Posts Tagged ‘life’

Made of This

July 29th, 2012 | Meera

Friends:

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

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

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

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

Tent, Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allen Creek Camp 2012

I’ll tell you what I mean.

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

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

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

swallows by jake

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

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

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

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

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

7.22.12 Telolecithal

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

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

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

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

7.20.12 Crepuscular

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

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

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.

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

December 14th, 2011 | Meera

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

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

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

*******

343 (Mimosa plant, before)

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Mimosa plant, after

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

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.)

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(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.)


Closing the Circle

July 22nd, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

Leaning over the work table in one of the observatory’s ringing huts last week, I raised a hand to smooth the lists of birds we keep pinned to the wall. They show each of the dozens of species we might encounter here: its common names in English and Swedish, its scientific name, the five-letter abbreviation by which it is identified in our protocols, and the standard ring size it takes.

(An aside: Some of the abbreviations assigned to bird species are tiny bits of sound-poetry, delicious to say. I like it when we catch a Redpoll, and not just because they are beautiful birds. Their code, derived from the scientific name Carduelis flammea—Redpolls are also known as Acanthis flammea by some taxonomists—is like the politest little cough. CAFLA!, I announce happily as I write it down. CAFLA! Forgive me; I have something in my throat—CAFLA, CAFLA, CAFLA.)

I don’t know if my fellow volunteer Peder saw my wedding band glinting as I stood with my hand on the wall. But perhaps that’s why he said at that moment—his voice rich with the delight of a clever observation—”But Meera’s been ringed. What size is your ring, Meera?”

I smiled, both because I like Peder’s sense of humor and because there was pleasure in taking his question, which required no serious answer, seriously.

What size was my ring? Did it conform to the requirements of comfort and utility assigned to every ring we put on a bird in this hut? Was it loose enough to slide easily up and down my finger, but snug enough not to fall off? When it was placed, did someone take care not to harm me? Was it unobtrusive, in no way impeding my flight, feeding, or other natural behaviors? Did its presence on my finger serve a meaningful purpose in the world? And could you trace my history by it?

I don’t remember what I said to Peder then, twisting my ring affectionately and thinking on these questions with ducked head and wondering mind. Today—watching my brown hands fly over the keyboard, marked by a flicker of white gold—I am still sitting with them.

But when it comes to the birds, at least, I have some answers I can give.

Katie and the Long-eared Owl Adventure
Size 8 rings—one was used in June to ring a Long-eared Owl chick in a nest in Handöl. Mostly we ring passerines, with much smaller rings.

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Many of you reading have first-hand experience with the processes and purposes of ringing (or banding, as it is called in the U.S.). You, friends, don’t have to stay for the rest of this post—although I would love it if you added a comment or let me know how you do things. For the rest of you—and for me, since I am learning these things along with you—I have written a small primer. Ready? Grab a fika. This will be long, and though I find it fascinating, it won’t be very poetic. Something sweet will help us all stay focused. :)

A Bird in the Hand

To work with a wild bird, of course, you must first have access to it. If you are ringing birds in nest boxes, as I was helping Stefan do earlier this summer, this is fairly straightforward. You simply check each nest box periodically, noting which are occupied, which have eggs, and later, which have nestlings in them.

If you know approximately how old the chicks were when you last checked on them and how old they will be when they fledge, you can pick a day to ring them—sometime when they’re well grown, but not quite ready to leave the nest. At that point, you can safely pluck the clutch of nestlings out one by one, ring them, and put them back inside. Depending on the species, you’re more or less likely to be able to ring the mother as well—flycatcher parents tend to flee the nest when you approach; tits sometimes stay inside.

Besides nest box ringing, the observatory also conducts mist-net ringing each summer. (This is what I’ve been helping with for the past few weeks, since the Great Snipe tracking began winding down.)

Mist nets are very fine nets constructed of strong black nylon, with mesh sizes that vary from about 16mm to about 120mm; you need a larger mesh to catch big birds like waders and raptors, and a smaller one to catch little birds like warblers and finches. The nets get their name, as you might imagine, because when unfurled they become virtually invisible to birds (and preoccupied humans, as I have proven on more than one occasion).

Each net comprises five vertical sections of netting separated by five horizontal threads; you set it up so that the horizontal threads run taut between two poles and the vertical sections hang loosely below them, forming several pockets into which birds can fly. Nets are usually set up in the early morning and taken down or rolled up in the early afternoon. In between, birds are active but the sun isn’t shining down too hard. If it becomes very hot, windy, cold, or rainy when you are using mist nets, they are promptly closed so that you don’t trap birds under adverse conditions.

Tom B and the net set
Amazingly, I have no unfurled mist nets among the nearly 500 photos I’ve posted of Sweden so far. Here is one from my wonderful Flickr contact Andy Jones, of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Ours look exactly the same, but surrounded by tall grasses and wildflowers.

Once you’ve opened a net, it is checked frequently so no bird remains caught for very long. The great majority of the time, birds become only lightly tangled, and removing them takes moments. Occasionally a bird will be more difficult to extract (in tricky cases, beginners like me should always call for help from more experienced ringers, so that the bird can be freed as efficiently as possible). Either way, you follow the same basic steps. First, determine which side of the net the bird entered on, and work on that side; next, free the feet, then the wings, then the head, since that’s the opposite order from which most bird parts encounter the net.

The removal process, though usually straightforward, is the most delicate part of the ringing operation. It requires patience, care, and a constant attention to the welfare of the bird you’re working with. You may be being swarmed by mosquitoes or gnats or tiny evil flies, for instance, but if you have a bird in hand, you can’t twitch an arm suddenly to shoo them away. (Me, if this gets very bad, I swear under my breath. I don’t think anyone but the birds has heard me yet.)

Once you’ve freed a bird, it is placed inside a cotton drawstring bag and taken somewhere else to be processed: in our case, a ringing hut.

A Minute of Science

While there are many steps in processing a bird, experienced hands can perform them incredibly quickly—usually in under one minute. It will take me longer to write about this and you to read it than it takes most birds to make their way out of the ringing hut, and I’m not even going to describe the steps in detail, just list them.

The first thing a ringer does after removing a bird from its bag is identify it. This dictates the ring size it will take, because that is dependent on the average diameter of each species’ leg. The smallest ring we have is a 0.5, which we put on tiny things like chiffchaffs; the largest, spares of which we own but almost never use because our operations aren’t designed to trap anything except songbirds, is a 93—for something magnificent like a crane.

Next, the bird is ringed using a special set of pliers with round openings. These help you to properly bring the edges of the ring together without any danger of squeezing the bird’s leg. I have seen experienced ringers do this so smoothly that I am barely ready to write down the ring number before they are done.

Stefan Rings Four Eurasian Nuthatch Chicks
Here’s a pair of ringing pliers being used on a Eurasian Nuthatch chick.

Finally, several pieces of information are taken that will be associated with the bird’s ring number.(Every country in which birds are ringed has a central database to which these records are uploaded.) Here, we sex and age the bird to the degree that this is possible using physical signs, and then take a fat score, a wing measurement, and weight. We also look for the presence of a brood patch (a wrinkly, swollen area on female birds’ bellies that indicates they are in nesting mode), and determine what stage of feather growth young birds are in and what stage of moult, if any, adult birds are in. None of this data is necessarily all that significant in isolation, but collecting it for millions of birds worldwide each year adds a tremendous amount to the knowledge we have about various species.

If an already-ringed bird is captured, all the same information is collected and its ring number taken down. When that record is uploaded, whoever ringed the bird originally is automatically notified, so they know where that individual has been. I imagine it must be rather thrilling to receive one of these notices. Perhaps it’s a little as if a message you’d put in a bottle had been found across the seas.

After all this, the bird—which, if it is typical, has stayed calm throughout—is released through a small hatch in the side of the hut. Or, if it is a fledgling, it is taken back to the area where it was caught, with its siblings if any were trapped at the same time. We do this so that young birds can easily find their way home. I have returned fledglings several times and I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to hear chicks and parents calling to each other as you approach their nest.

As I said, most often a bird is held in the hand for less than one minute. (It took me about 15 to write this, but things might have gone a little quicker if I hadn’t run out of coffee one section ago. How are you doing, by the way? Any fika left? I’ll try to be quick now, although this last bit is arguably the part I most want you to understand.)

Varför Vi Gör Det (Why We Do It)

It’s all very well to tell you what we do when we ring birds; what perhaps seems even more mysterious, at least if you haven’t thought about it before, are the reasons we do it at all. A dear friend—and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her, because I think her words reflect what’s in many people’s minds—commented last week on a photo I posted of a female chaffinch being processed: “I get science and all that, but from a bird perspective, where you are must be a torture chamber.”

Let’s talk about that second part first. It’s perfectly true that being caught in a mist net and ringed is no bird’s idea of a pleasant morning. To a human, handling birds is a fascinating and rewarding experience. It’s hard not to be emotionally affected, even if in a restrained and professional way, by the physical fact of a live bird in your hand. Feather to skin, a bird’s warmth, heartbeat, and softness transmit themselves directly to you in a way that can feel electric.

To a bird—there’s no getting around it—a ringer is a predator.

Having said that, most of the birds we trap are likely to have what are obviously far more dangerous encounters with actual predators every day. Many are migratory species which travel thousands of kilometers each year and face the most grueling environmental conditions. Birds are by constitution tough animals, capable of weathering stress—especially if it is temporary and causes no physical injury—very well.

I will not lie to you. The risk of physical injury does exist. But I believe it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of the millions of birds ringed annually, under the supervision of ringers licensed by their home nations, emerge from the process completely unharmed.

If I had written this post a few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to make that statement as confidently, but thanks to a recently published study, beautifully unpacked here by a science writer I respect a great deal, I can tell you that when the records for over 600,000 mist net captures in the United States were analyzed, the average rate of injury (which includes events like wing strain, cuts, stress, or broken bones) was found to be less than 0.59%, and the average mortality rate about 0.23%.

baby blue
Most bird species show remarkable calm during handling; some—like tits—have characteristic defense responses.

While those numbers are extremely low, they would still represent an unjust harm to bird populations if ringing served no useful purpose. But it serves many—too many, in fact, to describe here in detail, especially since I am quite sure you are now, like me, entirely out of cookies and tea (I switched to tea a little while ago).

Here then—highly abbreviated—is a short list of scientific and conservation-related reasons birds are ringed:

• Ringing is the primary method of understanding bird migration. (Before the advent of ringing as a systematized process, migration was a deep and myth-producing mystery.) By recovering previously ringed birds at different points on their migration pathways, we can identify important nesting, wintering, and feeding grounds, and note changes in routes. Such knowledge is not only interesting for its own sake, but an important advocacy tool for conservationists seeking to preserve habitats or demonstrate the effects of human activity or global warming on bird populations.

• Ringing is the only way to gather data on the lifespan of individual birds and thus establish longevity records for bird species in the wild.

• Ringing and recapturing birds in the same site over a sustained period can enable us to roughly determine how many birds exist in a given population, as well as how well they are surviving and breeding. Ringing can also help to pinpoint the reasons for population changes. For instance, if a particular species is becoming rarer, but we know from nest box studies that it’s successfully nesting and raising chicks and we know from mist net ringing that the rate of juvenile survival has gone down, then we know that some condition affecting young birds, but not affecting adult birds’ capacity to breed, is responsible for the population decline—and we have a better idea of where to look next.

• Ringing game birds is vital for monitoring the impact of hunting and determining if existing regulations are effective or should be changed.

Peder with protocols
This is the protocol sheet we use to record data about newly ringed birds.

As I write, I can feel the cool contours of my own ring embracing my finger. Beyond its shape it bears no other resemblance to the small aluminum or steel bands we put on birds, except for one: both represent a promise from those who put them on.

Of the promise that was made to me, nothing more need be said. I appreciate it every day.

Birds, of course, have no such feeling about the promise their ringers make to them. But I believe it exists, despite this, in the closing of each circle around each protesting leg. To me it seems at heart a very simple vow: to know, to heed, to protect, to remember, and to look for again.

Hands-On

June 12th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I’ve never believed my hands were particularly nice looking. When I was 12, I was envious of the long, slender fingers on my friend Beth. You couldn’t really hope to be an artist, I thought, without the right pair of hands. Either you were born with both the temperament and the digits—which, according to all the Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery novels I was reading at the time, arrived together—or you were doomed to a prosaic life.

I’ve also never believed my hands were particularly strong or skilled. When I started volunteering at the Field Museum two and a half years ago, it was the first time in my life that I’d really done anything useful with them. But that work, satisfying as it is, didn’t do much to transform my hands into Tom’s hands—which I watch whenever he’s working on a study skin or a taxidermy mount in the lab. Tom’s hands perform the most deft and precise motions. Yet they’re also large, callused, and muscular, and marvelously capable looking. They’ve been out in the world.

A week ago, I returned to the observatory from a long afternoon of tracking. I had just fallen from my too-tall borrowed bicycle onto a dirt and gravel road while speeding downhill, and I was feeling particularly incompetent as I walked into the yard, brushing at my bleeding lips and forehead. There I found Jennie—who grew up here in the Swedish countryside—out by the shed, fixing the bottom of the observatory’s power boat by nailing wooden planks together. “You can do anything,” I told her, meaning “I can’t.”

My hands don’t know as much as Jennie’s. They haven’t built many things, or used many tools, or been trained to keep me alive when the world goes all to hell. They’re nice hands and all; they’re just not very experienced.

Or they weren’t until now.

For the past two and a half weeks, my hands have been busy carrying field equipment, helping me push my way through birch branches and willow trees, reaching out for balance on rocks, brush, and muddy ground as I stumble up and down mountainsides, wielding rakes and paint brushes, hauling stones, helping to pull a boat by its rope, measuring and cutting wood, and—today—building an owl-sized nest box with a hammer, nails, and a great mess of splintery wooden planks.

And do you know what? Small signs of change are showing themselves on my hands. They’re a little scratched up. They’re dry and rather rough. They’ve got some cuts and scrapes and blisters on them, and a good amount of dirt seems to be baked into a couple of my fingerprints.

My hands still aren’t Tom’s hands, or Jennie’s. They’re definitely not getting any more artistic. But they’re engaging with the world in ways they’ve never done before. And I like the way they feel.

small signs of change


P.S. Here is the nest box I made today:

My first Tengmalm's Owl-sized Nest Box

And here is the Great Snipe nest I found, a few hours later, hands on my antenna.

Finding #25

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.


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.

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

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.

This Constant Heart

August 31st, 2010 | Meera

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

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

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

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

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

This Paper Muscle in My Chest

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

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

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

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

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

spanish graffiti is romantic

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

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

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

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

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

184


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

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

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

It’s horrible.

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

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

There is part of me that understands this terror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On The End and What You Do Before

May 13th, 2010 | Meera

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Dreams: After Kurt Vonnegut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come it did.

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

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

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

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