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We Always Stop for Loons

We always stop for loons. We stop mid-sentence or with the coffee cup halfway to our lips. We lift our eyes from the book. There is no sound when a loon pops out of the deep water and though we see them daily on Wilson Pond we always feel a bit surprised to catch sight of one, there, just off the swimming dock.

Loons are big birds with wingspans of 42”, large bodies, long necks, and sharp bills, feathered in black and white with round garnet eyes. On the water they are elegant hieroglyphs gliding in a barely moving wake. Their backs and wings are marked with art deco designs of checkerboards and polka dots, their shoulders with op-art repetitions of waving zebra stripes. Pinstripes form a dignified collar at the neck tapering and open at the front. They are at once ancient and modern, enduring and ephemeral.

I heard loons before I ever saw one. I was, maybe eight years old, sleeping in Dad’s cabin when they woke me. I listened. I heard the single-voiced wail, which embodied all yearnings and all times. It rose and fell, skimming the water, a cry to be heard, to be known.  A few heartbeats later, there was a low answering call, far away but reassuring. The call and response repeated, then settled into silence.  I snuggled under the comforter. Soon there was the raucous sound of several loons, close together, the crazy laughter, the tremolos and quavers and warbles. I felt protected by the loons. There in the dark, life went on, boisterous and comforting.

I will always stop for loons. They are living Tibetan prayer bowls, singing me into the present moment, which contains all moments. They remind me to pay attention, to be here. They remind me that I am very small, and I am here for only a short time and that I am part of something immense and timeless.


The amoeba challenge

Life cycle of D. discoideum: phylum Mycetezoa (slime molds)

Dictyostelium discoideum is a species of bacteria-eating amoebas that live in soil and leaf litter.  They have an amazing life cycle that includes three distinct morphologies or body shapes. Starting out as single cells, they collect  into a loose group or aggregate, transform into a multi-cellular slug and then into a fruiting body ready for asexual reproduction. (They can also reproduce sexually.)

If that doesn’t impress you, how about this? They farm. Yep, they grow and harvest crops. The image of microscopic, cytoplasm-streaming,  shape-shifting, water-shooting critters wearing John Deere hats and riding tractors gives SpongeBob SquarePants a run for his money! But that wouldn’t really happen. What actually happens, according to an article by Sindya N. Bhannoo in the New York Times, “Crops of Bacteria, Farmed by Amoebas” (Tuesday January25,2011), is that the D. discoideum carry bacteria with them as they move and seed it if they find themselves in an area that has no food or lacks the bacteria they like. Not only do they carry, disperse and harvest bacteria, they save part of the crop for leaner times.

Which brings me to “the challenge”. I’m no farmer. I’m not even a good weekend gardener, and our little urban yard is a scraggly patchwork of barren ground and overgrown hedges. But I’ve got to figure– if an amoeba with no brain and no thumbs can plant and harvest, maybe I can to. The task before me is the area in front of our garage.  I gaze at this forlorn bit of ground, or shield my eyes from sun bouncing off the siding, every time I wash dishes.  I like washing dishes and while my hands dip into the suds I want to look out at a wintering cedar waxwing plucking a berry or the opening of day lilies on a summer morning. What I look at now is a nagging reminder of home projects still unfinished!

So over the next 2 months I’ll be putting in a small garden of flowers, shrubs and climbing vines. And plenty of compost to keep the D. Discoideum happy.

Any ideas for a sunny spot in the southeast?

The challenge: Transform this bare little patch into a haven for birds, bees and other friendly critters while giving me something lovely to look at while washing the dishes.

Emily Anthes

Image by David Airey

The first article I read by Emily Anthes was titled Soft-headed Intellectuals: What the octopus is revealing about the nature of intelligence (Boston Globe. July 25, 2010. Link here.)

Now I make a date every week to check her blog and her website for new pieces. I read her work, both for its content and the craft of the writing itself.

We desperately need writers who understand the sciences, who know what questions to ask of both researchers and policy makers, and who write in ways that engage the lay reader. Ms. Anthes meets these challenges.  She has a masters degree in science writing from MIT, a bachelors in history of science and medicine from Yale, and a real gift for finding and telling stories.

Her blog, Wonderland, is lively and full of “the scientifically quirky”.  Find out the evolutionary underpinnings of Schadenfreude, the pseudoscience behind all those health care products in the SkyMall catalog, and why it’s unwise to handle cobras when you are drunk. She’s a girl after my own heart.

Check out her blog and tell me what you think. Are there any science writers’ websites you check regularly?


George Gardner Symons River in Winter

More light, less heat. This inside-out relationship is the paradox of winter solstice. The days lengthen, and the temperatures plummet. Winter is a tricky business.

The cold and dark unsettle me, and the bitter-edged wind can slice open old wounds beneath the skin. In the dull gray of a North Carolina winter, inertia slips in on each shiver. It’s not a bad thing to settle into for a while, this existential emptiness that rides in on winter’s chill, this minimalist moment for the senses and the will. Let there be no point, no reason to rise. Sit, breathe, be. Grieve if grief is there, remember, forgive, rest. Stay a little while.

And when I know I’m staying too long, that reflection is turning into rumination, it is time to return to the senses. A winter landscape looks lifeless, except for the skitter of a few birds. Much is happening beneath snowy drifts, in frozen ponds, and in the insulated crevices of trees and rock.  Buds wait, fully formed, in bell jars of ice. Snapping turtles lie under layers of ice, extracting just enough oxygen to survive. Deer mice sleep in a state of torpor during the early morning and hunt in the afternoon. Bees huddle and shiver, rotating from outer to inner layers of the hive, surrounding the queen to assure her survival. In New England, ruffed grouse will burrow into snow to keep warm for the night. Bernd Heinrich says, “Life is reduced to its elegant essentials.”

And even though heat, electricity, and our year round work flattens the contours of  each season, we respond to  them nonetheless. When life outside our windows slows, we settle into the dark and, at the same time, push it back with rituals of family and friends. We read the morning paper sharing news and crossword clues; we snuggle with our cats. We gather for cribbage with 3 generations of family, and join with dear friends for an annual waffle/solstice celebration. We walk on sunny crisp days. We pull out the kayaks during the thaw that always breaks winter’s hold for a few days in late January.

In our house and outside, people, plants animals slow down, take long naps, huddle together, stay warm together. Inside and outside life rests, organizes, and gathers itself for another round of growth in the spring.

Zoom In, Zoom Out–We’re Home

In the iconic film Powers of 10 by Ray and Charles Eames and Philip and Phylis Morrison (1977), a camera hovers above a man lying on a picnic blanket in Soldier Field in Chicago. The camera records him at 1 meter (about 3 feet), zooms out by powers of ten up to 10 to the 24th, or the size of the observable universe, and then reverses direction down to 10 to the negative 16, or the size of a quark in a Carbon atom. The film is a reminder that what we see each day is just a sliver of our world. When we actually or mentally zoom in and out we create space for gratitude, humility and connection.

Every day most of us live in the 1 meter world.  We wake up, brush our teeth, make the rounds of moneymaking, housework and family. Our attention is pressed up against these daily comforts and irritations. Our own world can become flat and 2 dimensional. But what if we “zoom out” while doing something mundane, like washing dishes?  Can you follow the water’s path, before it spills from the faucet, after it empties into the drain? Do you wonder many others bend over sinks, or pails of well water, or rivers right now, with you? Where is the earth on its turn around the sun, its gyration in the spiraling galaxy? Are you becoming tiny, a speck of motion in a turning world?

What if you zoom in? See the hexagons of your skin. Imagine the DNA, spiraling, unlocking, recombining, more similar than not to fern and loon. Sense yourself as a planet, supporting colonies of one-celled life on your skin and in your belly. You are the site of life and death dramas as real, and closer, than anything on the news.

Look out far enough and see only emptiness punctuated by bits of dust. Look deeply enough within and it looks similar. We live in nodes of activity. Molecules tremble and cohere, form the tree outside my window, the squirrel carrying a fat walnut, your brown eyes.  They swirl and spin and transform from order to disorder and back again. If there is a beginning, if there is an end it is beyond our knowing. What we know is the continuing shift of matter and energy, implosion and explosion, activity and quietude.

Perhaps the images of Powers of 10 leave you feeling vulnerable, toes curled at the edge of an existential abyss.  Everything is just a pile of atoms in flux, from insentient rock to self-aware human. All is set to decay and disperse. But maybe these pictures offer the promise of an unbreakable connection, of our part in something sacred, powerful, and eternal. Perhaps they offer protection from the fears that haunt us—loneliness, abandonment, alienation. For me they are a benediction, offering comfort and blessing. I am never alone, never separated from this world. I belong, I am protected. I am enveloped in its endless, powerful cycling. I am home.

More links to reflections on Powers of 10:
Molecular Expressions: Science, Optics and You

The Universe-Solved!

And don’t forget the Talking Heads, “And She Was”  here