Monthly Archives: May 2009

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The Litany: Part Two (Naiads)

If you haven’t yet read Part One, you should do that first.

In youth, sun-fever-burned, replete with doubt
and awkward angular, I walked unshod
and in the center of the viscid creek, heading
upstream, the algae tangled ropes
to bind my ankles. Shale under my feet
slicked dangerous in diatomic brown
lubriciousness, the creek blood-warm and fed
too rich with silt, with all the runoff dross
of chemical-fed farms, of septic tanks,
the creek near-eutrophied and yet I walked
its length a half a century ago,
through woods that should have been feted with mast
fallen from chestnuts, woods cut over once
and then a dozen times, stumps rooted out
and burned. Red oak grew up eventually
from worn-out farms; white oak, the hemlock with
its shy and graceful tips, recovery
of sorts, and to my youthful mind the creek
seemed wild, untrammeled, habitat for snakes
and tiny catfish. There, I delved the rock
that held the creek for fossil brachiopods,
horn corals, sponges, crinoids, the whole
assemblage of Devonian marine
and shallow-water fauna, sheltered there
four hundred million years. I imagined
a bright stark line between the long-dead past
and the present, seeking shells of shale
and slow-grown calcite jewelry, nacre
still impossibly intact,  filled up
with cold, inert, dead stone so friable
four hundred million years of history
might crumble in a ten-year-old’s fingers.

A whole domain, extinct! I stood within
the watershed of pale Cayuga Creek,
which flowed into the Buffalo River
not far from that small river’s confluence
with the shallowest of the Great Lakes,
where water from between my toes conjoined
with the effluent of millions,
where the river was a chute through old
and oily docks, grain elevators, rock-
riprapped riparian shoulders sporting
the pinnacle of industry, and I
imagined myself being too late to see
the extirpation of communities
entire. I stood among naiads shrieking,
their springs gone dry. I stood near helices
circling the drain, clinging to life
as they clung to the diatom-slicked rock.
A thousand miles southward was the Gulf Coast,
and in every hollow between, the same
dire struggle: freshwater naiads,
snails that breathed — pulmonate gastropods —
which carried air beneath the meniscus
in bladders, mussels,  clams, diversity
unparallelled in the hundred thousand
creeks that drained the Appalachian west,
gone blank, erased, while I stood lamenting
their forbears gone four hundred million years.

The hundred thousand creeks a holocaust.
The acorn ramshorn — breathing snail —and the
wicker ancylid — another — now
added to the litany, expunged
from the world’s gene-record, nevermore
to sip the sweet and wooded air beneath
the river cobbles from their bladder sacs.
The Tombigbee moccasinshell, found
first near Epes, Alabama, by the
young woman naturalist Winnie
McGlamery, upon a cobble bar
mid-stream in the low-water October
of 1935, known only from
two smallish specimens, is gone from the
industrialized Tombigbee, flowing now
well-tamed beneath the limestone cliffs where Jean-
Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville decreed
a town be built to trade with the Choctaw
in 1735, now slicked
with oil and fetorous houseboat bilgewater.

The agate, oblong, interrupted, striped,
rotund, lyrate, bigmouth, maiden, and
Coosa rocksnails, innocent of guile,
and the pebblesnails: the Oachita,
umbilicate, the channeled, the reverse,
and thick-lipped pebblesnails inundated
in a orgy of dam-building on
the southern states’ wild rivers, freshwater
molluscs that ate the river rocks’ green caul,
that fed the channel cats their frass, driven
from the earth’s very face, one species gone
unnoticed, then another, and anon.
 
The elimias high-spired, short-spired,
cobble, closed, rough-lined and fusiform,
constricted, hearty, ribbed, pupa, pygmy,
and puzzle elimias carry
their gentle Gothic spires no more beneath
the duff of forests cut for turpentine
shot through with sodden, silt-strangled streambanks.
Ten million crystal branches following
their languid Appalachian contours all
dotted with bright small populations of
freshwater mussels, and we sullied them:
cut down their forest mantle
plowed to the banks to grow cotton and corn,
filled shallows to the brim with silt, discharged
a thousand kinds of pesticide to leak
into each stream, built upstream factories
to tan our leather, smelt our ores, to cast
upon each watershed a pall of smog,
and one by one they died for us:  the ribbed,
excised
, striate, pagoda, pyramid,
and round slitshells, the Gyrotoma clan
entire, stout snails with furrows in their shells
known only from the Coosa, wet woodland
river choked to death by seven dams.
The once-free-flowing water of the wild
Coosawatee and its trout-filled twin
the Conasauga River joined to make
the Oostanaula, River of Shoals.
Oostanula joined the Etowah,
the High Town River: from their confluence
the Coosa ran down near three hundred miles
to the Tallapoosa confluence,
and in that stretch each individual
of the genus Gyrotoma lived
until the dams went in, flat water slicks
close-regulated with tame whitewater,
a simulacrum of the wild Coosa
for rafters, bleak depauperate below
the surface, and the same fate visited
on a thousand rivers, watersheds
torn, truncated, poisoned, dam-entombed.

The Epioblasmas, mere simple clams
that filtered branch water, that ate the silt
and frass, that made the streams clear, potable,
that delved beneath the cobble bars and drank
the water riffling over them mid-stream,
now mostly gone: The angled riffleshell.
The arc-form, arcuate, acorn, fine-rayed,
and nearby pearly mussels, the forkshell,
the narrow catspaw, Cumberland leafshell,
turgid riffle shell and the Sampson’s
naiad
all erased, their lineage
wiped permanently clean. These are the sweet
and blameless dead, our careless casualties,
the bleak collateral with which we’ve bought
our lives. Intone their names:  a flood of names.
A reservoir of names backed up behind
our inability to fathom our offense.

Of the Pleurobemas, nacreous-lined
and mild, that tasted river gravels with
their pearl-sheathed feet, these are forever gone:
the highnut, heavy, hazel, Scioto,
yellow
, Alabama, Georgia, brown,
warrior, Coosa, true and longnut
pigtoes
, that cozied in the river bars.

The Carolina elktoe, only known
from one small steeply flowing stretch of creek;
the Coosa elktoe, the lined pocketbook,
the Ochlockonee arcmussel, the late
and mourned Alabama clubshell, found
still by field biologists as wracked
and splintered shells, and the Recovery
pearly mussel
: all forever gone,
and all of the one hundred thousand creeks
in pieces, paled, uncountable millions
already lost, unknown, unknowable.

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The Litany: Part One (In Medias Res)

[A project I’ve been working on for a while, and it’s time to give it some light.]

A token for the sweet and blameless dead,
the fallen facets of this jewelled earth
each loss a weakened place, a broken strand
in this our fraying web. A token for
the innocent and lost, each missing piece,
each lineage a blood mark on our hands,
each clan now truncated a testament
to our sad, myopic carelessness
and cruelty. Evil nests within evil.
Plow up the meadows, cut the forests down
for toothpicks, scrape the ocean bottom clean
with your trawling nets. This living earth,
this layer of biotic froth, miles-thick
and occult, from stratospheric spores
living on light down to the archaea
that dwell within the torrid depths of earth,
scratching a living out of barest rock;
this living Earth will pale, attenuate
and this roiling foam-spume of species
be lost among the rats and tumbleweeds.
Empty your bile onto the riverbank,
loose cats onto the flightless-birded isles,
pave every inch of it, scour every face
of every mountainside: regretting not:
Others will pay. Uncountable millions
already lost, unknown. One cannot think
to enumerate them all, lest the
sheer enormity of loss smother
one’s soul in sorrow, suck the oxygen
out of the lungs, and yet what sinister
contempt to drive them off the edge unnamed,
their endings unremarked upon. What words
suffice? What words tribute enough to mark
this mass, atrocious passing? Shoal sprites
by the legion should arise out of
these letterforms. My mouth should open up
in clouds of chestnut ermine moths, my voice
a ragged sorrow-howl of thylacine
and Falkland island wolf, the metal yawp
of Carolina parakeet that once
raised hairs upon the hunters’ napes, not these
few pallid human words in a tumult
of far too many human words. Give me
the voice of the Las Vegas leopard frog,
let my rasp-fingers stridulate the songs
of Antioch Dunes shieldback katydids,
give me an Auroch’s strength, tenacity
like the scimitar-horned oryces’,
the blithe trust of the dodo, insistence
like the passenger pigeon’s, make my words
emphatic as Hawai’ian crows’ to pierce
as the Jamaican red macaw’s shrill pierced
the preColumbian air; grant me the grace
of the laughing owl and the humor
of the Steller’s sea cow, that I might
tell their stories as each one merits.
Make these eyes stolid, opaque,  like the
insular cave rat’s, that tears might not
impede these tales. Give me the speed of the
Saudi gazelle, that the toll not increase
by overmuch before this litany
is ended. Lend me all the steadfastness
of the late indefatigable
Galapagos mouse. Give me the fervor
of the giant vampire bat, stealth like
the sea mink’s stealth. Let my belated words
fly like the white-winged sandpiper. Let them
fall upon the ears of the content
of the complacent, of the complicit;
let these insufficient, tawdry words
settle as the Franklinia’s leaves
upon these billions of un-noted graves.

Uncounted generations in the mire
of time with us now cut, now truncated
only the litany remains: the names
at least of those we credited with names,
for of the many thousands more that passed
with no notice, gone irrevocably,
one can say little.  These are the sweet
and blameless dead, our careless casualties,
the bleak collateral with which we’ve bought
our lives new-pallid and depauperate.

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At home

Out on the slope, above the alkaline
and sterile sumps of rivers long deceased
they watch, dry-tongued and stark. They bend their limbs
at angles toward the sky, fists full of knives,
a vulnerable heart, a growing urge
within each nest of blades. Defiantly
they hold those hearts aloft, the burning sun
to feed their swelling, misbegotten arms.
Sun rises, sets. The knives reflex, tree-fists
open, the growing urge begets new blades,
a sharp rosetted hand, another hand,
and then another still. Year upon year,
branch after furling branch, a thousand-fold
belimbed and daggered forest stands, dry-tongued.

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Chat transcript, 6/26/07

creekrnningnorth (3:35:43 AM): yes, I do sometimes talk to the air. Why do you ask?
creekrnningnorth (3:36:32 AM): there is air everywhere: one is thus never alone.
creekrnningnorth (3:37:00 AM): thin air in the fringes of space,
creekrnningnorth (3:37:20 AM): thick air clinging to particles of soil three feet down
creekrnningnorth (3:37:50 AM): there are bacteria that grow deep within solid rock,
creekrnningnorth (3:38:10 AM): miles down and they eat the rock
creekrnningnorth (3:38:28 AM): life infiltrates into impossible places.
creekrnningnorth (3:39:11 AM): I have peeled away thin sections of rock in the desert
creekrnningnorth (3:39:27 AM): not rained on in a year, months of dead sun and heat
creekrnningnorth (3:39:45 AM): and found green beneath, eating what little light
creekrnningnorth (3:39:59 AM): can filter through the rock.
creekrnningnorth (3:40:27 AM): The towhee came in again after we talked,
creekrnningnorth (3:40:44 AM): made a circuit of the dining room table
creekrnningnorth (3:41:11 AM): into the kitchen and it battered the window once more, the tenth time in three days
creekrnningnorth (3:41:46 AM): it is not learning that the window is solid, but
creekrnningnorth (3:41:58 AM): it is learning that I will let it out.

Darwinius masillae

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Darwinius masillae, an Eocene primate fossil. Photo courtesy PLoS One

[UPDATE: Carl Zimmer deflates some of the hype as well.]

Crazy busy today — first actual paid work in months — but I couldn’t let this announcement go uncommented. What a gorgeous fossil.

Darwinius masillae, this individual of which has been nicknamed “Ida,” lived 47 million years ago during the Eocene. This individual seems to have been killed by something along the lines of a hydrogen sulfide lake eruption, then embedded in lakebed sediments.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding Ida. The execrable phrase “missing link” has been tossed around with abandon. The phrase is a field mark of ignorant science reporting since, as PZ points out,

The whole “missing link” category is a bit of journalistic trumpery: almost every fossil could be called a link, and it feeds the simplistic notion that there could be a single definitive bridge between ancient and modern species. There isn’t: there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge.

PZ makes a fantastic point in the three sentences that follow the note above:

It’s also inappropriate to tag this discovery to human evolution. She’s 47 million years old; she’s also a missing link in chimp evolution, or rhesus monkey evolution. She’s got wider significance than just her relationship to our narrow line.

Ida is being trumpeted as ancestral to monkeys, apes and humans, or, more accurately, monkeys and apes (human and otherwise.) This is almost certainly incorrect in a trivial sense: the possibility that Ida’s species, let alone Ida as an individual, is ancestral to any organism living today is, as a friend of mine once put it, astronomically small. But the maternity claims may be incorrect in a non-trivial sense as well. Over at Laelaps, Brian Switek has serious doubts about the quality of the scholarship performed by the authors of the ballyhooed paper describing Ida. The idea that adapids (the primate group to which Darwinius would seem to belong) are more closely related to monkeys and apes than they are to lemurs and lorises is far from being a consensus view. As Brian puts it,

The bottom line is that the hypothesis that Darwinius is closer to anthropoids than tarsiers or omomyids does not have strong support. Even though the authors of the paper constructed a very simple cladogram they did not undertake a full, rigorous cladistic analysis to support their claims. I am baffled as to how they could stress the significance of this fossil without undertaking the requisite research to support their hypothesis.

With a summary like that, I’ll forgive Brian this:

The authors of the paper try to frame their hypothesis in a historical manner. They claim that adapids have been barred from a close anthropoid relationship on the basis of soft-tissue characteristics that do not fossilize. This would mean that the association between omomyids, tarsiers, and anthropoids would hang by a nose…

Ow.

One thing I haven’t seen analyzed much in the press is the role private collection of fossils apparently played in delaying this discussion. A private collector found Ida in 1983 near Darmstadt, Germany, and sold her to two separate buyers. The exact bed horizon from which Ida was collected was not recorded, and one of the halves endured an inauthentic “reconstruction” with other mammal fossils attached to make it look more “real.” As an amateur private fossil collector myself, and someone who has done business with a commercial private collector or two, I wince when I hear stories like this. It’s one thing to pull a herring fossil out of an Eocene lakebed: Knightia are a dime a dozen. But rare fossils are the common property of us all, and private trading in them should be treated as a theft of humanity’s common intellectual property.

In any event, paleontologists eventually figured out what they had on their hands. Whatever lineages Darwinia is eventually determined best to belong within, Ida’s a damn fine fossil. If the authors have oversold her significance for a shot at the Discovery Channel, that’s a shame. But still: wow.

Cedar Canyon Road, July 31 2005

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A month before, lightning strikes had sparked one of the worst fires in the East Mojave’s history. 71,000 acres burned in the course of a couple days.

My friend Matthew and I headed for the burn area to see it for ourselves.

The temperature was well into the triple digits, and we didn’t do much hiking. We looked around, explored about a quarter-square-mile of catastrophic burn. Incinerated Joshua trees still stood, black and tan spike mops.

One dead Joshua tree had bark peeling away in sheets. I pulled at a piece of bark and pink spores exploded out into the air from underneath.

The burn destroyed irreplaceable desert wilderness. I have been back a few times now, and while the land is still beautiful it is truncated. In one spot, what was once a sweet defile shaded by ancient junipers is now a sun-blasted bowl of standing charcoal and geology. On that day any return visits were well into the unforeseeable future, and we drove downslope a ways. I turned my back on the burn, not a little heartbroken, and regarded the broad sweep of Cima Dome to the north. Nothing had lain between the burned area and the world’s largest forest of Joshua trees but a two-lane road.

We would make camp that night atop the dome, watching electrical storms trail to the south and north. We would watch plumes of smoke from distant lightning fires. It was a milestone in my life, that afternoon, with the slow-dawning realization that my favorite place on earth would almost certainly burn some day. It has not yet done so, but it will. Invasive plants add unnatural fuel loads to once-barren desert, winter storms of increasing violence water the native desert vegetation and boost its growth, and the temperature each summer ratchets upward, drying plants out and boiling monsoon storms out of the ocean to spark their tinder.

This is the photo I took as the realization took root. We stood at the very fringes of the burn, a sharp line between intact and ruined vegetation right behind me, and looked up toward Teutonia Peak near the summit of the Dome. Lightning was flashing there, to what end we could not see.