Dr. Meghan Brown is a biologist who teaches at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. You can find more information at her HWS page. During a recent semester, Brown assigned her students variations on the “White Deer Terroir Project” found in the Wonderbook Appendix. Before reading and engaging with the alternative assignments set out by Brown, please read the white deer pages in the book.
You can also find Brown’s related postcard exercise here.
Brown said about the experience: “Having students write this long of a fiction piece was a first for me—it was rewarding for both me and the students. We took a field trip to the depot and spend several afternoons in lab writing, reading each other’s work, and workshopping the story-science connection.”
Brown’s full assignment packet, including grading rubrics, exists in PDF form here: ASSIGNMENT White deer fiction
Examples of Completed Assignments by students: science fact through fiction draft example; science fact through fiction example 1; science fact through fiction example 2; science fact through fiction example 3; science fact through fiction example 4.
Effective communication in science requires explanatory prose, effective figures and tables, context within the field of study, and inspiration for future research. The most successful scientific writing is pleasurable to read and creative; this is true for traditional journal submissions, newspaper articles, novels, and scripts for documentaries. An example of clever scientific writing is The Collapse of Western Civilization (Oreskes and Conway, 2013), which takes a current scientific and social problem, climate change, and uses fiction to creatively communicate its causes and consequences. With this example in mind, you will be communicating about another hot bottom issue, biological invasions, through science fiction or historical fiction. To do so, you will apply the knowledge from the scientific literature we have read and discussed this semester, without the constraints of the present biological world.
Your assignment is to write a piece of fiction set in the Seneca Army Depot that demonstrates ecological or evolutionary ideas that are central to invasion science. You must stay true to the science of the hypotheses you are communicating about, but you have autonomy of the time, the plot, and the biological characters. Possible themes to include: extinction-based saturation vs. colonization-based saturation, allele effect and propagule pressure, the fluctuating resources hypothesis and disturbance, biological resistance through competitive exclusion, enemy-release, and/or obligate symbionts. You will be demonstrating your understanding of these foundational concepts through your own fictional word.
Background on the Seneca Army Depot:
The 11,000-acre Seneca Army Depot (Romulus, NY) closed in 2000. The Army stored and disposed of military explosives at the facility, beginning in the early 1940s. The US government acquired the land, including the village of Kendadia, for ammunition storage. Prior to the late-1700s, Seneca Indians lived and worked this land; their villages were destroyed during the Revolutionary War.
The Depot land is returning to private ownership, and now hosts detention facilities (a maximum-security prison and residential-treatment facility for juveniles), a document storage company, and a conservation preserve. Since 2016, Seneca White Deer Inc. has operated over 7,000 acres as a conservation area to protect the natural resources on the property, particularly the white deer herd, and preserve the military history of the land.
The former Depot has the largest concentration of white deer (>200 individuals) in the world, which were artificially selected by hunting protection and fencing. The white deer is not albino; a recessive gene for no pigmentation in the fur causes its white color. The white deer is a rare phenotype of the white-tailed deer.
Most recently, Circular enerG has proposed developing a trash incinerator for energy generation on an 88-acre piece of land. This would be the largest incinerator in the state, burning 2,640 tons of garbage each day. This proposal is under review with the Town of Romulus Planning Board. There is much concern about the pollutants that would be emitted (e.g., lead, dioxins, and mercury) through the fly ash and in the waste left after burning the trash.
A portion of the Depot is a Superfund Site, the EPA’s designation of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites. It is currently undergoing remediation where solid waste and incinerator ash were disposed and where explosives and related wastes have been burned and detonated. The groundwater and soil is contaminated with volatile organic compounds and heavy metals.
Example of science fiction to communicate scientific fact–
Oreskes N, Conway EM (2013) The Collapse of Western Civilization, 978-0-231-16954-7
On the white deer—
http://www.senecawhitedeer.org/ (also good for history of the depot)
On the debate between development and conservation—
On the Superfund status—
Photo credit: Seneca White Deer, Inc., Map credit: https://www.senecacountyida.org/site/maps