Posts Tagged ‘change’

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.

Fire is as Fire Does

October 29th, 2010 | Meera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no such thing exists.

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

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

On the Persistence of Ferns

July 7th, 2009 | Meera

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

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

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

growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A small dinosaur would feel at home...

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

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

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

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

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

human contact

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

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

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