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A Meeting of Minds, in “Nature and Poetry: A Conversation with E. O. Wilson and Robert Hass,” Thursday, December 6, at the Museum

Q&As

On Thursday, December 6, the eminent sociobiologist E. O. Wilson will join former U.S. Poet Laureate and MacArthur Fellow Robert Hass (below left) at the Museum for a discussion about the interplay between art and science—and how close observation of nature, whether in poetry or science, can inspire the conservationist in all of us. This special event, Nature and Poetry: A Conversation with E. O. Wilson and Robert Hass, is presented in collaboration with Poets House and will be followed by a double book signing.

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Robert Hass, E. O. Wilson


This will be the third time Hass has shared the stage with Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist whose writings Hass puts in the canon of American environmental nonfiction alongside that of Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson.

Hass recently answered a few questions about reading Wilson’s work, his own efforts to inspire young naturalists, and the role of the arts in the conservation movement:

You first met E. O. Wilson at a symposium in which he talked about animal perception of external reality—and you’ve said the meeting inspired a poem?

Robert Hass: Yes. Afterward, I dedicated a poem about a raccoon to him, “Iowa City: Early April”: The raccoon stared down from the crotch of a tree. A dark night, icy in the early spring./“This naturalist I admire,” I said,  “says that every species lives in its own sensory world.”/The raccoon stared down; he was silent…

How else has Wilson’s work inspired you?

Hass: As a literary writer, his biography, Naturalist, should be on the classics shelf of American literature with [Henry David Thoreau’s] Walden, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, [Rachel Carson’s] Silent Spring. I teach his writing in a course [at University of California-Berkeley], “Introduction to Environmental Studies,” or as we call it “The Earth and How We Think About it.” Wilson is a great watcher, a terrific observer of what’s there in its strangeness and complexity, especially in the insect world.

This program is part of a yearlong celebration of the reopening of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the Museum, a tribute to TR’s passion for nature and his legacy of conservation. TR, of course, discovered nature as a young boy—and you’ve worked to raise children’s awareness of the environment. Can you tell us a bit about those efforts?

Hass: When I was poet laureate, I realized we needed to get the teaching of nature into the classroom so I started River of Words, a poetry and art contest, to teach kids they live in a watershed. We are stewards of the world we live in, and if you don’t know the world, you won’t love it. And if you don’t love it, you won’t care for it.

What do you see as the role of the arts in the conservation movement?  

Hass: People talk about whether the arts, the imagination, or work in science ever penetrates public policy. The great heartening example is that Emerson read Wordsworth, Thoreau read Emerson, Muir read Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt read Muir, and we got the national parks!

You’ve said that you’ve found Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, provocative.

Hass: He has this wonderful ambition to account for everything about the human condition in terms of evolutionary biology. I know this alarms some people because it seems to get rid of human choice. (And there are people who suspect he thinks we’re just ants!) I love the ambition of this side of his work and I don’t necessarily disagree with him. I do think there are a lot of different ways of describing the mystery of our being here. Some are quantifiable, like the angle of refraction of light that produces the color red. And some aren’t, like the experience of color, which is maybe more in the poet’s domain.

Click here to purchase tickets to Nature and Poetry: A Conversation with E. O. Wilson and Robert Hass, on Thursday, December 6, at 7:30 pm.

This program is part of the celebration of the reopening of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the Museum.

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