwise stagnating, due to the data processing chores). For example, in understanding how to tell Turkey tail from False Turkey Tail, that could be combined with double-meanings from homonyms, metaphorically alluding, from science to inference of historical events in the UK, to something of greater significance to society, at least an attempt, i.e.,

XIV. ----------------------------------------------------------
Two things the same

When he hunts for turkeys in fall
I ask,
‘Do you think about the bombs?’

‘No,’ he curtly retorts.
‘It’s inappropriate.’

I stand staring at concentric rings of
orange, tan and cream on a
bracket fungus.

It’s only 1950, but already
a turkey’s tail isn’t discussed during dinner.


Schizo in Latin refers to <splitting>, and phyllum, in mycological parlance adapted from botanical originations, means the spore-bearing <gill> structure many mushroom-forming fungi have on the underside of their caps. I, at least, tend to think that the word <copse> is a more commonly used term in the UK – it’s just a brush/tree thicket – but being a Wisconsin native, also serial-killers are a historical fact to me, and if hopefully no one is offended, the description this time led me to a rather Halloween-esque tale of Schizophyllum commune, which is actually a common, mostly innocent wood decay fungus, or so I thought…:

XII. ----------------------------------------------------------

Big bale grass silage wrapped in black polythene
in a copse, he said smiling strangely.

Or was it a corpse?

I never did trust him much.

He talks to air when no one is around
and the gills split at the margins.

<Schizophyllum commune silage_wrapped_in_black_polythene>

Schizophyllum commune, a common wood-decay fungi with gills that split at the margin.

Fungi are important ecologically, but not especially caring should they cause an allergic reaction or respiratory infection in humans. Flooding and poor housing conditions are two prime ways in which certain types, referred to as indoor air molds, can establish residence in one’s own home. In this next poem, my point was to highlight this problem:

XII. ----------------------------------------------------------
Americana in Blinkbonny.

Asthma inhalers and dry hacking coughs.
Processed foods with debris between couch cushions.

What do you expect when
Chaetomium elatum & Stachybotrys chartarum
are found on peeling and faded blue wallpaper
behind the leaking washing machine?


And, finally for the point of this writing, one was even written about a game many of us are familiar with how to play, adding in the concept that something else could be transferred with a forest twig picked up, dropped on one side of the bridge, and viewed in a race against other twigs on the other side of the bridge:

XVIII. ----------------------------------------------------------
Pooh sticks

To play the game we race to find twigs,
guessing buoyancy by bark texture and branch size.

Laughing along the way, we forget who won in the end.

But this explains why you found
Thecotheus rivicolaon a hard decorticated
branch partly in running water.


This is Pooh Bridge in England, which I visited last November, 2018. Playing “pooh sticks” is fun from any bridge; could anything be transported in such a way? The actual bridge and water below (left). A fruiting Dacrymycetes fungus along a fence-post, with the famous Pooh bridge in the the background (right).

Ecologically-speaking, this could be a topic of interest, in that we rarely consider how human transport of inoculated material impacts the natural environment, at least in comparison to how much we move things, and despite the impact of transfer to the introduction and spread of diseases, invasive species, and genetics.

A clever way to reach the general public would be through artistic means that catch their eyes – if not poems, than other media, don’t you think?