Siebert and Cabal deep in conversation. Photo: Sebastián Rojas Cabal.
Part II. Science
Q: Do you think we’re always looking for metaphors to write about science?
A: I’ve given talks on the bond between science and poetry. And the reason why what you just asked is really prescient is that poetry is about building a bridge via metaphor from some complex recondite, muddled mixture of emotion and thought. You’re building a bridge out of metaphor, back to sense, to understanding. Science now is defined by all these recondite, arcane, unbelievably complex and often invisible worlds. There’s microbiology, for instance, one of the new landscapes of discovery, from which we need to build a bridge of metaphors back to understanding.
So if someone goes on to me about, for example, chromosome 13 and this whole series of numbered codons on that chromosome, how do you describe that so it’s not just codons? Suddenly you’re thinking of chromosomes as a suburban culdesac with all these mailboxes lining them, the specific addresses of the residents that dwell with our cells and make us us who we are..
You come up with metaphors to give a physical shape and look to these unseen landscapes. And because the world, the visible world, has been fully discovered, and mapped, the next “as yet to be” discovered landscape is our own inner biology. We need armies of writers to build metaphors back from such largely invisible worlds. That’s my feeling.
Q: And what do you think are the biggest challenges of building those metaphors?
A: The challenge is it’s hard. It’s a challenge for the actual scientists, which, in turn, makes my job easier. Because, you know, they need idiots like me to come and ask them the questions, over and over, so even I can begin to understand it. At least enough to build the bridge of metaphor back.
That takes patience on the part of the writer. For an actual scientist—and there are some who are brilliant at doing the very thing that I do—they have the information at their disposal. But it’s hard to be a scientist and hover above your material and all that minutia and be a good writer too.
Examples of these are Oliver Sacks, the British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who writes so poetically and beautifully about science. So there are some out there. Lewis Thomas was one of the forerunners of that, a doctor who could also write very poetically. I think the challenge is just finding the right language to express the poetry. The mandate should be, if you ask me, to make people feel the poetry. Because I believe science is supplanting the old stories now, the creation myths, all the Bible stories, and all the old religions.
I think it’s telling a new story that’s just as wonderful and mysterious. And that is what people who write about this stuff need to try to do, to slowly, incrementally get people not to fear science, and to see how lovely it is. I mean, it confounds me that we live in a time where people are still staring up to the heavens and believing in nonexistent beings, when the real story is looking downward and inward, in the opposite direction, looking into the details of where all biology came from, including us.
That story is the new creation story, and it’s a story that doesn’t preclude people’s religion. It doesn’t shove anybody’s God out the door. But I don’t understand for the life of me why human beings can’t embrace that story for its coolness and its wonders.
Look in that direction: you’re gonna find everything. You’re gonna find everything that people thought they were gonna find looking up there. Eternity exists in the details, or as Blake said, in a grain of sand, right?
Q: But don’t you think scientists have been too intent in killing mystery?
A: Well, no. I think that’s a common belief about what science does. That Oh shit, love is caused and can be traced sometimes to chemical reactions. Everything is explainable. Or the moon’s not made of cheese. It was the physicist Richard Feynman who said something to the effect of “Why is the moon any less poetic because we know it is comprised of methane and ammonia and so on and not cheese” .
So it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean science is reductive. It means it’s reinventing mystery in explosively, excitingly new way. Take consciousness, for example. Are we ever gonna totally explain consciousness?
No, because it will be a million times harder than explaining a great Beethoven symphony. In fact, I believe that those kinds of creations so move us precisely because they open up the biggest and longest window that we can get on the true underlying complexity of our biology and of how we got here.
Four billion years of things happening, from the atomic level to the cellular level and, you know, that’s a lot of history. And people just dismiss that. don’t think there’s anything there? And that’s where it is. If you just look back at that stuff, if you find out where the first complex nucleated cell came from. It’s just ridiculous.
The other day I went to Jack Szostak lecture, Nobel Laureate, on the origins of cellular life. That’s the kind of lecture I go to. It’s crazy. I’m fascinated by that stuff because, when you know the true story of how those cells first assembled, the very beings that allowed us and every other living thing to be here at this moment, it’ll knock your socks off, how it happened.
And it’s full of every symbolic significance that you can think of. If you really know how a cell first came together, and what the first cell was, you go, “Oh, that’s the blueprint for the first city. That’s the first cooperative. Those early cells were the first cooperatives. I had a biologist say to me once, during an interview, he said, “You know the best way I can describe what the inside of a cell looks to you like?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “You know the opening to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the movie, where those cars and trains are going by and little airplanes are flying and everything’s doing this little mission on monorails?.That’s what the inside of a cell looks like. All the parts in our cells are all, like, ‘Oh, I gotta deliver this message,’ ‘I gotta take the trash out. I gotta do this.'”
But originally on Earth there wasn’t any of that. There were just vast slime mats of singlecelled bacteria burping oxygen into the air, giving us the oxygen we now breathe. But because they lacked a cell nucleus, they kept making one version of themselves over and over and over and over and over again, for billions of years. For billions of years it was a onenote planet. And then something happened where one bacteria got inside the cell wall of another and got gobbled up by it, but didn’t get fully digested. So the history of life forming on earth is really a story of indigestion Which ins kind of cool. The life-form that got inside the other one, you know, persisted there and started to perform a function for its new host. And symbiosis developed. And then another thing got inside. And it started contributing its particular functions to the workings of the host, it started to cooperate. And that’s how cells got more complicated. In fact, some scientists now think that the cell nucleus, which contains DNA and RNA and controls cell division and the emergence of complex multicellular lifeforms was originally a virus that insinuated itself into an early cell and began to direct its functions. And so that one one cell went over to two and then to three and then to four, and from a onenote planet, a symphony began to emerge, one that would build over the next 3billion years. And that’s why I went back to Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and others. I always think what geniuses like them do is lay bare some of the true fabric of that massively complex original composition called life. That’s my theory.
Q: In many of your pieces about animals, the message always seems to be something along the lines of ‘hey, we should care about these guys too, right?’ But there are many stories out there about human beings that also need empathy, right? And that’s when the choice to write about animals, as opposed to writing about people, strikes me as a little odd. Is there something about that choice that actually makes it easier to care for our own?
A: Absolutely it does. Absolutely. See, because the conceit behind that oft asked question is, “Well, fine to write about animals, but there are bigger problems in the world.” And one of the things that I’m proud of about my animal writing is that this dignifies human beings as well as animals. Because it can only help us to know our bond with the nonus. It extends our understanding. And it especially extends our empathic reach. How could it hurt for us to be more understanding of the commonality, the common bonds we have with all these animals? How could that hurt human beings, even if I’m also getting you to care about the plight of the animal?
I mean, let’s face it. Most of these animals I write about are doomed if not for a fence that we put around them and that means that they’re doomed anyway, because they won’t have any genetic diversity. But most of my pieces stress how there but for the grace or accident of a few neurons go we. That we are them and they are us. And especially with pieces like the one about elephants, the whole dynamic of the piece was you see what’s happening here to them, wilding bands of young elephants raised without the usual parental care because we destroyed the complex social fabric of traditional elephant herds? That’s exactly what happens to war orphans when they’re not raised correctly. Elephants not raised correctly, children who are disconnected from correct parental and societal upbringing, they become wilding bands. Now, that’s not just some bleeding heart animal tights story about save the elephants. That’s a piece about stretching the definition of humanity and the embrace of that.
There are pieces that bring that out more clearly, our commonality with nonhuman animals. I think that’s why this recent parrot piece touched so many people. Because there are cocharacters here. There are wounded war veterans. These guys who go off to war and are just shunted in America afterwards. I mean, they get it twice. They get the trauma of the war and then they come home and they’re just forgotten. And then you have these parrots who are twice traumatized. Traumatized first by being deprived of their flock and their flocking instinct. And then again by being abandoned by the humans who kept them. And now these two entirely different and yet mutually offended beings are helping one another.
So I think that’s why that story helps to dissolve the phony human/animal divide. I’ve learned to not even regard it anymore. I’m not saying we’re elephants. We’re not as good as elephants in a lotta ways. They’re more devout than we are about things. And we’re not whales. But, you know, we sure share a lot with each other. We sure have common motives and makeups. We do.
[Part I] [Part III]
Siebert keeps his precious animal figurines on the windowsill of his office at NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo: Sebastián Cabral.
As a kid who grew up in the city, Charles Siebert spent a good deal of time staring at animals in the zoo. Nonhumans made a lasting impression on him. To confirm this, it suffices to look at his office. A string of animal figurines parade on the windowsill, as if they were preparing to flank the towers of books and opened notepads that clutter his desk and encircle his keyboard. He has seen and written about most of these animals in their natural habitats–everything from elephants to beluga whales and seals. Joining this menagerie is a group of meerkats; plastic transplants from the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, just blocks from his longtime apartment. Those, Charles tells me, are there for whenever he feels homesick.
Part I: Animals
ES: What is it about animals that makes for such great stories?
CS: They’re easy interviews; they don’t talk back [laughing]. I think I know what it is. Part of it is rooted in the childhood fascination with the non-us. Being able to stare into a chimp’s eyes and wonder what’s going on there, knowing that there’s a “there” there. Like someone who’s not human but is definitely cognizant. So, as a little kid, in my own dim way, I kind of intuited that. And I think it’s a fortunate happenstance of history that the science on animal intelligence has developed to an extent where it’s freed up storytellers to be more imaginative and even anthropomorphic in our conjecturing, but without the sin of anthropomorphism. Science of all things—which is supposed to be the enemy of mystery and storytelling—has allowed us to be better storytellers. That’s why I write a lot about science, because I see the poetry in science now. I couldn’t when I was younger.
With animals specifically it has freed us up from the old dictate that held us back from writing about animals—the B.F. Skinner behaviorist thing of we can’t even know what each other are thinking, so how could we write about an animal? My point, that I make ad nauseam, is, well, science has now shown us that while we will never know what it is to have a whale day or an elephant day or chimp day, we do know that they have days and that we can ruin them. Science has shown us that [animals] have minds enough to lose—a phrase that I use a lot in my writings—and that’s why it’s so exciting to write about animals.
And the more we find out about them, like with the parrots and with the elephants and with the whales and the chimps, the more we understand how like them we are, and the more like us they are. So we’re learning about these structural homologies, as they say in science; the analogies, the parallels. All those things make it I think the richest time in the history to write about animals. Richer even than in Darwin’s day. It’s almost like we’re back to the mythological age, but armed with science rather than fantasy.
The animals on Siebert’s windowsill include a parrot, the subject species of his most recent article for the New York Times Magazine. Photo: Sebastián Cabral.
ES: What’s the first close encounter with an animal that makes you think, “I’m gonna write about these guys”?
CS: I usually know why I want to write about them before going out to the field. I went into the parrot story because I had read that traumatized parrots and veterans were healing one another. I went into the whale story because I heard the gray whales off the coast of Baja came out of the water to look at you. I went into the chimps story because I just wanted to see what a chimp retirement home looked like. With chimps, it was originally the editor’s dictate that I write about human consciousness. I had written a bunch about the heart for The New York Times,and the editor told me said, “I’d like you to do for the brain what you did for the heart.”
I’m like, “Time out. Slightly different organ there.” I mean, yes, they’re both organs. They’re physical. But, the heart’s a little more … approachable. The brain’s a little intimidating. I chickened out, essentially. And I said, “Look, rather than write about the brain, and the whole complex issue of consciousness”—which really is one of the great avenues of exploration going on right now—I told him, “I just read this piece about chimpanzees and retirement at this new retirement home in Louisiana.”
It was the last law that Bill Clinton enacted before leaving office, called the Chimp Act. And it was a way of finding nice homes for all these chimps we’d abused in research labs for many years. My editor went, “That sounds so cool.”
So I went down to Louisiana, and I saw this still uninhabited retirement facility that was in the final stages of construction. And it was hysterical. Because I thought, “I wanna retire here. This is gonna be nicer than my retirement.” You know, they had nice little rooms, showers, and their own little backyards with a swing set. And then they had their own little fenced off section of woods to play in.
I went back there when the first chimp arrived. And that was a very moving moment, you know, a chimp being freed from a cage and padding along on the ground for the first time. That was incredibly moving.
Once you’re there on the ground, involved in researching a story, you have encounters that you didn’t expect, and you’re just madly writing down in your notebook. And one day you hear a story and you go, “That’s gonna be my ending,” or “it’s gonna be very near the end.”
And in every story there’s a moment when I go, “Oh, either some event or something someone said is going to be the ending.” With the elephants, for example, that moment came after weeks of being out there in the jungle in Uganda. I was back in the lodge one night. And this this my ritual: I get home, I shower, and I get my notebook and rove over in my mind the things I heard that day. I went out on a veranda and I order a drink. And I was out on the lodge balcony at that lodge, overlooking the Kazinga Channel in Uganda. And hippos are out there with the moonlight on their backs. And I went, “Oh my God, that story. That story today about the elephants that killed this man in Murchison Falls, and the other elephants got together and got the body and buried it with all the devotion and care with which they bury their own kind.”
The idea that elephants—who we are torturing—are tending to the body of one of us in the way they would do to an elephant. I’m going, “I think that’s my ending. My piece has got to arrive at that ending.”
Same thing happened with the parrot story. One of the first days I’m there, a caique parrot from the Amazon just got on my head and on my shoulder and walked around and then dove into my shirt pocket and took a nap, and then came up again, and started to clean my teeth. That was just so funny. And she plucked out one of her feathers and put it on my shoulder. And I went, “Okay, that’s gonna be my ending.” Actually, I had a two-part ending because I was reading—and this is why I tell students to read whatever and as much as they can when writing a story—The Book of Beasts by T.H. White, and I looked up a section on parrots [which is] only a page and a half. And at the very end there’s a footnote about Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, and how, when he went into the jungle, he came upon this parrot that was the only remaining vessel of this lost tribe’s language. The parrot was repeating the words of that lost tribe.
And in my head I went, “Oh my God, that’s my ending.” A world without us, where we and all of our traumas are done and the only thing left of us is the parrots flying around, repeating random shards of our language. And when I said that to my wife, who is an instant bullshit barometer, she said, “You got it. End it there.”