March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

It’s a Long Story: Poet Joyce Sidman’s ‘Ubiquitous’ celebrates evolution’s winners | Under Cover

Photograph by Steve Niedorf.

Photograph by Steve Niedorf.

Ubiquitous features poems about some of nature’s most successful survivors, including bacteria (which are almost four billion years old), sharks, and squirrels. I was stunned to learn that 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.

I know. When I found that out, I felt the same way. There have been so many books about endangered species and why they die out. I was interested in why certain groups of organisms thrive.

Did you discover anything amazing?

One of the things that really blew me away was when I was researching geckos. The reason geckos can climb walls is not because they have some super adhesive. They have toe pads that have nano hairs on them that are so small and so sophisticated that they actually interact molecularly with the walls. And I just really thought that was incredible so I contacted this professor who’s doing that research—and that’s another thing that I would love to say to the world: scientists really rock!

How so?

I would write them these pathetic little emails: “Hi, I’m Joyce. I write for children, and I’m writing this book, and I want to know more about geckos. Can you look at my little note that I wrote that sums up your entire field in one paragraph?” They always responded in a timely fashion. They love to help you.

Your book was vetted by a number of evolutionary biologists and other scientists. Did you have to delete any great lines because they were inaccurate?

There were some lines—and some of them I left in, and some of them I took out. Apparently geckos do not make cries as they’re climbing. The gecko person said, “You know, they make cries when they’re still.” So I looked at the poem, and I thought, poetic license.

That’s very funny.

And then the lichen lady said, “Well, you know, the algae and the fungus aren’t cemented for eternity.” That’s the last line in one of the poems. “Sometimes they uncouple.” And I thought, nope, can’t give up the line. That’s why I have the disclaimer that all errors are my own because I think you need to use a little poetic license at times.

Just so folks don’t get the wrong impression, this book is overwhelmingly accurate—isn’t it?

Oh, yeah. It is. I had to do a tremendous amount of research and I sent it to many different people. We were really careful about that. And Beckie Prange has a degree in scientific illustration. So she was always writing me and saying, “You know, Joyce, blah blah blah isn’t right.” That was really comforting to me, because I’m a German major.

As a poet, you seem most at home when you’re writing about nature and science. Where does that come from?

Who the heck knows? My younger sister, Carol, who’s a biologist at Utah State, was the animal person. Growing up in Connecticut, we spent a lot of time outside, and we went to camp in Maine. Nature is very comforting to me, but it’s the beauty in it that really speaks to me. I love to find the reasons behind why things affect me so much. Red Sings from Treetops was written to explore why color gives me such joy. I can walk along a road and see a flaming red maple, and it just changes my entire mood and affects my whole day. Why does that happen? Right now, I’m working on a book with Beth Krommes about spirals. Why do you pick up a snail shell and think it’s beautiful? Why does that shape occur in nature over and over again? I guess it’s just a question of finding what things amaze you and what things give you joy and what things are intriguing, and then writing about them. And for me, a lot of that has to do with nature.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.