Archive for the ‘Longs’ Category

Made of This

July 29th, 2012 | Meera

Friends:

It seems like a light year since I sat in front of my old apartment window in Hyde Park and typed my last post to let you know I was soon going to be spending the field season in Alaska. While I was gone, Ross emptied out that apartment into boxes and turned his key in its lock for the last time. The boxes now sit in a pod in some dark warehouse—where exactly, I cannot say—waiting for California and yet another first day.

It seems like two light years since I put my nose to the curved window of a helicopter that climbed, banked, and turned from a half-dismantled field site that had once been my home entire. The creek where we drew water and which we had crossed dozens of times flashed briefly in the rising—but was the signal land, or go away? From above, the place looked too small to have contained all of our summer’s living.

Somehow, oddly, it seems longest of all since I released two of my four-person crew from brief, late hugs, ran through the security area, and crossed the tarmac of Bethel’s tiny airport. I was almost the final seated passenger on the plane that would start my journey back to Chicago, where I am now bound for yet another last day.

I say light years because all this feels more like distance than time.

Tent, Day 3

As I go along I’ll tell you more—much more, I hope—about this summer’s living, which was sometimes easy and sometimes hard and always good. For the present there is just one small thing I wanted to talk to you about, because it has been on my mind as I have returned to this paved and chattering city.

After I left Alaska I wrote in an email that I was grateful to have had “nine weeks’ worth of that other life I’m always seeking: the one where the world is not something you are in but something you are of.” At the time I don’t know if I had more than an intuitive sense of what I intended. But since then I have been unfolding things a little in my mind and thinking about what it is I mean by being “of the world.”

The city is very much alive, and I try to be aware of as much of it as I can. Since I’ve been back I’ve been hearing my favorite kind of crackling in the trees every evening, a very welcome sound (as far as I know there are no singing insects in Alaska). Cooper’s hawks and great blue herons wheel overhead on my early morning runs through the cemetery near the place where I have rented a temporary room. Rabbits buoy over green lawns, and when I walk out to the lake after a day at the museum the air is thick with gulls.

In some ways, especially toward the end of the season, the wildlife at our field site (here it is, very approximately, on a map) was actually a little quieter—less teeming—than Chicago’s. What made me feel more present in that world had nothing to do with the abundance of life; it had something to do with using and being used by it.

It’s true that much of the wildlife in the city lives intertwined with the artifacts of human existence—true that sitting for lunch on a bench means being besieged by pigeons and squirrels impatient to brawl over your leavings. But what this usually feels like to me is the edges of two kingdoms touching: one human, one other. Both feel vast and systematic, in contact but fundamentally separate.

Things were different in the wilderness. There our human kingdom was small, and as light-footed as possible. There is no doubt we were a considerable disruption on the landscape, but the things that lived around us quickly grew used to our presence. And though they didn’t depend on us in the way that most house sparrows depend on urban infrastructure, they did begin to take advantage of us—just as they took advantage of each other. And we took advantage of them, as well.

Allen Creek Camp 2012

I’ll tell you what I mean.

There were two red foxes that made a habit of passing through our campsite of an evening, crossing the water west of our tents to hunt for hare or ptarmigan or vole or to steal an egg or two from a nest. When they did, we would see them using our tracks: those long, trampled-down paths we’d made either this season or in one of the previous two at Allen Creek.

For us the trails were unconsciously made. They snaked between various tents, or between camp and the muddy spot on the bank where we dipped buckets into water. For the foxes, they were conveniently flattened walkways over rutted, undulating terrain. One night I looked up from my journal, half-aware of a whimbrel crying foul behind my tent, and saw a canny hunter trotting directly past my door, catch in his mouth, following a short section of the path Kristine must have made between her tent and the weatherport.

Tree swallows—many miles from the nearest grove—nested in our camp. Lacking high branches, they would use our laundry lines and the tops of our tents as convenient places from which to display, calling out in their astonishing liquid voices and stopping at first one nylon roof, then another. They copulated on a great many of our tents and lines, as well. When later they began nesting in earnest, I left a pile of willow ptarmigan feathers I had been collecting next to our storage tent, and one by one they disappeared with a flick of a bill and a wave of a tail.

swallows by jake

This photo of our swallow pair was taken by Jacob Francis Jung, the kindest, gentlest extremely tall person I know. Jake is soon to become a doctor on the basis of his Bristle-thighed curlew research, but he’s also getting some excellent wildlife photography under his belt.

The ptarmigan were our closest and dearest of neighbors. One male in particular was always shooting up and barking right in front of the windows through which we looked as we ate and read and planned the day. The “Camp Ptarmigan” seemed to grow especially accustomed to us. He once fell asleep not six feet away from me after having greedily eaten his fill of overwintered berries, the red comb above his eye drooping gently in repose as I watched. Once he hopped on top of a snow-covered cooler where we were storing meat and cheese and bread and sat there preening for a long time, as if it were a hummock he’d decided belonged to him. Later a small pile of purple crap remained behind.

As for us, if we were careful not to spook anyone, well-trodden moose trails made for wonderfully easy walking through the otherwise dense masses of shrubs that lined either side of the creek or drainages. If we spotted a raven, a short-eared owl, a harrier, or a golden eagle flying low above a curlew territory we were observing, always we would turn an extra-careful eye and ear toward it; the presence of a predator sometimes called up our birds from hidden places on the ground to scold and mob.

If we found a long-tailed jaeger nest, we would monitor the area around it very carefully, because this using each other applied in all directions. We had reason to believe that curlews, for instance, took advantage of fierce jaeger nest defense behavior to protect their own incubating eggs, as if hiding behind the coattails of a bully.

Certainly at least one ptarmigan couple did this: dive-bombed by a pair of screeching jaegers, David flushed a quiet brown female nesting very close by. We checked on the nest later in the season. Unlike many others, it had not been depredated. A whirl of chicks rushed through the grasses.

7.22.12 Telolecithal

The shells of abandoned beaver lodges stippled the drainages that criss-crossed our study area. For weeks we tried to figure out where a pair of red foxes were keeping the kits we hoped they had—fancying from what we had seen that they were tucked inside a simple snow den. But later, scanning the horizon for curlews, I saw a smart, fiery shape atop the broken branches of an old lodge. When I pointed and Jake peered through the scope, he shouted “Kits!” And I yelped, “No way!”

But way, for these glorious tricksters had taken over what was built by one species and become, as water receded, an incredibly safe, hidden, warm, dry hall for housing another. Two brown babies with dense puppy coats tumbled underneath their parent on the beaver mound.

So we were happily used. And happily used others. And saw how everyone around us did the same, when they could—when they were not otherwise fleeing from or pursuing each other.

It was a single, beautifully selfish world, and this, friends, was one way I knew that we were not just in it but of it. I am laughing right now to say it, but it is true: sweet dreams are made of this.

7.20.12 Crepuscular

*******


In case you are interested, I am sharing and annotating Alaska photos very slowly, here.

While I was gone, the lovely DeLene Beeland (who just became a mother! Hooray!) wrote a review of my book which, as I told her, made me cry. This isn’t hard, as many things make me cry, but nevertheless: it is a great gift to be read with such care. The funny thing—or is it just the ordinary, inevitable thing?—is that I already feel like a different person from the one who wrote Mountainfit. All my thanks to DeLene.

Lessons from Plants in Pain, or What We Talk About When We Talk to Ourselves

December 14th, 2011 | Meera

Roald Dahl, sovereign of the strange idea played out in matter-of-fact sentences, once wrote a story about a man named Klausner who invents a sound machine. With it he’s able to hear rarefied notes—tremors of the air that otherwise range, like so many things, outside the limits of human perception. When he turns on his invention, Klausner finds himself initiated into an entire universe he hadn’t known existed: a universe of plant communication.

You might think, on the face of it, that this would be a fine and lovely thing. You might think of how you generally experience the green and the growing, and imagine Klausner entering a soundscape filled with music, strains that match the beauty of a field of wildflowers or the elegance of autumn leaves. But instead, he mostly apprehends the noises of plants in distress. “Fierce grinding discords” fall on his ears: he’s shocked by the shrieks that roses make when they’re clipped off the bush. He’s tormented by pity when he hears the awful moans of a tree trunk split by his own axe.

Dahl leaves the question of whether the machine really works open to interpretation—but what I like about the story doesn’t rest on the definition of Klausner as either brilliant or insane. The thing that’s stayed with me, long years after I first read The Sound Machine, is Dahl’s bleak view of what speaks loudest in this world, what he thinks drives the “speech” of all living things—and that is pain.

*******

343 (Mimosa plant, before)

Most disasters, even if they’re built on long and quiet years of brewing, eventually befall us with what feels like too little warning. A stroke slams down upon the pathway blood must take to brain, a guillotine that splits a thought in two. Your partner’s eyes, warm as summer lakes, freeze over for no reason you can fathom. A midnight switchblade sticks its cutting edge between your ribs; you gasp awake, pinned by the sharp awareness that you’re inside the wrong life. Tomorrow you might lose your job, your home. Be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know the air is humid with the vapors of oncoming injuries, each one remains invisible until the day it’s churned into a storm.

I don’t think we’d be better off if we could see the future. I’m pretty sure I, anyway, would be flattened by the weight of full omniscience. But some small bit of notice, a clear advisory or two—watch out, here’s danger on the way!—now that, I’d take. Wouldn’t you? I think that wish must have something to do with why so many of us sit ourselves down to write quite undeliverable letters to the people we once were—an act that’s whimsical and sweet, and yet somehow forlorn.

Maybe it’s also why I’ve come to be, especially of late, a great collector of stories about other people’s hurts. (A cheerful philately.) If you’ve been wounded, come and bend my ear. I want to hear your warnings. And sometimes I eavesdrop on damages that strangers speak of. Years ago I spent almost half an hour lingering over my coffee—which was bad—because the girl at the table next to mine, fresh off her honeymoon, was wiping hot tears from her face and telling her companion how miserable she was to be married. She wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t my problem. And I’m not at all proud to have been riveted. But it was impossible not to be. My body rang (unobtrusively, I hope) with borrowed sorrow, and I still recall her cadences.

I think that moment meant so much to me because, respectfully, Tolstoy was not entirely correct about unhappiness. Life doesn’t feel the need to plan new slights and sicknesses to suit each one of us. Its threats recycle. I’m a realist: I know that, private though they feel, my troubles hover at the average, coinciding with those of my species. Whatever has battered some other Homo sapiens may soon come for me, and I would like to start preparing my defenses.

If this sounds ghoulish to you, well. I understand. But you should know that I am not alone in paying close attention to the suffering of my peers for my own sake. I stand with graceful trees: with willows, alders, poplars, sugar maples. The sweetest and most useful crops, as well—pea pods, beans, tomatoes, cotton—are selfish just like me. And ears of barley, ears of corn—these listen, too, to their beleaguered neighbors.

Klausner (tender soul!) was driven nearly mad by sadness when he overheard plant pain. He called a doctor for his broken tree and made him paint iodine in the wound. Plants themselves know better what to do.

*******

It was in the early 1980s that a few scientists first began to report on trees that seemed to send each other stress signals. One was a zoologist named David Rhoades, at the time studying Red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) defense mechanisms at the University of Washington. Rhoades fed caterpillars leaves from trees their brethren had previously attacked. He found that they began to lose their appetites, and often died prematurely. Presumably this was because of some chemical compound the trees were able to release into their leaves as a form of rapid resistance—precisely the kind of thing he’d been looking for.

But Rhoades was surprised to discover that the very same thing happened to caterpillars fed the leaves of undamaged control trees, planted a little distance away. Could the attacked trees be emitting some kind of pheromonal warning that their counterparts could “hear?” Could they be telling their fellows to put up a fight against their leggy foes?

This study inspired a similar experiment on potted poplars (Populus euroamericana) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) by a pair of researchers at Dartmouth. Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin found higher concentrations of mildly toxic compounds called phenols in trees whose leaves they had torn. They saw the same thing when they checked on unscathed trees, after they were exposed to air pumped in from the chamber where the damaged trees were housed.

The scientific community as a whole reacted to these findings with great skepticism, some of which was not undeserved: methodological problems and an over-confident interpretation of statistics tainted both sets of results. But there was also, apparently, not a little ridicule, with some ecologists scoffing over the idea of “talking trees” and animal behaviorists closing ranks around the definition of communication.

In hindsight, this part of the negative response was somewhat less justified. In the first fourteen years that followed Rhoades, Schultz, and Baldwin’s reports, only three studies regarding plant-plant communication were published (perhaps because of the disbelieving atmosphere they would have emerged into). But times have changed. According to this overview of the literature on the subject, that figure increased to nearly 50 papers between 2005 and 2010.

At this point, the evidence that plants can receive, act on, and benefit from specific signals produced by their distressed coequals is pretty compelling. We’ve learned, for instance, that corn seedlings primed with compounds released by damaged plants give off more of their own defense hormones and chemicals when subsequently slashed with a razor blade or painted with caterpillar regurgitant. (Science is cruel.) We’ve learned that certain unrelated species, like sagebrush and tobacco, can interpret each other’s cues about dangers like hungry herbivores or clipper-happy researchers. We’ve even learned that well-watered pea plants, having overheard a warning from a thirsty neighbor, can pass on that message to still other plants, further away—although this game of vegetable Telephone seems to be played through the medium of soil, not air.

In my favorite recent study, which delights me more because of how the plants defend themselves than how they talk about it, Lima beans infested with spider mites—as well as those exposed to leaves from infested plants—react by activating a set of genes that trigger the emission of a volatile organic compound. This compound, in turn, attracts spider mite predators that come and hoover up the pests.

How wonderful is that? I call it very wonderful, especially since our own apartment has witnessed the expiration of a beloved dwarf Meyer lemon tree that succumbed to a spider mite blitzkrieg. If we’d had two trees, I wonder if one could have saved the other?

Maybe what Dahl got wrong was not the thought that pain is the seabed of all our most essential speech. Maybe where he erred was in suggesting that the anguish Klausner heard was simply that: anguish, pure expression with no purpose and no useful end.

I think of myself sitting at a coffee table, leaning in, despite my better judgment, and breathing in the chemistry of someone else’s heartache. In my mind, now, I see it as a moment of anointment, an inoculation. I think this even though I have no way of measuring what changed in me because of it.

Our bodies fail. Our partners leave. We wake up sick, or shipwrecked. Shocked. And I am hungry to be put on guard, to know when something wicked this way comes.

*******

It’s clear that unscathed plants do eavesdrop, like me, on strangers in distress, and make themselves stronger when they hear of trouble. What’s less clear is what is happening for the plant in pain. Is its anguished warning—Watch out, danger!—really meant to serve as counsel to the ones around it? It’s possible, of course, that some plants evolved to give off stress signals altruistically, because neighbors are often kin, and one example keeps the group as a whole safe. But many times, letting a neighbor in on danger makes you more vulnerable. A Lima bean plagued with spider mites might not want its compatriots to be protected by mite-eaters. (One lemon tree might have saved another, but reluctantly.)

Instead of selfless exhortations, the story of plant stress signals seems at once more simple and more strange. The thing is, a plant that’s hurt and sending out a warning is very likely talking to itself.

Most plants have sophisticated vascular systems, and that’s often how they transmit chemical messages. But volatile compounds, diffusing through air, can travel faster than molecules moving against gravity through tiny tubes. Airborne signals also allow parts of a plant that don’t have a direct connection to each other to speak. Why, though, would a plant need to warn itself? What does that even mean? Well, think of this: A caterpillar munching on one leaf will probably move on to another, a little ways off. That second leaf has time—not much, it’s true, but some small span—to put up its own garrison against the tyranny of tearing insects. That second leaf is far from doomed. And it could use some notice. A body needs to take care of itself.

Most disasters befall us with what feels like too little warning. But maybe that’s because, wrapped up in where we hurt right now, we don’t imagine taking steps to care for what is still undamaged. I know; we are not plants, with separate fates for separate parts. When I’m in pain, it feels as if I ache completely, my entire consciousness consumed by one calamity. And yet. Could there be, do you think, something in this selfish signaling? Some way for us to be like willows and like alders?

I’m not entirely sure. But this past year, and nearly two, has felt like injury to me; so now seems like the time to test the case. I’d rather not be Klausner’s roses, crying out futility. I’ll trust instead that there is strong and healthy matter that remains in me, and let the weaker parts speak loudly to them. More importantly, I’ll try to listen and to learn. Because it’s not, I think, too late to start talking to myself.

And you? Ah. If you eavesdrop, let it be.

*******

Mimosa plant, after

Highly recommended further reading: This wonderful article about visionary biologist Chandra Bose, and his experiments in plant sensation and behavior.

If All The Human Race Had Perished

November 20th, 2011 | Meera

They live where we live and move where we move. They steal the grain from our fields and take their own measures from meals we have not yet finished eating. They seize our roofs, our railroads, and our drain pipes for their homes. Their chatter, as the rain, is little heard till it falls silent. When we kick them from our path, they scatter without fear, then quickly reappear. We have so much they need, and we have known them of old.

They were never summoned. They will never leave.

*******

Tom came into the lab last Thursday as I was carefully rolling up a small sheet of cotton, shaping it into the right form to place inside the skin of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I couldn’t see the specimen he was about to start on, and I have an everlasting curiosity about what that man holds in his hands. So:

“Are you working on another African bird, Tom?”

In response he made a strange sound. It was the amused noise a person makes when he is about to tell you a riddle whose ingenuity pleases him. “Mmm. Yes! But not a native one. It’s a bird you know very well, in fact.”

In fact, it was. It was a bird you know very well, too. There is very likely one present within a few hundred meters as your eyes skim over this paragraph, chipping tirelessly in your eaves with a sound like comfort and rebuke, clinging to the side of your building, bathing in the dust next to your street, or shitting extravagantly on the floorboards of your back deck.

It was a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): a bird that is as common as dirt and only little more loved, perhaps because its personality reminds us of the worst aspects of our own nature. Though small in size, House Sparrows are bellicose in spirit—to protect their territory and their food they have, like some of us, the will to murder those more vulnerable and more rare. (They have been known to smash the eggs and kill the nestlings of competitors with their thick, finchy bills.) They lodge in nest boxes put out for more desirable confreres. They deluge and denude bird feeders, like plagues of locusts. They are like flies—ubiquitous.

What was noteworthy about this particular House Sparrow was that it had been collected in a surprising place. It hadn’t spent its life in any of the countries of Europe or Central Asia that have been its native habitat for millennia. And it wasn’t a specimen from North America, to which the species was introduced in small numbers in Brooklyn nearly two hundred years ago and across which it has since spread like a stampede. (As with some human newcomers, the House Sparrow’s arrival in America provoked a storm of avian xenophobia. But the bird itself has never spent a single breath on the worried contemplation of the difference between integration and assimilation. It quickly and simply chose occupation.)

No, this particular House Sparrow—as Tom explained, solving the riddle—had come back to the Field Museum from a research trip he and a few other Bird Division colleagues had made to Malawi.

Malawi is an African country of mountains, mists, and forests that is hugged, like the head of a little brother, between the shoulders of Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Its House Sparrow community, along with those that are now established in a host of neighboring countries, originated from the introduction of several small populations of birds to the coastal regions of South Africa around the turn of the 20th century. After landing in places like Cape Town, Durban, and Zanzibar—either stowaways or pets that traveled side by side with sailors on trading ships—the new immigrants came onshore, began to breed, and slowly spread inland.

Today, House Sparrows live in Malawi just as they live virtually everywhere in the world—as close to us as possible. Human settlements provide these birds with ready sources of food and an abundance of appealing nesting places. Passer domesticus is not exactly an obligate commensal (a species whose very survival depends on the benefits it receives from another organism), but it is vastly more likely to be found in proximity to people than it is to take its chances in open country.

Most House Sparrows are so spoiled by the year-round food supply our cities provide and the warm, protected cavities they find everywhere in our architecture that they have even forgone their old migratory tendencies. They are like distant relatives who, unaccompanied by invitations, came to visit with us for a week, remained a month, then three, then six, and now spend all four seasons snoozing on our sofas.

In this position, they are—domesticus in name, domesticus in nature—subject to the conditions of our lives.

Although they still seem ubiquitous to most of us in this country, House Sparrow numbers have actually been falling for several decades in much of Europe, some parts of Asia, and the United States. And given their intimate connections with humans, many of the proposed reasons for House Sparrow declines have to do with changes in how we live.

We use more pesticides in our agriculture, killing the insects nestlings rely on for food. We spill less grain and spread fewer weed seeds when we harvest crops, reducing food supplies for adults. The feral cats and metropolitan raptors that also inhabit our cities prey on House Sparrows. There is even some speculation that leaked electromagnetic radiation from cellphone towers could be having negative effects on the health and reproduction of many urban species, including this one.

They were never summoned; they will never leave. But they are not invincible.

Juvenile House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The 19th-century American naturalist Wilson Flagg, finding himself in what seems to have been a grimly apocalyptic mood some decades after the House Sparrow made its way to these shores, mused upon the unexpected comfort such an obstinate intruder might bring:

…since our people are resolutely bent on the destruction of our native birds, it may be fortunate that there exists a foreign species of such a character that, like the white-weed and the witch-grass, after being once introduced, they cannot by any possible human efforts be extirpated. When all our native species are gone, we may be happy to hear the unmusical chatter of the House Sparrows, and gladly watch them and protect them, as we should, if all the human race had perished but our single self, welcome the society of orang-otangs.


If Flagg is right, we would do well to keep one wary, sympathetic eye on the shadow-companions who came, and stayed, and bound their fate to ours.

On The Uses of the Macabre

October 31st, 2011 | Meera

Happy Halloween! Today seemed like an excellent day to make this post.

Entering the bird lab this past Thursday morning, I found Mary, who usually works at the sink, sitting on a stool beside the large metal prep table that dominates the room. In front of her were two plastic trays; on each, several tidy rows of specimens were arranged. The birds that made up this small collection represented three different species: Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), Nashville Warblers (Vermivora ruficapilla), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).

All three are extremely common birds in the Chicago area at this time of year, either because they’re migrating through on their way to warmer southern climes, or because they spend the winter here.

And all three are known to me personally from morning walks through the Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the treed and windy urban oasis by the lakefront where I saw the distempered raccoon earlier this spring. I love the sight of dozens of dark gray Juncos against patches of snow on the ground, like a fireplace’s worth of cinders someone has rolled up into cozy little balls. Nashville warblers make jaunty little tail flicks as they forage through low trees and shrubs (often that’s all I see of them, an olive whisk-whisk-whisk before they rustle away through the leaves). And the mustard-yellow smudges next to each eye on White-throated Sparrows always make me imagine these fluffy, familiar creatures having just feasted messily on a stash of abandoned hot dogs.

The fact that Mary was working on these birds wouldn’t, in and of itself, have been of much note except that the specimens were in a form that I’d never seen before in the lab. Normally, these are species that Dave chooses to preserve as skeletons. One of the advantages of doing so is that there are many measurements it’s possible to take from a skeleton that it’s impossible to take from a study skin. To prepare a specimen for being skeletonized by the dermestid beetles, volunteers must first remove all its feathers and skin, a process called “roughing out.”

But the specimens Mary was working with seemed to have gone only part-way through this process. On the Nashville Warblers and the White-throated Sparrows, the feathers from their bodies had been removed, but those on their heads had been left in place. And on the Juncos, tail feathers remained as well.

White-throated Sparrows

In this state the specimens appeared, I confess, both fascinating and a little macabre. The juxtaposition of intact, feathered crowns, their plumage still beautifully soft and many-colored, with the dark red muscle of de-feathered bodies, created an incongruity—the likeness of life next to the unmistakable sign of death—that forced me to stop.

Why had some feathers been left on these birds?

Mary soon explained that in each of these species, subtle but significant differences in plumage coloration can be observed. Such variations raise a host of scientific questions (Are the disparities related to sex, age, or region? Can they be traced to genetic differences? Is one form of coloration more common than another, and if so, why? Does the prevalence of each pattern change over time?).

To document these variations, Mary was collecting caps from all three species, as well as tail feathers from the Juncos—because these were the parts of the birds’ bodies where the differences occurred. This way, the caps and tail feathers could become part of the museum’s collections and potentially help to answer some of these questions.

But when she was finished collecting what she needed, the beetles would go on to skeletonize the rest of the specimens’ bodies as usual, thus preserving the ability to take bone measurements from them in the future. The fact that I’d seen the birds’ bodies in this state was a coincidence: an accidental glimpse at a bit of scientific frugality.

Here are some of the variations this kind of data will hopefully help to quantify:

Junco caps and tail feathers

Juncos can have crowns that vary from a light gray to a deep black, sometimes tinged with brown—and while all Juncos have white outer tail feathers and black inner tail feathers, there can be considerable variance in the amount of white and black on the intermediary feathers. This photo doesn’t show the subtle differences in the shades of the crowns very well, but you can clearly see how much more black than white there is in the tail feathers of the bird in the foreground, and how much further out the black extends to the edges of its tail.

Nashville Warbler caps

Nashville Warblers can have a patch of wonderfully rich chestnut-colored feathers in the center of their crowns, something I’ve never noticed when birding because the tiny flecks of red are all but impossible to see amidst or underneath their otherwise gray head feathers. Adult males all have some red in their caps, but the amount can vary widely; and some adult females have a little ruddiness there, too, while others have none. These differences are unfortunately very hard to see in the photo I took, but if you squint you might be able to see some red stippling in the third specimen from the left.

White-throated Sparrow caps

Finally, White-throated Sparrows actually have two well-documented morphs, or variant forms. You can see these quite clearly in the photo above: one morph has distinct black and white stripes running vertically down its crown, while the other has black and tan stripes arranged in the same pattern. Both morphs can be found in both sexes.

DNA analysis has shown that this polymorphism in White-throated Sparrows arises from genetic differences. Both White Stripe and Tan Stripe birds, as they are usually called, show a slight preference for mating with individuals from the other morph. This opposites-attract tendency (which goes by the unwieldy name of “disassortative mating”) keeps the approximate proportion of each morph in the overall population stable, so that neither morph disappears or becomes dominant.

Most fascinating of all, at least in the case of White-throated Sparrows, the morphological variations we see in their crowns are also associated with clear behavioral differences. White Stripe males are more aggressive and more showy—they’re more likely to engage in “spiraling,” a wonderful-sounding behavior that involves singing as they ascend the branches of a tree by circling it. They’re also less dedicated providers of parental care, and less monogamous than Tan Stripe males. As for White Stripe females, they are almost as bold and selfish as their male counterparts. (This may explain why both WS males and females seek out calmer, more reliable partners from the opposite morph.) For more on this subject, I’ll point you to this excellent post by GrrlScientist, who explains the genetics behind these behavioral variations far better than I could.

What I love about my own experience of all this is that it illustrates so clearly a principle I’ve always felt to be true about the study of natural history. That is, the macabre (like beauty) is not a thing that exists as an inherent property of the world, not something with a palpable presence in time and space. Instead it arises out of the complex interaction between ourselves and the world. Even if disquiet is our first reaction to a memento mori, it need not be our last.

But to the extent that encounters with the macabre invite curiosity—like the curiosity that struck me so forcibly when I walked into the lab and saw those unusual-looking specimens on Mary’s trays, and led me to learn some of the things I’ve shared with you today—I think it’s an extraordinarily useful quality in science.

*******


I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two additional things I hope you will investigate:

1) Flinchy, the t-shirt company co-founded by my favorite fellow bird lab volunteer, Diana Sudyka, has several new designs available for purchase. I own one of them, and can testify to its quality and attractiveness. And greater luminaries than me endorse Flinchy shirts, too.

2) I wrote a piece for the Scientific American Guest Blog this week about my rather extraordinary friend Nina and her Field Museum project, LinEpig. You can find it here, under the curiosity-provoking (though not macabre) title “Internet Porn Fills Gap in Spider Taxonomy.” Nina picked the title, because she knows even better than I do that first you catch the eye, and then you tell the story.

Nina at work

Till next time, dear readers-mine. I hope it won’t be so long again.

To Be a Rove Beetle

September 15th, 2011 | Meera

I have a small number of tracks that I follow through the halls of the Field Museum almost every time I go there. The museum, as those of you who have visited it will know, is a cavernous structure. Its walls contain more than a million square feet of floor space, less than half of which is devoted to publicly displayed exhibits—so if you have been there, imagine how big it seems to you when you’re standing in that enormous central atrium and then just go ahead and double that feeling.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even if all you ever wanted to do was travel back and forth between two spots in the entire building—say, the doors of the West entrance and the bird prep lab on the 3rd floor—you could probably devise a near-infinite number of different routes to take.

Some might whisk you through the plant hall, others past the ancient Americas; some would wind their way around the feet of dinosaurs, others plunge you deep inside the heart of minerals. If you had an all-access-granted ID pass, no staircase, door, or elevator would be closed to you; you could make the Field your only home, and walking it your only recreation, and still you’d likely need more than one lifetime to traverse each one of the possible passageways it contains.

Me, I’ve been there close to a hundred and fifty times in the past two and a half years. And almost every single time I enter its doors, I take one of perhaps three, or, at most, four paths to get where I am going. It’s embarrassing, actually. I feel like an ant following some set of strange, self-made, incredibly persuasive pheromone-laden tracks; each week I sniff out what I left there seven days before and lay down new markers in the same old places as I crawl.

All this, friends, to explain why I have certain very favorite objects at the Field. For the things in the museum that I adore the most just happen to be, besides inherently lovely and fascinating, also conveniently located right along my ant-tracks.

The one I thought I’d share with you today is a large pair of drawings, mounted together in a single frame on a wall on the ground level, near the McDonalds. Each depicts multiple whole and partial specimens of Rove beetles: a large group of beetles belonging to the family Staphylinidae that, as far as I can gather, get their name because they’re fond of getting places by scurrying inconspicuously across the ground instead of taking wing.

(Their other common characteristic is a pair of unusually short forewings that leaves their abdomens half exposed, like teenage girls wearing midriff-baring t-shirts. But unlike most teenage girls, they’re shy, sleek little things.)

I’ve admired these drawings dozens of times, but today was the first time I stopped to photograph them, and it was also the first time I noted the name of the person who created them. He was Alexander Bierig. He loved beetles. And, as we shall see, he had something to teach me.

Alexander Bierig was born in 1884 in Karlsruhe (the prettiest fan-shaped German city you’ve never heard of). He was the youngest of the four sons of the shoemaker Ludwig Georg Phillipp Bierig, who apparently spent his spare time writing plays and poems. Nice work, Ludwig.

What I love about Alexander’s life story is that it has a wonderful sort of pivot in the middle of it; the first half of his biography is entirely respectable and sedate and conventional, and then he meets someone who changes things for him forever, and suddenly he embarks on a life of adventure! And jungles! And insects! To wit:

Respectable: After studying to be a graphic artist in his home town, Bierig spent a few years living and working as an illustrator in Berlin, where he got married. Then he moved to Paris with his wife Katherine, taught a few private art classes, drew pictures for scientific articles and books, and had his only child, a son who would one day grow up to be an architect.

When World War I began, the Bierig family moved back to Karlsruhe, and Alexander was soon called up to serve in the German army. The end of the war also marked the beginning of the end of Bierig’s staid life, because it proved impossible for him to find work as an artist in a country whose economy had been so thoroughly devastated.

Pivot: What happens next seems to have been that in 1919, some Russian friends of the Bierigs decided to move to Havana in search of work. This was a sensible enough plan, since at the time Havana was just starting to undergo two huge booms: one in sugar and one in tourism. There was definitely more money flowing to it than to Karlsruhe. Inspired, Alexander decided to move his little family to Cuba too.

In Havana, Bierig walked down some old paths for a while. He freelanced as a graphic artist, became a teacher of drawing and natural sciences at the German School, and kept giving private art classes.

He also met the person who would be his pivot: an eminent Costa Rican entomologist named Ferdinand Nevermann. Bierig had become interested in beetles while he was in Paris, and had even written a scientific paper about two species of Carabidae after he moved back to Karlsruhe. But it was his friendship with Nevermann that ignited what would become a lifelong love affair with field work, collecting, and Rove beetles in particular.

(At some point in 1923, Katherine—who didn’t like Cuba or its climate at all—moved back to Germany with their son. I haven’t been able to determine whether she was also irritated with her husband’s growing obsession with beetles, but I wouldn’t rule it out. In any event, the marriage didn’t survive the separation. Alone in Havana, Bierig befriended several other zoologists, learned everything there was to learn about Rove beetles, and began publishing more scientific papers. But it wasn’t until 1938 that his second life really began.)

Adventure!: In 1938, Bierig went on his first field trip, an excursion with Nevermann to Costa Rica. I don’t know how the trip would have been graded by scientific criteria, but by all other benchmarks things did not go well. There was An Accident. I wish I could tell you with certainty exactly what this accident was, but the small amount of literature I’ve been able to find on the subject contains conflicting details.

One story is that Nevermann and Bierig were attacked by a jaguar which pounced on them from a treetop, and Nevermann was killed, while Bierig was severely wounded. Another is that Nevermann was out collecting insects at night, by headlamp, and was accidentally shot by a local hunter who mistook his light for the glowing eyes of a large animal. One version of this second story has Bierig there and wounded, too; another doesn’t mention Bierig at all.

What is clear is that Bierig’s first exposure to field work was extraordinarily traumatic. It resulted in the death of his scientific partner and good friend. It seems to have gravely injured him. Yet one year later—clearly intoxicated by the glorious, colorful, totally overwhelming world of tropical wildlife that he’d found in Costa Rica—he returned to the same country to continue his beetle collecting. And he never left.

In Costa Rica Bierig would become a professor of entomology in San José, author dozens of scientific papers, collect approximately 26,000 individual specimens, and describe over 150 new species and over 30 new genera of insects (most of which were Rove beetles and all of which, of course, he would also illustrate). He was a field biologist extraordinaire. He was also a celebrated and often exhibited artist in his adopted country, remembered till this day for his influence on an entire generation of Costa Rican painters and illustrators.

rove beetles

The final years of Bierig’s life were not easy ones, although they had some bright spots (like the happy discovery of a granddaughter he’d never known he had). He began to lose his eyesight, became rather solitary, and finally died in 1963 after a long and painful illness. With no one to maintain them, his drawings, papers, and the tens of thousands of type specimens he’d collected began to deteriorate in the tropical heat and humidity.

Fortunately for posterity, this is when they were scooped up by the Field. And very fortunately for me, a few of Alexander’s drawings happened to find themselves (nearly 50 years later) located on one of my three or four short and unimaginative ant-trails through the museum.

As far as I can tell, Alexander was pretty damned good at roving. In tribute to him, next time I go into the Field Museum, I’m going to experiment with some different routes to where I’m going. I bet I’ll find a new favorite object or two. And if today is anything to go by, I might also find another great story to tell you.


(This is a self-portrait Alexander drew. I think he looks fantastic.)

Distempered

April 23rd, 2011 | Meera

From the time of Hippocrates the ancients believed that there were four cardinal fluids of the body—sanguis, cholera (or yellow bile), melancholia (or black bile), and phlegma.

These four liquids were known as humors (humor being the Latin word for ‘liquid’), and good health was thought to depend on the maintenance of a just proportion among them. The balance or commixture of the humors was known as a man’s temperament, that is, his ‘mixture’ (L. tempera, ‘to mix’)…

If the temperament…was greatly disturbed, the result was distemper

The Classical World, Classical Association of the Atlantic States

Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in th’ alarm,
Your bedded hairs, like life in excrements,
Start up and stand an end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience!

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4, William Shakespeare

*******



So many of our words for madness are blunt, pitiless, jarring to the ear and to the mind. Insanity wails like a siren; derangement veers headlong into an embankment like a car spun out of control. Crazy is something you spit.

But distemper, well. Distemper has a different air. Listen to the word: Its classical roots lend it a literary sort of elegance. It has the sound of a mild and floaty agitation that will eventually pass away, returning things to their properly settled and accustomed state.

Distemper: a momentary ripple in the cup of tea you’ve just stirred with a spoon.

Distemper: delicate enough to be applied to princes whose minds are at war with themselves.

Distemper: a condition that might be even a little romantic.

But words are sly, unscrupulous things.

*******



I spend quite a lot of time in Jackson Park, a lovely wooded space that runs right up against Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side. Ross and I often find ourselves there when we want to take a walk someplace calm, quiet, and green (or gray, depending on the time of year). It’s also where I go many weekend mornings, to join a small group of dedicated Hyde Park birders who spend two or three hours there each Saturday in search of warblers, thrushes, sparrows, swallows, ducks, herons, and the occasional thrilling raptor.

I like the tall grasses and woodsy forests of the place. I like that it feels—not wild, not that—but friendly to wild things that gather at the edges of my urban life. Among the wild things that have made Jackson Park their home are a small population of raccoons. We see signs of them, we birders, when we tramp by the water—mostly tree stumps chewed to pencil points, or trees still standing that have been fenced off from raccoon teeth by the Parks Department. Since we’re there during the day, the raccoons themselves are usually quite elusive, although binocularing into the opening of a hole high off the ground in one particular tree we have often seen a pair of raccoon babies deep in striped sleep.

Lately, though, the signs Procyon lotor has been leaving us haven’t been so sweet. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing corpses lying in Jackson Park clearings or on pathways, so many unanswered complaints. And sometimes now, you can even see a raccoon moving around in daylight hours.

There was one this morning, on the bank behind the coot and the mallards. It was an exhausted-looking apparition, weaving aimlessly, as if it were a man who’d just woken up in the woods, bruised and hungover, and didn’t know where it was. Red-winged blackbirds buzzed above and below, there was the raccoon. The time was eight in the morning and it was right there in plain sight, long tail sweeping the earth on a trail normally followed only by human feet.

That kind of behavior isn’t normal for a nocturnal creature. You might, if you’d been born several centuries ago, have been inclined to say something had left that raccoon distempered.

*******



Something probably has. According to Pat, our unofficial bird walk leader, the Chicago Parks Department is on the case, and will be sending out a biologist this week to take a look. But the most likely explanation is that the raccoons of Jackson Park are dying off as the result of an epidemic. And the most likely suspect is canine distemper, an air and fluid-borne virus that infects both domestic dogs and several species of wild animals, including coyotes, wolves, ferrets, badgers, and raccoons.

As diseases go, canine distemper is extraordinarily nasty. First it causes fever, shivering, diarrhea, vomiting, and inflammation and discharge in the nose and eyes. Somewhat later, after it attacks the nervous system, the infection delivers a second miserable wave of symptoms, among them seizures, tremors, muscle twitches, weakness, and general bodily instability. It also changes behavior in ways that look a lot like rabies, making for animals that seem oddly fearless even when their usual habits are suspicious and retiring.

There is no effective treatment, even for pets—let alone animals most consider pests. Death is inexorable, but perhaps not swift enough. And juvenile raccoons are especially susceptible to canine distemper, so the young ones we’ve watched in the tree have certainly already been affected.

I think of them and their relatives: all those swirling humors mixed into painful and unfamiliar combinations, all those temperaments disturbed beyond repair. No princes of Denmark, they. These antic dispositions haven’t been put on; they’re carried in the blood. This madness has no method to it, and it doesn’t matter which way the wind blows.

*******


For a disease named after such an ancient notion, canine distemper is remarkably wet behind the ears. The very first case of the infection is thought to have been described as late as 1905, by a French veterinarian known as Henri Carré. Its precise origins are unclear, but what does seem irrefutable is that the disease never existed in wild animal populations until they came into contact with their domesticated canid brothers. It happened to wild dogs in Africa. It happened to spotted hyenas in Kenya. It happened to golden jackals in Israel.

I’ll tell you what I find incredible. Even the king of beasts isn’t immune to this chaos. In the 1990s, an outbreak of the virus bloomed within and killed many of a population of lions in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Soon after, it spread to the lions of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National reserve.

(Neither the king of beasts nor man himself. Exposure to canine distemper virus doesn’t cause any symptoms in humans, but there is some evidence that it may be involved, years later, in the onset of Paget’s disease, a condition in which the body begins to break down and rebuild bone tissue in abnormal ways—making it dense, brittle, and fragile.)

*******


I wish there were some meaning to all this. If I were Hamlet I might spin a story here, tell you perhaps about a queer and painful retribution for the sin of rendering what was once wild tame. I wish the deaths of a few urban-living raccoons mattered more than they probably do to the state of the world in general. I wish the mere existence of a word so poetic reflected something true about our bodies and our minds. (That we were as mutable as fluids? As simple to mix and unmix?) I wish distemper were a romantic metaphor, instead of just a species of blunt and pitiless death.

Two weeks ago, on our way back from the beach, Ross and I encountered most of what looked like a raccoon skeleton—it was missing its skull—picked clean and made brilliantly smooth by the indifferent hunger of birds and bugs. The spine of the thing was incredible, a gentle, shroud-white curve upon the grass: half of an osseous S, one quarter of the motion you make with your teaspoon when you stir what’s in your cup.


the spine inside everything

*******


P.S. We have had a vaccine for canine distemper for over 50 years. Every domestic dog should be vaccinated, but not all are. Especially if you take your dog out to woodsy areas, please don’t let it get behind on its shots. Canis lupus familiaris may be the original source of this scourge, but that doesn’t mean a sick raccoon can’t pass what it got right back.

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

April 1st, 2011 | Meera

How do you stuff a human for display? Does one remove the innards, and if so, how is it accomplished? Is the stuffing made of cotton, hay, or what?

—Stephen T. Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums

2011.8. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads (Stephen T. Asma)

The really lovely thing about acquiring a reputation for being interested in certain sorts of things is that eventually you start to get the right kinds of presents. When I was visiting Sarah in February, she handed me a beautifully wrapped box containing, among other things, this book. I cracked the spine on it as soon as I sat down in the airport waiting room on my way home and finished it over several sessions on the elliptical machine (I read at the gym not because I’m too sexy-smart to plug into their TVs or my iPod, but because I can’t stand getting sweat all over my headphones.)

My verdict? Mixed.

I won’t say Asma’s book isn’t well named, but in spirit it is governed far more by its staid and scholarly subtitle than its deliciously black title. The book opens marvelously, with two early anecdotes setting an inquisitive tone: In one, Asma describes the awful fate of an Inuit man who followed polar explorer Robert Peary back from the Arctic to take up a job as a living specimen in the American Museum of Natural History, only to die of tuberculosis. Unbeknownst to his son, who had also made the trip, “museum staff removed Qisuk’s flesh, cleaned his bones, and put him on display for New York audiences.” In the other, the author writes of his fascination with Foma, a boy with only two digits on each hand and foot. Foma lived for years in Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities, and when he died, he was stuffed and put back under glass.

Gripped by the need to know how such a feat of preservation might be accomplished, Asma sets off on a viscerally fueled investigation into wet and dry preservation techniques, including taxidermy—but is soon drawn into a more academic analysis of the role that natural history museums play as both artifacts and architects of scientific epistemology. I would have been happier if he’d spent a little more time answering his initial questions about specimen preservation, especially since his discussion of how animals are processed when they come into a museum isn’t very nuanced. He says, for instance, that each one is first skinned and then skeletonized before it can be mounted for display—but with birds, you actually have to make a choice between preserving the skin or skeleton, since certain bones must stay in the skin for structural support if you’re going to stuff it. And he describes the taxidermy process as if it’s something that happens only one particular way, whereas in fact there are many choices and innovations individual taxidermists can and do make.

I also have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people who make the experience of going into the dermestid room sound unrelentingly lurid. I mean, it’s an astonishing place for many reasons. Some people find it hard. But really, I think Asma is reaching when he calls its smell “the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine,” and a “fetid odor, sweet and sour in a nauseatingly pungent combination.” He sticks in “gory” and “repulsive” while he’s at it.

These are, in truth, fairly trivial criticisms. All the questions Asma asks interest me—How exactly are biological specimens preserved? Why should we pay close attention to the processes by which scientists come to “know” what they “know”? In what ways do museum exhibits reflect the biases and intentions of their creators?—and he attacks them with an infectious and amiable spirit of adventure. There were many sections in which I was transported by his detailed visual descriptions of particular exhibits. And though there were equally many where I found myself dragged down by the slow and somewhat plodding formation of an argument, the arguments themselves were usually fascinating.

In particular, anyone interested in questions of classification will be held by Asma’s discussion of the differences between the curatorial decisions made by the 18th-century natural philosophers Georges Cuvier and John Hunter. Hunter, for instance, had a habit of arranging specimens according to similarity of function, without regard to animal groups. In one armoire, designed to demonstrate how Nature deals with the problem of digestion, Hunter placed:

“parts analogous to teeth in invertebrates,” including parts of parasitic worms, cicadas, locusts, Roman snails, slugs, cuttlefishes, and squids; then “parts analogous to teeth in birds,” including the beaks of vultures, woodpeckers, and puffins; then two shelves devoted to “true” teeth, including those of lions (“teeth composed of bone and enamel”) and those of horses and elephants (“composed of ivory, enamel, and cementum”).

These choices, Asma explains, reflected Hunter’s tendency to abstract traits from organisms. In this case, the concept of dentition was “excerpted,” as he puts it, from the individual animals and the ways in which these animals lived in the world. By contrast, Cuvier—who was Hunter’s contemporary but held vastly different ideas about how one ought to go about organizing knowledge about species—would almost certainly have placed each of Hunter’s teeth and psuedo-teeth in its own case, arranged together with other parts of the same organism. Asma sums up Cuvier’s approach as one that relates:

the parts of an organism to each other and to specific environmental conditions of existence. So the lungs of whales, for example, have a real causal relationship with the other anatomical parts of whales (trachea, blowhole, circulation system, etc.) and with the needs and demands of its aquatic environment. But there is no causal relationship with other animals that have lungs.

Over the course of 300 pages, Asma roams through seven different natural history museums in three different countries, including my beloved Hunterian, which I saw last September and which has colored my dreams ever since. He interviews curators and collections managers, gets lost in dimly lit halls and back rooms, and everywhere examines what he sees with the eye of an artist, a philosopher, and a lover of science. I get the impression he would not be unhappy to be considered a kind of rakish explorer of the macabre, and that Stuffed Animals is intended to be as much travelogue as thesis. (Hence the dramatic description of the bug room.)

In this, Asma does not quite succeed—what he has written, although more palatable than any academic work I have ever read, is a bit of an uncomfortable hybrid—not exactly dissertation, not exactly popular science. In a way, the in-between is an apt space for this book to occupy, given the author’s fascination with teratology, the study of “monsters” and “hybrids” (otherwise known as creatures with congenital abnormalities). But to my everlasting regret, Asma never does tell us just how Foma of the “lobster claw” deformity might have been preserved.



P.S. This is where I tell you that The Open Lab 2010 has gone on sale! I have an essay in it, but every piece it contains is really a delight and you should read them all online, even if you don’t want to buy a copy. But if you are lovely and do want to support the tireless efforts of the book’s two amazing editors, you can get it as either a paperback or a PDF here.

The Lost Panther

March 7th, 2011 | Meera

Preface and Disclaimer: The following is an account of one family’s experience with a complex childhood malady. It is in no way intended to represent universal facts about anorexia nervosa, infantile anorexia, or the diagnosis known as failure to thrive. It is published here as a gift to Regina, whom I “met” last year when I was researching hunger and who opened her life to me with extraordinary generosity. Any errors in the science are mine; any truths you may find in it are due to her honesty. I hope you find Regina and Eicca’s story as compelling as I did, and that you approach it with respect.

I think that this is largely why people have children:

You think of hunger as a panther with a step like snowfall, prowling at the edges of your sight. You think of hunger as an itch yawning across your skin, demanding to be scratched. You think of hunger as a man cracking a whip, and you its slave. The way you know hunger is the way you know pain, the way you know fear, the way you know love: as a force that inhabits the body. It lives in the spasming of muscles in your gut, the strange internal seething of gases and fluids. You do not think of hunger as something you must find—like a lost ring buried deep beneath a sofa cushion. Like a little boy gone astray.

The sensation we recognize as hunger is the result of a deft physiological machinery: invisible to us, but nevertheless highly efficient. Dozens of chemicals of varying importance are believed to be involved in the complex play of reactions that results in the arousal of appetite, not all of them yet identified by science. A few central pathways, though, we can describe with reasonable confidence—a few guides for those who seek to find.

Here is one, for example. Go long enough without eating, and cells in the gastrointestinal tract secrete a chemical comprising a single chain of 28 linked amino acids, first discovered in 1999 and known in the scientific literature as ghrelin (but immediately christened “the hunger hormone” because of the role it plays as a messenger for an empty stomach).

Ghrelin seems to work by stimulating specialized receptors at the end of an abdominal branch of the vagus nerve: a bundle of fibers that wanders a remarkably long and complex path through the body and connects, at its zenith, to the brain. With these receptors activated, a signal vibrates up the length of the vagus nerve until it reaches an appetite-controlling center in the hypothalamus. The message it carries is as simple as it is insistent: We’re running on empty!

And then, before you know it, there you are. Losing your train of thought. Feeling saliva prickling at your mouth like tiny bees. Arrested by the memory of a particular sandwich you once ate in a restaurant in Boston, sweet with cranberry chutney and salty with Havarti cheese that melts like cream on your tongue.

This is how it works, how it’s always worked. You are born with the blueprint for hunger tattooed onto your cells, an appetite for food that is inseparable from the appetite for life. This is how it works—until it doesn’t.

*******

It is an icy January day in Oulu, Finland, on the eastern shore of the Baltic sea, when the most wanted child on earth is born. His safe arrival has been a long time coming—following, as it does, eight years of attempts to conceive, four intrauterine inseminations, two cycles of in vitro fertilization, one miscarriage, and 38 weeks of anxious pregnancy. The mother of the most wanted child on earth touches her son’s warm cheek: soft as a rising bun under her finger. She whispers his name: Eicca. She whispers munkki, my little munkki: the Finnish word for doughnut. She thinks: I have loved you from all time. She does not know that, in one way at least, this baby is incomplete: he has come into the world without his hunger.

When Regina is hungry, it is the junk food she grew up on in San Francisco that tugs at her thoughts. She dreams of Cheese-Its the crackling color of a neon traffic sign, Carl’s Jr. fries that leave a film of hot, delicious oil on her fingers. She has an especially fanatical affection for the sweet-salty taste of Reese’s Pieces. But because she has always been overweight, Regina usually tries to hold herself in check. In time, she will wonder about this. Could her own lifelong struggle to combat what sometimes feels like an immoderate hunger somehow have affected Eicca’s appetite? Could he have inherited a subtle, invisible disposition to quell his hunger? These questions, when they come, will be at once utterly absurd and completely irresistible. But that will be later.

At 27 weeks, Regina is nervous. The time has come for her to take a glucose challenge test to see how efficiently her body processes sugar. Because of her weight, she is at a high risk of developing gestational diabetes, a temporary form of high blood sugar that only occurs during pregnancy. It doesn’t usually threaten a pregnant woman’s health, but if left unchecked gestational diabetes can lead to problems for the baby she carries, including jaundice, excess growth, or respiratory distress. The night before, Regina and her husband Marco sit together and eat an entire box of chocolates, piece by piece. If she fails the test, Regina reasons, this will be the last time in months she’ll get to indulge her sweet tooth. She had better savor this night while she can. The Finnish chocolates are no substitute for Reese’s Pieces, but she is nearly seven months pregnant and she is hungry and she is not ashamed to say that they are good. When the box is empty, Regina laughs. She puts her hands on her belly, full of chocolate and Eicca. Then she fasts for ten hours. By the time the little cup of glucose slips past her lips, she is starving. But she passes the test with flying colors.

For Regina, as for most of us, food is temptation and memory and indulgence and pleasure, all at the same time. This is how it works, how it’s always worked. This is how it works, until it doesn’t.

*******

In retrospect, the signs that Eicca’s hunger is missing are present almost from the start. At Regina’s breast, he drowses instead of drinking. When he does suckle, it is slow and fitful, and very quickly he stops, turns his head away, and falls asleep. It is as if eating is a pointless tedium instead of what it should be: the central occupation of his life, the drive behind the doubling of his cells and the development of his brain, his heart, his reaching fingers.

Even when he has gone three or four hours without feeding—the length of time it takes most infants’ stomachs to empty to the point of discomfort—Eicca shows none of the behavioral marks of newborn hunger described in a set of child feeding guidelines issued in the European Union. No increased alertness or activity, no rapid eye movements, no hand-to-mouth and suckling motions, no soft cooing or sighing, sucking sounds, no fussiness. Watching Eicca as time stretches out since his last sip, the last second is the same as the first. At night, it is the sound of her alarm that startles Regina awake for feedings; Eicca never wakes or cries for food.

You do not think of hunger as something you must find.

*******

Soon, Regina and Marco switch to feeding Eicca bottled breast-milk, supplementing it with a store-bought formula. Even so, at five weeks he is drinking less than seven ounces of food every 24 hours, a fraction of the recommended daily intake for an infant of that age. But since he is growing, if slowly, Regina puts aside her concern.

At seven weeks, a nurse comes to the house to check on Eicca and weigh him—standard practice in Finland’s universal health care system. Though all seems well at the appointment, the next morning brings a call—the voice on the other end of the line brooding and uneasy.

“I’ve been up all night worrying about your baby,” the nurse blurts out.

*******

The word anorexia literally means “without appetite;” but for most adolescent or adult sufferers of the disorder the label is precisely false. What studies of women with eating disorders show is that ghrelin levels in the blood plasma of anorexics are significantly elevated compared to healthy subjects—and they don’t drop after meals as in normal controls. The findings help to explain why many anorexics, especially in the early stages of the disease, report feeling an almost constant sensation of hunger. Besides a distorted view of your own body, this might be one of the deepest reasons for someone to deliberately lose an appetite—to push it deep beneath the cushions—the fear that if you once began to eat, you would never stop.

It’s clear, of course, that this terror is groundless—pathology, not prescience—but it has an ancient precedent. We have lived for millennia with a dread of the hunger we harbor. In Greek myth, when the mortal Erisichthon strikes down an oak tree beloved of Ceres, she sends Famine to breathe herself into his veins, like poison, as he sleeps.

When he awoke, his hunger was raging…What would have sufficed for a city or a nation was not enough for him. The more he ate the more he craved. His hunger was like the sea, which receives all the rivers, yet is never filled; or like fire, that burns all the fuel that is heaped upon it, yet is still voracious for more….at last hunger compelled him to devour his limbs, and he strove to nourish his body by eating his body, till death relieved him from the vengeance of Ceres.

Bulfinch’s Mythology

Inhabited by this ancient fear, anorexics train themselves to master hunger. Some even grow to love the painful, drawing sensation of an empty stomach for what it represents: a virtuous triumph over desire. One textbook on anorexia quotes a patient whose symptoms first began at 17. The immediate effect of self-starvation, she explains, “was a feeling of exhilaration verging on euphoria. The hunger was hell…but the hell was far outweighed by the reward.”

You think of hunger as a man cracking a whip.

*******

When anorexia occurs in infants, its rewards—if they exist—are much harder to understand. First described in detail by pediatric researchers Irene Chatoor and James Egan in the 1980s, infantile anorexia typically makes an appearance when a child reaches 3 to 6 months of age, a critical point of transition between bottle-feeding, spoon feeding, and self-feeding. The disorder originates, Chatoor has asserted, in a pattern of maladaptive interactions and conflict between an infant and his or her caretaker, and reflects a young child’s growing struggle for independence. “The infant refuses to eat in an attempt to achieve autonomy and control with regard to the mother,” she wrote in 1989, “a maneuver that serves to involve the mother more deeply in the infant’s eating behavior and to meet the infant’s need for attention. Mother and infant become embroiled in a battle of wills over the infant’s food intake. The infant’s feeding is directed by his emotional needs instead of physiological sensations of hunger and satiety.”

While this description doesn’t fully explain the source of Eicca’s troubles—which start much earlier than those of the infants in Chatoor’s studies, and seem almost congenital—its dour pronouncements seem to grow more accurate over time, as a vicious circle of insistence and refusal forms. The more preoccupied Regina becomes over her son’s lack of interest in food, the longer and more fraught mealtimes become, until she is literally trapping him into his chair with one stiff, outstretched arm while she spoons carrots and peas into his mouth with the other. While he screams. They are on vacation in Hawaii, the air coming through the windows fragrant with frangipani, and every morning it is on the schedule. Force-feeding Eicca in paradise.

Though infantile anorexia is considered a psychiatric disorder, it is not infrequently associated with physical conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease, the abnormal tendency for stomach acids to flow backwards to the gullet and cause food regurgitation. By the time Eicca is six months old, he is vomiting as often as ten times a day, sometimes several times an hour, despite being on Zantac: a powerful ulcer medication designed to block acid production in the stomach. The air in the apartment acquires the sharp, sour smell of vomit; you can smell it as soon as you walk in the door. At last, driven by a kind of exhausted pragmatism, Regina begins feeding Eicca in the bathroom, watching him closely in the mirror for signs of an imminent purge. When he throws up, she holds him over the bathtub, tears streaming down her face as the hot milk splashes onto the sleek porcelain. Then she wipes him clean and tries again.

In early 2009, just before Eicca’s first birthday, he and Regina move into a tiny room at the hospital—Marco, who has to work, sleeps there with them at night. Every day, five times a day, for three weeks, three pediatricians, a gastroenterologist, a speech therapist, and a bevy of nurses orchestrate Eicca’s feedings. They film him eating. They time his meals. They measure and record what he consumes. And all the while they watch him for signs of hunger or aversion, like wildlife biologists encountering a new species. Some days are good: once, Eicca consumes 100ml of milk, 50ml of blackcurrant soup, 80 spoonfuls of pureed mango yogurt, meat, and potatoes, 20 spoonfuls of porridge, a few bites of cheese, and the corner of a piece of bread. Regina cannot believe her eyes.

But mostly, meals are just like they are at home. The very next day, he eats nothing except for a few bites of pear, a few bites of bread, and a few sips of milk. At the end of three weeks, Eicca is still turning his head away from food. He has lost one kilogram.

*******

Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History, explains that motherhood made her searingly alive to the improbability and injustice of a hungry child: “I gave birth to my daughter and fed her my body. Later, I had a son and he, too, drank from me. I was feeding the world. This was not aggrandizement so much as myth. At the center of our life, we are Eve or Prometheus or Odysseus. At the center of my life, I fed the world, and yet children were dying.” At the center of her life, Regina offered her son the world, and he refused it—would, if she hadn’t fought with him, have died for lack of all she had to give. The improbability, the injustice of this.

The Oulu University Hospital doctors who counsel Regina and Marco about Eicca have a mantra. They will repeat it over and over through the months and years of hospital visits, say it so many times that hearing it will make Regina want to scream. You must let him find his hunger, the doctors insist. Just give him a chance and he will find his hunger. As if Eicca’s appetite has been accidentally misplaced, forgotten in a corner like one of the toy train cars he loves to race around the house. As if sooner or later he will simply realize that he needs it, this hunger of his, and go looking. As medical advice, it borders on the magical. But—at least for the moment—it is all that science has to offer.

As he gets older and continues to show almost no interest in food as a source of pleasure, Regina and Marco sometimes resort to spooning butter into his mouth, letting him dip both hands into a jar of pure sugar and smear the grains onto his tongue. The rules of healthy childrearing that normal parents set for themselves—give your child lots of proteins and vegetables, keep them away from junk food—are nothing but mythology. When Eicca is two years and seven months old he falls briefly in love with a particular brand of Finnish shortbread cookie, stuffed with a hazelnut cream filling and sprinkled with chocolate chips. Regina is overjoyed.

Love, of course, is relative. Falling in love, for Eicca, means he will cry to have a package opened, then eat one tiny corner of one cookie before turning his head away. And yet it is a blessing. A glint, perhaps, of some lost bright thing that might someday be found.

flan de queso

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

February 23rd, 2011 | Meera

I confess. I think Emily Dickinson is wrong about hope.

She says it has feathers, but she never sees it fly. Instead it rests, and chooses for its perch a place where it is bound to be battered. Its tune is sweet, she promises, but what it sings has no lyric—no signification—only the form of an abstract and unreasoning melody. It will never change its tune, or learn from circumstance. And it will never cease, she thinks—unless perhaps it will, in the sorest of storms. All-admiring, she tells us it feeds on nothing. Not even a crumb. How then can it grow strong? On air? What manner of dumb, lofty hope is this? It doesn’t act like any bird I’ve ever met.

Feeling as I do, you may understand the little twinge of chagrin that pricks me every time I look down at Christopher Cokinos’s Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. During the week and a half I was reading it I found myself assailed by the urge to hide its cover, or cluck at it under my breath. Emily’s line seemed, and still seems to me, a fatuous title for a book that tells the extinction stories of six North American species. I know I don’t appear irritated in this photograph, but we might attribute that in part to the fact that I was sitting in paradise at the moment it was taken.

2011.6. Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Christopher Cokinos)

Not only sitting in paradise, but listening to the persistent five-note dirge of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and watching them vibrate into and out of my friend Sarah’s back yard like nervous specters. (Until recently, Mourning Doves were believed to be the closest living relatives of the Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) Cokinos chronicles in the second section of his book, and although genetic analysis has now changed that designation, there is an undeniable visual similarity between the two species. Both have long tails, bluish-gray backs and rusty breasts; but the Mourning Dove’s coloring is altogether paler and less audacious than its extinct counterpart—a fitting uniform for a ghost.)

Ghostly interactions of all kinds permeate Cokinos’s book; he leans on them heavily to lend resonance to his urgent plea for us to “save what is left and restore what we can.” Many of the apparitions he conjures are deeply affecting, especially when they surprise him as much as they do us. What first sets him off on his journey through annihilation is just such a pair of startling ghosts: two escaped Black-Hooded Conures fleeing a Sharp-Shinned Hawk above the watery landscape of a Kansas marsh. The shock Cokinos feels upon seeing the brilliantly colored conures, so incongruous in the vast, featureless skies of the eastern United States, leads him to the discovery of another “exhilarating smear of green.” Native sons, not accidental immigrants, the now extinct Carolina Parakeet once occupied the same space. From this phantasmic starting point, Cokinos crafts a sincere and exhaustive portrait of the life and death of Conuropsis carolinesis, as well as of the sportsmen, naturalists, plumage-hunters, egg-collectors, and farmers who extirpated it from one breeding ground after another. I know I complained about his title, and I shall go on to complain about his ghosts—but this is nothing if not a thorough and impressively researched book, absolutely loving in its approach to its subject.

Cokinos fascinates the most when he offers remarkable and concrete details about the complex interplay of human and bird behaviors that rendered each lost species vulnerable. He explains, for instance, that when fired at, the gregarious Carolina Parakeets refused to break their flock to flee but only “swarmed in disbelief” around their fallen peers. Some shooters found it “inglorious” to continue hunting the birds under these circumstances, but these were few. Most, rather, took advantage of their targets’ collective desolation. It is an arresting set of images—a single shot, what appears to be a confused, bereaved throng, a convenient massacre—and Cokinos offers it gracefully, without descending too far into the realm of the maudlin. I was hungry for this kind of specific insight.

The extinction of the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) is perhaps the most poignant of all the melancholy losses Cokinos reviews, because it is the only one that took place in spite of a dedicated (if somewhat less then perfectly formulated) official effort to prevent it. In the late nineteenth century, Massachusetts declared thousands of acres on Martha’s Vineyard—the bird’s only remaining habitat—a reserve area. It outlawed poaching. It created a small management team to maintain the surviving Heath Hen population. But those who were sworn to protect the bird misunderstood the forces that were whittling down its numbers; they believed predation to be a much greater threat than it actually was, and failed to recognize the loss of genetic diversity among the small number of Heath hens that remained. Many of the final few birds, rendered susceptible by inbreeding, were ultimately devastated by a highly infectious parasite.

Cokinos’s fastidious research habits infuse this desolate story with extraordinary richness; he tracks down the copious and often contentious correspondence between the ornithologists, conservation officials, and game wardens charged with saving the Heath Hen, visits the site of their last home, and recounts each recorded sighting of “Booming Ben,” the very last Heath Hen. (Ben hung on for years after the deaths of his relatives, and was watched for and videotaped fanatically by birders and scientists alike.)

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with last specimens—though perfectly understandable, given how much import we all associate with even the most trivial lasts in our lives—tends to detract from the larger significance of Cokinos’s message. He ruminates for pages over the minute contradictions between multiple reports of the last sighting and last shooting of a Carolina Parakeet. And he grows so obsessed with Press Clay Southworth, the little boy who supposedly killed the last wild Passenger Pigeon, that he spends months pestering county officials and librarians for access to old census records and land titles in a romantic attempt to figure out where the tragic event took place. Having done so, he makes strange, oddly banal and self-indulgent pilgrimages to what he has determined are the most likely spots. He even tracks down and interviews Southworth’s daughter.

It is these ghosts—the ones that Cokinos forces into existence in the hope of reaching epiphany—that move me the least. When he pursues them, he veers dangerously close to what feels like a lewd, almost pornographic relationship with these lost species. He seems half aware of this himself when he visits 16 skinned specimens of Carolina Parakeets at the University of Kansas and, gazing down at them, is “caught in a matrix of awe, grief, disgust, and desire.” The beauty of their viridian plumage strikes Cokinos as “obscene” against the white tray on which they lie; yet he wants desperately to steal a tiny bit of feather, to own a piece of the ghosts that remain. What I find lewd is not that desire itself—how could I, when I myself am so drawn to the beautiful physicality of the dead that I work with collected specimens week after week—but his shameful reaction to it. Wanting the feather fills Cokinos with an immediate sense of self-loathing. In that moment, he seems like nothing so much as an ascetic terrified of a single sinful thought. Isn’t it when we harbor fear of our very nature that we are the most in danger of succumbing to it?

In the end, I am less interested in chasing down ghosts than in understanding how we may keep species alive. Clearly, that is true of Cokinos as well—but the latter is a far more difficult endeavor, and much less poetic. So the hope he promises in his title is, like Dickinson’s, a flimsy affair. It consists, in part, of a discussion of the frankly fantastical possibility of resurrecting recently extinct species through DNA cloning techniques. Though Cokinos allows that the scientific difficulties involved in this endeavor are probably insurmountable, he finds comfort in the thought that we, as a species, “are nothing if not dogged in our cleverness. We imagine. We pursue.” I am less comforted—or perhaps less convinced of our cleverness.

The other half of Cokinos’s hope comprises weak admonishments to write to politicians, volunteer with conservation groups, and engage in what he rather self-deprecatingly calls “the rote chores of the perpetually guilt-ridden”—recycling, riding bikes, eating locally and organically, forgoing child-bearing. Even he seems frankly more depressed than invigorated by these efforts, admitting that sadness is a natural, and useful, first response to the pain of extinction. But, he urges, our second response ought to be hopeful. We ought to give back some of the “life, beauty, and solace” that the world offers us.

He does not explain—at least not to my satisfaction—how we might accomplish this.

I suppose he is in good company.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Loving Observation: Photographing the Science Museum

January 17th, 2011 | Meera

The following essay was first published in May 2008 at the online photo-literary journal Utata, where I have been a contributing editor for the past five years. I know that at least a few of you are new readers as of this month’s Open Lab announcement—and so I wanted to share this piece here. It’s as good an introduction to who I am and the way I think as any—although when I wrote it, I didn’t realize that coming on three years later I’d spend hours behind the scenes at a science museum every single week.

There are many ways in which people can establish their science-geek credentials early on. They can devour every book they find about dinosaurs, planets, and all the squishy, sticky, abnormally strange things the human body does. They can catch, kill, and mount so many backyard bugs that the sharp perfume of ethyl acetate starts to smell good in their eager noses. They can cover their ceilings in stars, make their own volcanoes, build computers from scratch, or race to the front of the line on the day of their fifth-grade science museum excursion. If you happen to be a certain kind of child, getting your science-geek credentials is a cinch.

I never got mine. I may have been bookish, bespectacled, and pathologically shy, but I was always more of a literature nerd than a science geek. I did get points for being obsessed with animals. I was more inclined, though, to stalk neighborhood strays bearing a bottle of milk with which I fully intended to save a runt someday. I wasn’t much for dissecting what was once living and carefully labeling its insides. As for science museums, I vividly remember being overwhelmed with joy the first time I watched a film in what they used to call the OMNIMAX theater (a name whose grandiosity I didn’t fully appreciate at the time). Still, that was mostly because sitting in a huge dome watching stars swirl high above induced in me a pleasant feeling of vertigo and awe; a sensation, I suspect, from which no one is immune. At the time, anyway, I didn’t actually want to know much about the physics of stars.

Some Amazing Thing (Paper Fish)
Photo taken at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m a late bloomer when it comes to science museums. I wish I had realized sooner how much I would grow to love staring into the eyes of taxidermied animals and tracing the sleek lines of skeletons with a finger— how much romance I would eventually find bursting from within the bulging outline of a trilobite fossil. All those years wasted writing bad poems and making up terrible plays, when all along I could have been crawling through whale vertebrae and calculating how much belladonna it would take to kill a man.

Today I can’t imagine a more perfect afternoon than one spent in the dim confines of a natural history museum. I’m rather happy in a planetarium, too. Oh, or any building whose contents sing a paean to terrifying pharmaceutical products from another age. There’s nothing more intoxicating, now, than the thrill I feel when I pick up the visitor’s map from the front counter. I unfold it ceremoniously, assuming the confident air of a person who never has any trouble at all—don’t be silly—figuring out where she is and how to get home. I plan my approach: dinosaur skeletons first, always, then the mammal hall, then minerals—unless there happens to be a medical history exhibit in the building, in which case all bets are off and you might have to come back and get me tomorrow.

I bring my camera, of course.

You might not want to look too close
Photo taken at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.

Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a certain frisson of excitement when they see something organic preserved in a glass jar? I don’t know exactly what it is, but I suspect it might have something to do with certain cultural associations we all carry around in our heads, some strange common currency that comes from years of watching mad scientist movies late at night.That might be me in there, I find myself thinking. If some other intellectually curious species with opposable thumbs and access to the secrets of chemistry had come to dominate the planet instead of my own, that might be my shriveled body all scrunched up in there—my brain at whose familiar whorls some creature with a purple exoskeleton would now be leering through the glass, wondering how on earth it could be so very…grey.

Mostly, though, what I love about standing in front of these heavy jars is how much easier they make it to observe the world I love so much, in close detail. Time pauses, temporarily. The barriers between me and the mysteries of this earth fall, temporarily. Nothing else matters except looking, and everything about the place where I am is designed to make it easier to look—and to see. I see that this barnacle has claws like a dragon’s. I see that these spiders have legs like sharp needles. I see that this frog has approximately six times as many organs inside its torso as I would have thought it had room for. I try to look as much as I can, and when I have looked until I have seen, I take out my camera.

Together Forever
Photo taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Science museums are full of materials, organic and inorganic, that are beautiful to photograph. Skin, bone, tooth, stone. Feather, fur, crystal, bristle. Metal that shines and glass that shimmers. I will say that I did not truly believe a collection of electrical wiring and plastic tubing could take my breath away until I met a series of charming walking robots at the MIT Museum a couple of years ago. Not only were they quirky, endlessly complicated, and slightly gawky—three of my favorite things—they were also lit with grace and gravitas.

One of the near-universal failings of museums, no matter of what stripe, is their lack of adequate lighting. Among other things, this makes photography extraordinarily difficult. There are of course important and valid technical reasons for the gloom—many objects on display are delicate, and apt to be damaged by too much light and heat. Sometimes, though, roaming through dark, quiet hallways with my pupils adjusting to the cavelike atmosphere, I come across a beautifully lit display case that appears to have been designed by someone who used to work in the theater. The sense of drama that these invisible curators craft can be so strong that I almost hear the opening chords of an overture and see a curtain the color of burgundy slowly rising.

Waiting to Walk

Photo taken at the MIT Museum.

It’s true that science museums are tributes, in some very deep sense, to the ingenuity of the human mind, and to the triumph of rational thinking over magical thinking. One of my favorite things about them, though, is that they aren’t afraid to remind us of how thin the line between the two can be. Science museums are full of exhibits that put past human foolishness on display. Psst, they whisper, people used to think you could treat paralysis at home, with a portable ultraviolet ray generator. They used olive oil to dissolve gall stones. They poisoned tuberculosis patients with radium. Don’t forget, they tell you. Don’t forget there’s always more to know.

White Cross Violet Ray
Photo taken at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

When I shoot in a science museum, I don’t try to fit everything I see into my frame. It’s impossible, for one thing, and for another, I’m not trying to recreate the exhibit in its entirety. What I want to do is figure out exactly what it is about an object I find fascinating, beautiful, repulsive, or astounding, and put that in my frame all by itself. What I want is for the photograph I end up with to have something to do with the feeling I had when I first saw the object.

That feeling is always the same, whether I’m looking at the claw of a maniraptor, pointed as a witch’s finger in a fairytale, or marveling at the astonishingly spare, zipper-like skeleton of a snake. It’s a difficult feeling to name: not quite excitement, not quite joy, not even simply wonder. I think the reason I love photographing science museums is that, unlike many—though thankfully not all—art museums, they don’t make me feel as if I have to wear my geeky credentials on my shoulder just to make it through the front door. Science museums assume I know nothing (which is generally a pretty safe bet) and still they can’t wait to show me the most amazing things in the world.

maniraptor tickles your spine
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History.

An Avian Initiation

December 26th, 2010 | Meera

Sometimes you have to sneak yourself in love with home, sideways, long after the fact of your leaving. It’s been more than a dozen years and I’m still figuring out what I love about the place where I grew up: how to be fond of what I once felt was pricking me in a hundred tiny ways. I’m still learning that I actually enjoy the hot, damp embrace that held me tight for so long, until I slipped free from it and catapulted into the cool, dry world. It is very easy indeed to love Singapore for my family, big and crazy and beautiful; but loving it for itself is a little more complicated. The reasons not to can loom large.

Which is why it’s a good thing I finally got the birds involved on this last visit. By 6am on December 3rd, our second full day in Singapore, having slept briefly but well under the rhythmic orbit of the ceiling fan in my sister’s guest room, and having woken early to the loud and familiar provocations of a male Asian koel (the koel is a type of cuckoo with a fantastically hard-to-ignore two-note whistle; you can hear it if you follow that link or if you ask my mother, mimic-extraordinaire, to produce it for you), Ross and I were standing outside the gate of the sleeping house, watching the stippled moon in the still-black sky. We were waiting for local birder Kim Seng to come and give us an initiation into the avian family of my funny little island—a family which, although it is perhaps not that big, definitely has its share of crazy and beautiful.

We were prepared to be pleased.

337

Dragonfly as Jabba the Hut

(Ross’s happiness at being outside is more the result of bugs than birds, so it was a good thing carpenter bees, orb spiders, termites, dragonflies, and ants as long as your fingernail also accompanied us on our travels.)

The day was long, but galvanizing—one of those days that would take more stamina to write about than it did to live. We hiked through muddy, green-smelling rainforests (some parts of which were located right next to immaculately maintained golf courses being hoovered dry by attendants, but still). We wandered about wetlands thick with water birds and bathers of all kinds. We bore the burning afternoon sun as we peered into the sky at raptors soaring above flat grasslands, shot through with wide paved roads and enormous pools of leftover rain. We saw, or heard, or both, 55 different bird species, including various shrikes, doves, kingfishers, terns, sandpipers, herons, mynas, sunbirds, flowerpeckers, eagles, bulbuls, orioles, tailorbirds, flycatchers, warblers, babblers, and cuckoos. We were spoiled by flying, calling, preening life. And while I really can’t speak for Ross, I can tell you that I fell in love on at least four separate occasions that day.

Do you want to hear about my new loves? Because, listen, they are total charmers, these four, and not one of them happens to make its home on this side of the earth—so if you’re not ready to start looking up airfare from where you live to where they live, you might want to stop now. Ready?

Here we go, in order of appearance.

Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus):
We’d been hearing this bird in the gloaming for several minutes before I actually saw one; Kim Seng had pointed one out, but I hadn’t been fast enough with my binoculars to catch it in my sights before it took off from the tree where it had been perched. The greater racket-tailed drongo is a skilled mimic that practices a huge variety of calls—partly, ornithologists believe, so as to attract a large, mixed-species group of fellow insect-feeders to its side. Having done so, it can hover above them and snatch up any prey they happen to disturb but fail to catch. In exchange, the drongo keeps an eye out for predators; and if one should arrive, it cries an alarm in the language of its hunting companions.

The call we heard that morning, though, was not borrowed. It was a sweet, pure, three-note song that rose into the air like glass. To me it sounded, more than anything else, like three drops of water dripping clear and cold into a stream. In truth, based on its limpid voice alone, I was half in love with the greater racket-tailed drongo sight unseen. We kept hearing those exquisite notes as we hiked through the moist morning shadows of Singapore’s sprawling Central Catchment Nature Reserve (so called because it serves as the main catchment area for the handful of reservoirs that surround it). And after a while, as the sun began to rise upon the trees, I spotted one for myself.

Drongos are an inquisitive, aggressive family comprising about two dozen species of mostly black birds, distinguished by their long and often unusually shaped tails. Some have forked tails, some curled, and some—like the greater racket-tailed drongo—have besides all else two lovely, elaborate tail feathers shaped like flags: feathers that trail far, far down from their bottoms and twirl in the air as they fly. But I saw this one sitting, straight-backed as a teacher, on a long exposed branch by itself. I watched it through my binoculars for as long as it would let me, hoping to hear it let those three perfect drops of water fall. The drongo, though, was silent. I was not worthy of its wheedling. It simply sat, with its tail like a straightened Dali mustache, and its crest a pompadour as good as any the Fonz ever wore, and let me admire it.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
(Photo by Nimesh M.)

Blue-Tailed Bee Eater (Merops philippinus):
Our first encounter with blue-tailed bee eaters took place very shortly after our first encounter with the rather impressive, and comparatively rare, grey-headed fish eagle. This particular eagle was perched in a tree by the edge of the MacRitchie reservoir, apparently sleepy, full, and quite undisturbed by our attentions. It felt like a privilege to watch him so hungrily and for so long, but after we had spent a good long while observing the mild-mannered raptor through Kim Seng’s spotting scope, we found ourselves distracted by two smaller, brighter, and much livelier forest inhabitants. The bee eaters, which is what they were, kept flying off from, and then alighting on, the same branch—a not uncommon behavior among avian predators.

Their restlessness was welcome, because it meant that we had a chance to see their brilliant plumage—iridescent green, orange, yellow, chestnut, black, white, and, of course, blue—from all directions and at all angles of light as they swooped and dived like a pair of painted circus acrobats in search of breakfast. If the drongo had won me over with his voice, these two stole it with their dress and deportment. They were absolutely fascinating; even Ross was besotted with them. And do you know what? I think they knew it. We kept seeing and recognizing blue-tailed bee eaters as we went along for the rest of the day, even as we moved to different areas and different habitats. Perhaps, in fact, they wanted to be recognized. After all, if you were a bird so gorgeous as this, wouldn’t you care to show off?

Bird - Blue Tail Bee Eater
(Photo by najeebkhan2009.)

Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis):
This was another bird we’d heard earlier in the morning (sending out a low, unmusical cackle not unlike an upset squirrel), but I hadn’t been able to see. Dollarbirds are colorful, almost clownish-looking birds, a little bigger than a blackbird in size; they have bluish-green plumage, bright orange beaks, and clear, round spots of white on the lower half of each wing, as big as dollar coins and as bright. They belong to a family of birds known as rollers, all of which are known for the gymnastic tumbles and spins they sometimes perform in flight, especially during courtship. Unfortunately, the dollarbird we saw—which graced us with its presence as we crossed a boardwalk over the water in the middle of a lush mangrove swamp—was either already mated or content, for the moment, to remain a bachelor—for it stayed in its position on a solitary tree branch overlooking the water for as long as we cared to watch.

So why did I love the dollarbird despite its refusal to engage in the acrobatics for which its family is famous? Because it was doing something equally endearing instead: it was sunbathing. As I watched through the scope, it stretched out both wings till I could see those bright white spots, letting them hang long and relaxed below the branch on which it sat. At the same time, it rested its head on the branch, turned it to one side, and closed its eyes. It could not have been exposing more of its feathers to the warm Singapore sun unless it had been supine on the ground. And in this pose, the dollarbird looked extraordinarily relaxed. I find it difficult, actually, to describe just how relaxed. Let me just say that this bird looked like it was in it for the long haul. It seemed, friends, as if it were a bird that had learned one really awesome yoga position, and meant to milk it for all it was worth.

Since I often find it hard, myself, to really let go and unwind, what I fell in love with was this dollarbird’s sheer dedication to hanging loose.

佛法僧  Broad-billed Roller-雄亞成
(Photo by Kevin Lin, titled “Broad-billed roller” but showing what looks to me like a dollarbird, and in a pose very reminiscent of my own yoga-practicing friend.)

A moment after we saw the dollarbird, I met the bird I fell hardest for that day.

Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus):
The Brahminy Kite is a bird shrouded in history and lore, although I didn’t know any of that when I spotted it in the sky and began staring at it like a schoolgirl in love. It was keeping company with a fierce little Japanese sparrowhawk at the time—waiting, perhaps, for it to make its kill. All I knew then was that I was looking at a singularly handsome bird, and the more so with the sun shining through its wings as it banked and glided above me, making it look like it was haloed in gold.

Brahminys have white head, neck, and breast feathers; the tips of their tails and the lower shafts of most of their wing feathers are also white, while their primaries are dipped in black. But the rest of their plumage (and this is the thing that made this one look so golden when I saw the sun casting itself over its wings) is a rich, glossy chestnut color, a reddish brown that is like the warmest possible wood: like a cedar chest someone has oiled with care every day of its life. They are gorgeous creatures.

Early scientists, it appears, were troubled by the Brahminy’s regal appearance, since its habits were so vile and ignoble (it, like most kites, is primarily a scavenger). But mythology has always given this beautiful bird its due. In India the Brahminy is revered, regarded as it is as the modern earthly manifestation of the Garuda: the massive bird-like mount upon which Vishnu rides. And among certain Indonesian peoples, the keenness of the bird’s talons is believed to derive from a magical stone it hides in its nest and on which it sharpens its claws. You can steal it to sharpen your own knives, the stories go—but only if your eyes are tightly shut as you reach inside the Brahminy’s nest. If you dare to so much as peek while your blind, robbing hand stretches out, the stone will disappear, or transform itself into a nestling.

Me, I would never be so bold. Not with such a king of birds.

Brahminy Kite - Haliastur indus
(Photo by Mike (NO captive birds) in Thailand.)

I have to admit that it’s a little scary to look so deeply at a place so familiar. It’s a little disorienting to find yourself falling in love with home, and realizing just how tiny a fraction of it you ever understood. But when it’s birds that carry you along, it doesn’t feel like falling at all.

It feels like flying.

Fire is as Fire Does

October 29th, 2010 | Meera

It is the smoke that draws us there, but the fire that keeps us. You smell it first, lifting your head to nose the west wind and the soft ashy odor it brings into the apartment. I have been breathing it too, but like a dreamer—mind unconscious, for the moment, of what the body senses. Then “Do you smell something burning?” you ask, and suddenly I awake to it. Out on the back deck you sight the thick white clouds blowing at us on the middle currents of the great eastward windstorm we’ve been promised that day.

When you come back in the smoke comes with you. “There’s a fire somewhere,” you say, and there is no way to contradict the truth that the words are welcome. I almost laugh, you know. It is like hearing the grumble of a volcano in the distance—oh, far enough away that I know it would never touch me—and wanting the whole damn thing to blow so I can watch it blaze the sky right down. I step outside to find the world has turned a different color. Tiny cinders puff about, as if it is spring and all the cottonwood trees are burning and sloughing, burning and sloughing their seeds away.

I breathe this new version of air. It smells good: the spice and silver smell of burning wood, of food and warmth and comfort and hazard and all the history of hubris and devastation wrapped up in that same prickly whiff. I know it is wicked but I love the smoke. I suck it in, poison of course but still I want it to replace every molecule of oxygen in my lungs, wish for particles of smoke to be carried away on my blood like sooty diamonds so they can feed my tissues with proof of fire until I become a new thing, igneous in nature.

And now there are sirens: two, three, four? They scream into the clouds that billow toward us, but we cannot see the fire. “Do you want to go and find it?” I say, and you nod, and I smile because this, too, is wicked.

Although it is the fire I am looking for, when I see it I am surprised. We follow smoke and sirens two blocks westward; we reach a mad assembly of flashing lights and staring crowds; we stop at its heart and turn our heads to match all the other holy countenances that too are tracking what we sought. We are the last two poppies in an impromptu field of stalks. And what we see is what it was perfectly obvious must be there: a building on fire.

But still I am surprised. The fire advances and retreats in unpredictable ways, seems at first like nothing so much as a hot protean tide pulled by the moon. It flashes from windows, filling the space behind each pane with rufous light.

There are no screams, this is no house with sleeping child or cat or grandmother to be rescued from the flames, and as we stand transfixed you tell me the building is being renovated—or was, until this disaster—so it seems there is no one in danger from the fire’s lash. This feels like permission to adore it, but I haven’t waited for permission. It is not that the fire is beautiful, although it is: dazzlingly so. It is that it is so animate—quick and hot and above all vital against the stillness of the night, like a great flapping bird that might at any moment take off into the sky to inflame the moon.

I lean into you to watch the blaze and wonder what is in it that is missing from me, to make me so cold and slow. Why for years now I have felt that I cannot burn.

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What allowed an object to catch fire, 18th-century chemists believed, was an undetectable substance it held inside itself: something that had no color, no form, no flavor, and no smell, but was, in its own way, eager to be free. Phlogiston, they called it, after the Greek word for flame. If a material was rich in phlogiston—charcoal, say, or oil, or phosphorus—then it had an inherent incendiary ability—a fire in the belly.

Under ordinary circumstances, phlogiston was trapped by its bonds to another substance: a sulky, chalky thing called calx. Like two ex-lovers in the habit of cohabiting, phlogiston was captive to calx and calx to phlogiston. But in the presence of heat, everything changed. Now phlogiston was released from its combinatory existence and could escape by itself in a blaze of glory. You could see it, then, leaving the talcum-white residue of calx behind like a crumbled shell. You could see it rising in masses of flame and smoke and ash. Nothing burned but for phlogiston; without it, there could be no fire.

When it was shown that some metals—having flamed themselves to powdery calx—weighed more than they did before, phlogiston was in jeopardy. But a few, to save it, said smiling that this meant it weighed less than nothing. When the matter of fire was trapped inside an object, you see, it lightened it. Ah then. What if? Perhaps what I lack is not a fiery heart, given to rages and conflagration, but an unseen effervescence: the very opposite of a burden.

I think of the woman who tells me I will never be happy until I stop collecting faults like pebbles. That to be fervently alive I have merely to be lighter in my mind. I want to tell her about phlogiston. In eighteenth-century terms you are correct, I will say. A life on fire, burning with passion and love, demands the matter of fire, and if such a thing exists then the form it takes is levity.

But no such thing exists.

I know the truth of the fire, that it is action and not object. That the flames and smoke I see are not what fire is made of but only a testimony to its affairs; that this blaze that rises before us tonight is a chemical reaction between atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon—and that yes, something is being released here, but it is no ethereal substance. No magical matter. Fire is as fire does.

We watch the burning building until it falls still and black under floods of water. The next day my coat smells of its smoke.

This Constant Heart

August 31st, 2010 | Meera

I’ve been going to bed alone this summer while Ross is in England, and the nights are hot and still. As the day ceases to stir and I grow deaf to the low drone of the fan, the spaces between sounds spread till they touch, silence to silence. No other body breathes; no other arms shift raspily against sheets. Sometimes I find it hard to sleep in the hush. But then I turn to rest my ear against the pillow, and I am not alone. The rhythm that has inhabited my body without fuss or fanfare all through the day makes itself known: my heartbeat.

As it does I am engulfed by a sensation of amazing intimacy and fascination. I don’t control my heartbeat. Like perspiration, salivation, digestion and the dilation of the pupils, the beating of the heart is a process that falls under the control of the autonomic nervous system, and is largely involuntary. Yet it feels in this moment as if I can magic it into and out of existence—lift my head and it disappears; lay it down and it returns. It seems what it is not: ephemeral.

The thump itself, when I rest my head, is familiar. Primeval. It’s a version of the maternal rhythm I must have heard as soon as my newly forming ears began transmitting signals to my newly forming brain, weeks after conception and not long after my own primitive heart hiccuped into being.

(Before the heart becomes a servant to the rest of the body, it may beat for its own sake. The first contractions and expansions of the heart, some scientists think, are not required for the diffusion of nutrients and respiratory gases throughout the developing fetus. Instead they trigger the formation, shaping, and growth of new cardiac muscle and the tiny blood vessels that are starting to finger out from the heart. In other words, every heartbeat begins as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

This beat I hear now, though, is distinctly mine: made by the specific mechanical properties of my muscles, bone, and blood. And no one else can experience it in quite this way: no doctor channel it through a stethoscope, no lover rest an ear to my chest and capture the same immersive resonance. Having my heartbeat in my ear is like listening in on a secret conversation, my body speaking to itself.

This Paper Muscle in My Chest

Structurally, the heart is a beautiful thing, designed for one thing and one thing only: to pump. It has two muscular halves, each of which is divided again to form an upper atrium and a lower ventricle. A heartbeat may sound simple, but it’s only the barest glimpse of the complex, precise, and exquisitely coordinated choreography of blood into and out of these four chambers.

First, the upper chambers of the heart contract: the muscle twisting and tightening like the fabric of a dish rag being wrung dry. This squeezes blood from the atria into the ventricles, which relax to receive their cargo. Next, a complementary event: the atria relax and the ventricles contract, squeezing blood into the arteries (blood from the right ventricle travels to the lungs to pick up oxygen; blood from the left ventricle travels out into the body to deliver it).

Most of this movement is silent to me, except for the opening and closing of the heart valves—each a set of two or three half-moon-shaped flaps that direct the flow of blood into and out of the organ. They are responsible for the beat repeating in my ears as the whole astounding process takes place, over and over, in the still of the night. Lub and the tricuspid and mitral valves pull shut behind the blood that’s just pumped into the ventricles; dub and the aortic and pulmonary valves do the same after the blood that’s just pumped into the arteries. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub: such a sweet, optimistic sound.

I think what makes the thing seem loveliest of all is the deep choreography behind it. A heartbeat is all about the careful management of the balance between contradictory states: open, closed; expanding, contracting; inwards, outwards; full, empty; oxygenated, deoxygenated; at work, at rest. And out of the unceasing transition between these states, we get steadiness. It’s practically a Zen koan written into physiology—a most muscular teaching.

The reason this koan rushes through my ears when I place my head against my pillow? For that I can thank the internal carotid arteries that ribbon up each side of my face. On their way to the brain, these arteries pass right in front of the tympanic cavity: that inner cave of the ear where three tiny bones are curled, their only job to vibrate in response to waves of pressure and begin converting them into what I perceive as sound. It is not my heart itself I sense throbbing in my ears, but a kind of echo, as dipping your hand into a fast-moving river you feel the push of a wave that originated many miles upstream.

spanish graffiti is romantic

This past Thursday in the bird lab, I heard—or rather, saw—another echo. After one clumsy move with a scalpel, I opened a cut the length of an eyelash on the skin of my left index finger. There was a moment of what seemed like stunned affront on the part of my cells—and then I bled. Swaddling a band-aid around my finger, pressing vein against bone, I felt my pulse grow tight and insistent. I held my finger up to stare. The vessel I’d cut into was quite a long way downstream from the heart, but blood was still being propelled through it with enough force that if I looked closely I could see the shape of each echoed beat, thrusting against the flimsy fabric barrier I’d put up around my wound.

It was almost as if my heart had doubled: sent a second, smaller, version of itself to the precise location of the insult I’d created. The finger ached a little, but I smiled. To be cut, bruised, hurt, I understood, is to be aware of the heart’s extraordinary compass. There is no place in the body to which its drumbeat does not carry; no tissue it cannot touch.

Every squeeze of a healthy, reaching heart drives about three ounces of blood through its chambers (as much of the stuff as you could carry onto an airplane in a single plastic container, if you were so inclined) and fifty times that volume through the body as a whole. So much power lies behind the heart’s contractions that in the space of one minute a single red blood cell, pushed along on the tidal wave that begins in the heart, can whiz through an average of three full laps around the circulatory system—journeying each time from heart to lungs to heart to oxygen-hungry cells, and back again.

This is a fabulous statistic, so to try to get inside it I start walking and count to twenty, the time it takes for one such round. No fucking way. It’s hardly long enough to get from the kitchen to the living room window. And in that time, I am supposed to believe, trillions of blood cells have completely traversed the length of what is, for them, the entire universe? Driven by this crazy heart of mine?

It is fierce, this muscle. With a strong heart on your side, nothing seems impossible. You might run 10,000 meters in under 30 minutes. Dive the height of a skyscraper on a single one of your own breaths. Me? I don’t reach that far. But I’ll tell you that I’ve been working with my heart at the gym for three years, and I can now run for a bus without sending it into palpitations. Some of us will take what support we can get.

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Some don’t believe their hearts are on their sides at all. Another word for steady is inexorable, and the phrase keeping time has a dark second half—until it runs out. Something wild and fearful lies just on the other side of the calm thrumming that keeps me company when I’m in bed. The other day I read the following plea for help on a mental health forum.

I’m terrified of my heartbeat. I hate that my life is controlled by my heart. It’s a small muscle and it’s so powerful. It’s in control, I am not. I hate it.

I wish somebody could snap me out of this horrific phobia. I can’t stop thinking about it because it’s always there, always beating.

It’s horrible.

I get happy and then I stop, remembering I have a heartbeat, I’m human, and if I’m alive and not here to live a crazy life, I’m just here to be a mammal, because I have a heartbeat. I’m not here to have a job, or love…I’m here to eat, survive, reproduce and die.

It’s horrible. I hate having it. I wish somebody could convince me my heart is my friend and not my enemy.

There is part of me that understands this terror.

I imagine a stranger offering to put a metronome inside me that would tick off the moments remaining in my finite existence, beat by beat. I would, they’d explain, be able to feel and sometimes hear—but not very well control—the cadence of this morbid little clock. It would feed my body and give it breath, but could itself be damaged, and when it finally ran down, so (most likely) would I. As life rests on it, so a heartbeat can be an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality: making it ideal for starring roles in horror stories, and lending creatures that echo its modus operandi a shivery air.

There is part of me that understands this terror; but I don’t feel it.

In all these nights I have been, more than anything, comforted by the constancy—the mad beautiful stubbornness—of my heartbeat. Its metric varies from time to time, but the basic pattern it follows was set in motion in the womb, and continues, careless of my will. This fidelity of purpose amazes me; no wonder we say truehearted when we mean loyal. In my breast I carry a soldier who received a single order 31 years ago and has never once faltered.

Listen: On the strength of that order, in the space of one day the human heart beats approximately one hundred thousand times. One hundred thousand.

I find this figure frankly insupportable, and I’ll tell you why. It means, you see, that since Ross left the country mine has pulsed no less than four and one half million times. And how this is possible I can barely comprehend.

Without him here I have been left bereft of order, customs, habits. I don’t mind being on my own, but after years of learning to match the tempo of another person’s life this sudden solitude feels a little strange. The everyday beat that drives my world—the one I didn’t even realize was there—has bounced all out of time and now seems to syncopate beyond recognition. Each morning for the past six weeks I have woken and started over, trying to reestablish it.

Yet somehow in the same period my heart has stuck to its plan—followed its single basic order, in the face of the confusion I have felt. It has beat, same as always, four and one half million times. It has not asked for my permission. It has not needed my participation. It has simply proceeded, knowing exactly what it ought to do, in a way that I have not.

So I keep my head against my pillow, just a while, as darkness falls on each of these summer nights. The larger rhythm of my life may be a little hard to hear right now, but the one I hold within doesn’t seem to be skipping a beat.

Camping, or the Art of War

July 27th, 2010 | Meera

故曰:知彼知己,百戰不殆。不知彼而知己,一勝一負。不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。
So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

—Sun Yat Sen, The Art of War, ca. 6th century BC

There are moments during a camping trip (I learned last week) when the whole endeavor starts to seem absurd in the extreme; when the attempt to temporarily reconcile being “in nature” and simply being yourself, an ordinary 21st century Western-hemisphere-living Homo sapiens, just does not feel like it is working very smoothly. One of these moments is when, having finished brushing your teeth by flashlight, you walk a few steps over from where you were in order to spit out your mouthful of $5 organic, biodegradable, wind-turbine-produced Tom’s of Maine toothpaste onto a slightly more distant patch of dark, loamy dirt so you won’t have to put a foot down on your own spit as you circumnavigate the camp site.

Another is when you find yourself dragging a six-dollar load of firewood through sandy, uneven terrain, swearing because you are pulling a cart with only two wheels and a tendency to nick you in the ankles as you go. Or when you are flapping at your nascent fire with a damp t-shirt as raindrops fall on your face, willing the frail sparks it contains to catch hold of the split logs you have brought it—nay, bought it, with the sacrifice of your poor ankles—your not-quite-burnt offering to the still-capricious god your ancestors first harnessed nearly a million years ago. In these moments it seems funny that Kafka never wrote about camping.

Then there is the time when you put rocks on your food. Is this new to you? It was to me, as I had never been camping before except for one night last fall in the Michigan Dunes, and that did not really count because we had a car and were approximately 12 feet from the nearest other tent, modern bathroom, and Dairy Queen location. But on this trip it was explained to me that, when camping, one’s nightly go-to-bed-ritual involves putting rocks on one’s food. I learned this from Megan, my camping partner.

“It’s just a precaution,” said Megan last Monday night, our first on the car-free, bicycle-free, human commerce-free, exquisitely beautiful Rock Island State Park in Wisconsin. “You never want to have any food near your person, so you have to keep it outside, but in order to keep it safe from raccoons or whatever, you pile rocks on top of the bag.” She proceeded to place a few heavyish stones on top of both our flimsy garbage bag and equally flimsy food bag: just three or four rocks on each, leaving large swathes of plastic exposed. “There,” she said, pleased, “and we can put our pot right on the top of our food bag. Then if something tries to get in it’ll fall off and make a loud sound and scare it away.”

I laugh, now, to think of this breezy confidence in the pot.

Rocks piled, we went to bed, a process delayed somewhat by the need to remove 20 or so languidly migrating daddy long legs from the tent, where they had each begun to make themselves comfortable. We were righteously annoyed with the daddy long legs (and, I think, Megan was righteously annoyed with me, because she thought I had been none too careful keeping the tent flap zipped shut). Then we realized that the reason there were so many of them in there was that we had brought in our backpacks from the outside several hours prior, with the intent of keeping them dry, and had not thought to check them for stowaways. Amateurs, we. Plucky-hearted, but amateurs for all that.

Stowaways evicted, we went to bed. Slow, hypnagogic conversation followed—the kind of conversation you can only have if you have awoken at 5 in the morning, driven six hours, taken two ferries, and traversed nearly four miles of bumpy, sandy trail in order to set up your tent and haul in firewood. The kind of conversation one hopes will meander, gently, into sleep and never, never be interrupted by a sudden tilt of the head and the sharp, suspicious whisper: “Did you hear that?”

She did hear that.

“Maybe it’s a deer,” she said.

But they were clacking, rustling, tearing sounds, exactly the kinds of sounds that a raccoon might make with its lithe little fingers it if had gotten up in the middle of the night to help itself to a snack from inside a plastic bag or bags upon which you had just placed a wholly ineffectual number of rocks and one small metal cooking pot.

The sounds grew bolder as our eyes widened.

Stumbling groggily out of the tent and waving a flashlight in the general direction of the food bags revealed two moderately-sized raccoons getting totally all up in our shit, y’all—raccoons which, surprisingly to me, did not immediately move away but stood their ground until there was a good deal of yelling and additional flashlight waving. Even as we approached the scene of the crime for the first time, the bandits fleeing a little way through the trees, it became clear that the rocks—as we had arranged them—were to these creatures but a laughable entertainment on the way to delicious refreshments.

In the minute or two since the noises began, the garbage bag had been ripped apart, leaving a mass of spilled corn chowder carnage. The food bag had several holes in it. Indeed—I gasped—through one of these points of forced entry, the bastards had already made their first major theft! For a torn, empty bagel bag lay abandoned a few feet away.

We stamped our feet. We wrung our hands. We consulted. What could we do? Clearly the bags themselves were vulnerable to raccoon claws, and even if we succeeded in covering them fully with rocks, raccoon hands could move those rocks aside. I would have put our food in our backpacks, but Megan worried that raccoon teeth might tear through them, and then we would be without food and usable packs. I also would have brought the food inside our tent, but at this Megan steeled herself. “If you do that,” she warned me through her own gritted teeth, “I will throw it out!”

Her voice rose an octave.

I raised an eyebrow.

She raised the specter of a pack of hungry raccoons looming out of the night, sniffing out the food in our tent, surrounding us, and scrabbling at our shelter with their every sharp part.

I capitulated.

At last we understood two fundamental truths about our situation: One: The raccoons would be back. Again and again, probably, through the night. We could not stay up shooing them away. And no matter what we did, they would probably get our food eventually. Two: Even though we were bound to fail, we had to do something. If we did not, the night would be full of the sounds of raccoons feasting undeservedly, and we’d be sleepless anyway.

Since the packs and tent had been vetoed as storage spaces, the only materials we had left were the rocks that had failed us so spectacularly in round one of this unwanted warfare. Could we do better with them?

At first I did not think we could, and though I set to collecting stones from around our campsite I did so with a reluctance that did not match Megan’s grim determination. But that’s because all I had, at that moment, was indignation. Megan had a plan.

She had noticed that the raccoons (dextrous but not that strong) had a much easier time tipping rocks over than pushing them aside. If, she reasoned, we stacked the rocks around the bags, leaning them only if they were too heavy to topple, we would do better. She also began dragging a few large logs of rotting wood over from where they had been arranged around the fire pit, yelping only slightly at the colonies of bugs she unearthed in the process; these logs were even heavier and more raccoon-proof, and could form a sturdy perimeter to the fortress she intended to build.

As our construction went on, and we achieved double and triple layers of rock and wood around our bag of food, I began to see the virtue in the strategy we had adopted. And when, in a final stroke of genius, I said “Aha! The cart!”—meaning, the lousy, two-wheeled cart with which we had hauled our firewood back to the camp site—the final piece of our anti-Raccoon program fell into place.

We set the cart on top of the rocks, and piled atop the cart itself our bag of leftover firewood. The fortress was complete. In all, its creation had taken more than an hour of concerted effort by flickering flashlight.

This is what it looked like.

Let me be clear: This is what it looked like in the morning. Virtually untouched. Oh, a few small stones were pushed away in the night; we heard them. But no edible was thieved. No raccoon had impregnated our fortress. We had won.

In truth, as you are no doubt saying to yourself, it was never a battle—though at minutes to midnight, whispering strategy to my fellow-general in the damp, close air of our war-tent, it started to feel like one.

It was never a battle because the stakes were never high enough. We had so little to lose: some smoked fish, a few eggs, a bag of green beans, beets, and potatoes, a hunk or two of cheese, sweating in cling-wrapped envelopes. As for the raccoons, well. For them it was an exercise in mischief as much as a well-planned food-gathering sally; at least, I like to think it was. Less tactical than curious, they, and presenting far less formidable a foe than a black bear or wily coyote.

Nevertheless it was deeply, profoundly satisfying to wake up in the morning and see that we had succeeded in fending off our tiny and adorable enemies. This satisfaction, too, took on something of the absurd. For hadn’t we spent all that time coming here, to this exact place, precisely to be in an environment inhabited by raccoons (and deer, and eagles, and chipmunks, and daddy long legs)?

Indeed. But what of it? Here, at last, I think, in this absurdity, Megan and I found a happy marriage between being ourselves and being in nature. For surely there is nothing so natural as the desire to fend off another creature who wants to steal your food. And nothing so very Homo sapiens as the desire to beat the little bastards that stole your bagels with nothing but a pile of rocks, a plastic cart, some firewood, and a little human ingenuity.

Thanks to M. Humphrey, military mastermind, for all photography in this post.

The Naming of Things (Part II)

June 29th, 2010 | Meera

In Part I of this essay, I told you how a short story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson presented me with what seemed like a useful analog for talking about how I experience scientific nomenclature. This second part of the essay probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first.

As a reminder, here is the sentence I stole from Gustafsson’s marvelous short story “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases,” and edited to suit my purposes. Apologies to him.

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

In case you’re one of the few people reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I’ll clarify that I’m a working, early-career science writer with a graduate degree—in the humanities. In other words, I’m an educated nonscientist with a deep interest in science and some hard-earned, on-the-job training in understanding scientific concepts (especially within the field of health and medicine, about which I have begun to write regularly in the past year). But my formal academic background doesn’t help me much when it comes to grappling with the nomenclature of science.

In Gustafsson-terms, I don’t have a right to the “funny names” scientists have for “their things.” And that can make science a difficult world to travel in.

At the simplest level, unfamiliarity with the naming of things in science can act as a barrier to understanding. As a writer, even one who has a defined “beat,” my livelihood depends on flexibility. I need to be able to sensibly cover a broad range of topics, each of which has its own names for its own things. The more specific the scientific field, the less likely I am to know all of those names and the higher the barrier I have to scale.

Droplets Entering Eye

I’ll give you an example. At the moment, I’m researching a story about multiple sclerosis. Even before I began working on the piece, I grasped the basic facts of the disease. I knew it was a neurological disorder marked by lesions in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Specifically, multiple sclerosis causes patchy plaques in the insulating myelin sheath—composed of proteins and phospholipids—around the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. In doing so, it disrupts the smooth transmission of action potentials traveling along the axons between nerve cells. This leads to numbness, weakness, poorly controlled muscle movements, and changes in vision.

I would argue that the text above is reflective of some of the reasons names in science are problematic for a nonscientist. For one thing, it, like many clinical texts, uses two different names—lesion and plaque—for the same thing. For another, both those words have everyday connotations that contradict their scientific meanings. In ordinary English, a plaque is a flat object, while the plaques of multiple sclerosis are typically raised, or even wedge-shaped. In ordinary English, a lesion is often thought of as an open wound or fresh cut, but in the disease context it’s an area of scar tissue: sclerosis comes from a Greek root that means “hardening”. (I think of Gustaffson’s boy, bewildered by saws called tails, even though they have nothing to do with tails.)

In addition, though it is careful to avoid more specialized terms like CD4 T-cells or MS-susceptibility SNPs, the description also includes a number of words that are limited to the scientific domain. Of course, my job demands that I know, comprehend, and accurately use names like myelin sheath and phospholipids (and CD4 T-cells and MS-susceptibility SNPs). In learning them, I have added the concepts they represent (and the concepts required for understanding what they represent, which are themselves numerous) to the objects of my world. By extension, I have reached for the right to know that they exist. I consider them, and many other names like them, as tools in my shed.

Yet even when it comes to a single disease, that’s not saying very much.

This Dictionary of Multiple Sclerosis, for instance, spans 254 pages and contains over 600 entries, some of which define words familiar to me but most of which do not (I hadn’t encountered Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis before last week, and while it may or may not appear in my article, I’ve found it necessary for understanding several of the research papers I’m reading).

Before I finish work on this story, there will be several dozen more scientific terms that will have entered my vocabulary. Some of them will become permanent fixtures in my toolshed: old friends that I may use to pound in future fence posts. Others, though, will inevitably retreat once again into the world of things whose names I do not know. And the same will be true of the next piece I write, and the next. Though my comfort with and command of the naming of things in science grows daily, I will probably always operate, in a deep sense, within a world where what exists and what does not is at least a little “vague and uncertain.”

I say these things not to bemoan my fate, which is self-chosen and quite beloved (and not in order to defend writers from criticism when we get things wrong), but because I think it’s worth talking about. I think it’s worth examining the ways in which, when it comes to scientific terminology, many of us—even those of us who work with scientists—are akin to Gustafsson’s boy. We may feel unsure of what things the world contains, and we may lack a sense of true ownership over those things and their names.

Ode to Pay

I attended the wedding of an old friend two weekends ago. My roommate from college, a third-year medical resident and one of the smartest, most driven people I know, had brought some work with her for the weekend. Looking at the first sentence of a scientific paper on her iPhone—a paper she needed to understand in order to properly diagnose a difficult case—she chuckled to herself. “Can I read something to you?” she asked. When I nodded, she read:

Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is also known as the autosomal recessive familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL), familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FEL), and viral-associated hemophagocytic syndrome (VAHS).

As soon as she finished, we both broke out into laughter. It was impossible not to laugh. The sentence, as written, was impenetrable.

This was the case despite the fact that we both recognized its capacity to hold and convey meaning. If you had complete access to the terms it used—if you knew all the funny names for all the things in it—you would have a fairly precise understanding of what the paper happened to be about (as it happens, a rare genetic autoimmune disorder affecting the cells of the blood and which apparently is known by at least four names).

You might argue that those words weren’t written with me in mind. This is partly true. My friend was much better equipped than I for the task of overcoming the barrier of all the terms in that first sentence. She continued reading the paper as I sat by her in the sun, bringing the full weight of eight years of medical training to bear on the density of terminology it contained, and (presumably) managing to hop quite neatly over the problem.

There are excellent reasons for science to keep its nomenclature separate from the vocabulary of ordinary speech. Scientific discourse values specific denotation, not ill-defined connotation. It values the compression of ideas. It abhors ambiguity. This is why so many scientific terms, including the ones that dominate the sentence we laughed over, have been derived from Greek and Latin: languages that, unlike our own modern tongues, have ceased to evolve and can provide (apparently) stable containers for precise concepts.

I appreciate these qualities of scientific speech, even though they serve to build a world in which I sometimes founder. Assuming the names for things really are precise and unambiguous, I can believe that in spite of any confusion I may personally feel, the language of science actually does serve to draw clear demarcations around objects and ideas. I can trust that no one will be sending me to fetch tools by the wrong name; or, worse, to look for tools that do not exist. And I—unlike Gustafsson’s boy—can quite happily accept the limits of my knowledge and work to expand it.

But there was still something true in the laughter I shared with my friend. The sheer bulk of scientific nomenclature, and (more problematic) the fact that it sometimes fails to live up to its ideal of clarity, isn’t lost on scientists themselves.

Physics PhD-holder Philip Ball called for his peers to be clearer and more transparent in their application of existing terms and the invention of new ones, not just for their own sakes but for the rest of us poor saps as well. Fertility, he points out, is now routinely used by demographers to mean both “birth rate” and “the ability to reproduce,” thus “allowing the existence of fertile people who have zero fertility.” And for an example that’s closer to home, take this. My husband is a graduate student in computer science. An early page in one of his textbooks lists several translations between computer science and statistics, which often use different language for the same thing. Estimation in statistics equals learning in computer science (and neither, as Ross can tell you based on many extraordinarily frustrating conversations with me, quite equals what these two common English words mean outside those fields).

We are sent for a tool, but by the wrong name.

Simon Young, co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, ranted about the bloating of research vocabulary with jargon and neologisms in 2006, reserving his sharpest vitriol for words ending in what he considers to be the preternaturally ugly suffix -omics. Young’s aesthetic judgments aside, what he really objects to is a troubling disconnect between word and meaning that has arisen as a result of fashion. “I find it interesting,” he comments, “that all journals with it (the word neuropsychopharmacology) in the title publish papers not involving drugs and, therefore, outside the scope of the journal title. Why use such a cumbersome word if you ignore its precise meaning?”

We are sent for a tool, but it does not exist.

Don't Tweeze Me

True; research is not a woodshed. It is fluid, ongoing, additive. Uncertain names that mean uncertain things multiply daily in the world of science, thanks to the constant formation of neologisms and the lack of a standardized, universally accepted process for coining names for new discoveries or inventions.

To their credit, scientists recognize the problem of vague or inconsistent terminology, and frequently make recommendations to improve the situation. Should I go on? Because I can. What troubles me most is that even when clear and logical rules for how to name things are proposed by well-meaning scientists, as often as not they fail to be adopted by the community at large.

Why? Inertia, probably. Genuine disagreement with the standards, possibly. A simple attachment to what one knows and is habituated to, certainly. And, of course, there is the issue of control. Simply knowing the name of a thing means you have the right to know it exists in the world. But owning a name means you own the thing itself. It means you decide how it exists in the world.

This is not mystical talk. This is, very simply, about power. You only have to look at the heated historical disputes over the naming rights of atomic elements to know the truth of it. The late 1990s christening-pangs of element 104—a highly radioactive substance, most of whose isotopes decay in a matter of minutes or seconds—reflected a struggle for dominance, not just between individual scientists, scientific labs, or associations, but between nations. (The U.S. overpowered Russia. Surprised?)

Here is a sentence from “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases” that I did not have to edit:

In actual fact, the strong decide what words should be used for.

In the story, the boy who lacks the names of things is not one of the strong. He has no way of knowing what does and does not exist. And he feels the world itself, governed by names he cannot grasp, to be a strange and unfriendly place: full of fearful things that rise up like birds out of the bushes. As a result, he rejects words entirely, retreating into an inner landscape of branching trees and mysterious mushrooms—a world he builds himself from the patterns of shadow and wallpaper.

Greatness strikes where it pleases, writes Gustaffson, and what we are meant to understand from this is that there is a kind of greatness in the boy and his shadowy world. In the context of the story this is a deeply satisfying conclusion. Exquisite, even.

In the context of reality, it’s frustrating. I have no wish to retreat into a world of my own making, and neither, I would wager, do most nonscientists. What I want is for science to meet me halfway.

I am happy to accept that I will never know all the names there are to know, and that I must learn the ones I will learn slowly, one by one. I can take on that work with pleasure. I am far less happy to accept that, having learned a name, it will not always point to the same thing. Or that, having learned about the existence of a new thing, it will not always be called by the same name. And I mourn the idea that the naming of things—in science especially—should fall to the strong, or be used as a national power-play or marketing tool for a discipline. In every scientific field, from genomics to geology to astrophysics, rational minds are calling for the simplification and standardization of language.

Don’t let the strong decide what words should be used for; decide sensibly, as a community, on how to name things. And then share those names with nonscientists as clearly as you can. It will still be difficult for us to understand you sometimes. But we all, I think, would very much like to have the right to know what does and does not exist in this extraordinary world of ours.

The Naming of Things (Part I)

June 28th, 2010 | Meera

Last Saturday night, I heard a reading of an extraordinary story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, published in his 1981 collection Stories of Happy People. The piece takes as its central character a severely mentally retarded individual, following him from boyhood to middle-age in a dense fourteen pages and constructing a delicate contrapuntal narrative in which outward circumstances—harsh and melancholy—and an inner world—complex and immensely beautiful—act as intertwining melodies. In its entirety, the story is infused with sweetness and melancholy in equal measure, and it is well worth your investigation.

The reason I’m telling you about it here, though, is because I was struck by how Gustafsson uses nomenclature as an alienating force. In a deep and surprising way, the story reminded me of my own interactions with the scientific world and its language. More about that later.

First, here is how Gustafsson describes the uneasy relationship between the boy and the array of tools he encounters in his family’s woodshop. (Throughout the story, his inability to grasp the names of things sets the boy, who clearly suffers from a profound language impairment, apart from others—who approach objects and command them comfortably through their names.)

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have. He always laughed awkwardly and crept into a corner when his brother and sister tried to teach him those names.

Those things belonged to them: dovetail saws, punches. The old wooden mallet used for pounding in fence posts…they hit him when he came in from the woodshed with wounds and gashes from the tools in the woodshed. They were afraid that he’d really hurt himself. They wanted to keep him away from the tools.

His brother and sister, who knew how, were allowed to handle them. It gave him the feeling that the words, too, belonged to them. Sometimes they might send him to fetch tools that did not exist, “bench marks,” things like that. It gave him a feeling that it would always be vague and uncertain which things existed in the world and which did not. Evidently using words was harder than you might imagine.

They always laughed loudly, doubled up with laughter when he returned empty-handed, or when they had fooled him into going to the far end of the barn searching for impossible objects. In actual fact, the strong decided what words should be used for.

—Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases

The Cruelest Cut

When I heard this passage read aloud in the firm voice of actor Colm O’Reilly, I felt a funny tremor of recognition. At first it seemed odd to me that I should so empathize with the boy’s mistrust of language. I spend my life, after all, with words. They are my instruments and my toys. And generally, I love learning new words, especially nouns.* One of my favorite things about skinning a bird is the act of writing its names in my log. I take a special pleasure in tracing those letters, doing my best to control my wayward script and form the words precisely, as if it really matters that I get their shape just right; as if by laying down ink over Dendroica fusca, Blackburnian Warbler, I am not simply recording something that already exists, but re-creating it as well. When I name a bird it becomes known instead of unknown.

Of course, there are many ways to know a thing. I can scrutinize the patterns of a bird’s plumage, the shape of its bill, its size in my hands. I can construct knowledge of a thing, quite deep and true knowledge, in fact, by adding up a hundred different pieces of information. But to hold them together is difficult. Give me a name, and I have a sturdy container for those hundred pieces: a shape for my knowledge.

This is exactly what science tells us, isn’t it, about the human brain? That it craves order? That the unique gift of language is to provide a set of labels with which the brain can produce order out of the too-great tidal stream of data it accepts from the world through the sensory organs? In 2001, for instance, an elegant series of experiments with 36 no doubt adorable participants showed that as early as nine months after birth, saying words aloud while introducing two similar and unfamiliar toys helped babies to reliably differentiate between them.

Playing sounds while introducing the objects, like a spaceship takeoff or a car alarm, did not—and neither did a human voice producing a non-verbal expression of emotion, such as a sound of satisfaction or disgust. Words, and words alone, enabled the babies to place each toy into a separate category. (This was true whether the names were real or nonsense labels, ruling out the notion that the babies were simply responding to word-object pairings they already knew.)

There is also the possibility—not proven, but tantalizing—that language doesn’t just organize sensory information, but influences how it is perceived. Most famously, a number of experiments have shown that speakers of languages with a greater number of words for different but similar hues are better able to distinguish between those hues in the color spectrum.

Last year one study of Greek speakers—who unlike English speakers make a linguistic distinction between light and dark blue with the breathy nouns ghalazio and ble—went a step further. By measuring the electrical activity in their brains as subjects looked at visual stimuli, researchers showed that the greater acuity for color enjoyed by Greek speakers could actually be recorded, in the form of electrophysiological differences, as early as 100 milliseconds after being presented with a colorful shape. This interval is consistent with what we know about the time it takes information to reach the visual processing areas of the brain, and is considered too brief for the participants to have engaged in a conscious awareness of what they were seeing. In addition, the differences arose even though subjects were instructed to attend to the shapes of various stimuli, not their colors. (The paper, along with a few caveats, is detailed here by Language Log. The most interesting caveat has to do with the suggestion, drawn from previous studies, that this kind of language-based interference in color perception is likely limited to the right visual field, which sends information to the left—language dominant—hemisphere of the brain.)

So there is some evidence, preliminary though it may be, that the names we know really do affect, on at least some level, “which things exist in the world and which do not.”

This makes it easy to understand why Gustafsson’s boy, so ill-equipped to learn names, finds the external world vague and uncertain. When you cannot grasp how words connect to objects, navigating amongst objects is confusing and unpredictable. You might find yourself searching for impossible things or overlooking what is right in front of your nose. Also easy to appreciate, in the light of these color studies: the boy’s sense that the right to use each tool is inextricably linked to the ownership of its name. The things in the shed belonged to his brother and sister and so did the words for them. Whereas the boy, lacking words, had neither the right to use the tools nor to know if they existed.

What does all this have to do with me and science and scientific nomenclature?

Well, this: If I make a few edits to a sentence from Gustafsson’s story, it captures something of the experience I sometimes have when I try to navigate within the scientific world.

He wrote:

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have.

I would say:

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

If anyone is still with me, I’ll talk more about this in Part II of this essay tomorrow.

Where to address all future correspondence

*(Incidentally, in Hebrew the prosaic “vocabulary” is rendered as the lovely phrase “treasury of words.” I still have the notebook, thin and yellowing, in which I collected some of my first words in that language: book, picture, boa constrictor, prey, primeval forest. If you don’t know or haven’t already guessed why I began with those words in particular, ask me sometime and I’ll tell you.)

On The End and What You Do Before

May 13th, 2010 | Meera

There are a few themes that preoccupy me in my life above all others: Death, if you know me, you know is primary. I can’t place when I first learned the word or grasped the perfect emptiness it contains, but I do remember (at the age of five or six or seven) regularly dampening my mother’s shirt with premature fits of mourning for what I had suddenly grasped would be her inevitable loss. Yes, she admitted, she’d die. Not yet, but one day. Not yet was too close for comfort.

That heavy terror is gone now —had slipped away, I think by the time I was eleven. My grandmother died that year. I spent what seemed like endless hours in the house where she lived, playing quiet games of cards with my cousins while her body was being embalmed upstairs in her room. I saw the tragedy of it touching my parents; my father especially seemed a new person to me. She had brought him forth, and now she was gone. He was a river with no source, the way I feared I’d be when I was little.

When her body was ready they brought it downstairs to lie before those who mourned her, and it was amazing to see her physical self so much the way she was before and yet so different. The same lines folded her face into rifts and valleys; the same powdery skin covered her fingers. But the smell that hovered around her, like sweet mint, was new. She hadn’t consented to housing six or seven liters of embalming fluid—a chemical brew of formalin, phenol, methanol, glycerin, and water that would preserve her flesh until it came time to burn it in a chamber where fires roared the air to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit—still, there it was now, having streamed through a small portal the mortuary workers made in her carotid artery and taken the place of her once hot blood.

Looking at her (She! The giantess with the jingling bangles and the frown like a stroke of lightning), what I felt was not tragedy, but awe. Yesterday, I knew, her muscle fibers pulled taut as she brushed her thinning hair, silver-white and soft as silk. Yesterday her nostrils flared with expectation at the scent of dinner. Yesterday someone joked that she was getting old, and set off a chain of events that began in the vibrating air about her ears and culminated in a parting of her lips and a stretching of her cheeks and a sound like laughter, and in between a hundred nerve cells transmitted their chemical signals across the minute gaps between them. Today, she was wholly untenanted. What an extraordinary metamorphosis.

The spectacular impossibility of death—the idea that all we are and ever have been, every quivering feeling and blooming idea that makes us sentient beings, will one day simply vanish from our bodies without warning or recourse—has amazed me ever since. So has the fact that, without truly knowing what death will mean for us, we live with it day after day. It is as if we stand at a station waiting for a train, fingering our ticket—knowing all along that what finally arrives could as well be a stone colussus stamping over the mountains as a chugging engine, could be a bird whose wings black out the sky, a fire that starts beneath our feet. Or rain. Or nothing. We wait, chat with strangers, pick up a bun to eat at the station cafe. With dying coming.

These contradictions are marvelous in their fascination. I would put it this way: The idea of death is a Rubik’s cube I carry in my pocket, always there to be drawn out and manipulated into a new configuration when I am waiting in line or staring into a snowy sky. After hours of adjusting I click one face into position at last and turn the thing over to find chaos flaring on the opposite side—yet I am convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that given enough time I shall put it in order.

Chicago Dreams: After Kurt Vonnegut

If I set the thought of death aside, I often take up work. I don’t mean to imply that I work particularly hard; given the choice I, like most of you, would rather do anything but, most days. But, diligent or not, I think about the shape of work all the time, because it, too, is a kind of mystery to me.

Here’s what I mean. If I am smiling at you while you hand me my croissant across the counter, I am wondering what it would be like to stand on the opposite side, days full of the beery smell and the heat of the ovens and the sound of the front door chiming as it opens and closes against the noise of the summer street. Is this work that brings you joy, or simple exhaustion? And what is the taste of it in your mouth?

If I crane my neck to see you jouncing gently down the side of a skyscraper like a water glider, squeezing its windows clean, I am wondering—try and stop me!—how much they pay you to do that and how you learned to fly and how much they would pay me to climb so high in the cold and then fall down, a little at a time. Would I exult in it? Do you? I peer, and try to tell what you are feeling.

And if you draw my blood out of me, tighten your black cuff around my arm to feel it push back at you pulse by pulse, peer in my eyes and my cells and tell me my fate, I am definitely also wondering what it would be like to do your work: the work of knowing the body and staving off death. What would my Rubik’s cube look like in your hands?

These are twin fixations, work and death. They are connected to each other for me in ways I can hardly articulate. Death, I trust I expect I presume I imagine I long to be true, is what makes sense of the work of a life, gives it a reason to exist at all. And work, I think I guess I wonder if I hope I believe, is what redeems a life in the face of death. And yet I have been very often mistaken about what work means for me.

Twelve years ago I thought I wanted work to be pleasure, that’s all: sheer pleasure. Find what you enjoy and do that; call it work if you want to, but it’s just a name. Doesn’t mean you have to sweat over it. I was wrong.

Eight years ago I thought I wanted work to be service. Find a need and fill it; maybe you’ll be good at it, maybe you won’t, the important thing is that it be important in the world. I was wrong.

Six years ago I thought I wanted work to be what I did so I could live the rest of my life. Work ought to recede into the background, leave you alone at the end of the day. This time I thought I’d finally figured it out, but I was wrong there, too. Work is more than that for me. I don’t want it to leave me alone. I want it to be a way—not the only way, but an important one—I can prepare for what’s coming.

So when I stand on the El platform in the middle of winter, or jostle my way down Michigan Avenue in spring, and you are all around me, each one of us here for not even a single systole or diastole in a single heartbeat in the impossibly long life of the universe—when I see you there, I want to shout my question to you all: What are you doing with yourselves, friends, while you wait for that other train? What work have you chosen? Tell me.

Maybe you mix water into flour, salt, sugar, yeast, pulling an invisible universe of life and chemistry into being and pushing it over a fire until it grows enough to offer me my morning roll. Maybe you teem up and down walls. Maybe you will be the one to check my heart, my breath, my blood, my brain, and see that they have each stopped once and for all. Whatever it is, I want to know.

I tell you this now because I’ve thought about both these things lately perhaps even more than is normal for me. (Normal is measured by Ross no longer being taken aback when I run through with him a new imaginary scenario of his death, or mine, or my parents, or our cat’s. I have envisioned airplane crashes, car wrecks, psychotic gunmen, sudden cardiac arrests while running, drowning in foreign oceans, and plain old getting old and losing our minds. I work through the event, the hospital, the phone calls, the funeral, the sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, the night after the funeral. I am nothing if not thorough.)

But, as I say, more than normal. That’s because on April 1, 2010, a young man I knew in college died. He slipped from a waterfall while trekking in northern Thailand and fell some 30 feet—gracefully, said the woman who was with him that day, as he had lived. He was my friend, but I hadn’t been as close to him as I might, and we had not seen each other in years. My experience of his death is not the same as what is felt by those who knew and loved him as a funny, wise, strange, dear, evolving presence in their lives. Theirs is not my grief to grieve.

What I have felt, besides a deep sorrow that someone so kind and loving is gone, is something akin to the awe that was in me when I looked at my grandmother’s body twenty years ago. It seems hardly credible that death could have come this way.

Come it did.

When my friend hit the ground below the waterfall, the impact of it sent shock waves through his head, and his brain shifted forcefully against the inside of his skull. Tissues swelled, blocking the passage of blood, which pooled instead of pumping. The long threads of injured axons sheared and detached themselves from cell bodies in the white matter of his brain, leaving no way for neuron to contact neuron. Messages, and the means to send them, died. It all happened in an instant. And in that instant went everything that was the person I knew; every muscle memory of the bear hugs he used to give, every e.e. cummings or Khalil Gibran poem that recitation locked into the networks of his cortex, every dream and every lust. First he was breathing, singing, laughing, jumping, living, and then he was not.

And because I know one day I will not, either, I find myself thinking once more about work. Oh, I prepare for death in other ways, too. I make my life with the person I love. I try to see what I can of the world. I dip myself in books like feet in the ocean, and when I emerge I am dripping with ideas as icy as the Atlantic. But these are easy choices to make. Work is the hard one.

For now, I do this. I’m working right now, if not for pay, working to find a path across these small, square keys, oily with my fingerprints. Making out of them things that are only slightly less temporary than myself. When you get down to it, spending your life writing seems a little foolhardy. But it is difficult work, and that seems to mean something.

In fact, I know that it does. I know because when I imagine that train coming in for me, and think how my cells will cease their motion and their talk and my skin be full of that sweet mint smell—when those thoughts come, as they so often do, I’m pleased to think that this is what I did before the end.

The First Forgetting

March 7th, 2010 | Meera

I’m four, going on five, and walking with my class along a corridor that goes between the room where we take our naps to the room where we paint our pictures. I’m wearing the tiny red-checked uniform of my kindergarten. It has a pocket on the right hand side, and inside it is a piece of tissue paper that I used a few minutes ago to blow my nose. I’m fingering it nervously because I don’t know what to do with it now. There is a rubbish bin, I think, by the bathroom, but I am too shy to ask if I can leave the little choo choo train we’ve made—chugging along so smoothly—to walk over there and throw it away. I keep worrying at the tissue, wadding it up and tearing bits off it as I walk.

Then I have an idea. I am the last one in line, the caboose to this convoy. I roll the tissue into my palm, tight and invisible, and casually remove my hand from my pocket and lower it to my side, still balled up. Like a practiced sneak, I slowly unfurl my fingers one by one. The tissue falls, my step quickens. In a moment I am a few feet beyond it—and no one has seen. I let out my breath.

This isn’t the earliest memory I have, but it’s one of the few that has a distinct narrative—it makes me laugh to consider how terrified I was of doing anything even remotely against the rules, or that called attention to myself—and how devious I was willing to be in the service of that anonymity. It tells me I have not, perhaps, changed all that much.

There are other things I remember: eating porridge with slices of boiled chicken at my upstairs neighbor’s house, singing “You Are My Sunshine” in rounds in the car, burning the skin of my knees on the scratchy red carpet that only existed in one room of my family’s old apartment, getting Barbie dolls out from under the bed. But in general, the impressions I have of my early childhood are few, vague, and fugitive. When I can see them at all they are like the patterns on the insides of your eyelids—try to focus on them, and they change.

It’s not uncommon for a few startlingly clear visions to persist from a very young age. When I ask, my friend Regina says she can feel herself lying on her brother’s warm, comforting back, the two of them in a cot surrounded by the noise of strange children at a daycare center; she was 18 months old. Yvette, not much older than that when she was in the hospital for heart surgery, has on her tongue the taste of the popsicle a nurse thought to give her: Grape. But for the most part, when it comes to early memories we are all, relatively speaking, paupers caressing a small handful of coins.

You might imagine that young minds haven’t yet developed the neurological capacity—the physical equipment, so to speak—to store memories about experiences over time. Brain structures known to be vital for processing episodic memory, after all, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, do not develop fully for years.

Sensible as this theory seems, it’s hard to pit it against the facts. Six month-old babies can remember previously formed associations, like the fact that if they kick their leg just so, a pretty mobile that some strange scientific hand has tied to their ankle will twist in the air above over and over, like a bird, all color and light. And pain, of course, just as well as pleasure, makes its way into the brain. When my nephew was barely a year and a half old he crashed his head against a glass table. For days, my sister says, he’d return to the same spot and show her how it had happened, pantomiming his bump, face crumpling into a facsimile of the wail he’d wailed when it first happened. It is almost as if—not really, I know, but as if—he had some intuition that the moment would not last long, and thought to place it with someone who could hold it after he himself had forgotten.

Amazingly, scientists have been able to show that the ability to form complex episodic memories starts literally in the womb; we know this thanks to Dr. Seuss and two curious researchers. In 1986, A.J. De Casper and M. Spence asked pregnant women to read aloud one of three similar excerpts from The Cat in the Hat every day, several times a day, for six weeks before they gave birth. Three days after each baby was born, an ingenious set up allowed them to “choose” which of the three short passages they wanted to hear by varying the rate at which they suckled on a teat. By significant margins, the tiny infants showed they remembered and preferred the familiar reading to the ones they had never heard before. (A control group of unread-to babies had no particular feelings on the subject.)

In other words, children are not, by any means, sieves through which experiences flow like water without ever being caught. Yet the empirical evidence that most of us hold fewer memories from the earliest years of our lives than from later ones is impossible to ignore. If people are asked to describe as many childhood memories as they can, almost none of the items they recall will have occurred before their third birthday; after that, the number of memories they cite soars markedly. A statistical analysis of memories plotted against age finds that the scarcity of early recollections is even greater than you would expect after taking into consideration the fact that the older a memory is, the more likely it is to have decayed.

Caroline Miles, questioning a hundred college-aged women in 1893, found that the average age from which a first recollection came was 3.04 years; no subject of hers cited an event, impression, or sensation dating from when they were younger than 2.6 years. Since then, over a century of studies of early childhood memories have arrived at conspicuously similar figures, with some small, but interesting variations across culture and gender: Women typically remember slightly more childhood details than men, Americans typically reach slightly further back than do Chinese.

Psychologists have a name for this lacuna in our lives, this band of time at the end of which, it seems, we each line up to drink deeply from Lethe’s stream and give up most of what we once knew. This first forgetting. Depending on who you ask, it is called in the literature either “infantile amnesia” or “childhood amnesia,” names which have something of the absurdly overblown—they make us all sound like so many desperate soap opera characters bumbling about in a world full of strangers, our whole past lives erased at a single stroke.

And yet there is, truly, a note of tragedy about this very ordinary amnesia. We have reason to believe that the sensations we have as infants and very young children are exquisitely intense, full of vivid sounds, shapes, smells, images, and ideas that fly across our consciousness from every corner. Because we are less cognizant of established patterns, less able quickly to file away each impression into a neat category as soon as it arrives, we are (in the way so many of us strive to be in our adult lives) flooded with excitement and adventure—hyper-aware of the bright, sweet world in which we live.

Paper Cranes Everywhere Begin Evolving To Be Less Colorful

But look at us now. Look at me. In the face of all that wondrous experience I imagine to have once coursed through my brain like rivers of fire, here I am today: working eagerly at the meager store of memories I have from my childhood as if they were a few small pieces of tissue in my pocket, wearing thinner and thinner with each rub.

Why?

As with so many questions about memory and experience, no one really knows for sure. No one, any longer, believes Freud was right about the mind’s need to quell the “trauma” of psychosexual development by repressing memories associated with growing up, as if the entire adult human race were a limping legion of soldiers who had survived a war, each tender from the wounds of childhood itself.

Instead, most current theories seem in one sense or another to treat the fierce, beautiful memories from this period of our lives like lost treasure, buried under the ground somewhere and we without a map.

Maybe, some have argued, it takes a while for the brain to develop the ability to properly label individual memories with information about the way in which they arose, so that while we may on some deep level remember an experience itself, we are unable to access it because we no longer remember its source. If, for instance, you had not yet developed a sense of self, to what anchor could you safely attach your memories of things that happened to you? I like this notion. I think of balloons that ought to be tethered to a pole, to a tree branch, to a chubby wrist, coming free of their loose knots. Once they had flown high, ranged far away, could you bring them home again?

Or maybe, others say, the tens of billions of synaptic connections we lose as we age into adulthood prevent us from retrieving the recollections we formed early on, because many of the complex strings of firings that once led our minds from here to there have now been broken somewhere along the line. I like this notion, too. I think of a spider’s web that someone has walked through, intricate and gauzy. All unknowing, they shake their heads free of the fine threads as they step away, and leave this corner fragmented from that. I think of a house with ten thousand rooms and a thousand locked doors.

And maybe, still others guess—the ones, I imagine, who love words as much as I do— before we can use language to describe an event, even if only in our minds, memories live in silence. Wanting names, they persist—but cannot be called. I love this notion best of all. It feels less lonely than the others.

I think of a mind full of old friends, waiting for me to remember who they are.

and you will be the one to look up to me

Samson and Me

January 10th, 2010 | Meera

At five I couldn’t see the point of hair. I wanted it out of my way, so my mother obliged. She circled me slowly, shearing it off to just above my chin, and the air filled with a most satisfying ripping sound. Close to my ears the scissors crunched, closing their legs hungrily on my black wings.

At eleven I wanted everything under control. I was up when the sun was a murmur, stomach turning at the prospect of breakfast so early. My hair was a thick fountain I had to subdue into a ponytail neat enough for school and my desire to do things exactly right (a desire since mostly lost). I worked and reworked it, each time finding I’d sat my rubber band too far to the left or the right, or that threads of too-short hair were escaping from its noose, or that where I thought I had brushed my scalp into perfect smoothness there was still a small hillock of hair, invisible but to my own questing fingers. My sandwich sat uneaten.

Later I was a teenager, and let my hair down, and—bliss—it was a pair of doors I could shut against the world. Teachers nattered at it, instead of me. (Also, though I did not realize it then, I’d grown a set of blinders. Nothing could be seen beyond the edges of my hair, but for several years there was plenty to occupy me between their curtains: the curve of a friend’s back as she walked away, the crazy softness of a boy’s lip, my gigantic fear of being unloved.)

I began to imagine it would one day grow so long it would descend into the ground like roots, fixing me where I was. Perhaps that’s why it all came off in one dramatic gesture. How many other things were tangled in it! I looked down when it was done and saw them all snipped in half. Slick heat and sweat. The idea of being beautiful. The memory of dancing to “Copa Cabana” some school-day afternoon, laughing through my fingers. Some of them I’d have wanted to keep, if I’d known that’s where they’d been.

The year I turned 21 I was living in Jerusalem with an English boy, and it had been two years or more since I’d sat in a revolving chair, leaning my head back for a cut like a patient ready for surgery.

I was very happy then. As for my hair, it was happy, too. It wriggled with happiness; I could feel it sometimes when we sat on the bus together and everyone else leaned a little towards the speakers, listening to the hourly news. My hair leaned towards the English boy. It waved down my back like the shining tide of a gentle sea. At night we arranged ourselves, he and I, like two bookends tucked into each other. That was so he could brush my hair a hundred times, giving it all the attention of a tailor smoothing out a magnificent piece of fabric that had not yet received its first cut. When we parted the boy took some with him; for all I know he has it still.

Lately I have been cutting my own hair, chopping at it like a woodman who doesn’t care how rough are the edges of the stumps he leaves behind. I am all business. What is gone is gone.

Natalie Angier (I do adore her; she inspired my only fan letter to the New York Times to date) has written that the skin is the organ with the biggest mouth. She says it trumpets our emotions with its goosebumps and blushes, reveals our weaknesses with its scars and scrapes, and is, no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, the well-judged cover for a book no one, really, will ever read from first to last page.

She’s right, of course: skin is a loudmouth. But if you ask me, what hair lacks in volume it makes up for in storytelling style. It may be bloodless—at least by the time its questing fibers are pushed up from beneath the scalp—but it has a heartbeat. How else to explain the fact that it can keep time (let’s see skin do that)?

Don’t believe me? Try this. Take a few long strands of hair from a brand new mother, all relief and tears, her sweet infant barely out of its packaging. Get them right from the scalp, and don’t worry; she’ll barely notice you. Take more from a woman whose child is now three-months known, her eyes bleary from 90 interrupted nights. Another from a six-month mother, practically a veteran of cradling and lullabies and midnight messes, and still more from the head of one just beginning to hear her nine-month-old babble like a brook.

All set? Right. Now. Check the very highest tip of the hair from the newest mother, the flickery spot where it emerged from its follicle, for cortisol. That’s a substance that’s a marker for stress (people call it the fight-or-flight hormone). When a woman becomes pregnant she is flooded with cortisol. It soothes her response to pain, gives her more energy, and—some evidence suggests—makes her more attentive to danger. Look at the nib of that hair, and you’ll find cortisol in spades right there, just at the point of her baby’s birth. Now move three centimeters along the hair, and test again. Less cortisol. Another three centimeters, and test again. Still less, in an utterly predictable monotonic progression.

Do the same thing with the hair from the other women, and you’ll find the level of cortisol decreasing from high to low, step-wise along the hair, in just the same way—except now the highest level won’t be found at the tip. It’ll be three centimeters along with the mothers of three-month-olds. Six centimeters along with the mothers of six-month-olds. And so on.

Line them all up against each other, matching hormone levels as you go, and what you get, in effect, is an astonishingly accurate calendar of pregnancy’s effect on cortisol production in a woman’s body. Here is where it all began, two cells meeting, merging, making plans for the future. Here they’ve grown into a little lemon, here there are hands that wave through amniotic fluid as if swimming. Here everything is ready at last, racing like a freight train towards that long-awaited emergence.

All this happens, of course, because a growing hair takes on all manner of free-floating biochemical stowaways in the blood it absorbs from its follicle, each of which is permanently incorporated into its cellular structure at that precise point. If someone were trying to poison you with lead, your hair would know. If you’d been good and given up all your vices, your hair would speak your virtue. And though it has no life of its own, hair still breathes the air you breathe, drinks the water you drink. It remembers where you live.

It’s all there—the inner ebb and flow of anxiety and love, the things you’ve brought into yourself, the places you’ve traveled—all documented in a curl. It doesn’t go away, either. Hair can keep a secret for more than a thousand years, it seems. And knowing that, I am a little rueful over the decades of ink I’ve spilled below my chair. Whole novels’ worth, perhaps. The longer the strand, the deeper the communiqué?

I’m growing it out now, you know. I’m waiting to see what my blood writes in it.

A Very Commonplace Gesture (3)

On the Perpetual Balancing Act

November 17th, 2009 | Meera

In the months after I quit my teaching job, addled from the accumulated unease of days spent in battle and carrying my failure like an extra limb, I found there was nothing more soothing than stillness. Breaths grew small, hands rested quietly against thighs, feet found their place and kept it. I remember one train ride in particular, so gripped with disquiet that having once looked down to my shoes, I felt physically incapable of the simple act of raising my head. The carriage bumped along Boston’s pockmarked streets, but each twitch of its creaky frame saw me tighter and more transfixed.

I strove to be still because movements, in those moments, were traitors. Fear could speak its name in the shudder of a shoulder and there was no step but a misstep. So I paused, glassy as a frozen pond.

My silence here lately has had that same root, I think. It’s been a long, strange year. I’ve unmoored myself, once again, from a career that didn’t satisfy me. And once again I am afraid of defeat. I’ve been trying, I’ll admit, to stop time with hushed inaction. Later, I tell myself, I will speak. Later begin to move. Now, for now, let me be a statue who never leaves her spot. Better that than a human being, capable of tripping. Capable of falling.

But here is the truth; I’m not, you know. Not glassy, or frozen, or still. Not for a second, no matter how paralyzed I think I am. I haven’t a choice about it. Nothing can stop me from swaying to keep my balance.

eight

It’s clear, I suppose, that movement requires reams of complex coordination. I lift my hand to turn the page of the book I’m reading (One Hundred Years of Solitude, for the third and best time in the past dozen years), and to do so I must regulate, consciously or not, the movement of the joints at my shoulder, elbow, wrist, thumb, and forefinger—each of which is capable of turning and bending independently in up to three dimensions. That, in turn, requires controlling the contraction of nearly thirty different muscles, including the six sinewey carpal muscles that bind the wrist and let it roll over in a small half-moon once my fingers have grasped their insubstantial target. Peer in, and these muscles themselves have constituents whose movements must harmonize: fibers threaded together in bundles, each individual bundle squeezing or easing at the bidding of a single nerve.

My many parts synchronize in a beautiful clockwork, all so the sentence that begins somberly on page 70 can end on page 71 with a faint smile: “He soon acquired the forlorn look that one…sees in vegetarians.”

But in stillness, surely, there is rest. As I stand without moving, not even shifting from foot to foot, surely the threads out of which my muscles are woven are unruffled. I want this to be true so badly. Yes, breath continues, and heartbeat. Fluid moves across membranes and always there is the minute trundling of molecular motors carrying their endless loads across my cells. But look, I tell myself, these are only tremors within, rumblings beneath the earth. At least the earth itself remains stoic. My body, terra firma. So do I keep myself safe. In my immobility I can be a soft black hat on a table, waiting for the flourish of handkerchiefs that will prove the show was worth coming for.

Not so. Standing itself is parlous, and never as steady as it looks. Consider how heavy is the human head upon its kinky spine, how large the torso on its spindly legs, and yet how thick those legs compared to the stiff ankles, the tiny feet, upon which we place at last the entire burden of ourselves. We are not built, like lions, on four muscled legs, the pillars of an ancient church. Like inverted pendulums, we are secured to the ground, but travel up through our torsos and to our crowns and what you find is oscillation.

This is what the physiologists say—and they should know, because they watch: No one is ever truly standing still.

We do not ripple as do pliant blades of grass, breathed on by the wind. Instead, we fight to maintain verticality through a near-constant series of tiny displacements and corrections activated within the musculoskeletal system. Postural sway is what they call it. A gentle phrase, and one that captures both the strictness of our ideal (Watch your posture, young lady!) and the impossibility of adhering to it. Motionless we are not.

Here, then, is what moves us. It starts with diminutive shifts in the intensity and positioning of the points of pressure where our soles meet the ground. All unconscious, we map and remap the subtle forces with which we push back against the earth. As we do so, the imaginary reference point we use to gauge our balance (somewhere in between our feet) becomes a constantly moving target. It wanders.

“Rambling,” this is called affectionately in some scientific literature, as if the center of each human being’s personal universe is defined by the fact that it likes to take long walks in the outback.

So. We have a point of reference that keeps us upright, and it moves. But it isn’t unwatched. The current position of this center of pressure is instantly communicated by nerve signals traveling up the brain stem and into the neural system that controls balance. In response, nerves fire in an imperceptible ballet. They gently squeeze and relax those braided threads that make up the muscles in our calves, abdomen, back, thorax. The whole delicate orchestration causes equally diminutive shifts—”trembling,” they call this—in the position of our center of gravity.

Trembling follows rambling, and so we stand. How frail those words make us sound. Like needles skipping across a sheet of paper, following a skittering heart.

My Secret Life

Not so long ago, apparently, researchers regarded these stray wobbles as nothing but noise, meaningless bits of information generated by a flawed neural system that was not built well enough to give absolutely correct instructions. If the brain could direct the body to be perfectly still around a fixed central point, the thinking went, it would. What can we say? It can’t. C’est la vie.

If you had told me this, that day on the train, I’d have nodded. It would have been of a piece with my mood then. I’d launched myself into the air, expecting to fly, and fallen terribly. To learn that even my penitent stillness was deficient would have been no surprise.

But scientists, unlike saturnine ex-teachers, do not like the idea that things are just so because they are imperfect. Imperfection is not very interesting. So they continue to wonder about this sway. They draw graphs of it, delightful manic scribbles like ants circling about a drop of syrup, and see that though the movements we make as we shift and sway are variable, they vary within strict limits. No ant strays too far from the sugar.

Scientists also try to poke at the problem, making us close our eyes and seeing if our spontaneous quiverings change. And look, look here. They do. The intensity of postural sway increases significantly with eyes shut. But the tiny muscle movements we make don’t get more haphazard, as they might if the brain were just making more mistakes. The ants are wandering a little further away, but they’re still finding that sweet center.

(Are the ants working for you? They are for me, but I’ve been thinking about this all evening, worrying away at the idea of it. I might be an ant myself. If not, here’s what might be clearer.)

The reason you sway more when you close your eyes, scientists think, is not that you become unsteady, in danger of losing your balance. It’s that you’re working harder to keep the balance you have. With each tiny shift in those pressure points in the soles of your feet, each minute muscular movement in your legs or back, this theory holds, your brain is tracking information about your position in the world. In a way, the sway is a way to test the limits of stability.

If I do this, am I still standing? What about this? Or this? The same incessant experiment takes place whether your eyes are open or not—the brain and body are just more enthusiastic about their probings when one perceptual channel is closed off.

What I am saying is this: Maybe I have to stand up and sway to stay in balance. I’m a little less funereal now than I was those few years ago, a little more willing to welcome uncertainty. Maybe stillness itself is the root of the fall. And maybe, every instant in which I stray away from the perfect center I seek shall be followed by a move back towards it. I’m by no means sure of that. But I do like the idea of experimenting with the limits of stability. And I think I’ll be doing a little more of it right here from now on.

*******

Carrying a Ladder

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
something’s
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

—Kay Ryan

On the Story of Sand

September 24th, 2009 | Meera

There is a particular family of creation myths, emerging out of different cultures all over the world, from the Americas to India to the ancient lands of Central Europe, whose stories loop back and back again to a common center. The universe, they all say, was once a vast, primordial ocean. When things began there was no land upon which to rest a weary foot, no earth where trees could grow, no rocky mountains to break the droning plane of the sea. The sky was all there was above, and water was all there was below, and the animals ached for a world entire.

And so, one creature—sometimes a duck, sometimes a turtle, sometimes a beaver or our old trickster friend coyote—was sent by the others to dive deep, deep, deep below the dark waves to bring up some earth with which to build a world. But the task was too perilous, and the first emissary perished before it could swim far enough down, or else returned to the surface of the water empty-handed and half-dead from exhaustion and breathlessness. It had to go again, or let another go in its stead. This went on, the stories say, for some long while, and discouragement fell upon the creatures of the universe. But then a piece of luck came along. After the third or fourth or fifth grueling dive, a few nearly invisible grains of sand were finally discovered tucked beneath the nails of the one who was the last to descend—the one who without even noticing had scraped against the bottom of the ocean floor.

From these specks—this grist—the whole world was formed.

Sand Dunes in Miniature

Ross can’t stand sand, for exactly the reason that it is able to play such an important role in these mythic landscapes. Sand clings to you, he complains, embeds itself in crevices, lodges between nails and skin. Light enough to travel, it blows into your hair; heavy enough to settle, it accumulates inside shoes. In general, Ross tolerates sand for the sake of the sea. Last weekend, it was the promise of open skies and a roaring fire that allowed him to rise above this deeply rooted prejudice. We hopped in a rental car, tucked two little-used sleeping bags in its trunk, and drove some 75 miles east and north along the smooth curve of the great Lake Michigan to reach the sandy slopes of Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, Michigan.

Michigan is piled high with sand dunes that have formed along the shores of the lake: in all, over 275,000 acres, or nearly one percent of the total land area of the state, is covered in the grassy up and down terrain of dune formations. We drove all that way so that we could go camping in the shadow of several of those dunes. And while we were there, scrambling step by slippery step up a sand dune as steep as a cliff and digging our toes into the cool, crumbling sand of the beach (or at least my toes; Ross’s stayed safe inside his socks), I realized that not only did I not know how a sand dune forms, or what brings a beach into being—I barely understood the source of sand itself. What was it made of? What forces created it, and how far had it traveled, if at all, to come here? I had no knowledge, in any deep way, of the nature of what I was standing on. In case this describes you as surely as it did me last Saturday, I thought I’d share with you the things I’ve gathered since.

This is how it goes. It turns out that the definition of sand is, like the substance itself, a little fluid. The American Heritage Dictionary claims sand consists of “small, loose grains of worn or disintegrated rock.” But how small is small? Wonderfully, there is an official sedimentologist-approved range, which is precisely 0.0625 to 2.0 millimeters in diameter. It may not sound like it, but that allows for a tremendous variety of amplitudes. Sand is not composed of a uniformity of pretty, machined beads, each identical to the next: it is pinprick small; splinter-small; tiny shard of broken shotglass-small; small as a cumin seed; small as the ovary in a female Sora found in the fall. It occurs to me that a handful of sand is, in this one odd way, like the sixth grade classes I once taught, tumbling between childhood and adolescence: some sweet faces so tiny you could still cup their whole cheek in one palm, some stretching so tall they were almost all the way out of their skins.

Now, what about this “disintegrated rock”? It’s true that most of the sand upon the earth comes from igneous rocks. These are formed when red-hot magma beneath the earth’s surface collects and hardens in small pockets underground, or when volcanic eruptions exhale molten lava that later cools. You can remember this, as I will from now on, by thinking of the word “ignite,” which has the same Latin root meaning “fiery.” Glaciers can mash these rocks down to crumbs, as a stale loaf of bread might fall to fragments beneath the heel of your hand. Even if this doesn’t happen, the rocks, exposed to the whipping, grinding, rubbing, licking touch of wind and rain—geology as foreplay—are bound to erode over time. Bits break off, and are blown or washed by the same wind and rain into rivers; the rivers, in turn, carry them to a sea or to a lake, polishing them into rounder and rounder grains as they go.

But there are other ways in which sand can be formed, other materials out of which it can be made. On tropical beaches, vast stretches of sand are formed out of the calcium carbonate of crumbling skeletons and shells once belonging to marine life like snails, crabs, coral, and the beautiful, surreal unicellular organisms called Foraminifera that litter the ocean floor. This is sand as the fine, white ash of death. Sand can form slowly, gently, when minerals formerly dissolved in seawater lay themselves down in a crusty powder on the shore; it can burst forth in an intemperate rainfall of new granules when a falling meteorite violently liquefies the rock where it touches down on the earth.

Even ordinary sand, “worn or disintegrated rock” sand, is full of multiplicity, pulsing with elemental force. Some grains, made of iron, are dark and heavy, like small black jewels; they hunger for each other and are drawn to magnets. Most, made of quartz, are light and bright, like bits of glass. If you could run an electric current through them, their piezoelectric property would cause them to expand and contract like minute beating hearts in perfect rhythm; you could tell time by them. We do tell time by them. To let a palmful of sand run through your fingers—some grains of which, perhaps, are billions of years old—is to hear all the stories of the ancient earth, if you only knew how to listen.

Then there is the way sand grows into beaches, the way such tiny things—maybe as tiny as 0.0625mm! But for sure no bigger than 2.0mm!—build whole vistas that stretch for miles, and the fact that this happens grain by grain. Waves deposit sand particles incrementally on the edge of the shore as they break. Waves steal a little sand back into the water, too, as they retreat—but unless they are very big waves indeed, they draw away less than they bring, because their gentle downward flow is weaker than their rushing upward push.

I like knowing this about waves; their actions seem both ambitious and tentative. I think about the water pushing sand forward, pulling back, pushing forward, pulling back, and it reminds me that when you are trying to establish something new, it is okay if you take many steps along the way that seem to move you backward. It is part of the rhythm of creation to do so. And in this way, little by little, a beach is built like the one we stood on last Saturday. If ever there was a testament to the power of small individual acts to accomplish great things, it is not the acorn growing into a vast tree; it is sand, forming the universe out of specks.

So much for beaches, formed by waves; as for dunes, like the bluff I clambered up, so vertiginous it took my breath away and left me marveling and dizzy, their story is of the wind. Once sand that has gathered on the shore has dried enough to blow about, a steady breeze moving in from the water shifts some of it further inland. It doesn’t take much force. A gentle zephyr of 9 or 10 miles per hour will do it—just enough to move the leaves in the trees or blow a twig lightly across the ground. The wind, after all, isn’t trying to move the whole dune into place at once. Grain by grain. That’s how the world is built.

Breathed on by a breeze, sand moves in a funny sort of hopping dance called saltation, from the Latin saltus: “leap.” (Think of somersault!) The force of the wind gives each grain enough momentum to jump, in a shallow parabola, a little distance upwards and along; as one grain does so, it loosens other grains, which themselves bounce into the air, and so on and so on and so on.

Eventually, saltating sand grains (I had to whisper that phrase aloud to myself just then; it was as lovely on the tongue as I imagined it would be) falling one upon the other form enough of a habitat for hardy beach grasses like reed and marram to grow in. It is these roots, at last, that stop the migrating sand. Without the roots, it would keep hopping forever, wild as sown oats. But moored by vegetation, the sand stops. It settles. It grows higher. Higher. Higher. And there it is, a dune.

I love that. Something so stately, built out of a million grains of skipping, prancing, frolicking sand, given legs by the wind.

Of course, a dune is no permanent thing. It reacts to its surroundings, changes its shape from moment to moment with the shifting wind and the heavy steps of those who walk upon it.

I thought last Saturday of the dunes of rose and olive and ultramarine sand in Goab, the Desert of Colors. Goab is a place from my childhood. It is formed, in Michael Ende’s extraordinary novel The Neverending Story, out of the crumbling leaves and flowers of a fabulous Night Forest that dissolves into dust with the sunrise. The sands of Goab are new every morning, and yet their essence remains so much the same that the mighty lion Grogaman can find among Goab’s shifting dunes the very place where he stood the day before. Gazing down at my footsteps on the dunes, I wished to be Grogaman. I wished to know the sand that well. It is, I think, worth knowing.

In the end we spent only a single day and night on the Michigan dunes, cradled in the courting cries of crickets and frogs, the laughter of friends, and the sputter and crack of our own warm fire. I wanted it to go on forever, to keep going to sleep beneath all that old light—the kind I can’t see here in the glittering nighttime of the big city.

But there is this, and it is no small thing: Sand clings. It accumulates. It travels. It leaps into any space large enough (small enough) to hold it. So when I did get home, this is what I did. I tipped as many tiny crystals out of my sneakers as would have been required to build a hundred or more new worlds. I’m saving them, for now. You never know when you’ll need that kind of seed.

On the Persistence of Ferns

July 7th, 2009 | Meera

On an early January day in Chicago this year, my muscles twitching in protest of the cold and the sky around me bright with winter sunshine glancing like arrows off the curves of strangers’ sunglasses, I stepped into the Fern Room of the Lincoln Park Conservatory to warm my face with the humid breath of the forest primeval.

If you have never had the pleasure of visiting the Fern Room, the best way I can think of to describe it is to tell you that it is a place where all the colors of the spectrum seem to have been suddenly replaced by a hundred thousand different shades of green. The light that outside was so harsh and dazzling is now filtered through shady fronds of emerald, jade, and olive, and instead of walls and corridors the stout trunks of cycads and the lacy leaflets of ancient ferns divide the room into secret passages and broad arcades. At every turn you begin to expect a horned triceratops or armored ankylosaurus to push through the vegetation, shaking its head and crying, What—is it you? For shame, for shame! You’re sixty million years early!

I came for the cycads, having just read of the endlessly charming Oliver Sacks’ journey to a remote Pacific Island in order to run his hands along their stiff, glossy, blade-like leaves, beguiling but toxic suspects in his search for the source of a strange disease of the mind. But it was the ferns that captured me. I liked their delicately forked fronds, each one divided into innumerable leaflets, called pinnae, that spread outwards like gentle fingers touching the air. Some curled this way and that, and when they did I could see that they were studded with neat lines of rough buttons on the underside. The buttons were called sori, I learned later, and each little nub of a sora held clusters of sporangia, themselves tiny round bubbles holding even tinier spores—these last, as fine as dust, the powder of the next generation.

growth

In the time of Shakespeare, people didn’t know about spores. They thought it obvious that ferns, like all other sensible plants, propagated themselves through seeds, which are eminently practical devices that contain not only the embryonic beginnings of a new plant, but food for the road as well, and have smooth, smart coats to protect them from the elements. (Spores, which are single-celled motes almost too small to see, seem impoverished by comparison.)

But since, five hundred years ago, not a soul had yet recognized the brown patches on the undersides of fern leaves as containing reproductive particles, it began to be believed that the so-called seeds of ferns were cryptic, secret things, not simply well hidden but, in fact, invisible. And like spores that fly far from the fronds where they were first exhaled, that idea traveled and grew. Eventually, wondering herbalists transformed it into the astonishing claim that if you could, somehow, collect the elusive fern seed (say at the moody hour of midnight on Midsummer Night’s Eve) and clutch it in your hand, you yourself would be veiled from the prying eyes of others. In the words of a thief from Henry IV, about to embark on an ambitious robbery, we steal as in a castle, cock-sure; we have the receipt of fern seed—we walk invisible.

It is a very pretty notion indeed, but if I were to steal an essential quality from a fern it would not be invisibility, but persistence.

It isn’t easy to contemplate the earth in its wildest, most wonderful days of youth, but when we do picture it, ferns are the plants we see in our mind’s eyes, blanketing the new world in a riot of green fronds and settling their wispy roots into a rich black soil. The very oldest of ferns are almost impossibly ancient, at least from the perspective of complex living things, some 345 million years old; that makes them older than the dinosaurs, older than flowering plants, and far older than any fuzzy bee that they might otherwise have relied upon to pollinate them. They were giants, then, too, snaking up to the height of ten-story buildings. After the dinosaurs dwindled and died, and almost every other form of life went with them, ferns returned first of all to make the earth verdant again. They grew close together, like brothers, and shielded the soil, and gave other green things the time they needed to revive.

Not only old, ferns, not only huge, not only tenacious, but also numerous: their tally during the Carboniferous period, when they first appeared, was so great that when they died, their remains helped to form vast coal beds all across the earth, hundreds of miles wide and hundreds of feet deep. For hundreds of years we have mined the bodies of ferns to fuel our industry, build our cities, and sustain the needs and desires of our daily lives, and still we have not managed to exhaust their reserves.

What is perhaps even more astonishing is that throughout all these long eons, many ferns have continued to unfurl, generation after generation, into the very same forms they have always had, altering very little about their strange, self-sufficient design. Soft brushes wielded by eager paleontologists, for instance, have gently pushed the dirt from two hundred million year-old fossils of Osmunda clatoniana. Today, the same fern continues to put forth its long, fuzzy stalks in rich woods from Newfoundland to Manitoba, South Carolina to Arkansas, and every point in between.

Its common name may be the “Interrupted Fern,” because tiny brown leaflets, fertile with hundreds of thousands of spores, break up the smooth green lines of its fronds—but its lengthy existence on this earth has been anything but. The same answers that made sense to it two hundred million years ago still make sense now: it has the same leaflet shapes, the same reproductive mechanisms, the same root systems, the same way of throwing up a circlet of fronds from a single central spike, as if fashioning a fringed fan with which to stir the air around an ancient deity.

"A small dinosaur would feel at home...

Consider the stubbornness, the sheer dogged tenacity, of those two hundred million years, against these other figures: the species lifespan of the average flowering plant is only about 3.5 million years—a blip of a figure that closely parallels the species lifespan of the average mammal. Having reached that ineluctable expiry date, most living things give up the ghost, hand over their space on the planet to some newer, upstart species better suited to the planet’s changing circumstances.

Consider this: our own species, even with all our long history of literature and progress and scientific endeavor, and despite the fact that we have been around long enough to dream delightful dreams about fern spores and invisibility and awaken to learn that they are false, still, Homo sapiens has only had a mere five hundred thousand years, give or take a couple of hundred thousand, to work on its routine.

Two hundred million years, and how much more than we has the Interrupted Fern already seen? How much will it witness, after we are gone? How it must yawn, to look upon the petty wars and conquests of human affairs. How wise it is to stay so long the same.

I am not like the ferns. I have spent my thirty years on changes and modifications, constantly refashioning my own shapes, mechanisms, and systems in the hope that there is, after all, a better answer. I have been shy as often as I have been bold; I have worn the crown of ambition as often as the mask of nonchalance; I have copied friends and enemies, believing their shapes an improvement over my own. I have been myself a dozen different ways, and still never found the right one. I am trying out a new incarnation right now, in fact—fingers crossed that this time I know what I’m doing—if only you could see me shift.

I admit that I am tired from all this transmuting. I long for those two hundred million, long to stretch like that. Long to peer out beyond the glow of my own small candle flame and gaze at all that has come before and all that will come after. I am hungry for the peace that I imagine must accompany such a lingering existence.

human contact

And yet, you know, the funny thing about it all is that when your thumb is as inky-black as mine, the lives of plants seem fleeting and fragile.

I once killed a succulent, those hardy green survivors that—like camels—hoard water within their fleshy parts for dry days, by deciding that the most logical place for it was atop a radiator in December. There it baked and shriveled and, inside two weeks, limply relinquished its grip on life. Growing things beyond number have expired under my care, littering my past with inglorious remains: basil; rosemary; cilantro; narcissus; aloevera; bamboo. Just this afternoon I was re-potting six tiny transplants, baby tomatoes and strawberries grown from seed by a friend with more verdant talents—and even as I gazed upon them tenderly, a faint, funereal voice seemed to whistle past my ears: Poor things, it sang. They’ll be gone before the summer’s out. Every pot on my back deck is a memento mori, a reminder of the impermanence of all things.

But there are different measures of longevity. By one, the meandering lifetime of a human gardener, seventy or eighty years long, stretches out like an eternity, punctuated by the small gasps of scores of individual plants that unfurl and pass away within a season in yard after yard, home after home. By another, the entire collective lifetime of the human species is but a gasp itself—at least when compared with the persistence of ferns.

On Seeing Yourself

June 16th, 2009 | Meera

I don’t know what it’s like for you, but there are days when it feels I’m like meeting someone for the first time. Her features seem foreign to me, and that, in its way, is not so far from the truth.

I don’t know what it’s like for you: there are days when I am most comfortable if the sight is brief. Best if I have a specific task, like brushing my teeth or plucking at the ragged curve of my eyebrows until one bends to match the other; best if I can file the required report and move on, before too much is seen: Go ahead and wear that shirt. It looks well on you. No, there is no scratch on your cheek. It must have been a momentary twitch of a nerve… Yes, you look as tired as you feel. More tired. There it is. It’s not that I am ashamed, understand; my self-esteem is not a dress that has fallen and must be tugged back up. It’s not that I never stare; oh, stare I do. But there’s something unnerving about it.

I don’t know what it’s like for you. For me it’s a question of manners. Too direct a gaze creates an impossible challenge: which pair of eyes will drop first? I know that both are mine. Yet how strange is what I perceive—that I am at home inside one set of arms and legs, and at the same time these very limbs are hanging quite happily on a separate frame. That I am twinned.

Mirror, Mirror

I live quite comfortably with this contradiction, of course; but I suppose I haven’t always.

Babies aren’t born with what psychologists (somewhat ploddingly) call “mirror self-recognition.” It takes many months before they’re able to draw an unfaltering line between their reflections and themselves, to comprehend that the stare that meets their own so fearlessly does not belong to another human being. It’s not just a question of waiting until certain inevitable developments take place in the brain, either—though that is important. A light bulb doesn’t just blaze on one day and transform stranger into self. No; in fact, developing the ability to recognize one’s own body in the mirror seems to be a surprisingly rational undertaking, and one that builds over time.

In 1979—the year I was born, naked of a sense of self— two scientists named Lewis and Brooks-Gunn tumbled a series of burbling 12-month-old babies in front of a mirror, to see what they could see. The vast majority of them, the experimenters observed, engaged in something they called “contingent play”—so named because the movements of a reflection are contingent upon one’s own movements.

Having noticed that there was a being opposite them in the glass, and having perceived that the behavior of this being seemed oddly familiar, the babies would proceed to carry out clever studies of their own. Staring at their reflections, they would perform the same series of movements over and over again, each time watching intently to see if the strange creature in front of them would follow their lead correctly. They bobbed their heads up and down, bounced their chubby bodies enthusiastically, carefully waved their arms back and forth, all the while with eyes growing wide as they began to clarify and confirm the fact that they possessed a perfectly synchronous imitative partner who would do all that they did at just the same moment. These early play sessions seem to be a necessary first step towards claiming one’s reflection as one’s own.

(They are not sufficient, for it is possible to recognize that your movements dictate those of another without recognizing that the two are one and the same. The full understanding that the face opposite you in the mirror is your own does not generally arrive until late in the second year of life, according to subsequent studies. When that understanding comes, it can truly be described as self-consciousness. One common test of mirror self-recognition is to dab a spot of rouge on a child’s nose, then place them in front of a mirror. A sheepish, or frustrated, rubbing at the spot is the positive indicator researchers are looking for.)

But listen; am I the only one who is astounded by the canny, systematic tests those children conducted? Am I the only one who went straight to the mirror to reenact them, nursing a tiny thrill and half-hoping to catch my other self shifting her neck just a heartbeat too late? Because I’ll tell you what the Lewis and Brooks-Gunn study says to me. It says that seeing yourself does not come easily.

Cloud Gate Shenanigans (2)

Let’s put it this way: to know an apple, say, is straightforward. Hold it in your palm; take in its dangerous crimson; scrutinize its glossy skin. It is entirely self-contained. Its apple-y nature is self-evident. To know your own face in the mirror is different. You have to slide into the apprehension sideways, gather together a body of physical evidence and reason your way towards the truth:

When I nod, she nods. When I stare, she stares back. Her arms follow my arms; her legs stretch as far as mine. This plant does not move when I move; it is not part of me. This other person moves without my say-so; he is not part of me. Only she, with her skin so brown and her feet curling under her like frightened mice—only she moves with me. So. This is who I am. These are the things I am made of. These are my boundaries in space.

I don’t remember collecting those proofs. I don’t remember building my sense of self like this, brick by brick with my baby-brain. But I believe that I did, and you as well. And I’ll tell you something else: I believe that we’re in good company. Elephants, apes, and dolphins can learn to see themselves through contingent play, too.

Also, robots. Robots can learn to see themselves. Are you smiling yet? Listen, at the very least, one robot can that I know of—its name is Nico. I read about Nico in this charming paper, published last year. In it, two Yale computer scientists show how, with the help of three algorithms that deftly compare data to experience, a robot “can learn over time whether an item in its visual field is controllable by its motors, and thus a part of itself.”

First, Nico spends some time—four minutes, to be precise—waving its arm back and forth and carefully noting the shape of its own movements. Then, it’s ready to look itself in the eye, so to speak. Nico is placed in front of a mirror, whose contents are captured in a streaming image by a wide-angle lens embedded in what would be Nico’s right eye. Carefully monitoring that video stream, the robot continues to motor its arm around in random directions, checking for precisely contingent movements in the reflected scene. It consults the algorithms in its memory, calculating the probability that what it sees is really Nico. Very quickly, then, the robot is able to accurately determine whether it happens to be looking at itself, an inanimate object, or an animate other.

Once it has understood the form of its own arm, learned the way in which its joints shift position—once it has traced the essential outline of its own metallic body—Nico can be said, in a very real sense, to recognize itself. And after that understanding has set in, no one (not even a sly researcher insinuating himself into the scene and painstakingly mimicking Nico’s movements) can fool it. Nico knows exactly what it is.

But achieving that knowledge demands two things, both of which are clearly spelled out in the title of the Yale paper: time and reasoning.

Seeing yourself doesn’t come naturally; it’s not fundamental to your understanding of the world in general. And it can’t be accomplished simply by having someone else tell you who you are in the glass; it’s not a fact you swallow, but a judgment you come to. At first—ask a baby; ask a robot—it’s not at all silly to narrow your eyes at that odd-looking stranger and wonder why they’re copying what you do. At first, surely it’s right and proper to be suspicious of the shade in the mirror.

When it comes right down to it, I mean, you might be wrong about the whole thing.

Here’s the thing: When I think of myself, what comes to mind is less a single clear and shining image of my own face than a shifting sensation of me-ness: a complex amalgamation of memories, ideas, and sensory impressions. I am the one around whom my husband’s arms wrap, the pressure of his musculature against my own clearly defining the shape of my body. I am the one who lay at the foot of my parents’ bed as a child, listening to the hum and click and drip of their ancient air-conditioner and imagining the sounds growing larger and larger until they merged with my own heartbeat. I am the one who frets for hours before phone calls, sweaty and pale, who dances while she cleans, who hates hair in her face and still remembers the sharp, dusty taste of the whiskey sours she used to drink because she liked the way they made her tongue twist up inside her mouth.

I am the one who feels the way I feel, thinks the way I think, not—or not just—the one who looks the way I look. And how do I look, anyway? No matter how many tests I run, no matter how much I grow to trust the image before me in the glass, the sight of my own face is always mediated through layer after layer of tin, silver, glass, copper, paint. I’ve never seen it without a mirror as middleman, without a bender and broker of light. What if the person I’m seeing isn’t who I think it is at all? Why should their mere resemblance to me be sufficient identification?

I live quite comfortably with this suspicion, of course; but not everyone does.

People with a extremely rare disorder known as Capgras delusion come to believe that those whom they love have been replaced by impostors. These strangers are identical to my mother, my sister, my brother, Capgras sufferers say, but they are not them. They are different people entirely. Their features—remarkably similar! The close resemblance is uncanny! But no; they are certainly not the ones I know. They are frauds. I do not recognize them.

The extent of the delusion is such that, confronted with their own reflections, Capgras patients are apt to startle violently. Why, I’ve never seen this person before! they may exclaim, in horror and disgust. Some engage in the same kind of contingent play that babies do, pinching themselves and waving their arms, keeping a chary eye on the ghoul in the mirror—but unlike babies, they will not be satisfied by the paltry evidence of their own eyes. And when repeated gazes into a mirror call up the same disagreeable stranger again and again, people with Capgras may accuse their likenesses of deliberately appearing in their lives solely to stalk and torment them. Capgras delusion steals a person’s ability to see their own true selves, and replaces it with an uninvited guest who cannot—will not—leave them alone. I confess, I sympathize.

But how exactly does this happen? Capgras patients are otherwise, for all intents and purposes, normal—whatever that means. Their vision is not impaired, and neither is their cognitive functioning; nor are any aspects of their memory. Their negative emotional response to their loved ones and their own reflections is bizarre, to say the least, but in some sense it’s also perfectly lucid and reasonable. It matches, after all, precisely the way you would expect someone to react if everyone in their inner circle of intimates had been replaced by an impostor. (And wouldn’t you yell if your beloved reflection suddenly turned into someone you knew, deeply and profoundly, wasn’t you at all?)

Mirrorbranch

So what causes this extraordinary disconnection between vision and belief, between seeing a person, recognizing their features, and correctly identifying them as someone whom you know and love? The inimitable UCSD behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has a lovely theory about this. Look, he says: Sensory information about objects the eye sees is transmitted from the retina into visual centers in the temporal lobes. Here, the object is identified: This looks like a teapot, this looks like a poodle, this looks like my sister. Capgras patients can accomplish this part of seeing perfectly well.

But after an object has been identified, the brain continues to work. It sends its decoded information to the limbic system, which is a complex network of brain structures that enables the perception and expression of emotions. One of the first places this visual information passes through is the amygdala (the name means almond-shaped, which it is). Ramachandran explains that the amygdala is responsible for labeling the emotional content of what the eye has seen. This object is beloved, the amygdala concludes, and should trigger affection; this one is despised, and should trigger hate.

This visual data, then, becomes colored with a layer of emotional interpretation; it travels on towards other structures in the brain. At its final stop, what began with a glance at a face sets in motion at last the physiological responses that enable a person to actually experience the appropriate emotion: things like a speedier heart rate, higher blood-pressure, and a light film of sweat covering the skin. (For what is emotion but the brain, talking to the body, talking to the brain?)

You might imagine that a rather odd sensation might occur if this process were disrupted somewhere after the point where an object is decoded and before the point where the emotion that ought to be associated with it is actually experienced. Ramachandran did. He asks:

Is it possible that in this patient there has been a disconnection between the face area of the temporal lobes and the part concerned with the experience of emotion? Perhaps the face area and the amygdala are both intact, but the two areas have been disconnected from each other. When (the patient) looks at his mother, even though he realizes that she resembles his mother, he does not experience the appropriate warmth, and therefore says ‘Well, if this is my mother, why is it I’m not experiencing any emotion? This must be some strange person.’

I think of a person like this, and how they must feel when they stare at the mirror, eyes fixed full upon their own faces and hearts as hard as stone. Do they never, now, experience the comfort of being alone with themselves?

It hasn’t been proven, so far, the hypothesis that the Capgras delusion is caused by the neurological disconnect that Ramachandran describes—but its elements catch at my heart. It’s not enough to simply identify a person in order to truly know them. The brain needs more. It’s not enough to match the movements of a reflection to your own in order to recognize it as yourself. The brain needs more. Seeing yourself does not come easily. It requires time. It requires reason. And, beyond all that, it requires some measure of affection.

Knowing this, I return to my counterpart in the mirror—the one who still seems so strange to me sometimes—and am moved to tenderness. I look on her for a long moment, studying the shape of her lips, the brown of her eyes. I forgive our separation, forget the times when her eyes have challenged mine or mine hers, and gaze.

Because if I do not see her, how will I love her?

And if I do not love her, how can I see her?

If you’re fascinated by reflections, I can do no better than to recommend the deep and intricate treatment of the subject in Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection. I found my copy in the stacks of Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, on my honeymoon.

On the How of the Purr

June 1st, 2009 | Meera

I don’t even have to touch her, sometimes, before it begins; on my approach, her ears unfold to my footfalls, each one a triangular flag hoisted by a tiny sailor. Chin lifts from crossed paws, emerald eyes widen, and I couldn’t stop it now if I tried—for even before my thumb has arrived at her furry head bearing its promised caress, the whole thing is underway. I can feel a tremor in her, radiating outward from a secret, central source. It hums gently through her spine as I lay my other hand on her back: a bubbling, burbling thing. A purr.

She has curled up on my lap now, become a mottled grey egg with no edges, and it seems as if the whole of her body vibrates as one well-oiled machine: but two fingers carefully tucked under her chin find the strongest buzz. Squinting, I can actually see it, just—pushing and pulling at her skin, tickling the hairs into a movement like the whisper of a summer breeze through tall grasses. The purr is a force that is insistent without being urgent, and I love it. I think, in fact, that I may be addicted to it. If worry clamps around my chest, look for me on the sofa, waking the cat from sweet sleep into indignation so I can set her in motion.

blissed out

Most forms of vocalization, including human speech and cats’ meows, are created by the vibration of the vocal cords as a column of air is pushed past them. The vocal cords are diaphanous membranes that stretch across the hollow organ—how richly it deserves that appellation—known as the larynx. The nature of the sounds we produce depends on how tightly the vocal cords are pulled by the muscles of the larynx; like a guitar string, the greater the tension, the higher the pitch. The whole apparatus is capable of bringing forth an astonishing cacophony of peals and murmurs, and we can learn to manipulate them with a high degree of control. The cat in our house, for instance, is a stylish songstress who expresses herself with all sorts of vocal experimentation: chirps, meows, yowls, growls. Her commentary on the world varies widely in pitch and form, and she is not above running through every pattern in her power in order to make herself understood.

Purring is different. Purring has almost the regularity of a metronome. In most domestic cats (Felis catus), it is generated by vibrations that take place at an incredibly consistent frequency—somewhere between 20 and 200Hz, or vibrations per second, according to data collected by animal behaviorist Elizabeth von Muggenthaler. (In order to get these results, Muggenthaler took tiny accelerometers, devices that are more commonly used to do things like detect a falling laptop and trigger shock control measures, and glued them temporarily to the skin of cats. Then, in what must be one of the most relaxing experimental setups ever conceived, she had her test subjects lie on blankets, where they were occasionally stroked.)

The soft buzzing coming from the bundle in my lap hardly ever jerks or hiccups—doesn’t much speed up, doesn’t much slow down. Even more miraculously, the hum of a cat continues and continues and continues, pausing only for brief, almost imperceptible moments as the air inside its lungs changes direction. Speech, no matter how soothing the words, is messy; ragged; broken by breath. Anxiety can breach its gaps. A purr, on the other hand— a purr stitches together inhalation and exhalation. Breathing in and breathing out become a single expanse of vibration. It’s the reason I enjoy folding over my cat, letting her whirring breath wrap around me like a smooth blanket of sound.

I find the comforting reliability of the purr marvelously contradictory in the light of how it is produced. In a way, what biologists believe is its basic mechanism (there is still some debate on the issue) relies on discontinuity. When a cat purrs, its vocal cords aren’t just being stretched. They’re actually being alternately pulled open and shut across the larynx, constantly interrupting the flow of air as it passes in both directions. First they let air through, then prevent its passage, like a gate whose doors swing back and forth at incredibly regular intervals. Each time this happens, a small, pressurized puff of air builds up, whose sudden release produces an audible sound.

jade

The reason the intervals between the gate’s opening and shutting are so regular, it seems, is that, like a heartbeat, they are governed by a timer. Somewhere in the brain of every cat is a pacemaker of sorts known as a neural oscillator. This is a neuron, or perhaps a small network of neurons, that—once activated—fires in a repetitive, periodic manner that is utterly predictable. In the case of the oscillator that controls purring, the purpose of this continued relay of synapses is to send signals to the laryngeal muscles, instructing them to tighten and relax in turn. As they do so, the tiny gate they control swings open and closed. The result of all these mechanisms working together is the beautiful, steady putt-putt-putt that brings me so much pleasure.

I wonder if you’ll understand when I tell you this: Knowing that the production of my cat’s purr relies on an automatic neurological process makes it even more dear to me. A cat is a creature of caprice, unpredictable and strange—my cat perhaps more so than any. If she herself shaped the rhythm of her purr, how could I rely on it for solace as I do?

Instead I imagine the purr’s musical hum existing in some deep, essential way that is not limited to her small frame—like the movement of the earth, like the tides. And as I hold her I think of this rhythm flowing through her into me, willing the timer in her brain to somehow speak to the muscles in my own throat.

On Skin and Bones

May 25th, 2009 | Meera

There is a wonderful H.G. Wells story in which a taxidermist, puffed up like a Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens), lists the feats of stuffing and mounting he has achieved so far: an elephant; a moth; a great auk; several human beings. His litany culminates, to the narrator’s enthrallment and horror, in the following remarkable boast.

“But all this is merely imitating Nature. I have done more than that in my time. I have—beaten her.”

He took his feet down from the mantel-board, and leant over confidentially towards me. “I have created birds,” he said in a low voice. “New birds. Improvements. Like no birds that was ever seen before.”

“…Some of the birds I made were new kinds of humming birds, and very beautiful little things, but some of them were simply rum. The rummest, I think, was the Anomalopteryx Jejuna. Jejunus-a-um—empty—so called because there was really nothing in it; a thoroughly empty bird—except for stuffing. Old Javvers has the thing now, and I suppose he is almost as proud of it as I am. It is a masterpiece, Bellows. It has all the silly clumsiness of your pelican, all the solemn want of dignity of your parrot, all the gaunt ungainliness of a flamingo, with all the extravagant chromatic conflict of a mandarin duck. Such a bird. I made it out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers. Taxidermy of that kind is just pure joy, Bellows, to a real artist in the art.”

From “The Triumphs of a Taxidermist” by H. G. Wells.

I have thought about Wells’s lunatic taxidermist many times recently, because four months ago I began preparing bird study-skins as a volunteer at the Field Museum in Chicago. The birds I prepare are mostly local species, but some are migrants that are passing through; since I live in a city, many have died flying into windows. A vigilant group of bird-lovers rehabilitate the ones that make it through this experience alive; the ones that don’t are brought here, where they wait in a freezer until a pair of ready hands takes them up.

Pinned Colaptes auratus (Flicker)

My service here is a natural outcome of a triptych of fascinations with birds, death, and the body, but it has not come easily. It is difficult to skin and stuff a bird. It is especially intense work for someone unused to such meticulousness (most of the other volunteers at the museum are artists, their hands practiced with small tasks). My progress often feels halting; consulting my log, I see that my eighth bird, a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), was quite successful, while my twelfth, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), ended up “a little ratty-looking and with lopsided wings.” Today is a small milestone: I have my twentieth bird in my hands.

It is a gorgeous male Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) in full spring plumage: its body a brilliant red the color of teachers’ ink, and the flight feathers on its wings and tail a shiny charcoal black. (I will do a female of the same species next; her plumage is a much less impressive dirty olive-yellow.)

There is a small array of touches I run through with every bird before I begin. I gently pull on its limbs, loosening them to make the bird easier to handle and checking for any signs of broken bones. I fold them up again. I stroke the tiny feathers on its head until they lie smooth and flat. I touch its bill and lightly feel the small, stiff, hair-like rictal bristles that surround it, if they are present. Not every bird has these odd-looking feathers, like short cat whiskers, and I like them particularly because when I see them I imagine the bird in full and glorious motion, its head jerking back and forth as it feeds. (The function of the rictal bristles is something of an open question, but one guess is that they protect a bird’s eyes from the sharp wriggling of insects held in its bill.)

I do these things partly because I wish to memorize the bird in its original state. I need a picture in my mind to which I can return when later I must do my best to arrange its wings, feathers, and feet as they were in life. But partly, the gestures serve as an act of reverence for the creature I am handling. The back room of a science museum may also be a place where ritual is born.

Lohengrin‘s aria happens to be playing on the radio as I carefully pry open the Tanager’s stout bill, my fingers running over the two tiny teeth along the edges of its upper jaw that helped it pierce the skin of fruits when it was alive. I tuck a small piece of cotton into its mouth with a pair of forceps, to absorb any blood that might otherwise seep out and stain the feathers. Something about this gesture comforts me, although I know that this does not make sense.

Next I expose the Tanager’s breastbone and underbelly by parting its feathers with my fingers. Casual observation may not reveal this, but in most birds, feathers don’t cover the surface of the skin uniformly. Instead, they grow in dense, linear tracts, between which the skin itself is bare. I push the feathers to the left and right, uncovering a ribbon of skin that runs from the neck down to the lower abdomen. On some birds this is relatively easy, but very often the feathers don’t wish to stay where I put them, and from this moment on it will be an endless battle to keep them out of the way (without tugging too many of them out of the skin) as I work. The more beautiful a bird, the more carefully I arrange its feathers, and the more I curse them.

Soon I am opening the bird from neck to underbelly with a series of light scalpel cuts down the skin of the midsection. Then I gently separate the skin from the abdomen and breast, peeling it up and away and depositing small amounts of sawdust on the exposed flesh to dry it a little and prevent feathers from sticking to it. The songbirds I usually work on can have paper-thin skin that tears at a thought, but in general what I find amazing is how elastic it is—and how, once it begins to come away, the muscle underneath seems like an entirely separate entity. It is perverse to say so, but I sometimes feel like I am peeling an orange, the skin designed to first protect, then reveal, the flesh. The evening after I skinned my first bird, I couldn’t stop prodding my own arms. I squeezed the skin between my fingers and tugged, noticing how of a piece my body felt to myself, and realizing how false that impression was. Once you have skinned a bird, it is hard not to imagine the whole animal kingdom opening up this way.

When I have eased the skin far enough apart, I slip a small pair of scissors beneath the Tanager’s esophagus and trachea, snipping them both and making sure I don’t accidentally pierce the skin on the back side of the neck. Lohengrin is still playing in the background; the low, mournful singing suits my sober mood while I complete this task. There is not much room for sentimentality in the lab, but something about the sound of the scissors closing with a sharp click always ruffles my focus for just a split-second. It’s such a pragmatic sound, so decisive; it’s the kind of sound that should emerge from the workshop of a competent seamstress. And yet here I am, disassembling a bird.

I can go a little faster, now, because the next several steps are relatively straightforward. One at a time I clean each limb, pulling the skin over the wing and leg bones, cutting them just below the shoulders and the knees, and cleaning the parts that remain. In the process I open up three small tears in the Tanager’s skin, one near the left knee and two near the left wing. They concern me only a little. It is amazing how forgiving a study skin is when it is completed; feathers will cover those holes, and there is no need for me to stitch them up. I only dab them with a little water to keep them from enlarging further.

By this time, I have almost entirely separated the bird’s body from the skin. Before I remove it, I turn the Tanager over so its back is facing me, and probe down the base of the tail for a small, putty-colored, heart-shaped swelling. This is the uropygial gland. In life, it secreted oils that the Tanager rubbed over its feathers as it preened, helping to preserve them—in death, the opposite is true. If not removed, the oils will seep through the skin and yellow its feathers. I scrape out the gland as best I can, then cut the bird’s body away just above it. I also scrape away any fat on the rest of the skin, for the same reason. You can tell a lot about a bird from how much subcutaneous fat it has. Most store more fat during winter, for instance, and migrating birds slowly use up their fat stores as they work their way along their journeys. This Tanager has very little fat. (I bless it for that, since it makes my job much easier.)

Now I am ready to pull the bird’s skin inside out over its head. I realize that this sounds gruesome. But the mere fact that it is even possible, and that the skin can later be pulled back over the skull like a sweater, with (if you are skillful) not a feather out of place, strikes me, like so much of what I do in the lab, as a complete magic trick. The Tanager is kind to me today; the skin works over the skull easily, I have no trouble pulling it away from the ear openings, and I am able to take out the eyes cleanly. As always, I marvel at how much space they take up in the skull; if our eyes were as large, I imagine that they’d go all the way up to our brow bones and down past our cheekbones—which would, perhaps, be a small price to pay for such acute eyesight.

After making some cuts in the top and sides of the skull, I pull the back of the head away and clean as much of the surrounding flesh as possible. I take out the tongue, which always surprises me with its sharp shape, almost another feather itself. I shall draw a veil over the removal of the brain, which in a bird that has been previously frozen is not the neatest of tasks. With a cotton ball dipped in water, I clean out the skull cavity, then hold the bird’s head up to the light. Scarlet Tanagers belong to the large and varied order Passeriformes. Passerines share a number of common characteristics, one of which is that the bones of the skull gradually calcify over the course of a bird’s lifetime, fusing the bones so they become hard and continuous. This happens to human babies, too. I’m looking for evidence of tiny, grainy-looking calcium deposits, as opposed to areas where the bone is smoother and more translucent. The Tanager’s skull is fully calcified, which is not surprising; the color of its plumage announces its adulthood.

Carefully, carefully, I pull the skull back into place. The skin is an empty pouch, ready to be filled. In order to do so I perform a series of actions: push a cotton-topped dowel up into the Tanager’s skull, to serve as a makeshift backbone; fill the eye sockets with more cotton; tie the two wingbones together across the breast, to keep the wings close to the body; pull the wingbones back into the skin; tie the feet together, to keep them organized and out of the way. Then I eye the size of the bird’s body on my tray and form a cotton replacement for it that is approximately the right size (a difficult task that is easy to misjudge). The body has a thin “neck” that I pull through the bird’s mouth with my forceps, settling it into place and tucking its base into the skin. I thread a needle, stitch the bird up as neatly as I can (would that I were a more competent seamstress), tie its bill shut, and finally smooth its wings and take a look.

Relief. The Tanager does not have the smooth, compact perfection that it had before I began, but it doesn’t look like it was recently killed by marauding crows, either, and its lovely plumage is largely intact. I take a moment to breathe before I arrange pins methodically around the bird’s body on a piece of foam board, so it can dry in the proper shape. Incidentally, let no one tell you that scientists do not have an artistic impulse: On my first day, the collections manager of the Bird Division gazed at the finished skin I had spent four hours preparing (I have since cut this time down to an hour and a half) and explained, gently, that he preferred the birds’ heads to be pushed back, like so, beak parallel to the board, and their tails to be spread just a little wider, like so, fanned out slightly beneath the feet. True, a specimen with a low bill is easier to store flat in a shallow drawer—with a spread tail, plumage is easier to examine—but these small attentions in position, I note, also make a skin lovelier to contemplate.

Conscious of the hope of beauty, the pinning process alone can take me a full fifteen minutes or longer, depending on the size of the bird I have in front of me—since tucking one wing into place may dislodge the other, and feathers, as I have explained, are disobedient. But eventually I am finished. Exhausted and proud, I wash up before making a label for my bird and pinning it by its side. “Prep. by: M. Sethi,” the label says, among other, more scientifically pertinent, information.

35 (Otus Asio)

Lohengrin has long since finished his aria, replaced by the sound of somber voices discussing climate change. They barely penetrated my consciousness while I was working, but now that I am listening, their conversation seems appropriate for my task here today. It’s a small thing, perhaps, preparing a study skin. It has no immediate purpose other than the deep scientific goal of furthering our understanding of the world we live in, part by feathered part. I never know how the birds I prepare will be used. Not long from now, an ornithologist may slide one out of a drawer to examine, or a scientific illustrator turn one hand to hand, staring at its coloring and shape. One day, perhaps years from now, they may teach a researcher how they are related to each other, or how their populations changed over time; their bodies may demonstrate, through silent, urgent, signs, the true peril our world is in. In some terrible future, not easy for me to contemplate, they may represent the only remaining examples we have of species that once filled the skies.

I think this knowledge is partly why, although I love the wild, brazen arrogance of Wells’s visionary taxidermist, I cannot relate to his desire to improve upon Nature. How can we improve what we can barely preserve? My limited experience with taxidermy is so suffused with wonder over what is that it leaves very little room for dreaming up what is not.

I can’t tell what these birds we prepare in the lab will reveal to science someday. All I know is how much they have taught me, in death, about their counterparts in life. I never forget a bird I have skinned. When later I see one swooping from a tree or singing overhead my breast fills with such pure joy that it is almost painful. I make one last adjustment to the Tanager’s feathers before I leave it be. I may not have created it, but I have earned a sense of ownership over it. And that is triumph aplenty.

This is The Science Essayist’s inaugural essay. Future pieces may well be more technical, more personal, more specific, or more contemplative—I have no idea. Your feedback will always be welcome. Also, a special note to anyone who came upon this page while searching for help on making bird study-skins: The Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function has been an invaluable resource to me as I continue to learn about the ins and outs of bird bodies.