Archive for the ‘Shorts’ Category

A Note to Old Friends

January 22nd, 2013 | Meera

Hello, stalwart readers.

When I set up The Science Essayist in 2009, I saw it as an experimental space—a place to test, quietly and without fanfare, approaches to writing and making discoveries about the world that were new to me and that I wasn’t at all sure would work. For the most part I’ve never made any great effort to publicize this site, although at times I have considered it an extension of my heart and mind. I have simply counted myself extraordinarily lucky each time a stranger or two—some of whom later became very dear to me—stumbled upon it and decided to stick around.

Keeping my nose down in this way suited the extreme—and, I now understand—ironically vainglorious—aversion to self-publicity I’ve harbored for most of my life. But over the past few years I did discover a large and tremendously varied universe of experiments far more advanced than my own, conducted by knowledgable and talented people engaged in a deep conversation about the role of science in society. Together they form a community writing about life, research, meaning, and the complex relationships between humans and the natural world.

Again, I hovered at the outer fringes of this passionate group: wanting to take up hands with it and join in its shared investigations, but held back by something I once would have called shyness and now simply want to name a bad habit.

But the past few months have wrought many changes to this lone wolf self, this strange habitual brain of mine, and when Madhusudhan Katti, who writes beautifully on birds and biology at Reconciliation Ecology, invited me to join the new Coyot.es Network, I found myself saying yes almost despite myself. Coyot.es was founded a few months ago by Chris Clarke, a natural history writer whose work marries the personal with the political better than I would ever have thought possible. It’s a new network, still growing, that’s bringing together bloggers who are all interested in biodiversity, the environment, and the living landscape. I’m very honored to be part of it.

This site, and everything on it, will remain here—but from now on new posts will be published at my Coyot.es blog, Dispersal Range, instead. I hope not only that you’ll make your way over and keep reading, but also that you’ll wander around and get to know the other fine writers and naturalists who are part of the collective.

Besides Chris and Madhu, they currently include the excellently named Toad in the Hole (written by Ron, who is a much more serious birder than I am and also happens to live in Berkeley!) and Slow Water Movement, a totally engrossing Vermont-based project documenting the paths water takes through the landscape. It’s time for this little blog to grow up, get over its shyness, and embrace some wonderfully smart, inspired, and thoughtful company.

Almost Two

Full of Food

April 29th, 2012 | Meera

Alaska, wrote John Muir, is full of food for man and beast, body and soul, though few are seeking it as yet. Were one-tenth part of the attractions this country has to offer made known to the world, thousands would come every year, and not a few of them would stay and make homes.

He wrote: How truly wild it is, and how joyously one’s heart responds to the welcome it gives.

Friends, I found myself hungry in body and soul last year, so I went north. And this year I am still hungry, so I am going north again.

Between tomorrow and mid-July, I’ll be working in the wilderness of far western Alaska, serving as a field volunteer on a Fish and Wildlife Service project. There will be four of us, two scientists and two volunteers, camping out on the vast montane tundra, studying the breeding habits of the rare, secretive, and by all accounts beguiling shorebird known—charmingly—as the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis).

I wish I could post updates from the field like I did last summer, but unfortunately we’ll be entirely offline and out of cellphone access, so I’ll do my best to take notes and tell you a little bit when I get back about whether John Muir was right. (Spoiler: I’m pretty sure he was.)

BTCU with EJ leg flag

Photo: The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Region.

In the meantime, all my love, all my thanks for being so supportive of these excursions, and if we haven’t already talked about all this hunger business, my book Mountainfit will tell you everything you need to know. If you are new to The Science Essayist and aren’t quite sure whether you like my writing enough to spend five dollars on it, this review from doctoral candidate Sienna Latham—who studies the history of science and is one of the wonderful people who backed my Kickstarter project to get the book written—might give you a sense of what it’s like.

Be safe, friends. I’ll talk to you soon.

Rosemary Is a Strange Thing

February 5th, 2012 | Meera

Rosemary is a strange thing. Who else would store perfume inside a needle? A strange thing, Rosemary. You cannot take her measure just by looking. Inside just one green spine resides a piney forest, all entire.

Rosemary booms in the dry and the rocky, grows moldy and limp if life gets too easy. Rosemary doesn’t want tending by you or by anyone.

Find her in the desert, where more tender things die. Let her drink only what blows in off the salty sea winds.

Rosemary

The Tonic of a Northern Goshawk

January 17th, 2012 | Meera

I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow to attend Science Online 2012, a small but by all accounts raucous conference that brings together scientists, science writers, and science lovers for a three-day conversation about ways to communicate science in this age we call (rather quaintly) digital.

I feel about this sort of the way you might feel about going bungee jumping: I think it’s going to be fun, but first I need someone to throw my butt off the mountain. As it happens, the person who threw my butt off the mountain was Meera-of-two-months-ago, who registered late one night while she was alone in the house, in a sort of haze of reckless abandon.

At any rate, since I’m going to miss my regular Thursday at the bird lab, I went in today to make up for it—and Dave, who has of late been almost as excited about giving me new species as I am about preparing them—had put out something wonderful for me to work on. It was thawing under a lamp when I walked in, all streaky and soft and pantalooned and raptor-y. It had a long tail, broad, pointed wings, and a beautiful curled bill. It was a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a bird I had never seen before either in life or death, and it was breathtaking.

According to the data associated with the bird, it had been picked up on October 12th of last year in Duluth, Minnesota; no other information about its condition or circumstances was available. But I couldn’t see any signs of injury as I prepared it, and it was very thin. Dave thought it might have starved to death; an ill-fitting end for a fierce and clever hunter. Almost every description you read of the Goshawk will tell you that it is such a potent symbol of ferocity that Attila the Hun had its image emblazoned on his helmet: a story that goes back at least to the days of the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus.)

I knew the Gos was a bird to admire as soon as I discovered that although it mostly eats grouse, songbirds, and small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, it is also one of only a few birds of prey that will go after corvids like rooks and crows. Corvids are notoriously ingenious, aggressive, and apt to harass falcons, hawks, and owls in great black mobs. In my book, any bird that regularly chooses and vanquishes such a target must have a fine heart, a quick eye, and sharp talons.

As I was skinning, some friends from the Division of Fishes stopped by to make their rounds through the beetle room. One of them, Kevin, is a birder, and he always likes to talk about whatever I happen to be working on when he arrives. Today he told me about once being swarmed by a pair of angry Goshawk protecting their nest, and the eerie sound they made. I’ve since listened to a Goshawk’s alarm call, and it’s a gorgeously harsh, high-pitched wail that’s almost gull-like. I can imagine being startled by it in the middle of a midwestern forest.

T.H. White, whom I otherwise know only from a rapt childhood reading of The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, once owned a young male of the species. He wrote a 200-page book—or, from the few excerpts I’ve read so far, something more like a 200-page love letter to a difficult, complicated and extraordinary friend—about his relationship with the bird. I leave you with his assessment of what it is to find oneself in such a kinship:

The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.

The thing about honorably preparing the fallen body of a hawk for scientific study is also that one cannot be slipshod about it. And I don’t think I was.

Northern Goshawk

1: Phosphene

January 1st, 2012 | Meera

This post, and series, have been moved here.

(Speaking of the Macabre)

November 10th, 2011 | Meera

This is a preserved specimen that caught my eye after I had finished working on my birds today. On my way out, I walked through the Field’s new permanent exhibition about the museum’s role in advancing conservation science: Restoring Earth.

What’s in the jar is a Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi).

Cricket frogs get their name from their clear, metallic, insect-like mating call. I’ve also heard it described as the sound of two pebbles being struck together. They’re a type of tree frog, a group whose arboreal lifestyle means its members are usually rather tiny and possess unusual modifications that allow them to cling to leaves and branches. (Like adhesive toe-pads whose stickiness is built around the dynamic duo of nanoscale pillar-structures and mucus!)

Blanchard’s cricket frogs used to be an incredibly common sight in the upper Midwest, but beginning about thirty years ago, people noticed their numbers going into a steep decline. It’s still not absolutely clear why this is so, but one of the best current guesses is that exposure to large amounts of agricultural pesticides may have caused a host of physiological and behavioral changes in the frogs that interfered with their ability to properly reproduce.

I’m posting this because I was struck, especially after what I talked about last time, by how powerfully I was drawn to this particular object in the exhibit. What was alluring was precisely its eerie appearance: drained, almost milk-white, and hanging like a ghost in its jar.

Blanchard’s cricket frogs are beautiful creatures, as a quick image search revealed—I have never seen one myself, at least not knowingly.

And yet I do not think I would necessarily have walked over to and read the text beside a colorful photograph showing one of these little guys in life. This is not at all to my credit—it just happens to be true.

Now, I wonder if the exhibit designers simply wanted to showcase a specimen as it was preserved in the museum, or if, in addition, at some level they knew this about me. (And also, perhaps, about you.)

*******

P.S. This is a good time to point you towards John Bates’s blog. John is one of the curators of the Bird Division at the Field, and he’s not only a lovely and incredibly smart ornithologist, he’s also really invested in educating people about what his team does. He posts frequently (at least by my standards!) and is reliably fascinating. His latest post, about why it’s useful to preserve pre-fledgling age specimens, might be of especial interest.

The 100th Species

September 22nd, 2011 | Meera

Since I started volunteering in the Bird Division of the Field Museum a little over two and a half years ago, many things have changed.

I’ve gotten much more confident and relaxed about preparing specimens than I was in my first tentative months, though I feel no less amazed by the process each time I sit down to begin.

The plastic ID card I use to beep myself in and out of the museum and to access the staff-only elevators (something which still gives me a thrill) has gotten scratched and worn.

I’ve made some wonderful friends.

And, as of today, I’ve worked on one hundred different bird species.

You can find the list in its entirety here, where it will continue to grow as Dave keeps putting out new species for me to work on. But I thought I’d give the 100th a bit of fanfare in this post, especially since it’s not a bird that tends to get a lot of fanfare.

The 100th species on my list is neither unusually large nor remarkably small, neither brightly colored nor glossy and dark. There’s nothing exotic about it. It’s just another little brown bird. Yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that the more data we have about a particular thing, the more meaningful that data is and the more useful it is to science.

Paradoxically, the fact that White-crowned Sparrows are extremely common in our collections—according to a search I just did of the Bird Division’s database, at least 1433 individual Zonotrichia leucophrys specimens already exist in the museum, dating back to 1863—makes every additional study skin we prepare of even greater value. With a healthy-sized data-set like that, any researcher wanting to do a genetic study, track migration patterns or wing-lengths over time, generate a set of characteristics that birders or bird banders can use to age or sex a bird in the field, or answer any of a thousand-and-one impossible-to-predict future questions, will have a larger body of information to work with and a far better chance of producing reliable results.

So here it is: One big milestone for me, one precious incremental addition to scientific data, and one beautiful bird.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

100th species

P.S. You may have noticed that this little fellow, despite being called a White-crowned Sparrow, has no white visible on its crown. That’s because it was an immature bird, probably hatched earlier this year, and had not had a chance to moult into its adult plumage before it died. Females of the species also don’t live up to their name, and look similar to juveniles—but their tails aren’t quite so long as you see here, and they don’t have any white bars on their wings. Aren’t bird names wonderfully confusing?

Persistence Hunting

August 31st, 2011 | Meera

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

As to stubbornness: I have stood my ground, bruised and bloody-minded, so many times over so many things that the specifics blend into each other; a plate of vegetables I refused to eat at age six resides in the same part of my brain as an apology I refused to make at age twenty seven.

As to running: I have tried it so few times with such pitiful results that the specifics are horribly stark; a single night-excursion with A. through the stony streets of Jerusalem, ending mere minutes later in shame and sweat and heart palpitations, is as vivid as if it had been stitched into a medieval tapestry and hung on my wall.

A few years ago, when Ross and I lived in Boston and I volunteered as a gallery guide at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, we used to go there fairly often to listen to public lectures in the evenings. The details of most of the talks we attended—on, for instance, the physiology of singing insects or whether morality is learned or innate—are lost to memory.

But one event in particular impressed me so much that I still think about it from time to time, and it has been on my mind this week. It was by a Harvard researcher named Daniel Lieberman, an anthropologist who studies human evolution. At the time, Lieberman was obsessed with the question of how and why we run.

The conventional wisdom about locomotion, he argued—that early hominids whose bodies were more suited to bipedalism were the ones who survived when they left their shady tree-dwelling lives to forage for food on the open savannah, and that the human ability to run was simply a byproduct of the ability to walk—was all wrong.

Listen, he said: Our cousins the Australopithecines could walk on two legs, and their bodies—hunch-shouldered, short-legged—were nothing like those of the genus Homo. Plus, Australopithecines continued to lead a partially arboreal existence for millions of years, even after they evolved to be bipedal.

Walking, Lieberman announced to the room, didn’t bring us down from the trees, and it didn’t give us our human shape.

Running did.

Only look: The human body is exquisitely well-designed to run. It has long, elastic tendons in its legs and feet that store energy like springs when compressed, something we do much more when we run than when we walk. It has large gluteus maximus muscles that pull our torsos backwards and keep us upright when we lean crazily forward into the off-balance pitch that starts each new step of a run. It is relatively hairless, and can sweat—both adaptations that allow us to release the heat of extreme exertion.

The reason we evolved to lope, dash, scamper, gallop, hurtle across this great green Earth?

Well, the anthropologist grinned, we hadn’t yet invented the bows and arrows that would enable us to kill over long distances; we hadn’t yet tamed the wild horses that would one day carry us close to fleeing animals.

We learned to run, he argued—and run, and run, and run—so we could hunt prey to exhaustion, track it for hours if necessary, past the point at which a quadruped (built to gallop only for short distances) would have to stop to pant. And then we would stop running, too, and have done with it.

I remember being struck, at the time, by how extraordinarily steely this seemed—how the idea of it made me simultaneously marvel at and recoil from my strange, inherited human self. If this was true then we were born to conquer; born to do it without tools, without thought, and without guile, but through a simple act of complete and total obstinacy. To run, it seemed, was to be stubborn.

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

For thirty-two years I have lived with both these ideas about myself. But (ask a Harvard anthropologist!) being deeply contradictory truths, perhaps it should not so much surprise that one of them would someday fall.

So far this week, heart and legs and mind stronger than they have ever been from a summer’s worth of field work, I have run a total of nine miles—by the lake, at the gym, through the streets of my neighborhood in Hyde Park. It isn’t much, I know; nine miles is far from an endurance-run across the Kalahari. There is a long, long way to go.

But I have not stopped to pant. I am persisting. I am claiming my strange, inherited human self.

And one of these days I’m going to outlast whatever it is I’m hunting, and have done with it.

lake run

(This is the 3-mile route Ross and I have been running.)

*******

(You can read more about Lieberman’s work in his 2004 paper on the evolution of running, or in any of a number of popular articles it spawned.)


New World Warbler

August 11th, 2011 | Meera

I’m back in the lab on Thursdays, and this morning I walked into it to find that Dave had set out three beautiful little New World wood warblers for me to prepare. Although I loved every bird I encountered in Sweden, I found myself missing many North American species while I was away, including our vivid warblers. It was a delight, therefore, to work today on a turmeric-yellow Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), an Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) with an especially large splotch of rust on its head, and a sleek Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia).

Male Magnolia Warblers always make me think of gentlemen who’ve dressed themselves in suits of the most conventional gray, white, and black—and then decided at the last moment that they simply must put on vests as bright as any daffodil.

Magnolia warbler, before

Magnolia warbler, in process

Magnolia warbler, after

*******


The English word world can be traced, through only a few straightforward steps, to an ancient Germanic compound noun meaning “the age of man” (wer: “man”/ ald: “age”). Ald, in turn, is derived from an even older verb meaning “to grow” or “to nourish.” Thus, world: that place where human beings and their affairs flourish.

It’s a fine thing, friends, to be alive in such a place: whether Old or New. Ah; it is the only thing, you may remind me. But still—and despite all hardships—a fine, fine one.

Featherweight

August 5th, 2011 | Meera

The difference between mass and weight can seem slight, insubstantial—a fact (matter of fact) light enough to float away when textbook pages ripple crisply by beneath the thumb. We forget the two are not the same.

Packing for nine weeks in the pure blue unknown, you fit everything you cannot live without into a space too small to hold it all: roll shirts and shampoo into socks, slip pens and paper into corners. Tuck worry and desire into the spaces left by coat, camera gear, a single Polaroid photo. The whole seems too heavy to pass inspection—but at the airport you find two spare kilograms. Calculate what more you could have carried.

Packing to come home, you leave so much behind: bottles spent and emptied, boots in which you walked hundreds of miles, a feather from a bird you never met and didn’t name. The bag seems heavier than before—yet contains hardly anything of consequence. There was no way to fit a mountain or a friendship into its hollow, though you believed you had grown muscles enough to lift them.

The physicists have a measure for how much a body resists a change in motion. They call it mass; they say it is what we are made of. It is a universal constant, they tell me: I could travel anywhere and resist no more, no less. I understand I must live with this inertia.

The physicists have a measure for the force that attracts one body toward another. They call it weight; they say it is how much we tend to move closer to the thing that pulls on us. It is not what I am, but where I am, they tell me: on one planet I would be an anvil, on another a kiss. (Our language spoke this before our scientists; we knew, before knowing, that to weigh something is to move it.)

I understand the possibility exists to change this pull. But will you go in with me, friend, on a second-hand space shuttle?

A caveat: If troubled by a weight on one’s shoulders, never live on Jupiter.

If congenitally flighty, avoid the Moon.

Some things are heavy.

Some matter.

featherweight (when something is nothing)

Extinction of Silence

May 12th, 2011 | Meera

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

—A.E. STALLINGS

My friend Megan sent me this poem two years ago, after I posted a photo of Long-tailed Widowbirds filed in a narrow drawer. I still think of it every time Dave sets me loose in the collections with a key, as he did today.

Wanting a little preview of what I’m likely to see in Sweden, I poked around for a few minutes after I was done with the birds I prepared. I opened cabinets and pulled out narrow drawers—newly purchased European bird guide in one hand and unfamiliar finches in the other. I retrieved what was once shy.

Most of the skins I looked at this afternoon were a hundred years old. Not so moth-eaten, not so far—still, they were faded, a little, and unable to convey the full measure of a life marked by song and flight. Nothing I wanted to see could vanish or take wing at my footsteps.

I am fonder of the museum’s drawers of specimens than I can say. But I am ready to be out with the birds this summer. We shall see what kinds of silences they sing.

Euplectes progne delamerei


Through Rose-breasted Grosbeak Glasses

May 5th, 2011 | Meera

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

I spent another lovely day at the bird lab, preparing two Grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) and this Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludivocianus). The whole time I was there I felt calm, happy, useful, and at home.

When I got back I had two voicemails and seventeen emails about various stressful work- and finance-related events, and these things deflated the pleasantly optimistic bubble that forms around me on Thursdays. But looking at this photo, and showing it to you, returns a tiny piece of it.


Talking About the Weather

May 2nd, 2011 | Meera

There is a little weather station on the University of Chicago campus, but it’s been out of service for the past couple of weeks as a result of the interminable construction they’ve been doing up on the roof of Ryerson. (Ryerson is the building whose roof also houses the telescope I told you about here.)

We in Hyde Park who rely on the neighborhood-specific temperature and wind-chill readings the weather station usually provides were quite bereft. But as of tonight, University of Chicago Weather is back up and running—and because I happened to attend the work night the astronomical society had scheduled for today, I got to help return it to action.

Specifically, I put a new battery in the weather station and held it for some minutes in my arms—like a tall and unattractive dancing partner, all bones and wiry hair and no conversation skills—before handing it to two others (more intrepid than I) who carried it up an incredibly long ladder to the top of a turret and reinstalled it.

I feel like I have touched greatness. Oh; and it’s currently 42 degrees out in Hyde Park. In case you were wondering.

On Getting a Kick in the Pants, or What I Have in Common With the New York Times

April 25th, 2011 | Meera

I’m not sure if it’s a cultural artifact so much as a pathological personality trait, but—like many of you, probably—I like asking for things about as much as I like sudden attacks of indigestion. I don’t know why, since I get asked for things all the time and it never makes me think ill of the people who ask me; still, for whatever reason, it’s a hard thing to do.

I say this to preface the biggest act of asking I have ever committed.

What you see above is a video I made for a Kickstarter project. In case you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, I’ll explain that it’s a website that people can use to raise money for creative projects of any stripe. You set a funding goal and a time frame, describe what you want to do, and create what Kickstarter calls “rewards” that people who pledge money to your project will receive. If you meet your goal in time, Kickstarter sends you all the pledges (and a project can keep raising money past its goal until the predetermined end-date). If you don’t, no one is charged.

As you’ll see in the video, what I’m asking for is a small amount of financial support for a little book of essays that I’d like to write while I’m in Sweden for two months this summer. I’m going there to volunteer as a field assistant at a bird observatory. In between the lake and the mountains I think I’ll find more peaceful writing time than I’ve ever had in my life, even though I’ll be working hard every day.

The book will be called The Language of the Birds, and it’ll be about all sorts of things—science, nature, myth, stories, what I see and hear around me at the observatory. It’ll be a lot like what I write here on this site, in fact. Which is why, like the New York Times, I know I may rub some people the wrong way with this request. No one likes to pay for things they’re already getting for free.

If you feel that way, I totally understand. In fact, I’ll tell you right up front, because I was not born for sales, that even if I don’t get funding, I’ll still write the book. It just might not take physical form, and I won’t be able to print broadsides using excerpts. (A broadside is a kind of old-fashioned means of publishing text—often poetry or literature—decoratively, on poster-sized pieces of paper.)

I decided to start a Kickstarter project because the site has been on my radar for about a year now, and whenever I look at it I find amazing, beautiful, brave, funny, exciting projects. They make me happy. I’ve pledged money to four so far, only two of which were started by people I actually know. (You can see the projects I’ve funded here. Two of them are still raising money. See if you’re interested in them, too!)

Since I—like many of us—don’t have a lot of disposable income to throw around, I’ve never pledged a large sum of money to any one project. But each time I’m glad to know my contribution helped someone make something cool. And while in the 14.5 hours my Kickstarter project has been live I’ve already become indebted to a few very generous friends (Thank you, you guys. You make my heart swell.), what I hope and expect is for the funding to happen through lots of small donations.

There’s more about my plans, including where the money will go, on the project page. And thank you—no matter what happens. If you’re reading this, you’re already making what I do here worthwhile.

Edited to add: As of about 3pm this afternoon, less than 24 hours after I launched the project page, you guys have fully funded my little book. I am beyond pleased; I am totally bowled over. You could not bowl me more over if you tried. Since there are still 29 days of funding left, I’m going to think about what I might be able to do if we hit another, slightly higher target. I’ll update the project page when I come up with something brilliant. And once again, thank all of you so much for your encouragement.

Ex ovo omnia

April 14th, 2011 | Meera

Peregrine falcon egg

Mary Hennen, who has run the Chicago Peregrine Program for over two decades, was out and about today monitoring several wild peregrine falcon nests in the downtown area. When she got back to the lab she had with her a clutch of three eggs from a nest on South Wacker. The nest, and its eggs, were abandoned after the male of the pair was killed in a fight with another peregrine last week. When this happens, Mary explained, if it’s early enough in the nesting season and the eggs aren’t very far along in incubation, the partner that’s left will often cut their losses and find a new mate with whom to try again. I guess it’s hard being a single parent, no matter what species you belong to.

More on the city’s peregrines at this wonderful blog I discovered today. Stephanie Ware, a Field museum staff member and volunteer falcon watcher, writes the updates.

Medium-Sized Mysteries

April 7th, 2011 | Meera

I continue to spend Thursdays in the prep lab. While I’m there each bird represents a small, self-contained mystery. What species is it, and is it new to me? Where did this particular individual come from—the collision monitors, a rehabilitation center, a museum security guard who saw something on the path outside and brought it in? How did it die? Was it healthy and well-fed on its last day? Was it young or old? I can answer most of these questions as I go along, using the bird’s outer (and inner) appearance and the information on its tag.

I also like to think about the bigger mysteries the Field’s specimen collection is designed to help researchers answer. How do bird populations change over time? Which ones are increasing, and which decreasing? Are migration routes and timings affected by global warming? Can we see evolution at work in the shape of a wing, or a bill, or a foot, if we go back far enough?

Sometimes, though, I get a glimpse of medium-sized mysteries: curious, spontaneous questions raised by the specimens themselves.

I.

In late September 2009, on a stormy night in Minnesota, hundreds of birds from a wide variety of species flew into a tall structure—a telephone tower or something like it—and were killed. The dead made their way, via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, to the museum. And eventually, after a long rest in the freezers (we’re behind on specimen preparation), Dave began taking them out for processing. When that happened, he noticed a strange thing. If birds of those particular species had been found at that time of the year in the Loop, the vast majority of them would have been juveniles. But the Minnesota birds were almost all adults, with fully ossified skulls and well-developed gonads. This held true over the entire range of birds (which include sparrows, warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, and ovenbirds, just going by what I’ve personally prepared).

Why would this be the case? Dave says that for now, he truly has no idea. So he’s working on collecting data about the entire group of specimens, and while he’s doing so he’s talking to his colleagues and trying to formulate theories that could explain this strange occurrence. Eventually, they’ll either come up with a brilliant explanation, write a paper about it, and let everyone in the community know, or they’ll remain stumped, write a paper about it, and invite everyone in the community to help figure it out. It seems like a pretty wonderful process: an example of the way science is supposed to work.

bay-breasted warbler
(This is a bay-breasted warbler from the Minnesota tower kill.)

II.

At some point in the day today I was looking for the box of yellow pins we use to fix study skins to the foam boards on which they dry, and it turned out Dave had spirited them over to the sink. When I got there I discovered that he was sitting in front of a giant tray of American woodcock carcasses, opening them up, and—if they were female—pulling out their ovaries and oviducts with a pair of tweezers and pinning them to little pieces of cardboard. Then he was putting them into a jar of formalin.

Why would he do such a thing? Well, it’s like this. The museum has a large number of woodcock specimens, collected as they pass through the area during fall migration. At some point Dave noticed that a lot of the female woodcocks had very large and well-developed sexual organs—a characteristic typically associated with the height of mating season. A few of them actually had eggs that were at the yolking stage. I saw one that was clearly yellow and as big as a large marble! Maybe, he thought, the birds were mating as they migrated. (An unusual behavior, worthy of study.) Also, he had a vague memory of someone, not a full time museum staff member but a scientist who’d passed through the lab, having been interested in a question like this—years ago.

So Dave decided to preserve the ovaries and oviducts of all the female woodcocks in the division’s freezers, against the event that that person—or someone like them—would eventually want to check the organs for sperm. He only regretted that he didn’t have the time or space to put them in liquid nitrogen so that the DNA they contained would be preserved. This would allow the future hypothetical researcher to also ID the sperm and find out if the females were mating with different males on different nights of their migration route. As it was, pinning out the ovaries took him hours (and was absolutely fascinating to watch). I made him let me take a picture.

american woodcock ovaries-oviducts, pinned for preservation

Medium-sized mysteries: maybe their answers will be of great scientific import; maybe they won’t. But it’s fascinating to see them appear without anyone even looking for them, like bits of flotsam washing up on the shore.

Null and Void

March 20th, 2011 | Meera

I’m taking a poetry workshop. I don’t think I’ll post much of what I’m writing, but here is today’s poem, because once a long time ago I promised you ice. I don’t always keep my promises.

T. on Sunday morning

It is in the nature of ice
to be always on the verge
of giving in. Steel stays steel
for thousands of degrees,
defending its solidity
against exquisite heat
—though whether this is
stalwart or just stubborn,
none can say.

But ice, like you
or I, stands a hair’s breadth
from its reverse. A trifling
bit of warmth is all it takes
to change what seemed
so hard into the paragon
of softness; what was once
resolute of shape becomes
a sycophant that yields
like butter to the management
of mere containers. Sorry
are the thoughts
that prickle ice while
it is melting: all its qualities
disbanding into what
it feared the most.

There is
not cold enough on Earth
to keep ice safe
from water.

Hi.

March 17th, 2011 | Meera

I did this.

my own imperfection

That is all.

Voices From Chernobyl

March 15th, 2011 | Meera

In 2006 I wrote a short review of an extraordinary book. At the time it seemed a warning look back at the past; in the wake of today’s Japan, it seems all but augury. The review originally appeared on Bookslut; I reproduce it below. A link to the book appears at the bottom of this post. It comes highly recommended. In fact, let me know if you want to borrow my copy.

Chimney
Photo by Swobodin

…it makes you want to philosophize. No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize.

—Sergei Sobolev, deputy head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association.

When moody visionary Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about the “poetic faith” a reader must arm herself with in order to access the truths lying beneath the illusions of literature, he probably never imagined that it would also be a necessary attitude for reading a work of nonfiction. Yet the most striking aspect of journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s stunning oral history Voices From Chernobyl is the way the text makes use of overt theatrical elements to test the boundary between literature and reality—and the way it demands an active effort on the part of the reader to see beyond the mythic quality of the tragic stories it contains. It’s a challenging requirement, and Alexievich does not make the task easy.

She divides her book into three parts, echoing the three-act structure of a traditional play. Similarly, each individual narrative is treated as a dramatic soliloquy: “Monologue About Memories,” “Monologue About a Moonlit Landscape,” “Monologue About an Expensive Salami.” When she wishes to describe a person’s demeanor or behavior, Alexievich inserts into the text what look for all the world like stage directions: “[Cries.] [Silent for a while.].” The narratives are full of the repetitions, half-sentences, and interjections that represent the natural rhythms of speech, and although these are interviews—the last of which was completed in 1996, ten years after the disaster—Alexievich’s voice as a questioner is conspicuously absent. Perhaps most telling of all, in three instances several short narratives are grouped together to give us a chorus straight out of a Greek tragedy: “Soldiers’ Chorus” in Part One: The Land of the Dead; “People’s Chorus” in Part Two: The Land of the Living; “Children’s Chorus” in Part Three: Amazed by Sadness.

The images contained in these histories are almost painfully literary: cats and dogs roam deserted villages; conscripted soldiers dig up great swathes of earth in order to bury it somewhere else; beautiful, lush fields are full of poisoned cucumbers and tomatoes; people come out of their houses to wonder at a jewel-like fire that glows over the reactor. The interviewees themselves often seem drawn towards metaphor—at one point photographer Viktor Latun is quoted as saying, quite lyrically, “the scientists had been gods, now they were fallen angels.”

Nothing could be added to make all this seem more like a cautionary myth or a dark fable.

And yet we can gain a great deal by bracing ourselves against the invitation (half-serious, half-ironic) to read the book as a nightmarish drama with a broad moral. In its specificity and its attention to the particulars of individual experiences, Voices From Chernobyl has much that is valuable to say about this catastrophe, this human failure. These narratives are more than evocative—they are interrogative. They raise hard questions about the uneasy relationship we have with science; the difference between heroism and tragedy; the impact of a history of collectivism on the response to what happened; the parallels between this disaster and the disaster of war.

In this Alexievich has achieved something quite unexpected: she has crafted a book that is simultaneously a historical artifact and a literary invention. What is true here cannot help but reach toward metaphor; what seems symbolic is nevertheless a statement of fact. In combining these approaches Alexievich highlights the limitations of both. It is unbearable to think of Chernobyl as history; it is equally unbearable to think of it as myth. To read this book is to stumble back and forth in the space between the two, and to experience what feels like an intolerable inability to bring real understanding to these devastating events.


Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen

Not For the Faint of Heart

March 10th, 2011 | Meera

While preparing three fall birds, prosperous with pre-migratory feasting, something occurs to me that I’ve wondered about before, so I ask Mary about it.

“Mary, do the bugs* like fat?”

“Mmm, not really. If they’re eating well, they’ll go through anything; they’ll eat through cartilage, tendons, you know. But if they’re being fussy you’ll just come in and find big gobs of fat they’ve left behind.”

There is a pause while I consider the word “fussy” in relation to flesh-eating beetles.

“They’re spoiled,” I decide.

“Yeah. They are.”

Later, we have a conversation about whether it is theoretically possible for fat to be deposited between the two layers of fused bone that make up an adult bird’s skull. Mary says she’s seen what looks like exactly that in the course of cleaning out skeletons from the bug room, but she isn’t sure it’s a documented phenomenon.

It isn’t too long after both these chats that I take a break to enjoy the ham and cheese sandwich I’ve brought for lunch.

294

*Beetles aren’t true bugs, but everyone in Birds and Mammals calls the dermestids “the bugs,” and the room they live in is the bug room. I am not sure if the Entomology Division objects to this.

Noticing

March 3rd, 2011 | Meera

There is so much I do not notice. Even expecting you, I disregard your approach. When you arrive I receive you with surprise, as if struck by a drop of rain from skies as blue as Prussia. So much passes without scrutiny. I am aware of its passage, but only vaguely. The weight of the things to which I do not attend is enormous. A great ocean swell crosses overhead, far distant from the seabed sands in which I am burrowed.

Most days I fail to notice anything at all.

Waiting for the number 6 bus on Columbus Drive today, there was Superman. There wasn’t much to identify him; he looked like an old man, twig-thin. Too-short pants and too-big ski jacket. Leather satchel bleached and worn. Beard halfway to Gandalf, twice as wild. But behind the generosity of his glasses I could see his eyes, and they were made of cobalt and tin.

They weren’t quite piercing, not anymore; not like when he was a young whippersnapper and still working for a living. Someone had poured milk over them in the gone-by years. But there was still metal behind that milk, and I could see it when he walked past me. He did so three, four times. That’s how I knew who he was, I guess. He danced around the stop like he hated to waste time, like he had someplace more important to be. Or like he was measuring something. Pacing to size up the little house he used to want to build someday for him and Lois.

Superman got on the bus ahead of me and sat down next to someone else. Some nobody burrowed in the seabed, not noticing him. I saw him switch seats once. Maybe there was something he had to see out of the east window, some evil he wanted to keep an eye on. Or maybe he just wanted to be alone.

I looked away. Across from me a man wearing earphones was teaching himself English. Beijing said his skull cap in Chinese and I am new here and I like it said his face and The sands of time are passing said his mouth, as he listened to the little computer on his lap and repeated the common English phrases it pronounced to him.

I am lying to you. I did not really hear what his mouth said, although I noticed its movements and strained to read them. He spoke too softly and I saw too slowly.

But what you do not observe, you must imagine. So: I can read the writing on the wall, I imagined him repeating. Please call me back at your earliest convenience. Take it or leave it, baby. I am chilled to the bone. I will pay you back in kind. With the most joyful of smiles he repeated these things, or others; I did not imagine the smile.

Superman got off the bus outside a corner where a school stood, and disappeared into a crush of children let loose. English got off four stops before my own. I watched him walking westward till the wheels pulled away from the sidewalk.

waiting for the number 55

Before You Know It

February 18th, 2011 | Meera

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe before disaster. Everything happens before you know it. This is the gift of light, the laggard.

You may think light speedy, and it is true that there is none to beat it in this universe: no hare, no rocket ship, no Kenyan swift of foot can do it better. But light’s tempo has a number, and by those digits it is bound, the same as any shackled lifer. Jean Valjean had 24601; light 299,792,458. Oh, it is a traveler par excellence. Nigh on three hundred million meters per second is nothing to sneeze at. Traveling, though, takes time. Traveling trails behind transpiring.

Last week, on a mountaintop dripping with stars, I regarded the Hunter as he drew back his arrow for the Hare. This he has done since Homer. Since Hesiod. It might seem he must do it forever; but he may already have dropped his bow. For Betelgeuse, the star in his right shoulder, is old enough that it must soon die—and distant enough that it may have done already, hundreds of years past. If so we are none the wiser. We stand somewhere in the 640 year-long gap of light’s passage, event on one side and understanding on the other.

Before you know it Betelgeuse will blow. Did blow. Will blow. Did blow. I watched the Hunter and his old red shoulder. I wondered at the night sky, so full of Schrodinger’s cats.

Between happening and knowing there is a space—no matter how small. Two mornings later, kneeling over a canyon pool, I saw the Santa Catalinas in still water. Observed the sun moving, ever so slowly, over their graceful bulk. Thought: As with the stars, so with all things.

Since they were only miles away, not light years, the light that carried the mountains’ countenance came to me fast, fast, fast—plummeting out of the sky headlong and caroming off the surface of the pool and into my eager eyes so quick you’d never even know there was a time between. An infinitesimal time. Still, there it was.

Before you know it—but just before—the sun dapples over the Santa Catalinas.

Sabino Canyon morning

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe. Before you know it you’re all grown up. Before you know it you’ve fallen in love. Before you know it he’s become someone else. Before you know it, you have too. You’ll see. Just wait a second. Let light catch up.

Radioactive

February 7th, 2011 | Meera

Because he treats cancer patients with radiation therapy, my father has worn a small, square badge on his person every day for the past—oh, I don’t know how many years. Thirty five, at least. The badge measures his exposure to radioactive energy. It consists of a piece of photographic film, a few filters, a flat plastic canister to hold it all together. I used to see it on him often, once. There was a time when I would spend afternoons in his office after school: happy there as I was nowhere else, drawing on smooth, beautiful pieces of printer paper as white as his lab coat and smelling that sharp hospital smell. In my memory, which I tug on like a fishing line until it surfaces—pop!—with what I am seeking—it is yellow, this dosimeter. It has his name on it. It crackles a little, as film does, if you are allowed to press gently down on it with your thumb. But it doesn’t look, to me, particularly impressive. I know it is important but I am not sure why. I know it is keeping him safe but I am not sure how. Should it turn dark, it will counsel danger. It is making something visible that does not want to be seen.

My sister and brother-in-law sent me a book for my birthday this year that does the same thing.

Radioactive is artist and writer Lauren Redniss’s attempt to translate two unseen forces—radiation and love—into visible form. What she has produced, in the name of this goal, is an object of great charm: a literate, supple biography of Marie Curie, illustrated with (intentionally) primitive drawings and collages composed of photographs, primary documents, and found artifacts. The words are set in an original typeface Redniss modeled after the title pages of old scientific manuscripts. Her pages are nothing if not a pleasure to turn—now dark and brooding, now bursting with lurid color, and filled with human figures stretching and deforming into strange proportions, as if made of melting wax.

The book jumps back and forth between the story of the Curies and the contemporary significance of their principal discovery, the phenomenon of radioactivity. Sometimes the juxtapositions are chillingly fitting. On one spread, we see photographs of a pink rose grown in the fallout zone of the Three Mile Island disaster, lovely but mutated. On the next, Marie learns of Pierre’s sudden death in a carriage accident. Buttercups bloom across the page. “The flowers he had picked in the country,” Redniss writes, working from a microfilm she found in the Curie Archives, “remained fresh on the table.”

Too often, unfortunately, these transitions feel forced, not quite living up to the meanings they are presumably intended to carry. A page announcing the birth of Marie’s second daughter is immediately followed by a spread introducing Manhattan Project physicist Irving S. Lowen; the movement feels random. And when an odd little exposition of a radon health spa in Montana appears, complete with an interview with two true believers, the irony—though clear—trips awkwardly on the heels of the previous, haunting, page. Glowing an unearthly orange, it shows a ghostlike negative of Marie’s skeletal body: One assistant described Marie’s presence in the lab as nearly immaterial, “as if she could walk through walls.” Wraithlike, a humming in her ears, and her vision failing after four cataract surgeries, she felt her way among her instruments and through the rooms of her laboratory. At dawn on July 4, 1934, Marie Curie passed away.

It is when Redniss works to make love visible on the page that Radioactive is at its most powerful. An enchanting early spread shows Marie’s first meeting with Pierre in the laboratory of Gabriel Lippman. The two are shyly separated, she on the edge of the recto and he the margin of the verso, their bodies tall and straight and parallel to each other. She looks over her shoulder, eyes so big with watching him that they are easily three times as large as her demure fingertips. He has been drawn with two overlapping countenances—two noses, two mouths, two mustaches, two sets of eyes—as if continually pulling his gaze toward her, then away—drawing motion out of a frozen page.

After Pierre’s death, one page burns scarlet as a flag, a red so bright it seems almost to radiate off the page. On it, themselves bleeding crimson, appear the naked forms of Marie and the married man with whom she is having an affair: her husband’s former student, Paul Langevin. (When their romance becomes public, the ensuing scandal tears the two apart. The pages are black.)

Love, like radiation, inflamed Marie Curie’s life. Both brought her the brightest satisfactions she would ever experience; both also aroused the most blistering pain. And had she a little square of film to wear upon her breast every day of her life, it could only have warned her of one of those dangers.

2011.5. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss)

Birthday Blizzard 2011

February 1st, 2011 | Meera

This is not that essay on ice I promised you. What it is, instead, is a video I made while walking through what the media in Chicago have been calling, with great brio and all-out apocalyptic fervor, a “dangerous winter storm,” an “all-encompassing snowstorm,” “the most intense blizzard we have seen since 1967,” and—my favorite, seen on the Chicagoist and sure to be copied, “Blizzaster 2011.” After all that hype, Dave and I agreed this morning (before it really began) that we weren’t at all sure this snowstorm was going to turn out to be everything it was cracked up to be. But you know what? This thing really delivered.

There is driving wind that sounds like it’s the big bad wolf and we are one very small, very stupid little piggy in a frail straw house. There is blowing snow. There is cottony debris all over our windows. There are people being blown down the sidewalk by gusts. There is a pickup truck on our street corner that iced itself into a real pickle at some point in the evening and has been revving its engine for the past half hour trying, unsuccessfully, to move. And there is thunder and lightning. It is pretty fucking awesome.

So we went outside.

According to a handy dandy chart I just consulted, the four or five minutes my hands were exposed while I was taking this video, along with a second, was far from sufficient to cause any kind of frostbite damage, given the temperature (about 20 F), the wind chill (about 3 F), and the wind speed (about 25 MPH). But that didn’t stop my fingers from hurting like hell when I finally got them back under cover of glove and pocket. In fact, the shock and adrenaline rush I felt as a result of the pain was not unlike what you might feel if you’d sustained a sudden and injurious fall. This is how much I love you and want to share with you the pleasures of the night.

But now, my friends, the end of my 32nd birthday nears, and for the next 100 minutes I intend to enjoy the snow from a less blustery vantage point. If you’re reading and you know I don’t know it, say hi, will you? It’ll be a lovely birthday gift.

Adventures in Taxidermy

January 27th, 2011 | Meera

I really don’t mean for this to be a bird-centered website, or for every other post to be about my beloved prep lab at the Field Museum—I’ve had an essay sliding around in my mind for a few weeks now about ice, for instance, and mean to get to it as soon as possible.

But since I’ve reached a bona fide milestone in my bird-taxidermy education, I wanted to share it with you: over several long hours today, Tom and I finished mounting the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) I’ve been working on. It still needs to dry out and settle in the freezer for a few months, during which time I’ll take it out occasionally to re-preen and re-tape it; but all the major steps in its preparation are basically complete now. This is very exciting for me because unlike the first taxidermy mount I worked on with Tom (that gorgeous Snowy Owl I was telling you about last week), I actually did the lion’s share of the labor on the Cooper’s. I skinned it, set its eyes, replaced the tissue we removed from its wings and legs with cotton, carefully slit the membranes around each individual feather in the tracts along its neck and back to keep its plumage from tightening up as its skin dried, made a body for it, wired its legs and head to its body (Tom took over the most with the parts involving wiring), and sewed it up. I feel much more of a sense of ownership over it, and the next bird I do will probably be a solo endeavor—not least because Tom is leaving soon on a six-week field research trip to Malawi.

Ownership or no, however, there is no way this bird would look as good as it does now if it hadn’t been for Tom assuming the reins whenever anything got too tricky, especially when it turned out that because of a change in the way we decided to arrange the wings, the body I’d made was a little too wide. He was able to maneuver the hawk’s wings into position despite the fact that the tight fitting body meant there was very little give in the skin around its back and chest. After he mounted it on a base he’d made earlier this week, I spent a long time adjusting its pose and pulling its feathers into place with a pair of tweezers. I think it looks alert and alive, which is really neat. You’ll see in the picture below that it’s currently being held in position with pins and tape; those will be removed once it’s dried completely.

Cooper's Hawk, mounted (2)

I’m especially pleased to share this news with you at such a timely moment: yesterday, the Cooper’s Hawk that had been trapped in the Library of Congress reading room for a week was finally freed, with the help of a couple of starlings as bait (poor starlings, but at least now no one can say they aren’t useful for something). By the way, take a good look at the photo in that news story and compare it to the one above: the LOC bird is still a juvenile, and the one we worked on in the lab was an adult. There is a dramatic and beautiful change in plumage and eye color that takes place when a bird reaches breeding age. The patterns on the breast feathers of adults are a warm red color, while those of juveniles are a dull brown—and eyes go from yellow to red in the transition.

Prep Lab Vignette

January 21st, 2011 | Meera

Tomorrow will be the coldest day we’ve seen this season, but today I am in the prep lab and it is warm enough—a rare thing—for me to take off my cardigan while I work. Because I have dinner plans tonight I am wearing, instead of my usual t-shirt, a sober wool dress: warm in gray and black and with a white bar running across my torso. In a moment it will be peppered with flakes of sawdust, but for now I feel myself sleek, a version of a Laughing Gull in modish breeding plumage. I sit. I take up my birds.

A Brown Creeper starts my day. It makes me smile with how long its forked tail is, how stiff—like a rudder for a tiny boat, except no boat would move quite like I have seen creepers move, in that dance that is all scuttle and scratch up and down tree trunks in spirals, like ninjas scaling a fortress wall. To see a creeper is to see a spider, a cicada, a gecko in bird form.

The bird I am holding has coloring that guidebooks will tell you is “cryptic,” which means it’s designed to camouflage rather than advertise. The term is lyrical, but not therefore inapt. Life is a kind of war. If your coloring must speak, let it be coded. I peer into the patterns of brown and white that cover the creeper’s wings—searching for hidden meanings. Instead I find a splash of copper, rusty and bright, hiding on its back like a gift.

I touch a finger to its bill. The thing is curved and sharp but not as curved and sharp as the creeper’s toes: three-in-front-and-one-behind and each ending in long, long claws whose tips prickle and stick to my skin like Velcro just as they prickle and stick to bark. I have to pull the creeper’s toes away from one hand with the other. If I let them they would cling to my fingerprints. If I could devote the rest of my life to becoming a tree, I would let them.

The radio plays Elgar, plays Rodrigo. I hum the music under my breath. So sweet it hurts. The radio is melancholy today.

Dave, behind me, is cheerful. He has received a box. From it he draws dozens of birds, collected in South Africa ten years ago, prepared by a skilled hand, and given to the museum by a university. “It’s like Christmas came again,” he beams. The colors of these birds are startling: crimson, indigo, black with the sheen of a river at night. Olive with the sheen of satin. He lays them out in large, shallow drawers. They form a palette that would make an artist weep.

I pull my stitches closed on the Brown Creeper and clean its feathers of their final day’s dirt: all the grime it did not have time to preen away itself. To dry and fluff them with a little puff of compressed air, I walk to the opposite side of the room. I am glad for this excuse to look over Peggy’s shoulder. Peggy is the museum’s resident artist, and today she is sketching the taxidermied Snowy Owl Tom let me work on with him some months ago. Last week I put the final touches on it, filling in with epoxy the tiny gaps that formed between its round black lids and its beautiful yellow glass eyes as its skin dried and shrunk. Now it sits just out of reach on a counter, wearing a sign Tom made. “PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME—FRAGILE! :)”

But Peggy isn’t touching our Snowy. She’s doing its portrait. I try not to be too obvious about it but I am staring at her while I dry my feathers. She’s working in pencil, for now, on a large sheet of paper as white as the owl itself. She’s drawn guide lines to help her with size and scale, and she’s working on sketching its head and wings. It looks magnificent: regal, curious, intelligent. Life-sized, or perhaps a hair larger.

The radio plays Mahler. The scientist, the writer, and the artist are listening.

310

The Boilerplate Rhino

January 15th, 2011 | Meera

After spending 2010 engaged in a process of prodigious daily documentation, it seemed a little sad to begin 2011 without giving it something of a photographic shape. In that spirit, I’m creating a record of all the books that the year holds. It would be nice if it turned out to be a large record, since I—along with everyone else I know—would like to read more—but small or large, by Jove, it will persist unto the ages.

A good number, although certainly not all, of these titles are likely to be science books—and when they are, I’ll try to say something brief about them here.

First up, the alluringly named The Boilerplate Rhino. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that despite his prolific output and his renown, this is my first David Quammen. It was DeLene’s intriguing list of recent reading, on which his name figures three times, that finally convinced me I had to rectify that omission. This particular book collects 25 columns Quammen wrote for Outside magazine during his long and enviable tenure as its resident curious person.

I began The Boilerplate Rhino (all crisp pages, silky, uncracked binding, extraordinary cover art, and sweet new-book odor) last Saturday, perched comfortably on a bar stool at the window of the Kickstand Espresso Bar in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood—a gloriously smooth cappuccino by my hand. (I was hard-pressed to decide which perfection to sully first with my touch: the book or the coffee.) I finished it this afternoon, curled up on a couch with a cat on one side of me and a husband on the other. Over the course of that week, The Boilerplate Rhino took me on 25 little jaunts to remote Indonesian islands, snake pits in Texas, Mexican hotel rooms, and central Amazon forests. I’d say that was a pretty good deal for a mere $8 (list price: $15, but Powell’s sells mainly used and remaindered books).

Quammen writes in his introduction that one way in which a columnist can achieve both familiarity and surprise is by presenting readers with “outlandish material in a friendly, companionable voice.” If this book is at all representative of his Outside output, then it seems clear he was eminently capable of delivering on that promise. The Boilerplate Rhino is the sort of book that causes you constantly to halt in reading, shake your head violently, and shout aloud to anyone who happens to be listening.

What you shout are things like “Jesus! DID YOU KNOW that Dutch colonists of the 17th century murdered virtually all of the inhabitants on the island of Bandaneira because they weren’t compliant enough nutmeg-harvesting slaves?” Or, a little later, “Oh, come ON. How could anyone really think that capturing lizards and making them run around a racetrack made of Plexiglas, metal, and wire in flight of a human hand would tell you anything about how fast they run when escaping a predator? THAT’S RIDICULOUS…. but now I really want to see a picture of that racetrack.”

As with any collection, no matter how carefully curated, quality varies across essays. The columns I found the least satisfying, in general, were the ones in which Quammen offers self-deprecating descriptions of his difficulties meeting his monthly deadline, which he admits he was always running right up against. A frantic scramble to capture a coherent thread of meaning in the reams of research he’d done about eggs is particularly labored, though it does offer an answer to the (never-before-asked, astonishingly enough) question: If we eat chicken eggs for breakfast, why don’t we eat chicken sperm? I’ll leave that discovery for you to make on your own.

At his best, Quammen is graceful and erudite—especially when he allows non-scientific obsessions to dictate the directions of his wanderings. The luminous “Half-Blinded Poets and Birds,” for instance, beautifully explores the relationship between poetry, vision, and flight, and begins:

Milton, we know, was totally blind. So he wrote about the ways of God. But leave a man with one good eye and he is liable to raise it skyward, squint it, focus it into the middle distance. In two dimensions he will see those animals that move in three dimensions, and what lacks to eyesight can be supplied by heart and imagination. He is liable to write about birds.

How could you—and by you, perhaps I mean I—fail to keep reading?

2011.2. The Boilerplate Rhino

In Other Exciting News:

Last week I was delighted and humbled to learn that one of my posts from last year had been selected from around the web to be part of The Open Lab 2010, an anthology of online science writing. It is a tremendous pleasure to be included on this list of 50 writers. Some of them, like DeLene, Carl Zimmer, and Pal MD, I was already reading often—and some, like Lucas, are wonderful new finds. I hope you visit and enjoy as many of the finalists as you can; every single post is worth reading. I’ll let you know when the book itself goes on sale.

And When You Look Up

January 5th, 2011 | Meera

There was that moment, years before, when you first discovered that you could see the air. How could it have taken so long? Maybe it was only that you’d never sat just so, interrupting the course of a streak of sunlight as it ran—like a river on a mission—down to its journey’s end, its peaceful, silent terminus.

Maybe you’d never been in a place so friable before: a place where the matter of the world was engaged in an occupation of slow and constant crumbling, and had been for some time—the debris of which was so light, and so plentiful, as to become a force that defied gravity itself. You could see it there, levitating above your head. It took the form of great clouds of dust that dropped and rose and eddied in the sunlight, like broken twigs in the flow of a stream.

So the moment came, late though it was, and there it was: the air. Oh, not the air, all right; let us be truthful, if we must. But close enough: the air’s attorney, its surrogate form, its full and official deputy in all matters pertaining to visibility. The air was bright as diamonds. And there you were, amazed.

And there is this moment, years later. Night, not day. No sunlight to be found, not on this half of the earth at any rate; no radiance whose course you might cut off. No dust, either, for the world is now so cold that it has frozen all its chalky parts to itself, and will not release from its hard core nor the slightest bit of powder nor the merest speck of smut. All that breathes about you is obscured. Indeed, you have forgotten as you walk that the air had ever been unveiled.

But then it starts to snow.

So fine a snow is this that if you try to spy a flake it disappears; so fine that though a few rare flecks brush your lips like needles, you cannot be sure of their actuality.

Still you understand: the world up there is kindly crumbling. And when you look up, it strikes you that you stand just so: interrupting the business of a streetlamp.

On Tame Sows and Wild Boars

December 30th, 2010 | Meera

When I got to the prep lab this morning, Dave had set out two birds for me to work on: a Savannah sparrow (a species with which I am becoming quite familiar) and a sleek, long-tailed Yellow-billed cuckoo. As the cuckoo thawed, however, it became clear that it had begun to spoil—this happens sometimes when a specimen doesn’t make it to a freezer soon enough after its death—and that it wouldn’t, therefore, make a good study skin. Birds whose tissues are breaking down have skin that falls apart easily, and they inevitably lose a great deal of feathers as you go along. So Dave put the cuckoo back in the freezer to become a skeleton on another day, and drew out as a replacement an exquisitely tiny Golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera). As I’ve gotten more comfortable working on small birds, Dave has given me a good many warblers to prepare—but this Golden-winged was the first of its kind that I had ever seen. While he was taking it out of the freezer, he also told me that they aren’t a very common find around here—and so I hoped I would do a good job with the perfect little creature he placed by my tray.

Fortunately, she was kind to me, and turned out beautifully. (I can use the pronoun with confidence because later I placed a pair of magnifying goggles over my head and personally examined the minuscule, very slightly raised, very slightly shinier spot behind her kidneys that Dave, with fantastic authority, indicated as her ovary. To me it looked like a microscopic, colorless oil slick sitting on top of a larger, vaguely less lustrous oil slick. Sexing birds when it isn’t mating season is an exercise in seeing what does not want to be seen.)

But besides being beautiful (Golden-winged warblers have, as their name suggests, bright yellow plumage on their wings—but they also have golden crowns, striking patches of jet black on their faces and throats, and the most modish gray feathers you can imagine cloaking their backs), it turned out that the bird I met today was also a player in a long and fascinating history.

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Here’s how it goes. The first thing you ought to know is that the Golden-winged warbler happens to have a kind of aural twin. One of the main songs you’re apt to hear these birds sing is a two or three-note whistle that is usually described as a high, gentle buzzing, like someone breathing in and out over the surface of a nail file. But hearing that song isn’t always enough to make a positive identification, because another warbler—the much more common Blue-winged—buzzes in a very similar way. And it’s especially apt to do so if it has a little Golden-winged blood in it.

Here’s why it might. The two species of warbler don’t look all that much alike; although they share the same basic colors, the way those colors are distributed on their bodies is quite different. But DNA tests reveal that they’re incredibly similar genetically. In fact, scientists believe that two or three million years ago, Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers were one and the same. At some point, though, glacier movements across North America caused the population to split into two groups: one isolated somewhere around Missouri, and the other somewhere up in the Appalachians. And from this separation came speciation.

For more than a million years, Golden-winged warblers and Blue-winged warblers were kept apart from each other mostly by dense forests, a habitat in which neither is able to thrive. Eventually, however, humans began clearing those forests and farming them—then abandoning that farmland and allowing a sparser collection of trees and shrubs to grow back. As this change in the landscape occurred, sometime between one and two centuries ago, Golden-winged warblers began moving north and Blue-winged warblers south. And because they still share so much genetic material, when the two meet, they are happy to breed with each other.

If a Golden-winged warbler mates with a Blue-winged, the two produce a reliably identifiable hybrid offspring known as a Brewster’s warbler. (A Brewster’s warbler is then able to mate with either a Golden-winged or a Blue-winged warbler in a process known as a backcross; these pairings, and their successive pairings, produce all manner of other subtly different and unpredictably plumaged birds, as well as—occasionally—another reliably identifiable hybrid known as a Lawrence’s warbler.)

Unfortunately, besides making for an incredibly complicated family tree, this habit of hybridization has spelled a precipitous decline in the Golden-winged warbler population. That’s because Golden-winged warblers are significantly more likely to mate outside their species than Blue-winged warblers, and—much to the chagrin of avian anti-classists, I presume—once they’ve done so, their hybrid offspring aren’t able to find mates as easily as pure-blooded birds. The combination of these two things has meant that, as the species have crossed paths over the past century or so, Blue-winged warblers are making pretty good headway at displacing Golden-winged warblers.

What truly amazes me about all this, beyond the fact that it’s biologically fascinating, is that I know perfectly well the whole story was present in Dave’s head as he handed me that sweet little specimen this morning—even though the only thing he said was “We don’t get too many of these.” Sometimes I wonder what it can possibly be like to know as much as he does about birds; how it must feel to have all this detail stored away inside him as comfortably and naturally as, for instance, you or I might store our feelings about our best friends.

You may have heard, if you live in Chicago and happen to be a newshound, that Dave’s retiring from the Field after 35 years of service. He’ll still be there every day for the next year, but when he does eventually leave it will be a loss beyond words to the division. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have spent the past two years working in his lab. And do you know what? If I were that Golden-winged warbler, I’d feel lucky to have passed through it too.

P.S. I owe a debt to Todd McLeish’s excellent Golden Wings & Hairy Toes: Encounters with New England’s Most Imperiled Wildlife.

P.P.S. Anyone curious about the title of this post might want to take a quick look here.

On Sultry Dreams

December 26th, 2010 | Meera

You cannot counterfeit the air.

I have lived where the air is thick, crowded, and heavy—where the space rightfully allotted to the air, immense though it seems this must be (comprising, as it does, all of the vast latitudes and infinitesimal interstices left behind once earth, tree, stone, sea, and every animate and inanimate thing has taken up its place in the world), has nevertheless run out.

Where what space there is has become saturated with the dampness of sweat and steam and the rising puffs of the air’s own slow-moving breath. I have lived where molecules of water in the air are so numerous and insistent that they jostle hard against molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and tell them where they can stick it; where moisture besieges the pathways of the atmosphere like a rabble of old ladies, each one with her elbows out and umbrella a-kicking, each one rioting wetly against the delicate knees of those rarer and more noble gases that flit nervously out of the way.

Humid, they call the air in such a place, but what I call it is mobbed. And you cannot counterfeit this with your humidifiers and your steam rooms and your dreams of being there. You cannot counterfeit the air.

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Seeing and Believing

November 10th, 2010 | Meera

A few weeks ago I climbed into a metal dome perched on the roof of the University of Chicago’s Ryerson Physical Laboratory building, straightened my spine and stood up slightly on my toes to reach the tilted eyepiece of a stately and enormous refractor telescope, placed one wide-open eye against a small, bright window of glass, and believed in the moon for the first time.

It was the night before the full moon, and the planet’s most faithful companion was big and bold and beautiful, waxing so gibbous it seemed to strain against its own edges. At that particular point in the moon’s orbit, solar light was shining almost directly at that portion of its countenance that faces the earth, making the whole of its central surface appear perfectly illuminated and unwrinkled—as flawless and white as the petal of a Madonna lily, if a Madonna lily happened to be lit by the burning light of a star. But at the moon’s outermost contours, where it curved away the most from the sun’s rays, light struck its surface at oblique angles—creating sharp shadows and throwing the topography of the moon into high relief. Here it was ragged with dark tears and cavities, war-wounds from billions of years of asteroid and comet collisions: an old fool wearing his heart on his sleeve.

I put one hand out to the wall of the dome, steadying myself against the physically destabilizing force of true awe, and stared. It was astonishing how clearly I could pick out along the edges of the moon the very same craters and mountains that are visible on photographs of the lunar surface. After some time, the earth had drifted far enough along its own orbit (taking the telescope and me with it) that all that was left in the eyepiece was the blackness of space. And the hard, rocky, three-dimensional physicality of the moon—which had until a minute ago been something frankly close to myth in my mind, though I hadn’t realized it—was newly real.

I was reminded, as I thought about the gap between accepting the perfect, scientific truth of a phenomenon, and actually collecting it into the space of one’s personal convictions, of the wisdom of a certain very big, very friendly giant:

“But because of these jumpsquiffling ears of mine,” the BFG said, “I is not only able to hear the music that dreams is making but I is understanding it also.”

“What do you mean understanding it?” Sophie said.

“I can read it,” the BFG said. “It talks to me. It is like a langwitch.”

“I find that just a little hard to believe,” Sophie said.

“I’ll bet you is also finding it hard to believe in quogwinkles,” the BFG said, “and how they is visiting us from the stars.”

“Of course I don’t believe that,” Sophie said.

The BFG regarded her gravely with those huge eyes of his. “I hope you will forgive me,” he said, “if I tell you that human beans is thinking they is very clever, but they is not. They is nearly all of them notmuchers and squeakpips.”

“I beg your pardon,” Sophie said.

“The matter with human beans,” the BFG went on, “is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.”

Roald Dahl, The BFG

Well. This notmucher, this squeakpip, this human bean who does, still, have a hard time believing in anything unless I is actually seeing it right in front of my own schnozzle, is writing tonight as a rather shy new member of the Ryerson Astronomical Society—which was kind enough to welcome me into its fold despite the fact that I’m not only a notmucher but a notstudent.

I haven’t written about astronomy very often here, but I’m making this post partly as a promise that that will start to change. Not least because I expect that as I go along, getting to know that lovely, somewhat finicky telescope I’m lucky enough to have ten minutes away from my home, I shall very soon find myself in believing in a great many more things than that one crazy, beautiful satellite we call our own.

Waxing Gibbous

Thanks for the incredible photo above go to the talented Philip Chee.

An Outfield of Flycatchers

November 4th, 2010 | Meera

On April 17, 1822, while traveling in the prairie lands of southeastern Arkansas, John James Audubon discovered a small, rather drab little bird about the size of a sparrow. It had a crown and back of dark olive, two white bands across its wings, a pale gray throat and upper breast, and light yellow underparts. Though in appearance it was very nearly identical to several other birds already known to science, Audubon knew he had never before heard this distinctive two-note call, a high and rasping buzz which the creature let out repeatedly in flight. He identified it as a new denizen of a large family of tree-dwelling passerines known for swooping from branch to branch, deftly capturing insects on the wing. It was this skill that gave them their name: Flycatchers.

When, six years later, Audubon formally described his new avian find in an early edition of Birds of America, he named it “Traill’s Flycatcher.” This was a nod to the Scottish physician and amateur naturalist Thomas Stewart Traill, someone who had helped Audubon exhibit his drawings to an audience across the water in the years before the budding artist had become quite as famous as he was going to be.

The name was a thoughtful gesture—but one that did not last very long. In the years since Audubon made his discovery, ornithologists have separated Traill’s Flycatcher into two distinct species: Alder and Willow Flycatchers. The two are virtual twins, but have different voices. (That is, according to the books. I can tell I still need more practice as a birder, because they actually sound very similar to me—although the Alder has a call that more resembles a zipper being swiftly tugged, and the Willow one that is more like a sharp sneeze.)

Neither, in any case, has hung on to a common name that recalls Traill. Researchers agree that the bird Audubon saw that day was what we would now call a Willow Flycatcher. Only its scientific name, Empidonax trailli, retains a Latinized trace of the good-hearted man Audubon meant to honor. (Such is the caprice of species; for more on the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of classification, I urge you to read this post by the talented DeLene Beeland.)

Despite what some consider its unremarkable appearance, the Willow Flycatcher does have several notable qualities. A few, for instance, are capable of defending themselves against the brood parasitism of the Brown-headed Cowbird—which shares the cuckoo’s disagreeable habit of laying its own eggs in other birds’ nests and abandoning them to the care of unsuspecting adoptive parents. According to a number of observers, Willow Flycatchers that find cowbird eggs in their nests have been known to bury the unwanted artifacts. They do this by pushing the alien eggs into the bottoms of their nests and adding more material on top—effectively entombing them within a new layer of nest lining. It’s not clear whether the flycatchers do this strategically with cowbird eggs, or as a simple response to any foreign material within their homes; either way, it’s a pretty delightful response to a base attempt at moochery.

And unlike songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds, each of which must learn their vocalizations from adult teachers, flycatchers—Willows included—emerge from the egg knowing the song dialects particular to their species. Even when young flycatchers are deliberately tutored with the songs of similar but unrelated species, what comes out of their beaks when they begin to call is emphatically the sound of their own kind. Confuse me not with your zipping pip, you Alder, for I am a sneezing Willow! They are examples, in other words, of birds whose mother tongues are somehow encoded in their genes. (I cannot tell you how much I envy them. I myself, lover of all discourse and code, know only about three words of Punjabi and about a dozen of Cantonese, the languages my parents’ families speak.)

I tell you all this, of course, because I prepared a Willow Flycatcher today in the bird lab, and was enchanted by the soft lemon-sorbet plumage it carries on its belly and the inside of its tail.

Willow Flycatcher

P.S. As Diana reminds us, Willow Flycatchers are fairly common birds. But the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher—one of the ten or so subspecies that populate the United States—has been on the decline for many years now, mostly as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation. It’s been classified as endangered since 1995. The story of its struggle to survive has taken some fascinating turns lately.

A Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow

October 7th, 2010 | Meera

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

—Matthew 10:29-31, King James Bible

A hundred or so years ago, when I was seven or eight or nine and more foolish and more wise than yet I knew, I used to be dropped off at Sunday school while my parents attended the main service of our church. I hesitate to define exactly what I believed, or thought I believed at the time, about religion and the origin of the universe and the fate of all mankind. I can tell you that I asked an impertinent question now and again—usually regarding the ethics of this or that divine action—usually resulting in little satisfactory return except the swift corrugation of the Sunday school teacher’s forehead. Tiny doubts in my tiny head notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that for a long time I took the existence of God for granted. But rarely did this move me. God was vast, distant, and confusing. He didn’t have a lot to do with the particulars of my life.

It was different with this verse from Matthew, which I remember encountering and which (to an animal-obsessed child who stalked stray cats and scanned the ground under each tree for the injured bird I knew I would one day find) seemed infinitely comforting. A creator who would flood all his sinning children so he could start over from scratch was not for me; one who noted every fallen sparrow, on the other hand? That meant something in my world.

Today, I no longer believe in a celestial presence who counts my value in the currency of sparrows (incidentally, the onomatopoeic Hebrew word צפור/tsippur, normally translated as “sparrow” in this verse, can refer to any small chirruping bird). But I do believe in the fervent daily efforts of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors—who are out in force every single morning for much of the year looking out for creatures that are each still worth, in the minds of most, far less than a farthing.

Some days ago, a CBCM volunteer noted, carefully bagged, and brought to the Field Museum the lovely little Savannah sparrow I skinned today. (Most of the CBCM’s finds are window-kills, but this particular one came in with a broken neck that looked to me like the work of a cat.)

Because of that volunteer, a new specimen has been added to the scientific archives of the museum that could one day be of use in protecting the lives of other birds. And if the sparrow had been injured instead of dead when it was found, it would have been cared for.

Fear ye not therefore, birds of Chicago.

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Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

—Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2

P.S. For a different kind of peek at a Savannah sparrow, visit my fellow volunteer Diana Sudyka’s painting and post at her exquisite blog, Tiny Aviary.

The Very Distillate of Life

August 12th, 2010 | Meera

When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had better make ourselves ready for another Flood.

Louis Joseph Halle, Spring in Washington

I don’t know much about Louis Joseph Halle, but after I read what he’d written about the Cape May warbler, a bird I’ve encountered once or twice before in the lab, I tried to find out as much as I could about him. It turns out that Halle was a Harvard-educated American naturalist, political scientist, and philosopher; he worked in the publishing and railroad industries, served in the U.S. Department of State, became a professor of foreign policy at a university in Switzerland, and wrote some twenty books explicating both politics and science. Whatever else one might say about him, in other words, he was clearly a thoughtful, observant man. And here he was, thrilled to the very core by the mere sight of this tiny yellow bird, about half the length of my hand—elevating it, in fact, above what was perhaps the single most revolutionary invention of the modern industrial economy. “The very distillate of life.”

I love that phrase. It is exactly the sense I have whenever I look at a bird, the strange feeling that I am witnessing an extraordinarily compressed and clarified form of life. Bird life, it seems, passes on an entirely different time scale than the one I inhabit; and it is privy to an entire universe of sensory information that for me is locked away.

But why does the Cape May warbler in particular deserve such heady praise? I’m not sure what Halle had in mind, but beauty and delicacy must have had something to do with it. These are petite creatures, usually less than five inches in length and weighing under half an ounce; if I slid one into an envelope, it would cost only 44 cents to mail the floaty thing anywhere in the United States.

It strikes me that the contrast between the bird’s diminutive size and the fierce good looks of its plumage must have been part of what so charmed Halle. Breeding adult birds have dark black bars streaking vertically down their necks and fronts: their scientific name, Dendroica tigrina, refers to these as tiger stripes. (The bird’s common name turned out to be less cogent; after ornithologist Alexander Wilson first identified and described one in the Cape May region of New Jersey in 1812, no further sightings of it were made there for over one hundred years. The birds live and breed in the forests of North America, then migrate south to the West Indies for the winter. An enviable arrangement; I would do the same, if I could.)

224 (Physiology of Recent Fears)

Stripes are not the only attribute Cape Mays share with their big-cat namesake. They can be keen and relentless fighters, and have very frequently been observed fending off other species of birds from territories that they consider their own, flying at the intruders until they leave the area. This seems to be especially true during the migration period, when food sources (Cape Mays feed on insects, fruit, and nectar) may be of heightened importance. In one paper, Cape Mays were observed to be the assailants in 98% of the aggressive actions that took place around a particular kind of fruit tree, even though it was a food source that at least 11 other bird species also enjoyed.

But there’s more to this little creature than good looks and chutzpah. In 1948, a University of Illinois student observed a Cape May repeatedly seizing upon the opportunity to drink sap out of the holes left behind by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker. “Whenever the sapsuckers’ feeding was interrupted by any cause and the tree was free,” notes the admiring birder, “the Cape May Warbler immediately moved to the spot and began to climb on the bark from hole to hole draining the sap that could be obtained at each spot.”

Or consider this note from a 1908 book about bee-keeping, which is guilty of delicious anthropomorphism but does accurately represent the clever variety of the Cape May’s approach to feeding:

Almost every year the bee-keepers are met with complaints from their neighbors about how the bees are eating up their grapes. It has been pretty well established that bees never touch the perfectly sound fruit; and until recently it was supposed by all fruit-growers, and even by some bee-keepers, that bees made a small round puncture through the skin of some soft grapes…but more recently we were successful in finding the real culprit, and that was in the form of a little bird, quick of flight, scarcely if ever to be seen around the vines when any human being was present.

This bird…called the Cape May Warbler, has a long sharp needle-like beak. It will alight on a bunch, and, about as fast as one can count the grapes, will puncture berry after berry. After his birdship has done his mischief he leaves, and then come on innocent bees to finish the work of destruction by sucking the juices of the pulp of the berry…the birds are scarcely ever “caught in the act.”

So, tiny, beautiful, fierce, and crafty. The very distillate of life, indeed. And lovely as the Cape May continues to be in death (as you can see from the study skin above), its true glory, surely, lies in how intensely it lives.

Cape May Warbler

Photo: Mitchmcc.

The Sweetest, Spiciest Medicine

August 4th, 2010 | Meera

They’ve been living with us for over a year now, two little South Asian transplants. Recently I put them both outside after a long winter punctuated by the spit and wheeze of the radiator, and they seemed to notice right away the sun on their long arms, reaching up towards it like hungry birds. They have since grown lush and so very, very green that it seems almost too much to look at them sometimes. Their greenness demands experimental uses of adverbs: They are severely green, my trees—tempestuously green—vehemently green. They pound greenness into an essential oil.

If you rub their leaves between your fingers, as it is impossible to resist doing, the aroma they give off is warm, nutty, spicy—a hint of tangerine, a sip of onion, the breath of an entire simmering curry in one tiny tear-shaped package. They could not be more beautiful, especially after a summer storm that soaks their soil dark and forms tiny reflecting pools on every fragrant leaf.

The curry leaf tree‘s scientific name, Murraya koenigii, honors not its own charming qualities but the botanists Johann Andreas Murray (of Sweden) and Johann Gerhard König (of Germany), both of whom lived and died in the stink of the 18th century and neither of whom, I would wager (drunk as I am on dinner), ever sniffed anything quite so rich and piquant and utterly heady as the coconut dal I made tonight using eight little leaves I harvested from our balcony garden.

But it needn’t content itself with this cold label, for the curry leaf tree had the great good fortune to be born in a land that seethes with musical tongues. It bears at least two dozen other names (or maybe a thousand), each as alluring as the next. You can call it karepaku or karivepaaku in Andhra Pradesh; narasingha or bishahari in Assam; barsanga or kartaphulli in Bengal; gorenimb or kadhilimbdo in Gujrat; mitha neem, gandhla, gandhela, or gandhelu in Himachal Pradesh; karibeva in Karnataka; kariveppilei in Kerela; gandhela, gandla, or gani in Kumaon; bassan, basango, or bhursanga in Orissa; karivempu or karuveppilei in Tamilnadu. If you speak Hindi, you can name it kathnim, mitha neem, kurry patta gandhela or, barsanga; in Sanskrit, take your pick from surabhinimba, kalasaka, and mahanimb.

Just roll those around your tongue for a minute while you look at this tempestuous green.

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I am not a fan of conceiving of food as medicine, but (dal warming my belly, smell of curry on my fingers), I wondered this evening if there might be not only beauty, not only pleasure, but also virtue in my trees. I confess, I wanted to think so. They are such winning little things, so brave and out of place on my Midwestern porch. Let them be shored up for another winter, I thought, with more good qualities. Let them be salubrious, and shore me up for winter.

Here, then.

In 1995, a group of Indian biochemists found that rats, fed with a supplement of curry leaves, experienced far less of a blood cholesterol-spike from the vast quantities of coconut oil the researchers were also feeding them. A few years later, another Indian team found that the effects of a known carcinogen on rats were significantly mitigated when the rats were also fed curry leaves. There is some evidence that curry leaves reduce blood sugar levels in mildly diabetic rats. They appear to function as antioxidants. They have an antimicrobial effect. They even seem to improve memory.

Virtue, thy name is karivepaaku. And since I have you, how could I be other than fiercely—brilliantly—dauntlessly healthy?

Things I Hear When Cicada-Tympana Thrum

July 28th, 2010 | Meera

A small, straight twig, held steady between the spokes of a rotating bicycle wheel as it speeds up, slows down, speeds up, slows down, falls still, and then is set to spinning again.

The last gasps of an aerosol can, shaken and sprayed by a determined hand, liquid and air shunted out together through a tiny hole in ragged, pulsating bursts until nothing more remains to be ejected.

A wind-up car that you turn with a key, released at its tautest on a table and allowed to travel as far as it will go, the key in its back clicking down in lengthening ticks its brief, meandering adventure.

The world’s most precise drummer gently sweeping a metal brush back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across his snare, in a lull between the blare of the saxophone and the whalesong of the bass. His hand moves so fast you can hardly believe it, a blur to look at; but he slows. He stops. Gives over his gentle solo.

A bullet-shaped UFO, lights wavering, hovering in the dead silence of the night—approaching its landing spot, cutting its engine, and gliding to rest before my disbelieving eyes.

Superstrings, vibrating with the precise harmonics required to create the fundamental material constituents of our universe and all that it contains.

Sand slipping through an hourglass, each grain squeaking against the sides of that narrow channel before falling, with the clink of a coin, into the bottom chamber.

A stream of water dripped onto a hot stove. Sizzling. Silence. Water into air.

Summer.

Whip-poor will

June 3rd, 2010 | Meera

The so-called goat-sucker lives on mountains; it is a little larger than the owsel, and less than the cuckoo; it lays two eggs, or three at the most, and is of a sluggish disposition. It flies up to the she-goat and sucks its milk, from which habit it derives its name; it is said that, after it has sucked the teat of the animal, the teat dries up and the animal goes blind. It is dim-sighted in the day-time, but sees well enough by night.

—Aristotle, “The History of Animals,” c. 350 B.C.

The Whip-poor-will is a bird of many distinctions.

For one, it has a marvelously ridiculous common name, supposedly derived from its insistent three-note call, which resounds through the forests of the eastern United States all through the night. (Listen to that recording, will you? As you know, I adore both birders and namers of birds, but transliterating the exquisitely alien trills and whistles of birdsong into syllables we can spell and pronounce does little but highlight the paucity of human language when compared to its avian counterpart.)

The Whip-poor-will also has a marvelously eerie scientific name: Caprimulgus vociferus, literally “noisy goatsucker.” Unlike the mythic Chupacabra, birds of the genus Caprimulgus, to which the common nighthawk also belongs, were not believed to drain the blood of goats, but to drink their milk instead. This is, if you ask me, a more palatable proposition: but it is equally fictitious. Aristotle himself—an august thinker, to be sure, but wrong about so very many things—thought this to be true.

The story may have arisen because of the birds’ incredibly wide bills, which apparently looked to ancient observers as if they would be very useful for sucking at goat teats. In fact, what those bills are suited for is gaping open in flight and snatching up large insects, which are what make up the majority of the Caprimulgus diet.

In sum, the Whip-poor-will is a medium-sized, ground-nesting, nocturnal bird with beautiful mottled plumage consisting of a complex pattern of browns, grays, blacks, and whites: a confusion of earthy colors that makes it almost invisible when still. And it is very, very beautiful.

I can tell you quite confidently just how soft that pretty plumage is—it is as downy as an owl’s—because I spent an hour and a half skinning a lovely little female Whip-poor-will this morning in the Field Museum’s bird prep lab. The number on her tag began with the initials “FC,” which means she was collected as a wounded bird by the Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Northerly Island, Chicago, and unfortunately didn’t make it. In fact, as I was handling her I noticed that her right humerus was broken, probably the injury that brought her to Flint Creek.

Here she is. Dave, the collections manager in the Bird Division, was very happy to have her as a study skin; I don’t think we see too many Whips in the lab.

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Alchemy of an Arizona Evening

May 16th, 2010 | Meera

When the sunset shares space with the waxing moon, follow a curve-billed thrasher’s crazy mimetic call—all whistle, click, and buzz, with no beginning and no end—up the rocky side of Hayden Butte in Tempe, Arizona. He will be sitting, alone like you, on the edge of an overhead line, and he will not be disturbed.

If you stand just underneath his beak—but just—his notes will fall into your hair and trickle over your upturned face like the water that ran down your naked skin in the morning. You are grubby with the heat of the day and the breath of strangers, and the thrasher’s song is a shower.

It does not matter how you look, standing there with your arms out and your eyes closed and the thrasher singing you clean, because listen, my friend. Who is he really going to tell?

New Year’s Day Self-Similarity

January 1st, 2010 | Meera

There has always been, for me, something shivery and mysterious about the Book of the Thousand and One Nights. One reason is that although for years it sat quite within reach on my father’s bookshelf, both the Nights and its store of what we so (in)delicately call “adult” material were closed to me as a child: locked tight with a single shake of a maternal head. (Let me tell you that when I read the stories, in direct defiance of that fiat, and discovered that not only is there a lot of sex in them but that the very first tale is about a fart so legendary it reverberates through an entire kingdom for generations, I laughed until I cried. Adult indeed.)

But far more wonderful, what I knew about the comparatively slim volume revealed its position within that most favored of literary genres: the infinite book. That “thousand and one!” How I craved its everlasting promise of still one more night after you thought the final one had come.

One other thing gave the Thousand and One Nights limitless mystery, and that was the fact that it held stories within stories within stories. Scheherazade would begin to tell a tale, and all of a sudden its narrator would begin to tell his own tale, and before you knew it its narrator was holding forth on yet another narrative, and so on and so forth until your head spun with delicious confusion. No matter where you looked, it seemed, there was a tiny reflection of the book as a whole, which in turn contained its own reflection, which contained…and in turn…and in turn… The book of Nights was made of endless versions of itself, writ small (er and smaller and smaller).

As in the Nights, so in Nature. Self-similarity is everywhere. Each stretch of the British coastline, fractal-father Mandelbrot tells us, curves and jags and undulates in such a way as to produce a remarkably faithful scale model (not perfect, but close) of the coastline as a whole, no matter how many times you carve it up into smaller and smaller pieces. Always you will find that each individual part contains within itself a rough unabridged copy of the total sum.

So again with the leaves of a fern, whose fronds divide into fronds that divide into fronds, and with the branching bronchial tubes of the lungs, which fork and fork and fork once more. Raise your head to the skies and there too the part reflects the whole. Galaxies clump into small groups, like little knots of gossiping schoolchildren; those clumps form larger clusters, and those clusters even larger throngs.

(What is it for, all this huddling? Is it a lonely thing, being a galaxy? I can’t imagine it could be, since you yourself are made up of clustered clustered clusters of stars…)

And what does all this have to do with New Year’s Day, my dear dears? Why, only this: When I woke up this morning I resolved to make my own self-similarity. This first day, I decided—itself just one small part of the long annum stretching out before me in all its promise and disappointment—should be a scale model, crafted as best I can, of what I want the year to be like.

Therefore, this is what today contained:

Waking to sunlight through curtains and a cat on my belly.

Cooking, with Ross and for a friend. Eating what I had made. Laughing.

Walking, face tingling in the January (!) cold. Looking. Breathing. Hugging Ross.

Making what I know how to make.

Sitting, just sitting, while music plays. Reading with a cup of coffee by my side.

Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, writing this for both you and myself, with a calm heart and nothing to prove.

Welcome to a new decade, readers-mine. I’m enjoying it so far. I’m imagining, at least for one day, that I know what the future holds. It holds a thousand and one New Year’s Days.

RedRun

Elsewhere

December 28th, 2009 | Meera

I’m working on a new piece; it’s about hair.

In the meantime, I have a guest arriving in about an hour and a half and there are onions to caramelize and limes to slice and coffee to brew. I’m going to leave you with something I published today for Inkling that I particularly like.

P.S. I’ve decided. This place is going to get a lot less formal.