The First Writer in Residence

1 May 2019 saw the launch of the Wytham Woods Writing Residency, known as ‘Woodland Words’. We are thrilled that Sarah Watkinson, emeritus Professor of Plant Sciences, accepted the post and has already launched into the yearlong residency with gusto, hosting the ‘Buzz in the Woods’ event here with SciPo, and writing a poem for the 2019 Sustainability Showcase.


It was extremely exciting for me, as a mycologist, to be invited to speak at the English Faculty. I should try to explain how I arrived at the wonderful position of being Wytham Woods’ inaugural Writer in Residence after a career studying the workings of fungi.

In fungal growth, delicate living cells grow in direct contact with their unpredictable and often hostile earthy environment, unshielded by tissues. A complex biological system constantly reorganises itself as it feels its way through a changing micro-world, using senses fundamentally similar to our own. Woodland fungi organise their mycelium into subterranean resource-supply networks to combine carbon and nitrogen acquired from separate sources – wood or roots, and soil. Science is how we try to explain the workings of wonders like this, believing, as Sir Paul Nurse has put it, that nature is explicable. In my last big project before retiring, we explored the whole genome sequence of a wood-rotting fungus, and discovered DNA code for a means by which the cells may produce the most powerful oxidising agent known in the whole of biology, perhaps dissolving wood by a process of repeated micro-explosions. I find this wonderful.

On retiring in 2009 I took the University’s Diploma in Creative Writing at the Department of Continuing Education, where I was tutored by the poet Jenny Lewis, and learned from her about poetic form, a whole toolkit for communicating ideas and emotion together. Poetry and science share more than you might at first think: close attention to the thing in hand; wonder; curiosity; precision. In one of Jenny’s first exercises, to write a correct Petrarchan Sonnet, I had recourse to the journal Current Biology for inspiration and lit on Dacke et al., 2013: Dung Beetles use the Milky Way for Orientation. I stayed up writing until four in the morning as the lines clicked into place. The poem was highly commended by George Szirtes in a competition for which Jenny had quietly given out flyers in her class; last year it was broadcast, duly acknowledged to Dacke et al., in Radio 4’s Natural Histories, and it eventually gave its title, ‘Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight’ to my poetry pamphlet which won the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Prize in 2016. Many invitations to poetry events followed.

That story illustrates the extraordinarily open and welcoming nature of the poetry writing community. When I started to write poetry I had no plan to be a ‘science poet’ but simply to share some of the extraordinary natural phenomena, and our ideas about them, that I’ve learned about through science.  However, in 2016 Jenny proposed that we jointly organise a Science Poetry conference, with her Poet’s House Oxford at St Hilda’s, where I am an Emeritus Fellow. SciPo is now starting its fifth year, supported by St Hilda’s Research Committee, and by the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities as the basis of a TORCH SciPo New Network. The dialogue between poets and scientists is a delight.

Our first TORCH SciPo workshop was arranged to focus on Wytham Woods’s Oxford Plan Bee, with Dr Tonya Lander of Plant Sciences leading a bee walk, facilitated by Nigel Fisher and Lucy Kilbey, followed by me and Jenny running a poetry writing afternoon at the newly refurbished Chalet.

Image of Sarah Watkinson smiling

As Writer in Residence I am delighted to be planning further events in which poets will be invited to talks from researchers in Wytham Woods, followed by writing workshops with me and fellow poet Romola Parish. I am also receiving related writing commissions in connection with the university. During my year in the Woods I will be collaborating with Romola to produce an anthology of Wytham Woods poetry, and I look forward to working with schools and local communities, writing poetry to celebrate Wytham’s extraordinary ‘open air laboratory’ that, like the community of poets, welcomes everybody interested in the natural world.

I would like to thank Wytham Woods staff, Nigel Fisher and Lucy Kilbey, and the researchers collaborating with me, for this wonderful opportunity and for their unfailing and enthusiastic support. What an extraordinary privilege it is to be the first holder of the Wytham Woods Writers’ residency, and to be welcomed - as a poet - into the Laboratory with Leaves. May the Residency grow and flourish!


- Sarah Watkinson