My experience as Poet-in-Residence at a Tree Ring Laboratory (September 2017)

Visiting Poet to the Tree Ring Laboratory – University of Stockholm

(This post was initially supposed to appear on the Gala Network site.)

The Geosciences Building, University of Stockholm

With great thanks to the GALA Network’s funding, I travelled to the University of Stockholm in Sweden during September 2017, with the purpose of spending time as a Visiting Poet in the University’s Tree Ring Laboratory. As a poet with keen interest in how science and poetry can interact and inspire each other, a key purpose of my visit was to explore the role of the poet in such an environment, but also to use what I learned about dendrochronology (the science of tree ring studies) to inspire a series of poems towards my in-progress poetry collection, which focuses on ‘The Loss of Trees’, both personally and globally, and what impact that has on life on Planet Earth.

I was also invited by the English department to deliver a talk and reading to the Masters students in Creative Writing, during which I presented about my PhD research on how poetry can function as dialogue between science and spirituality. This Higher Literary Seminar was well-attended with students and a number of staff who were wonderfully engaged and asked many insightful and interesting questions. From the enthusiasm of course head Dr Paul Schrieber, it seemed that the material discussed would connect well with planned subjects moving forward into the term.

My two main contacts in the Tree Ring Laboratory were Björn Gunnarson, the head of the laboratory, and Eva Rocha, a PhD student with the University of Stockholm conducting her research at the Tree Ring Laboratory. The time spent with both Björn and Eva was incredibly illuminating, and I gained a window into both the processes in the lab itself, as well as much of what goes towards the study of dendrochronology during the fieldwork expeditions. The visceral experiences of drilling core samples of living trees, sawing and polishing these core samples in the lab or large discs of tree timbers in the field, handling, and examining these samples go hand in hand with more cerebral analysis. Microscopes connected to computers aid in ring counting, assessing ring thickness and density. Data from individual trees can contribute to the Master Chronology, allowing for a deeper and more thorough understanding of global climate change over time. Additionally, processes that allow for the detection of certain levels of pollutants within trees, alongside the very exact calendar that tree rings offer, can help determine time and responsibility for ground pollution in certain tracts of land, acting as forensic evidence—already used in court cases of this sort in Canada and elsewhere.

The work the Tree Ring Laboratory does in these areas is increasing in importance, and dendrochronologists are seeking all the time to add to a more complete understanding of climate history and climate change. There are areas of the world where more data is needed, even in Sweden but especially in regions such as Siberia and China or tropical localities, with potential to discover a glimpse further back in time or fill in blind spots. Data from these areas will allow for more thorough Climate Archives.

During my visit to Stockholm, I also met with Dr Johan Lind, who is author of the book Quercus: The Oak and Diversity, an Associate Professor for the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution and Department of Zoology at Stockholm University. Though his primary interests are animal behaviour and ecological diversity, his book on the Oak had attracted my notice, and he kindly provided a guided tour of the oak copse and nature reserve area nearby the campus, discussing many of the ecological projects on the grounds, including the Botanical Gardens and recently installed wetlands. There were a number of specific oak trees of note on this walk, and Johan provided a great understanding the significance of the trees in the larger ecosystem of Sweden. That trees offer such an important contribution to sustaining diversity in and of themselves increased my appreciation of their importance, beyond the study of tree rings.

Björn, Eva, and Johan all appreciate and support the need for greater outreach to the public in order to communicate the importance of scientific work. Their encouragement and support of my visit, and their willingness to share their time and work with me, is incredibly appreciated. I have already begun drafting the series of poems based on what I learned, and it may very well become an essential backbone to the complete work of this collection. I have also learned some important things about how a poet can engage with scientists in their working environment. And I hope I also left a positive impression of poets with the scientists themselves! (I did leave chocolate and biscuits.)

Eva and Miranda in the Tree Ring Lab
Eva demonstrating the tree coring technique
Tree core samples
A timber disc under the microscope
Tree rings
View of tree rings through microscope
More tree disc in the lab
Dr Johan Lind next to an oak tree in the nature reserve
Trees in Humlegården, National Library of Sweden
The Vasa Ship, at the Vasa Museum
Beautiful Stockholm!