Sunday Science Poem: People Are Organisms Too

Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” (1966)

In honor of Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who died Friday, we’re reading “Death of a Naturalist”, from Heaney’s first poetry collection.

Haeckel_frogs_with_labelsAs the old cliché goes, children are natural scientists, and of those who do grow up to be professional scientists, their childhood obsessions reveal what kind they’ll become. Physicists grow up tinkering with radio sets (or more recently, computers), while biologists roam the woods catching frogs and snakes, or in Darwin’s case, beetles. There are exceptions, of course (and in fact, I suspect that childhood obsessions poorly predict career outcomes), but Edward O. Wilson’s childhood pursuit of venemous snakes in the Alabama swamps fits the cliché:

A swamp filled with snakes may be a nightmare to most, but for me it was a ceaselessly rotating lattice of wonders. I had the same interest in the diversity of snakes that other 15-year-old boys seemed automatically to develop in the years and makes of automobiles. And knowing them well, I had no fear. On each visit I found something new. I captured live specimens, brought them home to cages I had constructed of wood and wire mesh, and fed them frogs and minnows I collected at the hatchery.

Even after a nearly lethal encounter with a Cottonmouth as big as he was, Wilson was not deterred, and he grew up to be a renowned naturalist. Not so the boy in Heaney’s poem, whose shocking first encounter with unsentimentalized biology ends his budding career as a naturalist. Instead, he becomes a great poet.

In ‘Death of a Naturalist’, a boy confronts one of the two central facts of biology: reproduction. (The other fact is death.) In the poem’s first stanza, nature is romanticized, as the boy spends an idyllic summer on the banks of a pond, engaged in that perennial childhood pastime: collecting frog eggs and waiting for them to hatch into tadpoles. For many of us, this was our first childhood encounter with biological reproduction in action, and the boy’s teacher uses this opportunity to relate an anthropomorphized account of daddy frogs and mammy frogs.

But none of this prepares the boy for the obscene realities of the aggressive mating behavior of adult frogs, the “great slime kings” with “their blunt heads farting.” And perhaps part of the shock comes from the boy’s recognition of his own approaching sexual maturity. It’s common for us to anthropomorphize nature, but the opposite can unsettle us, our recognition of our own biology, the fact that each of us is not only a person, but also an organism. We are the consequence of an unbroken chain of millions of reproductive acts that stretch back four billion years, and we are hard-wired with a raw striving after the same aim shared by all other organisms: “to prepare an identical [genetic] programme for the following generation.”1

Death of a Naturalist

All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

You can hear Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” over at the PBS Newshour.

1François Jacob, The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity, tr. Betty E. Spillman (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 2

“Death of a Naturalist” from Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966). Posted in accordance with the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry.

Image: Plate 68 from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen Der Natur (1904), via Wikimedia Commons.

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