Duke biologist/poet is up to 'animal mischief'

March 15, 2006

Rob Jackson's biological and environmental research explores the scientific intricacies of global warming and biodiversity. But his humorous new book of poems, "Animal Mischief" http://www.biology.duke.edu/jackson/animalmischief.html (Boyds Mills Press), reveals a whimsical side to Jackson - perhaps more like Dr. Seuss meets The Crocodile Hunter.

To a casual reader, Jackson's new book explores in whimsical verse a zoo of penguins, sharks, fireflies, armadillos, sloths, octopi and other creatures. But on closer reading, each poem contains a tidbit of knowledge about each animal, slyly aimed at interesting young readers in their 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.

Said Jackson of the book's origins, "I started out for fun and never intended to publish the poems. I began writing them on sabbatical with my family in Argentina."

Traveling through the rain forest and deserts of Patagonia and the Andes with his wife and sons, "At night, I began writing these poems for our boys and then would read a poem or two the next day," he said. "It was a way of passing time while we traveled." Over time, and with the critical eye of his older sons Robert, 9 at the time, and David, 7, 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," said Jackson of his young editors. "Their brother, Will, was only one, so he gave moral support from my backpack. Later, when I got serious about the collection, many people helped me." He decided to include 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," he said.

Once Jackson found a publisher in Boyds Mills Press http://www.boydsmillspress.com and its poetry editor, Wendy Murray, the publisher enlisted artist Laura Jacobsen to illustrate the book. Author and artist then collaborated to capture visually the humor in Jackson's words.

For example, the book's cover features, not only penguins building snowmen and having snowball fights, but paradoxically also a raccoon and armadillos, with a parrot making a snow angel and a salamander indecorously flattened by a snowball.

Said Jacobsen, "The animals had to be fairly accurate, not overly personified or cartoony, to fit with the underlying educational nature of the poems; and at the same time there needed to be a touch of whimsy, some quirkiness, to fit with Rob's wonderfully quirky writing.

"The ideas for the personalities of the animals and all the details probably can be traced all the way back to my parents who not only encouraged but cultivated an atmosphere of creativity and general weirdness when it came to animals," said Jacobsen. That atmosphere included giving names, voices and even political persuasions to the menagerie of stuffed animals and wild visitors to their Midwestern yard, she said.

For Jackson, besides satisfying a professor's continual itch to teach, the book also exercised a part of Jackson's creative mind apart from his scientific ingenuity, he said.

"I love science. I love research," he said. "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 the poetry is an intellectual holiday, he said.

"Good poetry looks effortless, but it's not. You might spend an hour on a line and not get it right at the end of that hour. It's hard work," he said.

"Animal Mischief" is not his first venture into the rigors of poetry. His earlier book of essays on global environmental problems, "The Earth Remains Forever" http://www.biology.duke.edu/jackson/earthremainsforever.html, also included a series of poems.

Duke University

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