Profile: Marnie Reed Crowell
Waxing poetic on the spring melt, lichens and all things natural
By Lori Valigra
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Nothing tickles Marnie Reed Crowells imagination like the spring melt. At the first signs of cracking ice, birds returning from their winter retreats and buds clustering on branches, images flood her mind and poetry runs through her fingertips onto paper. The biologist-cum-poet and environment conservationist says every season has its charms, but she loves melt. I like to watch new sprouts come up and the old, dirty snow melt away, she said excitedly. And then I like to see which things are on time. Its a bit of detective work. Some birds always return on time, triggered by daylight. Increasing day is a metaphor for optimism, said Crowell.
Icicles on the Lee Eaves
Crystal cool carrots
like dragons teeth drip.
The rain chain hangs frozen
stiff and stout as a club,
but hear the ocean snarl
as out of the south
come the jaws of Spring.
Marnie Reed Crowell
Crowell, a Deer Isle, Maine, resident originally from New Jersey, doesnt see the line often drawn between science and artistic expression. The daughter of an entomologist, she grew up fascinated with the natural world. She fell in love with both words and science, and to this day still hasnt chosen between them. And like her father, she possesses a natural curiosity about the things she doesnt know in nature, and an unstoppable willingness to share what she does know with anyone within earshot. I grew up explaining how an entomologist was insects and an etymologist was words, she said. My father taught me the scientific and the common name for everything we saw. I had a hard time choosing between arts and science. Ultimately, she didnt choose, but wove the two together, teaching high school biology and Latin. Crowell has since published a number of books on natural history as well as poetry. I called my first book Greener Pastures because I thought any pasture is worth greening, she said. Perhaps some of the inspiration for that book came from teaching biology to inner-city sophomores in Camden, New Jersey, who didnt spend much time getting to know the natural world around them. As far as they were concerned, a little brown bird was a kind of bird. That was a bird species.
Wild times in the city
Crowell believes anyone can sensitize themselves to nature, starting with small steps. For example, city dwellers could notice the subtler signs of springs onset by seeing the discoloration at the bottom of a tree. If theyre inquisitive, they might look beyond what most would call scum and consult a guide book at their local library. In the book theyd discover they had seen one of the two or so lichens that can survive city air pollution. Country dwellers may be able to identify 30 species of lichens on trees where the air is purer, she said. But merely noticing that there is something growing on the tree is a step closer to nature. You may not be able to name them [the lichens], but youre a step ahead of yesterday when you didnt know they were there, she effused. So the world just keeps getting richer and richer.
Nowadays, Crowell, keen-eyed and energetic at 69, explores Deer Isle, where she puts her astute and sensitive observations and interactions with nature into verse that even the most science-challenged can understand. Working at her side much of the time is photographer Ann Flewelling, who brings the dimension of physical imagery to the stanzas of her poems. The two call their verbal/visual collaboration threehalf press, because the combination of one plus one person can be more than two. Their most recent book, Beads & String: A Maine Island Pilgrimage, is a collaboration that highlights Deer Isles preserves. New chapters focused on months of the year appear each month on the Web site of Island Heritage Trust, a conservation land trust for Deer Isle, Stonington and the surrounding islands. Proceeds for the book, to be published in full in the spring, will go to the Trust.
A trust emerges
The volunteer-run Island Heritage Trust is another of Crowells loves. She and her husband, Ken, an ecologist, were instrumental in its origins in 1987. It was Kens work studying the mouse populations on different islands surrounding Deer Isle that helped enlarge the circle of people interested in donating land or easements to maintain the pristine character of Deer Isle. Crowell said its not necessary to be a Rockefeller to donate land or services, such as the proceeds of a book, to a land trust. No one was a millionaire on Deer Isle, she said. She and Ken met many islanders through Kens work. They also volunteered to give nature walks and talks, which inspired other islanders who attended to donate land or easements to the Trust.
Their interest in conservation began in New Jersey, where both are from, and where they got involved in The Nature Conservancy, which later led to their work in the land trust. Of Deer Isles 24,000 acres (9,712 hectares), so far 2-3 percent are preserved.
These two bare twigs,
too scant to be driftwood
but nicely branched and silvered,
they fit my hand so well
I carry them full circuit
around the island
with no vain intention
of taking either home with me
but I like the feeling
of winnowing the sea breeze,
of holding hands with the sky,
of sensing how a lobster feels
waving its claws in communication
with Poseidon and the sea.
Marnie Reed Crowell
Crowell, her husband and their Deer Isle friends started the land trust. What is amazing about Deer Isle, Crowell said, is that almost all of the preserves in the early years were gifts from people. Nobody was wealthy. Emily Muir had to sell some of her land so she could afford to give away that other land, said Crowell of local builder, architect and artist Muir, who decided to give the backland where she was building a line of houses along a cove as a nature preserve.
Crowell admitted those were good years, but now people considering making donations have a tougher decision with the rapid escalation of land prices. Land preservation is entering a new phase, she said. How do you deal when youre now talking millions of dollars? The last couple of years the preserves have been purchased, not given. People may be generous, but theyre not going to give away a million-dollar nest egg.
But there are smaller, still important contributions that can be made. Most of my contribution has been I donated my talent, she said. It happens we came to Deer Isle early on, so we were able to acquire 30 acres (12 hectares) of land thats right next to a preserve. We gave the conservation easement on it.
But Crowell feels her more significant contribution to the land trust has been reaching the local people through nature walks and books, work that inspired the people who owned properties to find a good mechanism to donate. Thats totally satisfying, she said.
Artists as educators
So what is the artists role in preserving the environment? An editor at Readers Digest told me the key to success is that people want to know what its like to be inside someone elses skin. So Ill tell you what its like to be me and go mackerel fishing. Crowell doesnt think artists are obligated to have an environmental cause or bend to their work, but she does suggest to her artist friends that making an artists statement could be useful. Crowell said most of the local artists do make such a statement, for example, Carolyn Caldwell. Why do I paint? she says in her artists statement on her Web site. Vanishing beauty. The world is changing rapidly. Development is overtaking the natural world .My hope is that artists can slow the rush.
Said Crowell, She could have painted ugly stuff, but she chose to paint beautiful stuff and serenity and say, look, if we dont take care of it, this is what were going to lose.
Its not just professional painters, photographers or writers who can speak for the environment. Crowell admits she wasnt trained to write. She felt compelled to do so. She also hails the advent of new technologies like digital cameras, which make it easy for people to capture and share images via home-made newsletters, the Internet and other ways.
Just at the silver seam
between the sea and shore
the spotted sandpiper
teeters, speaks softly to itself
a poem it has by heart.
Marnie Reed Crowell
If youre a city person looking at ants and then go to the museum and look at the display, how do you share that? Do you share it in your local co-op newsletter? Do you share it in your school newspaper? You probably can find someplace to share it, and it probably will mean something to other people, she said. Part of what I do, by the way Dowsing and other poems, is for people who spend their lifes energy in a city working hard. They need their battery recharged, she added. So by reading Dowsing theyll feel better, like holding hands with wind on the bay.
Crowell recommends carrying around a small notebook, or jotting creative thoughts, phrases and inspirations on them. I had to learn to trust my own flash of emotion or inspiration, she said. What I see in the natural world is usually a metaphor that has a deeper meaning to me. It is a highly spiritual experience, like Dowsing or Mackerel. Both of those poems are pretty humbling. Like Dowsing. I literally was walking around the Isle with a stick in my hand and Ann looked at me and said youre doing a poem arent you? And I said I suppose I am. What is the poem about? Its about holding these sticks in your hand. Formerly bayberry, these are ordinary twigs, but I like the way they feel in my hand. Im half expecting them to pull down toward the center of the earth like a dowser. And then I realize this is so interesting it must be the way a lobster feels in communion with something bigger and since its sea youd call it Neptune or Poseidon.
She added, What I would encourage everybody to do is when you get those thoughts, work on them, play with them, make them more exact and meaningful. Words have an abstract melody. Listen to that. You dont need to go to a poetry class. Allow yourself to listen to it as an abstract sound. And the pattern of words that most fit, play with that for a week or so and look at it again. A better way of arranging it will occur to you. That tinkering is whats making poems.
Lori Valigra is editor of the Gulf of Maine Times.
For more of Marnie Reed Crowells and Ann Flewellings work visit: http://www.threehalfpress.com.