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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

I’m now five or so weeks into my teaching semester, and my own kids even longer into their elementary school year. Simon, our five year old, boarded the school bus for the first time in August. I’d thought I might feel at least some little twinge: our younger child off to school, no more babies for real now. But I felt no particular emotion (aside from the sense of freedom that came with his getting on that bus). When I tell people that, many of them appear a little unnerved, as if it indicates an overall lack of sensitivity to the passage of time, or to the bittersweet nature of kids growing up. As to that last, so far, it’s really only been sweet since I genuinely disliked caring for babies and toddlers. From here on, I suspect it may get harder.

With our elder son, we focused on the firsts. With our younger, the lasts. It’s a typical pattern, and one probably partly responsible for the defining personality characteristics of birth order. I am attuned to all the lasts in my second child like I never was with my first son. A couple months ago, Simon said, “Wow, now I can have gum like a big boy,” and it must have been that he’s gradually stopped using the phrase “big boy” or I wouldn’t have noticed it this time. But he doesn’t usually talk like that anymore, and he hasn’t used the term since. I was, at that moment, I think, listening to him describe himself as a big boy for the last time, and as he stopped calling himself one, he became one.

Kids aren’t good at understanding these subtle and slow sorts of shifts. They like the grand gestures, the clear delineations. One day, when Simon was much younger, I was carrying him down the stairs and reciting a poem to him. “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful, or in agony all the time?” and before I could give the next line, Simon blurted, “in agony all the time.” It had to be one or the other, and I suppose he heard more music in that one.

This fall, I started a new job on the science faculty at my local community college. I moved into my office, set up my science books and my posters of marine life, and settled into my schedule teaching chemistry. Settling down to something has never been my strong suit. After my undergraduate degree in English literature, I went off to veterinary school for a general sense of how animals are put together, and how they fall apart. After that, teaching biology, animal science, and now chemistry. Unlike my colleagues with PhDs, my knowledge has never delved very deep, but has stretched very wide, my interests ever broadening. I couldn’t settle to one thing, drill down the way they needed to, become immersed in an exclusive subject. This job though, has an air of permanence. I’ve signed the pension papers with every expectation that I will be here no less than ten years, and hopefully far longer. I have stepped onto the tenure track. If all goes well, I will still be teaching here in thirty years.

across disciplines: drawings in the science halls.

Across disciplines: the drawings in the science halls.

Some people, when they hear about my educational trajectory, assume I got my English degree and then came to my senses and found something more practical, more marketable.  But I have been veering like this all my life. I have a notebook from when I was 11 and assiduously recorded everything I heard on a PBS special about neuroscience. By high school, I had vague ideas about being a writer instead. At the end of college, I thought maybe a poem-writing veterinarian– the animal doctor version of William Carlos Williams, but I could find fewer and fewer people who said anything aside from “pick one.” The English background was a benefit of course (“We need more scientists who can write,” one professor told me) but it was meant to be only background. Whatever I settled to for my graduate degree would be who I really was intellectually.

My office is on the third floor of the science building, but our hallway shares space with the art department. Our big corner classroom is a studio, and the bulletin boards outside are a revolving gallery. This week, it was figure drawings, skeletons in charcoal, and paintings of some large, bovine skull. Some of my colleagues find it irritating that so much of our hallway is consumed by art, but I love it. I’ve spent this first fifteen years or so of my adult life deflecting off one thing and veering into another. The longer I stay in this job, and the greater the proportion of my life I devote to science, the more I wonder what happens to that humanities part of me. The English major part that was not, despite what anyone thinks, a frivolity, or a luxury I indulged in before I got down to serious, marketable work. I am fortunate that I also love science, since the gods right now are smiling down on science education. Blessed be the STEM instructors. But I will always have my secret affinities, however many years of science teaching may encase them. Science is what I do, it’s what I teach, and I love it. But the humanities are who I am. And when I wonder if that true self can survive this commitment to a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, I suppose I know it will. It’s not a choice after all. Things grade into things. Little boys become big boys, a writer teaches science, and what we call everything is not always by its true name.

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Cape Cod walk 1

Last week, I traveled to the outer Cape for a work venture. I had a lecture to give at 10am Thursday morning, and several hours to myself the evening before. Arriving in Orleans around two in the afternoon, I stopped at Rock Harbor Beach to pass the time until I could check into my motel.

For much of the year, winter specifically, which sometimes seems to last six months here, I get a lot of good-natured ridicule from friends living in warmer regions of the country. “Why stay there? No one likes winter up there. They just say they do,” they say. “You could live here, in southern California/South Carolina/New Mexico/etc. and visit New England when it’s nice.” This is out of the question for me. Born and bred here, I don’t stay out of habit, or inertia, but out of love. New England’s weather is sometimes cantankerous, cross-grained and ornery. But when it’s good, it’s very nearly perfect.

On Rock Harbor Beach, everything was all golden sunlight with a brisk wind. I walked a quarter mile down from the parking lot until I saw no one else. I don’t sit still often as it does not come naturally to me, but on my own, with no children to entertain and no one to talk to, I settled into the side of a small dune to watch the gulls.

IMG_4870They weren’t doing much, just standing or sitting, arrayed in their phalanx with their faces into the wind. Some were sleeping, some staring at their feet for several seconds at a time. Occasionally, a new arrival would glide in and drop soundlessly into an open patch of sand. Occasionally, there would be a squabble for it. Back in July, I was out working in a gull colony on Appledore Island in Maine. These birds are not stupid, and my threatening, alert presence in the colony, racing around catching chicks and taking their blood,  was unsettling to them as a jackal in the nursery. I took hits to the head, and was repeatedly bombed with feces. But when the chicks are fledged and have moved on, the parents move on from the island too and now these birds were tolerant of my close presence, my downcast eyes and posture of slouching indifference.

A couple days before, my biology students had taken an exam on evolution and natural selection. I noted a common theme in many of their answers–they took “survival of the fittest” and the Darwinian struggle for existence to mean the biggest, baddest organism always wins. In their minds, evolution was all clashing antlers and broad-shouldered males grappling for dominance in a spectacular show. I thought of how I might convey to them that survival and reproduction, the only parameters that matter to natural selection, are often dictated by something silent and invisible. Sitting and watching the gulls doing nothing at all, or subtly jockeying for position, is watching it unfold. Somewhere, in the dark gonads deep in the body cavity of each gull, cells divide, the replicating mechanism makes small errors, and some are not corrected. Cells that will form next year’s chicks are altered from the parent, and the alteration will hurt, or be fatal, or do nothing at all, or confer a tiny advantage. All this wondrous machinery ticks over invisibly.

IMG_4868As I walked back, the sun was behind me, warming my back under my fleece jacket like a pelt of brown fur. It’s not that this kind of perfect warmth can’t be had any other way; the sensation is the same as sitting close by a wood fire. But by a fire in winter, to feel that same warmth on your back, you have to turn from the light and out at the wan daylight, or, more likely, the long dark that overtakes most of the hours. Right now, this time of year here, the sun is still both warm and bright, slant-angled in its decline and beginning its withdrawal, but still high enough. It is the most beautiful place on Earth, I think, New England at this time of year. I admit, I feel the nervous bracing in myself, looking into the wide maw of winter on the other side of this, but winter has its spare pleasures too. And while maybe it’s true that the mere word February strikes a chord of weariness in me, the deep gratitude I feel when the first wood frogs begin quacking in the icy pools in early spring is an exquisite pleasure that cannot be bought any other way, and one I would not trade it for a whole grove of lemon trees in the backyard.

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I’m back to school now, teaching biology as usual. My students are the usual mix–ages range from 17 to 65, surnames from Almadini and Agosto to Palazzi to Zanillo. The diversity extends to their aptitude and their interest as well, since I teach at a community college and we turn no one away, provided they’ve graduated high school or gotten a GED. Some of them are earnest and hard working but lacking any mental spark. Some special few have all three. Others are dull-witted, surly and uninterested.

My own kids are back into the school routine, and they delight in helping me grade assignments. Malcolm, in particular, likes to sneer, “Sorry student!” as he marks an incorrect answer in red pen. Their immersion in my teaching plans and grading meant it was no surprise that they would play Teacher and Students on their own time. I was listening to them the other day, and their exchange is a thought-provoking and insightful look at science that veers perilously close to a Monty Python skit. I will leave you with it.

In borrowed glasses, Malcolm perfects his look of derisive disgust at your poor answer.

In borrowed glasses, Malcolm perfects his look of derisive disgust at your poor answer.

Malcolm: “Students! Do not touch that fox.”

Simon: “That’s not physics!”

Malcolm: “OK, what is physics then?”

Simon: “It’s if something floats or not.”

Malcolm: “OK, that fox does not float. And don’t touch that pig.”

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There is a layer of grime on my skin so thick I can scrape it off in long curls. On my pants, which I have been wearing for three days now, there are coffee and syrup stains, and the long gray and white streaks of gull feces. A few flecks of blood have dried to brown. The pants are a catalog of our two activities on this island: banding gulls, and eating. We do sleep, but not well and not long, given the heat and the cacophony of the gulls.

We are here on Appledore Island in Maine for one week to band gull chicks and to take blood and other unmentionable samples for a study at M.I.T. As of this morning, we had captured, banded and sampled over 400 birds.

This island is home to breeding colonies of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, and to a full field research station called the Shoals Marine Lab. Birds and undergraduates, PhD students, and high schoolers all manage to coexist here, though not entirely peacefully. Out in the colonies at the cliff verges on the Atlantic, you can get clocked in the head with concussive force for approaching a gull’s chicks too closely. We are always approaching too closely.

A07. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

A07 patrols the porch. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

Nearer to campus, the gulls are more accustomed to human comings and goings, and are less wary and defensive. Some grow so habituated to humans that they acquire names. At least, human-given names. There is an old bird who stands on the porch of the dining commons most of every day. He has lost most of the feathers around his eyes, giving him a crazed aspect. The colors of his bill are faded and washed out, and the webs of his feet are shot through with holes. He was banded several years ago, and wears a green anklet reading A07. For his habit of stealing the food of unsuspecting porch diners, he has been called “Peanut Butter Cookie.”

Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee this morning before my departure for the mainland, I sat under the baleful glare of A07 and wondered if this might be the last time I ever see him. He has a mate again this year, and young, but he may not make it through another winter.

Yesterday, I was out tidepooling, picking up crabs and shrimp when I saw a green band rolling in the waves. It read H01, a bird banded a few years ago, and now, evidently, dead, its body decomposed and worried apart enough for the band to have fallen off the bone. For an unbanded bird, indistinguishable (by us) from any other bird, death is perfect oblivion, one more bird in millions who have lived, fledged, foraged, mated and died, unmarked and unremarked upon by humans. We knew a bit about H01, and slightly more about A07. Most birds have no name for us. Some few have a name in science, and fewer still a colloquial name. They all have a secret name, of course, or what passes for a name in their country and lets one bird know its mate and its enemies, its chicks or a stranger’s, at a far distance and among hundreds by its shape or its cry, its posture or its flight pattern. What they use for names, or rather, instead of names, is a pure and unsolvable mystery, species to species. Every year, we watch a short span and a thin sliver of their lives, another generation, until the young fledge and the adults move on, with no further apparent connection to their offspring. They each move off to their wintering grounds and their daily habits, one essentially identical to the next, at least to our eyes.

How little we know of the world.

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On Friday night, a Painted Turtle showed up in the backyard and began digging holes. I assumed she would promptly lay eggs. I forgot that turtles do nothing promptly. By bedtime, she had listlessly wandered off, leaving several half dug funnels in the dirt. Saturday morning, she was back again, and this time deposited a passel of small white eggs and then tamped the dirt over them with her hind legs. She stalked slowly off to our little pond, her shell making a soft clack against the rocks as she scaled them.

She's done laying eggs now.

She’s done laying eggs now.

That same morning, Malcolm and I were on our way to the grocery store when we came upon another Painted Turtle partway across the road. I stopped in the street, put on my hazards, and climbed out to move her. A car came up behind us as I stepped out and I help up my hand and mouthed, “Wait, please.” Picking up the turtle and stepping out to walk the rest of the way across the road, the car swerved out in front of me, grazing my knuckles with its sideview mirror. Though this was disconcerting, the closeness of our encounter afforded me an opportunity to look both passenger and driver directly in the eye and clearly mouth, “You are an asshole.” The turtle began urinating on me.

After the turtle was safely across, and Malcolm and I were walking the grocery store aisles, I thought of the turtle again, and the driver. Turtle urine squelched in my flip-flop as we considered microwaveable pouches of rice “ready in 90 seconds!” Two minutes is too long to wait for rice, and 30 seconds is too long to wait for a turtle to be carried across the road.

We are only one of evolution’s recent innovations, and turtles are its time-tested and ancient success. When our mammal ancestor was some terrified tree shrew fleeing the steps of enormous dinosaurs, there were already turtles. When it’s time to nest, they plod out of their ponds and seek high ground, crossing our roads with none of the manic indecision of squirrels, but with a constant, measured pace.

I approached her a bit less closely.

I approached her a bit less closely.

Yesterday, a snapping turtle showed up in the yard too. She raised herself up on surprisingly long legs and stalked around the yard, now and then lowering her snout to sniff the ground. Finding a gravelly spot by the garden beds, she spent four hours plowing up the ground. She didn’t lay any eggs, and eventually walked off again. She may come back, or she may not. She was my companion as I worked by the window all morning, and I looked up at her constantly. One of my chickens came by and approached the turtle as if to peck at it. The turtle froze and raised her broad head. The chicken froze, feathers pressed close to her body, head cocked. Each eyed the other, and I watched them expectantly. Then the chicken withdrew and walked away pecking at grass seeds. The turtle went back to rearranging the dirt. Nothing happened all morning. No nature special scenes of white, ping-pong ball eggs dropping from beneath a turtle’s tail, no violent tangle between reptile and bird. The turtle came to the yard, dug in the dirt a while, and left. The chicken walked around, eating. By the pond, a snake looked out at the rain from under his accustomed rock. Most of the time, nothing happens for hours. A turtle teaches patience, if we can sit long enough to notice.

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I’m now back from a week spent banding gulls on Appledore Island in Maine. The work is part of Dr. Julie Ellis’ long-term study on the ecology of these charismatic seabirds (and it goes well beyond the stealing of french fries, I assure you.) But the gull study is only one of many projects going on at the Shoals Marine Lab, which encompasses almost the entire island. A songbird banding station is running full tilt this time of year, and on any given afternoon you might encounter grad students with buckets of crabs out on the seaweed strewn rocks or undergraduate interns scrabbling under buildings looking for barn swallow nests. Life on Appledore is like summer camp for biology geeks. We live in dorms, develop a weird intimacy of inside jokes that wouldn’t be funny on the mainland, and take our meals in a communal space known as Kiggins.

IMG_3782One day last week, I was sitting by myself in Kiggins having a rare moment of quiet away from screaming gulls and over-caffeinated humans. The room is large and high ceilinged, with the skeleton of a Minke whale* suspended from the rafters. From my angle, I could see through the inside of the whale’s rib cage through to its small, cross-shaped sternum. Maybe it was that cue, or maybe it was the quiet and the space, but I was transported to the Catholic church of my childhood. I am not religious, nor would I even call myself “spiritual” in any sense, but I went to Mass every week until I was away at school. I was an altar server, offering the priest water to wash his hands, tending the candles, swinging the smoking censer at my own grandfather’s funeral service. When I was much younger, we sometimes went to the Congregational Church of my mother’s tradition. It was a beautiful old New England church with white clapboards and a soaring roof and light and air. But I never came to love it. It was so scrubbed down, puritanical in its simplicity and so spare. God was an idea in that space. In my Catholic church, he was looming over us all the time in the crucified Christ angled over the altar. Catholicism is a corporeal, almost forensic religion. His ladder rung ribs jutting through the skin, blood at the wrist and ankle, a slice in the chest letting the trickle of fluid escape the pericardial sac. We learned from a nun exactly which bones in the arm were strong enough to support the weight of a dying man, and so where the nails would have been placed.

None of this ever bothered me. I was transfixed by it. No surprise then that I grew up into a job mucking around inside dead animals, wondering at the body itself, its machinery, and how that machinery winds down and then finally stops. I am a bone collector, a dissector, a dealer in body parts. And when I sit in Kiggins Commons on Appledore, I am in my own church. Out the great north facing windows you might see a circle of excited bird banders snapping pictures of a rare thrush, or a small knot of bicycle helmet clad students dodging the thwacks and feces of gulls defending their nests. Somewhere under the floorboards, a grad student is at work in a basement lab on small parasitic flatworms. My interests are not unusual out here. We gather under the cross-sternumed whale to eat, and talk, and tweak study designs. We laugh uproariously at jokes that are really only moderately funny, because people become giddy here, some having found the first place they’ve ever belonged.

And as for the soul, I’ve considered that too. While sitting at the bottom of a granite ledge one day, sheltering from a strong wind, I looked up to see the gulls lifting off the ground and soaring in place into that wind. Gray backs to the sky, effortlessly hanging in place seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it–what more could you ask of a soul but to be such a white feathered thing, suspended in the air high above this pile of rocks at the edge of the sea.

IMG_3772*I am mostly confident as to species

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Welcome squash bugs!

IMG_3125Our house is moderately infested with squash bugs*. They are the stalking, brown, elongate bugs that move into heated buildings with the first frost. I know they aren’t good; they feed on plant juices and I suppose they could harm my houseplants. But they don’t seem to be doing a lot of damage, so I permit them to stay. They are capable of flying, but generally walk, plodding stoically across the floor where I often almost step on them. It’s amazing the amount of foot force they can withstand. They seem to be all in a prolonged process of dying, and they flail on their backs, or droningly fly and then thwap into the sides of things, or people’s faces. They turn up in the sink, the bathtub and on the couch. Their weird, antennaed heads crest my book while I’m reading in bed. In one macabre incident, I reached for the handle of the bathroom faucet, not seeing the bug on its underside. A surprisingly loud and rich crack sounded, and I looked down to see a bug stomping off with only five legs, a tiny, exoskeletoned drumstick under my finger.

I’m not particularly gentle with them, and they are quite satisfying to flick away. I don’t particularly try to avoid them when vacuuming, and they give up a faint smell of carrots when they’re sucked into the bag. But I don’t strive to remove them either. As I watched one make a lunatic flight into my arm and bounce into a laundry basket, I realized why. Short days, snow, the cold. They don’t keep us inside, but outside, it’s so quiet. Nothing drones and seethes like insects, and without them, it’s a quiet world. The crickets that stowed away in the basement woodpile in the fall are long dead, and only the squash bugs are with us now. I’ll take what I can get of the movement and the noise.

*entomology note: “bug” has a very specific scientific meaning, and refers to a particular kind of insect. Squash bugs and stink bugs are both true bugs. Lady bugs are not. They are beetles. I have, at various times, had squash bugs, stink bugs and lady bugs in my house. But, as my friend Michelle rightly pointed out, most of the bugs in houses around here this time of year are Western Conifer Seed Bugs. But that just doesn’t have the right sound to it, for a blog post. So I cheated a bit.

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