Posts Tagged ‘stray and unscientific’

A Note to Old Friends

January 22nd, 2013 | Meera

Hello, stalwart readers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost Two

Rosemary Is a Strange Thing

February 5th, 2012 | Meera

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

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

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



August 5th, 2011 | Meera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If congenitally flighty, avoid the Moon.

Some things are heavy.

Some matter.

featherweight (when something is nothing)

Null and Void

March 20th, 2011 | Meera

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

T. on Sunday morning

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

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

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


March 3rd, 2011 | Meera

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

Most days I fail to notice anything at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

waiting for the number 55

Birthday Blizzard 2011

February 1st, 2011 | Meera

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

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

So we went outside.

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

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

And When You Look Up

January 5th, 2011 | Meera

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

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

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

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

But then it starts to snow.

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

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

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.


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.

Camping, or the Art of War

July 27th, 2010 | Meera

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did hear that.

“Maybe it’s a deer,” she said.

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

The sounds grew bolder as our eyes widened.

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

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

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

Her voice rose an octave.

I raised an eyebrow.

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

I capitulated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what it looked like.

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

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

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

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

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

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