Biologist Turned Poet

June 1, 2006

Rob Jackson's biological and environmental research explores global warming and biodiversity. But his new book of poems, Animal Mischief (Boyds Mills Press), reveals the Duke biology professor's whimsical side.

To a casual reader, Jackson's new book explores in verse a zoo of penguins, sharks, fireflies, armadillos, sloths, octopuses, and other creatures, not unusual children's book fodder. But on closer reading, the poems reveal tidbits of knowledge slyly aimed at interesting young readers in biology. For example, there's the deceptively simple

"When an ant finds food around

It drags its stinger on the ground

To lay a trail of chemicals

... Directions that the next ant smells"

For those young readers whose scientific curiosity has been piqued by the verse, Jackson has included a section of "Fun Facts" that gives more information about ants--as well as the other denizens of his doggerel.

"I love science. I love research," he says. "But there are other parts of my mind that aren't completely satisfied by that. I've always cared a lot about writing and art, and this is a way of expanding on those interests a bit." Not that poetry is an intellectual holiday.

"Good poetry looks effortless, but it's not," he says. "You might spend an hour on a line and not get it right. It's hard work."

Jackson says he began writing the poems for fun while on sabbatical in Argentina. Traveling through the rain forest and deserts of Patagonia and the Andes with his family, he would write poems at night and then read them to his sons the next day. "It was a way of passing time while we traveled," he says. Over time, and with the critical eye of his older sons Robert, nine at the time, and David, seven, he arrived at the collection that would become Animal Mischief.

"I could get a sense of which poems they really liked; which ones made their faces come alive," Jackson says of his young editors. As the collection evolved, the professor in him could not help including short notes on the science behind the poems. "I wanted the poems to be fun for the reader, but I also wanted the kids to learn something."

Laura Jacobsen, the book's illustrator, also recognized that delicate balance. "The animals had to be fairly accurate, not overly personified or cartoony," she says. "And at the same time there needed to be a touch of whimsy, some quirkiness, to fit with Rob's wonderfully quirky writing."

Animal Mischief is not Jackson's first venture into the world of poetry. His earlier book of essays on global environmental problems, The Earth Remains Forever, also included a series of poems.