When Scientists Become Storytellers

When Nick Haddad's work on rare butterflies was interrupted by a traumatic brain injury, storytelling helped him heal. The journal PLoS Biology is inviting other scientists to tell their tales.
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Every Memorial Day, Nick Haddad visits the artillery range at Fort Bragg to see the rare and delicate creatures that live in this torn-up landscape: the endangered St. Francis Satyr. When the army stops firing and remembers the dead, scientists have an unusual opportunity to see this small brown butterfly up close.

The St. Francis Satyr was declared extinct in 1989, until an isolated population was rediscovered in 1993, on the spot where the army drops bombs and flares. A wider search of the installation, outside of this dangerous and restricted range, revealed that the butterfly subspecies still occupied 10 acres of wetlands.

As a young professor at North Carolina State University, Haddad was confident that he could use this brave population of butterflies as the basis of a larger restoration effort. He drew up rules for these wild areas, restricting access by scientists and soldiers, to allow the butterflies to flourish. Then he sat back and watched.

And the butterflies began to die. There were 1,500 St. Francis Satyrs in 2002, when Haddad's efforts began. By 2011, the population had declined to fewer than 100.

Haddad was eventually allowed into the artillery range itself. Stepping over the shards of casings that littered the landscape, he realized that his experiment had been too cautious. He knew that butterflies needed disturbances to thrive, but he had meant to institute those disturbances outside of the restoration sites: The silken wings of a butterfly just did not seem compatible with detonating bombs nearby.

But as Haddad surveyed the torched landscape, he made a remarkable discovery—one that he has now written about for an unusual special edition of PLoS Biology, dedicated to narrative storytelling: To save the St. Francis Satyr, he would first have to kill them.

Historically, the habitat of the St. Francis Satyr would have been subjected to a kind of natural warfare: the tug-of-war between beavers, fire, and sedge grass—the butterfly's favorite food. Regular damming and burning created the necessary open grassy wetlands. But humans, eager for fur, have more or less extirpated beavers, and suppressed fires.

This left Haddad and his students to implement these natural disturbances manually, removing trees with chainsaws and lugging artificial dams across streams. Haddad remembers the work as backbreaking but exciting, and he was profiled in several magazines. The return of the butterfly, if it happened, would mark a rare conservation success story. Haddad was watching and waiting, in the meantime planning a book proposal about his search for the rarest butterfly in the world.

Then, in 2014, he fell over while playing basketball and cracked his skull.

Haddad has no memory of the next two months. Heavy bleeding led to a severe traumatic brain injury, and doctors had to remove a coaster-sized piece of his skull. Through all of it, he says, the St. Francis Satyr was on his mind. "Nick, how are those rare butterflies?" one of the nurses who had cared for him would later ask. "You talked about them every 90 seconds for three days straight."

Meanwhile, on the artificial wetlands he'd created at Fort Bragg, populations of St. Francis Satyr were soaring. While Haddad healed, the butterflies were undergoing their own resurrection. When he finally awoke, he would discover that his efforts were responsible for one-fifth of the new global population of this rare butterfly.

A St. Francis Satyr.

A St. Francis Satyr.

In his months of recovery, Haddad had time to think about the results at Fort Bragg. He broadened his thinking to other species of butterflies, and the role that destruction had played in their survival: the reintroduction of the Large Blue butterfly in England after biologists overcame their worries that cows would trample them, for instance, and the recovery of the Fender's Blue in Oregon after fire was introduced to the prairie, incinerating both plants and butterflies.

For Haddad, his injury and recovery have been integral to his scientific research, entwined with the recovery of the St. Francis Satyr. Yet while he wrote and spoke about his conservation work, he couldn't bring himself to refer to his accident, knowing that it had damaged him in ways he might still not recognize, and that those lost months had been painful to his family. Academic papers, dry and factual, left little scope for the role that his personal tragedy had played in his new scientific understanding.

"I was recognizing that these butterflies, that are diving towards extinction, can suddenly rebound, that they can thrive again," he says. "Then, at the same time, here I am in my life, in a deep hole, climbing out of it and, as far as I can tell myself, being recovered."

Haddad stayed silent on the topic for four years, until he was approached by the journal PLoS Biology with a strange new idea: peer-reviewed scientific papers, told through first-person narrative.

The special edition was the brainchild of Jonathan Moore, a biologist at Simon Fraser University who specializes in Pacific salmon. While researching these fish, he had come face to face with grizzly bears and watched as his boat filled with water. Science is exciting, he thought, but scientific journals are dull, and too much boredom can be dangerous for science, particularly in conservation biology, where the survival of plants and animals often depends on turning knowledge into passion and action. Meanwhile, a widespread perception of scientists as faceless, impassive humanoids has arguably helped to foster a scornful attitude toward academia—just consider the election of Donald Trump, or Britain's vote for Brexit ("People in this county have had enough of experts," declared Michael Gove, then-justice secretary of the United Kingdom, ahead of the referendum).

"When you think of a scientist, you think of someone in a lab coat who's nerdy and boring. But we're interesting too," Moore says. "I think that in the U.S., there is a bit of crisis in the public perception of science, and I think the effort to humanize it can really make positive steps toward making science appreciated."

Yet scientists are notably skittish when it comes to narrative, aware of its power to distort and misrepresent, and are often wary when it comes to speaking to journalists for this very reason. Accordingly, when Moore approached Liza Gross, editor of PLoS Biology, with the notion of a narrative-driven special edition, she was excited but skeptical.

With a little persuasion, the journal agreed to the experiment. In February, Conservation Stories From the Front Lines was published, including not only Haddad's tale of butterflies, but also Karen Lips' tale of watching the rainforest frogs she studied mysteriously disappear, Sergio Avila-Vellegas' account of accidentally killing a jaguar, and others. Each paper is peer-reviewed, and some, including Haddad's, contain previously unpublished findings.

For Lips, the project was an opportunity to tell her story in her own way, and hopefully reach a wider audience with her message. Scientists are familiar with writing blog posts and giving talks, but writing a peer-reviewed paper confers additional benefits, she says, including career advancement, credibility, and longevity.

"For scientists that are gnashing their teeth and pulling out their hair about being misquoted and their struggles with reporters, this is a great way to take responsibility for what you say," Lips says.

For Haddad, the benefits were even more profound. "It was something I'd been wanting to talk about for a long time. Finally, after four years, I had the comfort level and courage to talk about in an open forum," he says. "To write this story was really marking a moment of reconciling this big life event with my time as a scientist and thinking about the science itself."

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.

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