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June 25, 2019

4/27/2019 7:30:00 AM
natural reaction
The song of science
Jacob Friede
Of The Lakeland Times

On my way to the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership Convention I hit a nasty storm of sleet and hail, highlighted by booming thunder and flashes of lightning that lit up the snow on the ground.

According to Dr. John Coletta, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the peculiar awe which accompanied that thundersnow was as much a part of that storm as velocity, temperature, and pressure.

Dr. Coletta teaches environmental and scientific writing at UWSP as well as literature and ecology. He gave a presentation at the convention titled the "Poet as Scientist." During it he discussed the notion that emotional and aesthetic responses should be counted as data when making observations about a specific object or phenomena.

I interpreted that philosophy like this: The peculiarity and strangeness of the thundersnow was evidence of a rare occurrence. While the almost holy glow of a sky full of hail, reflected off a flash of lightning, was not only a beautiful sight but an indicator of the storm's intensity.

My reaction to the storm, which was to continue to drive right into it, occurred because I trusted beauty over the barometer. I was more curious then cautious, and I failed to consider danger.

Thankfully I faced no adverse outcome, but, from a stand point of logic, I should have taken shelter. Instead, the storm signaled a poetic invitation more than it indicated peril. And to Dr. Coletta, everything, literally, comes down to reading signs.

From the words you read to the weather outside, it's all signs with meaning attached.

"Everything can be coded as sign, object. It's all connected," Coletta said during his speech. "The separation between mind and environment is an artificial one. To understand thought we have to understand ecological processes and ecological processes to understand thought. The ecology of thought."

Ecology is the study an organisms relationship to it's environment and thought is the vehicle that bonds the two. The language used is that of signs.

Besides his extensive work in the field of English, Dr. Coletta is also a scholar of semiotics, which is the study of signs and symbols.

He described the object-sign relationship like this: A raven sees a thorn shaped bug and has two choices. It could think the bug is a thorn and move on or it could realize it's a bug and eat it.

The bug looks like a thorn, so if all goes according to it's plan, the bug will properly signify the object, which is a thorn, and the raven will fly on. That outcome Coletta described as an "interpretant."

"The interpretant is the proper significant outcome of any sign operation," he said.

Back to the thundersnow.

The object in that situation, to me, is an endless list of danger. Lightning should have "signified" that and I should've altered my plans. Though I didn't. I read the lightning as an ecological opportunity. An affordance worth risk.

I was not out consciously collecting data or composing a poem. I didn't have to. The data was denting the hood of my car while a poem played out across the sky. I proceeded for no other reason than to take a closer look, and investigation, plain and simple, is the heart of science and song.

And because of that, it's tough to separate the radar image from the written verse, because they both signify, in vivid detail, how fascinating nature is.

Jacob Friede may be reached at or

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