Claiming Both Halves of Myself

Monday, April 28th, 2014
Dr. William Austin Cannon, my maternal great-grandfather, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucscon, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library My great-grandfather, Dr. William Austin Cannon, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library

My second language is science. I grew up in a family of passionate naturalist/scientists: my dad is an organic chemist who migrated (sorry!) into bird research, my mother was a librarian interested in natural history, my brother is a fisheries biologist and birder. One of my grandfathers was a design engineer, the other a philosopher/analyst.

The great-granddad I know most about was a botanist who studied deserts the world around. (His third wife, my great-grandmother, was a California impressionist painter; another great-grandmother was a poet/journalist.)

A painting of the Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon A painting of the Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon.

Yesterday on my 510-mile drive home from Las Cruces, New Mexico, I thought about how much my family "culture" of science influenced who I am as I struggled to keep my Subaru on the road in howling winds.

The 20th annual Border Book Festival opens next week in Las Cruces, NM. The Festival poster, featuring gorgeous papel picado by Carmen Delgado Trunk

I went to Las Cruces to present at the 20th annual Border Book Festival, the brainchild of my dear friend, novelist/playwright Denise Chávez. This year's festival focused on Maíz, the Corn Mother—the plant, the food, the symbol of agriculture and culture rooted in the Americas. Corn is one of our native crops, bred by indigenous Meso-americans from a plump-grained wild grass called teosinte into a food which spread around the world.

The courtyard of the private hacienda outside Mesilla where the Friday night dinner was held. The courtyard of the private hacienda outside Mesilla where the Friday night dinner was held.

Festival presenters included a trio of Nahuatl-speaking artist/cultural ambassadors from the mountains north of Puebla, singer-songwriter Consuelo Luz, and Balam Lemus and Alejandro López of Somos el Maíz in the Española Valley north of Santa Fe. We talked of corn as a plant, a metaphor of life and how we cultivate it (both corn and la vida) mindfully and reverently, and a way to understand what is happening in the world today.

In my workshop, The Soul of Plants, we explored seeing the world through a plant's perspective and what that view teaches us about creativity and a mindful existence. I spoke from my two sides, the science I grew up with and worked in, and the writer I am now.

The Chávez sisters—Denise and Margo The Chávez sisters—Denise and Margo

In the festival's final panel, I spoke about how we really are what we eat, biologically and metaphorically, and the implications on our agriculture and our health—inside and out. Those words, along with a conversation with Denise's sister Margo and her friend Sharon, another with longtime Las Cruces friend, photographer/journalist Pam Porter, plus the hike I had taken two days before with another f/Friend, writer Sharman Apt Russell in Silver City, twined in my mind as I drove home.

Sharman Apt Russell in her native habitat along the Big Ditch near Silver City. Sharman Apt Russell in her native habitat along the Big Ditch near Silver City.

I have struggled all my life with feeling as if I didn't truly belong in either science or writing. As a scientist, my credentials are suspect: I never managed to finish a graduate degree or to distinguish myself in a male-dominated field. As a creative writer I am suspect too: I am self-taught, and my work is inspired by science—in particular, ecology, the relationships that weave this living earth.

Yesterday, I realized I'm not one or the other: I am both. I see the world through the lens of one for whom plants are as fascinating as people. And I communicate using the skills of one who loves storytelling, making words dance and sing. Those words gain power from science, my second language and my born-to culture.

Perhaps this seems self-evident. But I have never seen what I bring to this world so clearly as I did on that nine-hour drive home yesterday in the howling spring wind.

I am a scientist. One who views the world with "heart outstretched as if it were my hand." One who tells stories of who we are and what we can become. My gift is precisely that combination of head and heart, plus an abiding love for this living planet, the only home our species has ever known.

Coming down the last pass at dusk. Coming down the last pass at dusk—almost home.