Madhur Anand: the complex systems of poetry and ecology

Dr. Madhur Anand is a Canadian poet and a professor of theoretical ecology at the University of Guelph. Her topics of research include coupled human-environment systems and forest and forest-grassland mosaic ecosystems, and especially how sources of stress and disturbance, such as agriculture and climate change, impact these ecosystems across different spatial scales and time scales. She uses simulation modelling, statistical tools, dendrochronology, and other observational methods. Her two poetic books, "A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes" and "This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart" have been nominated for awards and included many "best books" lists.  Her publications in science and poetry are too numerous to cite here, so read more about Dr. Anand here:

and here:

Having read both her books since our interview in the spring of 2020, I can say with unabashed enthusiasm, that they are distinct, exquisite, beautiful and heart-ful. Please read on: the divide of science and art in schools, the mystery and necessity of art, the love of rigour and mystery required to be a good artist and a good scientist.

photo of Madhur Anand courtesy of Random House

Lucy: I remember last spring (2019) we happened to sit at the same table at the Wooly Pub after you attended Fujiwara Dance Inventions' performance at the Guelph Dance Festival. You and Denise (Fujiwara) were having a lively conversation. I was so tired and feeling too shy to participate. So I’ll start by saying I’m sorry I didn’t meet you properly then! Denise sent me your contact info when we got back to Toronto and said, “You should talk to her for your art and science research!”

Madhur: That was such a lovely evening.

Lucy: It was. I read your book of poetry, “A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes” yesterday.  I just loved it. I was like a little forest creature digging or burrowing into it.  I had never heard this fantastic term before: theoretical ecology, your field in science. Maybe this is a starting point… 

I have read a lot about theoretical physics, so I have an idea as to what theoretical ecology might be. You probably work with models that simulate and predict ecological possibilities or outcomes rather than working directly with what is happening in the present.

Madhur: Yes, that’s pretty close.

Lucy: So how did you get from being, let's say, a 13 year-old girl to being a theoretical ecologist?

Madhur: It’s a long story and I don’t know where to begin. But let me begin by showing you my new book which just came out. I touch on that question in the book. One side of the book is about my parents and one side is my voice, my stories.

photos courtesy of Random House

So, to answer your question now. The reason I pulled the book out: the joke about being a 13 year old.  I talk about being that age in the book. One of things that preoccupies me a lot is: how do things come about? How do things come to be and why? 

Your question is so intimately tied with so much that I don’t even know where to begin. It is linked to these stories and this history, how I was brought up, and I would take it even further. It’s linked to my family’s history. You can read about it in the book and perhaps come to some other answer…..

In more practical terms, I did make a decision pretty much from the advice of my parents to choose science after high school. Because our society requires you to make those choices between arts and sciences quite early and quite abruptly and quite finally. Because that’s just the way arts and science exist now in our world. They are quite separate. They didn’t used to be and I’m sure you know all about that.

Lucy: I do.

Madhur: The term scientist was only coined in the late 19th century. Before that people just discovered and observed and created and there wasn’t this distinction. Basically, ever since then, they have gotten further and further apart.

Those very hard-wired pathways in society required me to make that decision. Which is all to say that I’ve always loved both. In high school I equally enjoyed math classes and physics classes and the creative writing classes. Some of my most vivid memories of high school are from my creative writing classes. Those were the classes where I felt I was really being pierced as an individual. I had these illuminations. 

Being equally good in those two areas, I had to choose. I did contemplate one of the only programs at that time that didn’t ask you to choose. McMaster University had an arts and science program that was highly regarded and was for people who couldn’t choose.  There was that one option that I didn’t take.

So having not taken that one, I had to choose a science undergrad. You know how it works: you start very, very generally. You take them all. Then in second year you make the first choice on the decision tree of specializing. You choose between physics, chemistry, biology and math. I chose biology. In biology, you get your basics: molecular, zoology, botany, ecology. And then you have to choose again. In 3rd year I chose ecology. In 4th year you specialize more. It was then that I took my first course in theoretical ecology. That’s when I discovered there was a thing called theoretical ecology. 

And I looooved that course. I realized that there is a discipline of ecology which focused on ideas, concepts, hypotheses not yet confirmed. Really creative things. How to match our ideas of the world to the world itself. These concepts were so exciting to me. It also showed me that there was a way to be a scientist that didn’t require doing repetitive straightforward linear experimental work. 

Not to say that all experimental work is like that. But up to that point my lab courses were not truly experimental – you know in undergrad lab classes: Here are a set of instructions. Follow them and see if you get the same result. To me that was the most boring thing you could do with your life. This course in theoretical ecology suggested there were other ways to be a scientist. They fit who I was a bit better.

I started my Masters degree in an area that includes, but was not limited to, ecological modelling, as you described. And I continued to do my PhD in that field. It matched my interests of exploration: exploring imaginary worlds, exploring the complex interactions, exploring surprising behaviours. 

I’ve been involved in theoretical models and field work -- a lot of field work-- and I got a sense of how those worlds would eventually intersect.

As I explain this to you, I know that at the time I couldn’t know this, but saying it, everything applies completely to the art of being a writer.

Lucy: I completely understand that.. Finding the intersection between the concepts or ideas and the reality of life – that is crux of art making, I think. 

Madhur: It is. And that was the project of my new book “This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart”. You could call this a book of theoretical ecology and not be completely wrong.

Lucy: I can’t wait to read it. It’s on order and coming to me soon! 

Something I really responded to in your poetry was all the taxonomical names. I had my field guides out, trying to guess what the species were and then looking them up to see if I was right. It reminded me of a game my dad used to play with me on long car rides. He’d say “get out the field guide and tell me a Latin name for something and I’ll tell you what species it is. He was right all the time. Not because he had them all memorized, although he did know a lot that way, but because he studied Latin in university and could decipher the roots of the words and make educated guesses about the species. I was always really impressed.

Madhur: How’d you get a dad like that?!

Lucy: My dad was an engineer and a naturalist. He loved nature. I come by it honestly. He was passionate about it. My mom too. They would take us out of school for a week every year to birdwatch the spring migration at Point Pelee National Park. My sister has now worked there for over 20 years. We take my son every year -- except this one, of course. 

What I was getting to about your poetry is that these are the details, the beautiful fine details, of life that only a scientist would notice. I found that absolutely fascinating. The little images, things that seem to be random but then aren’t at all. I don’t know if I have a question inside this….

Madhur: That’s a great description: that they seem to be random but they’re not. I appreciate that because it is a bit difficult and if you don’t have the openness to go with it until you see the non-randomness, you just might not ever see. You might be turned off and find it too difficult or nonsensical. 

Lucy:  I’ve spent a lot of my life writing and reading and studying poetry – not professionally, of course though in my graduate work I did a lot of historical analysis of artistic symbolism. I’m not a trained a literary scholar, I trained as an historian. But I love poetry, I love words. In your poetry, I loved seeing so many species and references to colours and textures and things that are around us all the time. Noticing them through your poetry.

In my last production with Blue Ceiling dance we were trying to embody the behaviour of light in space. It’s something that is there all around us, impacting us, but we don’t really fathom it at a deeper level. When science and art come together, we can illuminate those mundane-but-elusive or out-of-sight-out-of-mind things for people who are not already deeply plugged into them, and create a visceral understanding.

Madhur: I completely agree.

Lucy:  I had a similar experience to you in high school where I was told: you gotta pick one or the other. And once I picked arts, I was told I had to pick one art form. At 16, I loved writing and painting, and I danced and wanted to choreograph, played piano and oboe, wrote and sang my own songs. But they told me you have to choose. Even my undergraduate degree – a Joint Honours BA in Dance and Music – was not possible, I had to campaign for it, get special permission. It's the only degree of its kind ever granted at the University of Waterloo.

Madhur: I think nowadays it’s a bit better, there are a few more arts and science undergraduate programs, but it’s still hard being both. I’ve been both for quite a long time now. Both an artist and a scientist. The worlds are so different. There’s so little room for both.

Lucy: To co-exist in one person….How did your career as a writer develop then? 

Madhur: I had always been an avid reader. But I had no idea or ambition to do anything artistic. I had always loved language. I knew I had an aptitude for languages. In high school I took German and French. In my undergrad I did a minor in French. I took courses that were not just language instruction but literature courses, with teachers who were writers themselves. This happened naturally and organically. Language is the base of creative writing and I do think having access to more than one language is a gift, including the language of science, as you correctly identified.

I had that foot in the door, an exposure to the world of literature even while I was doing my undergrad and my PhD.

However, I did not attempt to write my first poem until the final year of writing my PhD thesis. 1996. I had been spending a lot of time alone in the lab, working with some very difficult ideas in complex systems theory, in chaos theory, in dynamical systems theory and ecological modelling. They were so rich they were blowing my mind. It was philosophically rich too. All of these things created the conditions -- being alone too – so that one day I got up from my desk writing and I just couldn’t go any further with it. I was stuck. The malaise of it, feeling like I couldn’t do it. I got up from my desk and looked out the window, then I came back and I wrote my first poem. It just kind of came out of the blue.

Quite a metaphorical thing in its own sense. If I try to put a narrative on it: I was going along the scientific path, I got stuck and did not know how to go forward, but then something came at me from 90 degrees, which was poetry. It inserted itself into my life, saying, “here you go, do something with this.” I didn’t know where it came from or what I was doing. 

I wrote a few more poems in those final months of writing my thesis. I told my supervisor about it, that poetry had happened to me. My supervisor said, “Oh that’s amazing, you should put those into your thesis.” And I did. I even have it right here. I’ll get it.

Lucy: I’d love to see it.

Madhur: They are not the greatest poems ever written. But they may be the first poems, at least at the University of Western Ontario, ever included in a PhD thesis in science. Towards a Unifying Theory of Vegetation Dynamics, Anand 1997. There are seven chapters….and interludes. Those are the poems. Seven of them, one for each chapter.

That’s where it started. Then I became very fascinated about what poetry is. I educated myself. I went to the university bookstore, into the English section and perused: What poetry books were there? What were they teaching? What was contemporary Canadian poetry? I had no clue.

And then I started to read voraciously. 1996 was the year that Wislawa Szymborska was the Nobel Laureate of Literature.

Do you know her work?

Lucy: Yes. I’ve read quite a bit by her. My Polish history professor recommended her to me!

Madhur: There are scientific elements in her work, and that was fortunate because if that year it had been Bob Dylan, I might not have connected. It was a good luck thing because I loved her work, and she was talking about probability theory in her poetry. I’m not sure if everyone sees that but I did.  It was “She’s talking about probability! She’s talking about information theory! Oh my god!” 

I started to see the science everywhere: ornithology, geology. I read Robyn Sarah – meticulous and logical, though not a scientist. It’s not that I was looking for it, I just realized how smart the poets were, how we can learn so much about the world through poetry. I was primed for it because I was already a fully formed scientist with all this stuff in my head. It was the perfect time to start reading poetry for me.
Then, now that I know what poetry is and can be, what I can do?

Lucy: Does your poetry inform what you’re doing in your ecological research – does it play a role, or are they cruising together? Like a motorcycle with a sidecar.

Madhur: It’s a really good question that I have been asked often. I don’t have a good answer to it. I feel like being a poet is a way of being. It’s a method that is just not describable except say it involves close observation, being attuned to so many different signals. It requires a sense of adventure and risk taking and a willingness to not just accept that you don’t know, but to really go there with the objective of finding a single answer.

Lucy:  I know what you’re saying. There’s this idea in dance, an old-fashioned idea, that you have to sacrifice everything for dance. But I feel it is the reverse: everything comes into dance. When your body is your art form you are constantly building your instrument by observing when you don’t even realize you’re doing it. It’s conscious, subconscious, and unconscious, and constantly alive and active.

Madhur: Exactly. And is that going to affect my science? Of course it is. I just can’t say how. And that’s the unknown part. It’s like trying to describe how you write a poem. I really don’t know how it comes about. I know many things about craft, but what makes it a poem? Ultimately, who knows?

It’s so much easier, to see the science in my poetry than to see the poetry in my science because we have a much clearer picture of what science is. The language of science is specific. But the language of poetry is everything.

You put the word “hypothesis” in a poem and there’s the science. You put the word… what word? ”sonnet”, maybe, In a scientific paper… doesn’t work like that. The raw material of poetry is not defined by a certain lexicon.

Lucy: Something that has lately come up in my life as a dancer and as a choreographer, about finding the tools to really embody something. The language of science has been a major tool for me because I find it so intriguing. We often think of scientific language as definite and definitive. But at the base of it, science exists because of the people who do it. The language of science exists because people have chosen to put those words together.

The theory of relativity was my first inspiration for a science-based piece. Those three words are so potent for so many things. There’s a beautiful poetry to scientific language, particularly to someone who doesn’t understand the nuances of the lexicon, as you put it. Some of the combinations of words are spectacular.

Madhur: I know exactly what you mean.

Lucy: Speaking of evocative, poetic words -- I wanted to specifically ask you about your work in forest ecology – why forests? 

Madhur: I think the answer might not be very poetic. Even though that’s the main ecosystem I work with, I have worked with many other ecosystems. In a way, I followed ecosystems that were the dominant ones around me. Growing up in Ontario, we were not and are not dominated by forests anymore, we’ve lost over 90% of our forest to agriculture and urban spread in southern Ontario-- but for the most part Canada is a forest country. It is really very simple. That is the dominant landcover. So these were the opportunities to go and study and do field work. It’s more of a practical answer there.

Once I started, various collaborations arose. I now work in endangered forest systems in Brazil, and some other parts of the world. But theoretical ecology allows us to focus not just one ecosystem type. Even if I’m working on a forest model, a lot of the concepts about interactions and complexity and diversity of species, how it persists in a complex system: those concepts can apply to many systems. That aspect of theoretical ecology dominates my entire area of research.

Lucy: Taking a set of ideas and applying it in different places or contexts?

Madhur: Yes, or seeing what commonalities emerge from different kinds of ecosystems to try to understand some of the underpinnings, and to discover how diversity arises and how it’s made. The effects of perturbations on ecosystems.

Lucy: That’s fascinating. I need to do some more reading about this! I’ve read a fair bit about ecology but more from the philosophical perspective: Edward O. Wilson etc.….I need to swim some deeper waters.

Madhur: An interesting exercise for you me might be…..well, in “A New Index….” there are thirteen found poems that derive from scientific articles I wrote, so you might want to read the poem and then read the article as well.

Lucy: I’m all over that. Yes.

Madhur: To me it’s the perfect exercise because, the perfect example of the two sides of the coin. I think the poems have very little to do with the actual message or information in the scientific article, but they are still linked. They are entangled with one another. I think it would give you a neat perspective on it.

Lucy: Entanglement! now we're getting into the quantum world....

I loved when I got through the poems and got to the information on some of their sources…. I added one into choreographic notes for a new piece I'm making that looks at atomic structures, the most abundant elements of the universe and the human body, what their interactions are with each other. I’m most obsessed with carbon….so when I read the end note about the correspondence of lines in the poems and carbon 13 – I got excited.

Those notes are like little keys. It’s like EUNOIA. (Both Christian Bok's poem and Fujiwara Dance Inventions' dance inspired by it). Once the rules are explained or revealed, you become a co-conspirator.

That said, I’m glad I read your explanation/notes at the end and not at the start because if I had before I read the poems, I would have been more analytical. But as it was, the notes made me go back and read the poems again.

Madhur: That’s the thing about the poems. It shouldn’t matter that the constraints are all there, it should stand on its own regardless. You build the scaffolding and you build and build and build and then take the scaffolding away. It needs to still hold. It needs to still exist. 

I think that’s maybe where art that uses science fails, because it’s too self-conscious. We have to realize that the art just has to exist.

Lucy: The rules and constraints help us, as creators get there and get the audience there too. But the whole substance can’t be the constraints. Something new will come in if you let it.

Madhur: If you are too conscious it tends not to work. Or it speaks only to one kind of audience. I really wanted my writing, that book to be for everybody. Not for scientists, not for poets.

A lot of people have asked me if I’m trying to communicate science through my work. It’s an issue. Many people assume that if you are using science in art it must be to communicate the messages of science. That is, unfortunately, a dominant idea out there about the intersection of art of science. That could be what it’s used for, but that’s not the main point of what I’m doing. It was important for me that everything was accurate, everything was true. If there were links to reality, they were there, but the poems had to stand alone and be works of art. That was quite a challenge.

Lucy: This brings up a pair of words that keep coming up in my interviews on this subject. A broader general public might see these words as oppositional but I think they fold into each other so well in describing the process of both science and art: rigour and mystery. I think rigour is often primarily associated with science and mystery with art.

But you have to have to both. If it’s all rigour it doesn’t really go anyplace new and if it’s all mystery it’s going to have a hard time finding it’s landing place.

Madhur: It won’t hold together! It won’t hold together.

Art needs a vessel or form. Form is incredibly important in poetry, even if it’s free verse, there’s form and meter and knowledge: prosody. I have little formal training in prosody….I just learned what it meant two summers ago. I took a masterclass with Carl Phillips who is a master of prosody. And I was excited to suddenly learn the terminology of poetry-- all of the meters. All I’d heard of was iambic pentameter – but there’s a host of poetic devices, patterns, diction…..

There I was writing without that knowledge! But as I learn more about it I understand why certain poems are so good. You can assess and not know the technical stuff, that’s the beauty of poetry. But if you do know the devices and meters and all of that, you can see how brilliant they are. I mean not my own work but poetry in general. I can see the structures.

Lucy: What is your favourite part about being a scientist?

Madhur: I love being a scientist….oh, I’m going to say the same things when you ask me what’s my favourite part about being a writer! 

First of all, the word scientist is so broad. To me it means: I can imagine things, I can conjecture, I can look at the world and other people’s ideas before me. And if they spark ideas in me, I can form new hypotheses. I’m not constrained to the world as it is. I have the ability to discover new things and hopefully extend our knowledge and discovery into new areas. What is a more beautiful pursuit!?
It’s not always like this, but these are the most beautiful parts of being a scientist. The freedom and encouragement to make fundamental discoveries about the world.

Along with that there are many other things. Being a theoretical ecologist – I’ve had some pretty wonderful interactions with the natural worlds. I certainly love that aspect of my particular science as well. To go to certain areas and study in the field, to be continuously reminded of the wonders of natures. The wonder that is tied to science: I absolutely love it.

Lucy: I can still ask what’s your favourite thing about being a poet, but I think we could use the same answer.

Madhur: Take the same answer and see if it works for poetry too! There are similarities. In my poetry I am discovering things about the world. It brings new truth. It’s a different kind of truth from scientific truth but it’s important and valid and that’s why I do it.

I think that’s my answer.


The Art + Science interviews have been supported by the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship and a Professional Development Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

This interview is the first in the continuation of the project without funding. If you would like to donate to the Art + Science project of Blue Ceiling dance, contact Lucy Rupert:

Stay tuned for Blue Ceiling dance's first virtual Art + Science event! Dr. Madhur Anand reads some of her work, dancers share work-in-progress from Lucy's new project "a tiny piece of anything" and explore High Park with a virtual tour. Coming soon:


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