Network Makes Environmental Change Tangible
Members of the UA's Arts, Environment and Humanities Network have taken on the complicated task of advancing interdisciplinary projects and initiatives to make greater sense of the realities of changes in the environment.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Sept. 26, 2016


UA Arts, Environment and Humanities Network members Eric Magrane and marine conservationist Maria Johnson have been studying bycatch, the unwanted marine life caught in the nets of commercial fishers. Like other network members, Magrane and Johnson are tr
UA Arts, Environment and Humanities Network members Eric Magrane and marine conservationist Maria Johnson have been studying bycatch, the unwanted marine life caught in the nets of commercial fishers. Like other network members, Magrane and Johnson are trying to make environmental research more accessible to a general public. (Photo: Kelly Muller)

On a trawler combing the base of Mexico's Gulf of California for shrimp, research duo Eric Magrane and marine conservationist Maria Johnson found themselves standing before writhing masses of bycatch, described as the unwanted marine life in the nets of commercial fishers.

Finescale triggerfish, shame-faced crab, Sonora scorpionfish, the pacific snake eel, the bullseye puffer fish, the totoaba fish and other forms of bycatch generally make up more than 80 percent, by weight, of the catch in the Gulf of California — a troubling figure that has important ecological implications, said Magrane, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona's School of Geography and Development.

In response, Magrane and Johnson — both members of the UA's Arts, Environment and Humanities Network — have been producing combined works of essays, poetry and illustrations to engage with the species collectively identified as bycatch as part of the Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers' 6&6 Art + Science initiative.

"This is a way for us to try to make sense of this big mass of writhing fish on a deck of a boat," said Magrane, who earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

"It's a complicated thing to do. But when you break it down and actually look at the different species, it allows us to get into questions about the process," he said. "In doing so, we are trying to give some sort of respect, agency and acknowledgment to the individuals and species that get caught up as leftovers in this process."

Through classes, community courses, publications, art exhibitions, performances and other means that connect seeming disparate disciplines, members of the Arts, Environment and Humanities Network are promoting collaborative, interdisciplinary engagement while encouraging a conservation ethic. 

"The arts, humanities and sciences each aim to make sense of complex phenomena, through interpretation of observations and evidence. They all rely on curiosity about the world in which we live," said Gregg Garfin, an associate professor in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

"In their explanations of the unknown, scientists often aim for unambiguous conclusions but express truths in the detached terms of quantified certainties and uncertainties that lead to firm answers to questions," Garfin said. "In contrast, when artists probe the mysterious and enigmatic, what emerges is words, movement and images that point in the direction of truth but can rest in the realm of uncertainty. The intersection of these perspectives provides a powerful give-and-take about negotiating a world challenged by an uncertain future but equipped with an evolving and expanding base of knowledge."

Climate Change Through Art and Interaction

The network includes scientists, researchers, medical doctors, archaeologists, visual artists, musicians, muralists, educators, writers, dancers and others interested in using interdisciplinary approaches to answer today's most pressing environmental challenges. This means learning to communicate across disciplinary divides.

For example, during a recent presentation given during the network's first Summertime Show and Tell event, UA biogeographer Greg Barron-Gafford presented his investigations of the effects climate change has on vegetation.

"I said I would give this presentation without any graphs," Barron-Gafford joked to a crowd full of knowing smiles.

Therein lies one of the greatest challenges to environmental science — and arguably numerous other scientific disciplines. With such an expansive body of knowledge, often driven by high-science and statistical modeling, it is sometimes difficult to understand the implications of changes in the environment.

The aim to help people understand environmental issues is part of the reason several UA faculty and staff members convened in 2012, under the direction of Diana Liverman, co-director of the UA Institute of the Environment, to launch what would become known as the University's Arts, Environment and Humanities Network.

In addition to Magrane and Garfin, the original group included faculty members Christopher Cokinos, Alison Deming and Ellen McMahon. The network has since grown to an international network of more than 200 members.

"We are in a time when there is a need for crucial insight. The Earth's systems do not work in a compartmentalized fashion," Magrane said. "We need to make connections between different kinds of knowledges to make sense of the interconnected environmental, social, political and cultural processes in the world, which were never separate in the first place."

Maya L. Kapoor, the network's coordinator at the Institute of the Environment, said the network provides an important nexus for connection, allowing people on and off campus to find one another.

"These interdisciplinary interactions have been happening at the UA for a long time, so it's not an either/or — someone's interest in the arts or the environment," Kapoor said. "What the network is doing is showing that there are ways to connect those interests. It is creating a place for people to engage with each other's work and find different ways to understand and make use of it."

For example, through the network, Kapoor is collaborating with several partners: Michelle Coe, environmental education coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities program; Dr. Ron Grant of the UA Medical Humanities program; Elena Martin of Tucson Unified School District; and Peyton Prater of the UA creative writing Master of Fine Arts program. Through this collaboration, seniors at Tucson High Magnet School are learning marine microbiology while participating in a community-wide creative writing outreach event that also will introduce them to UA scientists and medical students.

Another example: UA Press this year published "The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide," edited by Magrane and Christopher Cokinos, director of the UA Creative Writing Program. With illustrations by Tumamoc Hill artist-in-residence Paul Mirocha, the book contains poetry and prose as well as field-guide entries on species of the Sonoran Desert.

Magrane's "Climate Change and Poetry" community class, which was taught during the fall of 2015 at the UA Poetry Center, ultimately led to the "Climate Change and Poetry" series, which launches in October at the Poetry Center. This fall, Magrane is teaching the "Introduction to Sustainable Development Course" in the School of Geography and Development.

And the network is sponsoring campus visits by Andrew Yang, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History. For Oct. 19-21, Yang will visit the UA to provide lectures and also meet with students, faculty and others. He will be give a presentation from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 20 in Room S107 of the Environment and Natural Resources 2 building, 1064 E. Lowell St.

"You can have research all over the world," Kapoor said, "but if people are not engaging with your research, that's problematic."

Rethinking Science Communications

Yet another network partnership, called "A Life of Science," exists between the Institute of the Environment and UA creative writing alumnus Simmons Buntin, publisher of, who also serves as web programs manager at the Eller College of Management. Through the partnership, Carson Scholars Program award recipients are contributing original work about their research, which is then being published on the site.

A trained scientist and educator, Carson Scholar Gloria Jimenez, a doctoral candidate in geosciences, is the first contributor. Jimenez opted to write and publish an essay that drew on her Peace Corps experience and her research on Galápagos Islands corals. As a researcher, Jimenez aims to understand how El Niño will respond to climate change, and her career goal is to use high-level climate science to help society deal with climate change.

For the published piece, Jimenez wrote about being bitten by a moray eel while conducting field work in the Galápagos. She said the injury deeply impacted her personal and professional life. No matter how descriptive and jarring her writings about the injury, the essay is not about the injury. Ultimately, the narrative — presented as a series of anecdotes about water — is about dealing with adversity and her motivations as a scientist.

"I didn't immediately link being bitten to water or my conception of it, but once I started thinking of water as a metaphor for forces that we can't control or plan for, I started to see that my injury was simply one example of encountering water in that way," Jimenez said. "Once I made peace with the experience, I began to view water in a more nuanced way. I still enjoy and appreciate it."

Jimenez said that while she long had enjoyed writing prose, the essay for was the first time she had formally employed traditional artistic and creative methods to share her work.

She said she "would be open to continuing to write about my research and work in that format."

Extra info

Upcoming events sponsored by and/or involving UA Arts, Environment and Humanities members include:

  • Oct. 4: "Tucson High School Presents: Microbial Poetics" will be held from noon to 1 p.m. in the second-floor indoor open space toward the north side of the building at the Arizona Health Sciences Library, 1501 N. Campbell Ave. Tucson Magnet High School students will be investigating microbial worlds in their marine biology class and presenting their discoveries in the form of poetry during the event, along with UA students and staff. The event is being held in collaboration with the School Garden Program, the Medical Humanities Program, the Creative Writing Program and Tucson Unified School District.
  • Oct. 5: Network members Ken McAllister, Dr. Ron Grant and TC Tolbert will present during the "Poetry as a Partner in Public Health" panel discussion to be held at 6 p.m. at the College of Pharmacy's Drachman Hall, 1295 N. Martin Ave. The discussion among authors, professors and community members will explore issues related to client-provider relations, and ways to use poetry to expand cultural competence in public health. The event is part of a city-wide series on art, justice and medicine co-sponsored by the UA and Kore Press.
  • Oct 6: "Climate Change and Poetry: Brenda Hillman and Robert Hass," part of a series at the UA Poetry Center featuring eight world-class poets as they address the overlaps, contradictions, mutual challenges and confluences in the categories of climate change and poetry. The reading will be held at 7 p.m. at the Poetry Center, located in the Helen S. Schaefer Building, 1508 E. Helen St. 
  • Oct. 7: TC Tolbert will participate in a Tucson Streetcar performance with poet Kristen Nelson. The 5:30 p.m. event will be held at the Streetcar terminus just south of the UA's BIO5 Institute, Thomas W. Keating Bioresearch Building, 1657 E. Helen St. The event is part of a city-wide series on art, justice and medicine co-sponsored by the UA and Kore Press.
  • Oct 13: "Climate Change and Poetry: Aracelis Girmay" will be held at 7 p.m. at the Poetry Center.
  • Oct. 23: Network members are helping to organize the Children's Museum's FAME event, a free, family-friendly annual extravaganza. This year, FAME will showcase more than 100 pieces of artwork created by students in the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities program. Each piece is a representation of what students learned while performing environmental research at their schools. The event will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the museum, 200 S. Sixth Ave.
  • Oct. 28: Oregon poets Scot Siegel and Kristin Berger will present readings during an event to be held from 5:50 to 7 p.m. in Room S225 at ENR2., the UA Institute of the Environment and the UA Department of English are hosting the event.
  • Nov 17: "Climate Change and Poetry: Camille Dungy" will be held at 7 p.m. at the Poetry Center. 
  • Dec 1: "Climate Change and Poetry: Joy Harjo" will be held at 7 p.m. at the Poetry Center.
  • Dec. 10: The opening reception for "Life, Contained," an exhibition by network member Stephanie "Jo" Bowman, will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave.


Resources for the media

Maya L. Kapoor

UA Arts, Environment and Humanities Network

Institute of the Environment