Monthly Archives: July 2010

Stalk drearily in the high mesas

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“Nothing the desert produces expresses it better than the unhappy growth of the tree yuccas. Tormented, thin forests of it stalk drearily in the high mesas, particularly in that triangular slip that fans out eastward from the meeting of the Sierras and coastwise hills where the first swings across the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The yucca bristles with bayonet-pointed leavesdull green, growing shaggy with age, tipped with panicles of fetid, greenish bloom. After death, which is slow, the ghoslty hollow network of its woody skeleton, with hardly power to rotmakes the moonlight fearful. Before the yucca has come to flower, while yet its bloom is a creamy cone-shaped bud of the size of a small cabbage, the Indians twist it deftly out of its fence of daggers and roast it for its own delectation. So it is in those parts where man inhabits one sees young plants of Yucca arborensis infrequently.”

– Mary Austin on Joshua trees, from The Land of Little Rain, 1903.

Interestingly, “Yucca arborensis,” an invalid taxon, was apparently made up on the fly by Austin, perhaps by misremembering the specific epithet “arborescens.” Ten years before The Land of Little Rain was published, botanist William Trelease proposed renaming the Joshua tree Yucca arborescens, which name did not persist. Eventually, the name Engelmann had given the plant in 1872 — Yucca brevifolia — was determined to be valid.

For more than a century one edition of Austin’s book after another has been published containing this error.

CEC 2 FTHL: FOAD

FTHL: SOL. Tom Budlong photo

Friends who have intervened in the permitting process for the proposed Solar Two site at Ocotillo, California, which would replace old-growth desert habitat for flat-tailed horned lizards with industrial power generation run by Tessera Solar, received email yesterday from Terry O’Brien, the deputy director of the Siting, Transmission and Environmental Protection Division the California Energy Commission. That email read, in part,

The Energy Commission staff believes that the direct project impacts to biological resource, and soil and water resources, and visual resources, and the cumulative impacts associated with biological resources, land use, soil and water resources, and visual resources for the Imperial Valley Solar (IVS) Project will be significant. There is no feasible mitigation that would reduce the impacts to a level that is less than significant given the scale of the project, and other projects that were cumulatively considered. In addition, staff has concluded that the project will not be able to comply with Imperial County several laws, ordinances, regulations and standards, also referred to as “LORS.” Finally, staff recognizes that due to a lack of information regarding the long-term performance of this new technology, it is uncertain whether the applicant’s claims regarding reliability will be met.

Notwithstanding the unmitigable impacts, consideration needs to be given to the fact that the project is a solar power plant that will help California meet its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 33 percent in 2020 and AB 32 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. As such, it will provide critical environmental benefits by helping the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and these positive attributes must be weighed against the project’s adverse impacts. It is because of these benefits and the concerns regarding the adverse impacts that global warming will have upon the state and our environment, including desert ecosystems, that staff believes it would be appropriate for the Commission to approve the project based on a finding of overriding considerations, consistent with CEQA Guideline Section 15093, if the Commission adopts staff’s proposed mitigation measures/conditions of certification.

In the words of my friend Tom Budlong, an intervenor in the case, “It essentially says: There are many unmitigable impacts, it breaks a few laws, and we don’t know if the machinery will last. But we will approve the project anyway.”

The full letter (252KB PDF) is here.

It’s worth noting that this staff reccommendation came out as evidentiary hearings on the project were literally in process. CEC staff has made up its mind and the facts don’t matter. They want to destroy an irreplaceable piece of habitat for environmental reasons, and they’re willing to abuse and erode CEQA — California’s landmark environmental law — to do so.

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Bone Worship: a novel by Elisabeth Eslami

This review has been a while in coming, partly because life and the accompanying events have overtaken me, but partly because after finishing Bone Worship: A Novel, I wanted to let it sit for a while before I reacted.

Full disclosure: the author Elizabeth Eslami is a friend, and has blessed a book of mine with a glowing review. Situations like this can be awkward, and so over the years I’ve developed a de facto policy when I find myself faced with reviewing a work by a friend. Generally speaking, that policy is that if I find a friend’s book lacking in more respects than is acceptable, I tend not to review it.

Fortunately that’s not the case here. Eslami’s debut novel is wonderful.

The basics: Jasmine Fahroodhi is a young woman with possibly the worst case of sophomore slump on record, which endures until her parents pick her up at graduation — only a few days after she lets them know she’d flunked out of school. Her father, a Persian-born doctor, seems less rattled by his daughter’s failure in school than by her choice of a major other than pre-med. Jasmine goes home to Georgia with her parents, where her father embarks on his “Plan B” for Jasmine’s future: hastegar, an arranged marriage. Jasmine, as unenthusiastic about home life as she had been at the University of Chicago, musters only the mildest American Feminist opposition to this plan.

Dr. Fahroodhi is a classic fish out of water. Opaque even to his family, he is frequently hostile to Jasmine — “you’re stupid” being among his most frequent utterances. Her reluctantly co-dependent mother, born in the Old South, oddly supports her husband’s plans for an arranged marriage, helping him take out “Bride Available” ads in newspapers catering to Iranian-Americans. From Chapter 8:

“Listen to me. I know you think arranged marriages are a thing of the past, and maybe they are, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong.” She had stopped blinking completely. something she did when she was worked up. “You’re the one who looks at everything in black and white. If you’ll just give this a chance, you’ll see —”

“Jesus, how would you even know? You were born here! You married Dad for love. Your own choice. Or am I missing something?”

The calendar on the coffee table was still open, showing a boy bending over for a shot from a malevolently cartoonish doctor.

“I know, Jasmine. I know. And look what happened.”

Jasmine reluctantly goes along with the plan, which — true to the book’s dust-cover teaser — results in humorous and awkward meetings with potential suitors, and then the unexpected happens, though not in the saccharine way this telegraphic summary might lead you to expect. In the meantime, Jasmine stumbles through a series of suburban job-hunting moments, culminating in one of those menial jobs a lucky person finds every now and then that utterly transforms them.

That’s the plot, but this novel isn’t really as much about plot as it is character, primarily that of Jasmine’s father. Jasmine’s relationship with her difficult father is the central point of the novel. Early on, she remarks that despite having known him all her life, “if I had to stand up at his funeral one day and tell the world about his desires and hopes and who he was as a person, I’d stand there mute.” In the novel’s first few pages Jasmine lists the seven big things she knows about her father —  his lifelong aversion to broccoli; his habit of calling his parents in Iran every other Sunday; the fact that he used to beat their dogs with a shovel; his having pushed a young cousin off a wall in Iran, badly injuring her, and a few others as well distributed along the spectrum from banal to vile. As the chapters unfold, Jasmine examines each of those seven known things in some detail. Eslami deftly structures the narrative around each of these channel markers.

Eslami’s portrayal of Dr. Fahroodhi is frank, and there is much to dislike in the man. His vulnerabilities, explored as the book unfolds, may make the reader cringe on his behalf, but they do little to soften our impression of him; they mainly help reveal what broke him. Jasmine’s relationship with her father is one of those that might seem inexplicable to an outsider, a bond that apparently persists out of duty alone, with neither party gaining much. At that, it’s like a lot of father-daughter relationships. There is tenderness there, but it’s deeply masked: the unrequited love of a daughter for a man who observed his children “from a safe distance like a potentially flammable lab experiment,” the arguable love of a man for his incomprehensibly un-Persian daughter that mainly manifests as frustration and anger. That anger and frustration, felt on both sides, never comes to a head. Conflict builds, tension mounts, and then just as a blowout seems inevitable something turns the narrative and submerges the tension: Mom, or the telephone, or circumstance, or even just Yusef Fahroodhi’s unwillingness to engage with his daughter as an adult worthy of respect.  Maybe it’s American of me, but I did find myself wishing for a more open confrontation between the two.

All that notwithstanding, Eslami has not created a loveless father. Jasmine sees his love for her mother plainly and from a bit of a remove, as though it’s a specimen described in one of the natural history volumes she checks out of the small local library:

My parents, when they were first in love, swam out into the ocean and kissed until a lifeguard blew his whistle and yelled at them and made them come in, up to the sand. He was afraid of them drowning, their bodies tangled together in a way that made staying afloat impossible. He was afraid of what he saw from his white wood post high in the sky, the inability to tell if they were one person or two. He was afraid that if you looked up at them from deep under the green water, you would first see the light on the surface slicing down into the water, and then you would see them, and you would get their arms and legs confused with an octopus, a starfish.

One of the things I liked best in Bone Worship is exemplified in that paragraph: Eslami uses images, memories, passing conversations and other bits of detail to represent Jasmine’s exploration of her relationship with her family and herself. The lifeguard is Jasmine, afraid of what her parents’ love for each other might resemble. So is the boy in the magazine illustration, submitting to pain inflicted by a doctor who knows what’s good for him. The remembered Doberman pinscher punished with the shovel, growling at the boundaries of the family as it peered through myopic eyes, stands in for the father who beat it. The whole hastegar plot itself is a fair symbol for the involuntary relationship Jasmine has with her family — as we each have with our families. Eslami weaves these images into her prose quite deftly, and in ways that made me frankly envious of her sight. This is a hell of a fine novel, especially for a debut, and I highly recommend it.

[Next up in the “books by friends” review pile: No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts, edited by Ruth Nolan. I should have something for you in the next couple of weeks.]

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Arch-Nemesis

The phone woke me up. That pissed me off. I admit it’s not all that heard to piss me off, these days, what with the bullshit job and the emotional problems and the world’s persistent refusal to recognize my mediocre and insipid genius. Still, a phone call at 6:30 in the morning on a weekend would rub me the wrong way even if my life didn’t suck. Even if it wasn’t him calling. The “superhero theme” ringtone I’d assigned my older brother wasn’t funny that early in the morning, it turned out. The brass was just piercing. I made a mental note to change his ringtone to soothing ocean sounds. He never really got the joke anyway. As usual.

There wasn’t any question of my not answering. I don’t answer, he flies over and “checks” on me. I grabbed the phone off the bedside table.

“What?” Yeah, I was a little brusque with him. It never penetrates. I don’t know why I bother trying to needle that invulnerable skin of his.

“Hey, Dennis, what’s going on?”

“It’s Oh-fucking-dark-thirty is what’s going on, William.” I laid the snide on thick saying his name. “Call me back in about, um, next month.”

“Put the coffee on. I’ll be over in a few.”

“What? No. I need to sleep, Bill. I’m going back to bed.”

“I’ll be over in ten. We need to talk.”

Six thirty two Saturday morning and the weekend already sucked.

“Is this about the hospital thing, Bill? Because I’m fine. The meds are working and you don’t need to check on me anymore. In fact, the docs say it’s better if you don’t.”

“This isn’t about that. It’s not about you.”

Of course it isn’t, I thought to myself. It’s never about me. “Fine,” I said. “I’m out of cream and sugar. Pick some up on your way over.”

“Can’t,” he said. “I’m in uniform.”

That got my attention. He never came around here in his work clothes. That old confidentiality issue: it still meant something to him, even though there wasn’t anything to hide from anyone anymore. This was something big, I realized. “Okay, I’m up,” I said. “See you when you get here.”

It isn’t that hard to explain the problems I have with my brother. At their root lies the classic conflict: overachieving older sibling with the inevitable narcissistic streak; sensitive younger sibling growing up in his shadow, the usual worship of his older brother slowly crusting over into the usual resentment, and from there into the usual sheer hatred at around puberty. There’s another layer atop that, too. Mom and Pop had tried for years to have a kid. Just as they were about to give up, they met baby Bill. They adopted him: the son they’d dreamed of for twenty years of barren marriage! They went through all the usual joys: Bill’s first words, Bill’s first steps, Bill’s first day of school. They were a happy little family. And that happiness must have unlocked something in either Mom or Pop that had been sealed up tight, because the impossible happened. They got what the doctors had told them to stop hoping for. Somewhere around the time Bill turned seven, Mom got pregnant. I came into the world after the usual interval. I spent the next two decades in my older brother’s shadow, and he spent that time resenting every speck of attention and affection Mom and Pop gave their “real,” non-adopted son.

So on top of the classic birth order issue add the vagaries of adoption, along with the facts that I was completely unanticipated, that my family had already felt just complete as hell without me in it, and that my arrival threw a monkey wrench into what had been a pretty tidy little arrangement for the three of them. With that kind of setup for long-term sibling rivalry, I’m almost tempted to say it would have been just as bad between us even if Mom and Pop had adopted Bill the normal way.

But of course they didn’t. Unless, that is, your definition of a normal adoption includes a spaceship crash-landing into a barn, setting it ablaze, with the infant inside the pod subsequently busting his way out and rescuing the 210-pound owner of said barn by picking him up with one hand and carrying him out through a wall of flame. “His diaper wasn’t even singed,” Pop said after that, at least once a day for the next thirty years. Somehow, what Pop took away from that entire incident was amazement at Bill’s flame-retardant baby clothing.

I have this little game I play to amuse myself. Every time I start up with a new shrink — and that happens with some frequency —  I just casually, about thirty minutes into our first session, let fly with a hint as to just who the older brother is I have all these issues with. I watch as the wheels turn in their heads. “Client Dennis Starling’s brother Bill? William Starling…” and then the shrink’s pen stops moving and the shrink’s jaw comes just slightly open and I say “oh, haven’t I mentioned that I’m Megaman’s little brother? I never remember which one of you doctors I’ve told about that.” And then I watch as a gleam of hero worship catches in their eye, and I keep watching as that gleam dulls with the realization that they cannot tell a goddamn soul what they’ve just learned. Megaman may have had his cover blown, but doctor-patient confidentiality is still the law of the land.

It’s a pathetic little game, I admit. But it shifts the balance of power in my favor a little. When you have a life like mine, you take any power-shifting you can get.

I took the pot of coffee out onto the porch, put it on the little redwood table. I put a couple of mugs next to the pot, filled one with black coffee, sat back on the bench and blew on the hot coffee as the sun came up. I’d gotten more than halfway through the cup when Bill showed up, still in uniform.

“What took you so long?”

“You sounded like you needed a minute, so I orbited a couple times. Coffee still hot?”

I waved at the pot as if to say “it’s right there, why don’t you see for yourself whether it’s still hot what with your vast powers of perception far beyond those of mortal humans and all.” He grunted and poured himself a cup. He sat back on the bench, took a sip, recoiled. “Gaack, Dennis. This is sludge.”

“It’s dark roast made at the proper strength, Bill. If you’d grow a pair, you might learn to like actual coffee as opposed to the weak donut shop crap you drink. And anyway, you could have stopped at the store for cream if you hadn’t decided to show up in your leotard.”

“First off it’s a goddamn ablative garment, Dennis, not a leotard. Secondly, fuck you. Thirdly,”

I interrupted him. “Thirdly how about you tell me why you got me out of bed before dawn on a fucking Saturday, Megaman?”

His mouth hung open mid-insult for a beat, then shut. He looked at me hard, hard enough that I wondered for a few seconds if he was scanning me for brain tumors, despite my having asked him politely several times not to do that anymore. But his eyes slid off mine, down and over to the mug in his hands, and his jaw worked a little bit, no words coming out as he watched the steam rise off the dark roast.

After a long minute he raised the mug to his lips, took another sip. He swallowed. He grimaced. He leaned back against the clapboard and looked out across the porch rail, across the lawn, out to whatever impossibly distant land made up his horizon. He sighed.

“I came to tell you goodbye,” he said, finally. “I came to say goodbye, Dennis.”

I didn’t quite know what to say for a while. A crow flew past the porch, landed with a rough croak in my neighbor’s Jake’s crabapple tree. It began to eat the blossoms. Jake’s curtains drew aside, and I saw his face peer through the window at the crow. He glanced over at Bill and me, then glanced away again.

People in this town are like that. They notice what’s going on, but once they’ve noticed they don’t pry. It’s why I’m here. After the Great Unmasking, when Bill “came out of the phone booth” as the Man of Titanium, he and I had some long talks about my well-being. We came up with what seemed like a good idea: I’d move to a burg small enough that all my neighbors could know who I was, but not so small that some arch-nemesis could lure us all into the same room somehow. That’d be a first line of defense, at any rate, in case something happened to me while Bill was distracted diverting a tsunami off Madagascar or something.

I was afraid at first that it’d be claustrophobic. I grew up in a small town, you know? There was a reason I left for the city: the anonymity there was comforting as hell. No one cared who I was. No one cared who I was related to. It was almost like being normal there, for a minute. But, you know, after Mom and Pop… well, Bill and I didn’t really have our heads screwed on straight for a while after they died. My moving out to the sticks might have been an overreaction. By the time we realized that the wind had gone out of those arch-nemeses’ metaphorical sails I’d grown to like it here, grown to appreciate the quiet, the being able to step off my porch and see stars at night. Hell, I grew to appreciate having a porch, even though — occasionally — it became less of a porch and more of a stage on which my brother would — occasionally — put on a one-man show. Like right now.

“What do you mean ‘goodbye’? Are you holing up at The Redoubt for a while?” As you know, Bob, Megaman maintained a secure laboratory and retreat for years, deep within Mount Augustus in Australia’s Outback. There was hell to pay when he got found out during The Great Unmasking, what with the National Parks and the indigenous people there upset about his tunnelling The Redoubt into the solid rock. Sacred land, a national heritage despoiled for private use, the whole thing. He hadn’t been back since, and I asked knowing damn well that wasn’t where he was heading.

And as I suspected, he shook his head. “I’m not going to The Redoubt. I’m…” He stopped mid-sentence.

“I don’t like where this is headed,” I said.

“We’ve both known it was coming. We’ve both known for a while.” Bill’s voice was steadier, more determined. It wasn’t the leaving he was nervous about; it was telling me. For him, the hard part was over. He thought.

“You know,” I said, “for a superhero you’re really kind of a fucking drama queen.”

He didn’t rise to the bait. “So what am I supposed to do instead?”

I was pissed off. Sometimes I express that in unhelpful ways. I know it’s not constructive. I’m working on it. “I don’t know, Bill; maybe you could not run away from home?”

“Dennis, listen. I don’t expect you to be thrilled about this…”

“Heh. Perceptive of you.”

“Seriously, just listen to me for a…”

The anger grew past the point where I could dress it up as sarcasm.

“You’re leaving Earth. What is there to listen to? You’re already gone. Mom and Pop and now you. It’s gonna be just me, alone, on the whole planet, with nobody else.”

“Yeah. Welcome to my world.”

He could always make it about him.

“You’re not the one that’s alone here, Dennis. You’ve got seven billion fellow members of your species here to hang out with. Who the hell do I have?”

“Humans love you.”

“No!” His whole body tensed, a spasm sudden enough I worried he’d crush the coffee cup in his hand. He spit out the words like they were bullets he’d caught in his teeth. “No, they don’t. They worship me. Love means you want to know someone. Spend time with them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Humans? You don’t love me. I mean, you know. You love me…”

It was my turn to flinch. I really didn’t think he knew. I kept it hidden well enough. Or maybe he was smart enough to see the snark, the sniping for what it was. Or maybe he could read the patterns in the synapses firing in my limbic system. It was weird, regardless, and it took me by surprise, the first time either of us had ever said anything remotely like that to the other, and he just up and said it without hours of talking to the chair in Gestalt therapy, without a drop of Chivas.

“Yeah,” I said, finally. “Yeah.”

He swallowed, hard. “Yeah.”

Super awkward.

“I honestly don’t see what’s wrong with being worshipped, though. I could use some of that.”

“No, you couldn’t. Worship isn’t love. It’s more like hatred. People worship you, they expect things in return for that worship. Handholding. I got a piece of hate mail from a nice old lady in Chicago yesterday. She was pissed off that I wouldn’t come paint the gradeschool where she teaches. Because, you know, it’s too hard to get the people who’re supposed to take care of that kinda thing to pay the taxes, pass the budget, hire the crew. Did she think I wanted to say “no”? Yes, I could have had the place painted in 45 seconds. Yes, it would have kept little kids from eating old lead paint chips. It fucking broke my heart to say “no.”

“There are a lot of schools in the world.”

“Schools, orphanages, hospitals. I’ve shown you my email. ‘Megaman, please dig us a canal.’ ‘Megaman, drive off our locusts.’ ‘Megaman, we need an iceberg from Antarctica.’ All stuff I’d love to do. All stuff they could be doing themselves. And I don’t do it, because, hello? Triage? There’s always a volcano set to incinerate a town, a dam about to burst, a meteor heading this way…”

“Bill, I get it. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done. You don’t need the hyperbole, the meteors…”

“Not hyperbole. Two last month. Six in the last year and a half. You know, I don’t put out a press release every single time I pull humanity’s ass out of the fire.”

“Huh. That’s, um, a lot of meteors.”

“Comet last year, too. Five klicks in diameter. Would’ve been an extinction-level impact for sure. I stuck it in a crater at the Moon’s South Pole. There’s enough water there to support a colony the size of Manhattan now. Not that they’ll get around to building one if I stay here.”

“So, Megaman, yet again you’ve foiled my brilliant plan to change the subject.”

“I’ve infantilized an entire fucking species in the last thirty years, Dennis. When’s the last time a big dam went up? Not that I wouldn’t be doing you all a favor to take out Hoover and Aswan. When’s the last time you people went to the moon? What have you all accomplished since I’ve been here? The Internet. A way to keep everyone glued to their seats watching videos of me diverting streams of lava and punching tsunamis.”

“So where would you go instead? What would you do?”

“I don’t know. Anywhere. Maybe I’ll just go to Jupiter for a couple months and sleep it all off. Then head for the galactic core. You know, I’ve never been there? I’ve been studying the dynamics of Saturn’s rings, interactions of billions of bodies in the same gravity field, and the math is beautiful. I’d sure love to see if my ideas hold up when we’re talking millions of huge stars rather than ice and gravel. Or…”

I felt it well up in me, the emptiness I knew I’d feel once he’d gone, after a life full of more of the same. He was alone in the world, sure enough, but so was I; being Megaman’s Little Brother might not have sucked quite as hard as being the Real Deal, but at least he got the respect of the planet. It might have been curdled, rancid respect, frosted over with a global petulance by an entitled human species, but it was more than I got.

“Or you could stay.”

“Dennis.” He sighed, shook his head.

“I’m serious. You have a huge responsibility here and you’re just running away from it.” Anger rose in me to keep the emptiness company. My voice shook. “Yeah, yeah, you didn’t ask to crash-land here and you didn’t ask to be a thousand times stronger than us because of the sunspots and you didn’t ask for this and it’s all so unfair.”

“But what about you,” he mock-whined.

I stood up, fists clenched. “Damn straight what about me! You think this doesn’t all land on me? You think I don’t hear from most of the people whose emails you don’t answer? ‘I just wondered if you could get a message to your brother for me’ and ‘why hasn’t Megaman answered the phone’ and ‘I’ve attached a 700-megabyte prospectus of our refugee camp irrigation project for you to download and then forward to Megaman on your fucking dialup’?”

He looked surprised. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“What would you have done?”

He didn’t have an answer.

“What happens when you leave, Bill? All those people call me first. ‘When is Megaman coming back?’ ‘How do we get ahold of Megaman?’ A building catches fire or a landslide buries a town or they notice a meteor that you’re not there to bunt off toward Pluto, what happens then?

“You leave,” I said, “and I get to play military bereavement officer to the whole goddamn world, like I’m knocking on every door on the planet with the “regret to inform you” telegram. ‘I’m sorry that your babies are doomed, ma’am. No, I don’t have a forwarding address. No, I don’t have any superpowers of my own. He was adopted.’”

Bill stared at me, astonished. He hadn’t thought of any of this, of course. “So what am I supposed to do?”

“You could start by facing up to things. What’s stopping you from, I don’t know, retiring? Give a speech to the world about hard choices, all of us pulling our weight, teaching a man to fish, you know? You could put us on notice. No more twenty-four-seven housecall service. You could set up the Megaman Foundation and accept applications for world-saving projects to be fulfilled during business hours.”

“You’d all be furious.”

“Yeah, we might start worshiping you less. Feature, not bug.”

“So I have a question,” Bill said. “How would that not be just doing for you what you’re telling me to stop doing for everyone else? Staying around so that I can keep you safe from your demons? Keeping myself here so that you don’t have to face your own loneliness?”

“Yeah, it’s too bad Mom and Pop aren’t still around, Bill. You’d be off the hook for that one.”

That was a low blow, and I regretted it almost as soon as the words left my stupid mouth. Was it survivor’s guilt again? I’d done a lot of work with the shrinks since the fire. I’d thought I was done with wishing I’d died instead, wishing that Bill had decided to rescue our parents first. It was Voltor that set the trap, not Bill; Voltor who’d lined the warehouse with Ionite to strip Bill’s powers, not Bill. I didn’t blame Bill, I’d thought. Not anymore. Not since I stopped hearing Mom’s screams every time I closed my eyes. I’d thought.

Risking the screams, I closed my eyes. Nothing: just silence and my brother’s breathing. “I’m an asshole.”

“Yeah,” said Bill. “Me too.”

“I don’t want you to go,” I said.

“I know.”

There was a breeze, and it made a thin rattling sound in the crabapple’s leaves. It was starting to get warm. Eyes still closed, I listened as the crow croaked its way toward the tree again, smiled despite myself at the soft chuff of its wingbeats. For a moment I felt it: me, alone, on a whole planet, with nobody else. It was terrifying and beautiful. Mostly terrifying.

I cleared my throat. It was harder than I expected.

“Will you ever come back?’

“I don’t know. I’d need a reason.”

“You love me.” I actually said it out loud.

There was a long silence.

It was hard to tell — he said it very quietly, almost a whisper, hardly audible over the crabapple leaves — but I thought I heard him say “yeah.” And then there was another sound, heartbreakingly familiar, the high-pitched whistle, rising in tone and ending in a muffled “whomp,” the sound of friction between the air and a goddamn ablative garment moving at a quarter the speed of light, streaking up out of the Earth’s atmosphere and away. And then silence again, and the crow, and the leaves.

After a long time I opened my eyes.

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“How to Become a Yucca Moth”: An interview with researcher Jeremy Yoder

As persistent readers of this blog will know I’ve been working for some time on a book on Joshua trees, and one of the more interesting facets of the Joshua tree’s lifestyle is the tree’s reproductive partnership with two species of moths, Tegeticula synthetica (which works with the western population of trees, these days dubbed subspecies Yucca brevifolia brevifolia) and Tegeticula antithetica (the partner of the eastern subspecies, Yucca brevifolia jaegeriana). The tree can’t reproduce without the moth, and the moth can’t reproduce without the tree.

This partnership, which the Joshua tree has in common with all other Yucca species, is pretty much the canonical example of mutualism, a kind of relationship between two species in which each benefits from the other. The yucca-moth relationship has been cited in biology texts almost since Charles Valentine Riley first described the relationship in the 1870s. Despite the exemplary prominence of the relationship, there wasn’t much detailed study made of yucca moths after Riley until late in the twentieth century, when researcher (and Coyote Crossing reader) Olle Pellmyr took the moths on as a project, accomplishing among many other things the splitting of the sprawling taxon Tegeticula yuccasella into a swarm of 13 species in 1999.

Research continues at Pellmyr’s lab at the University of Idaho, Moscow. This week, researcher Jeremy Yoder published a new paper — with Pellmyr and Christopher Irwin Smith as co-authors — entitled “How to become a yucca moth: minimal trait evolution needed to establish the obligate pollination mutualism.” In the words of the paper’s abstract:

The origins of obligate pollination mutualisms, such as the classic yucca–yucca moth association, appear to require extensive trait evolution and specialization. To understand the extent to which traits truly evolved as part of establishing the mutualistic relationship, rather than being pre-adaptations, we used an expanded phylogenetic estimate with improved sampling of deeply-diverged groups to perform the first formal reconstruction of trait evolution in pollinating yucca moths and their nonpollinating relatives. Our analysis demonstrates that key life-history traits of yucca moths, including larval feeding in the floral ovary and the associated specialized cutting ovipositor, as well as colonization of woody monocots in xeric habitats, may have been established before the obligate mutualism with yuccas. Given these pre-existing traits, novel traits in the mutualist moths are limited to the active pollination behaviours and the tentacular appendages that facilitate pollen collection and deposition. These results suggest that a highly specialized obligate mutualism was built on the foundation of pre-existing interactions between early Prodoxidae and their host plants, and arose with minimal trait evolution.

Yoder et al took samples of about fifty moth species in the Prodoxidae, the family to which yucca moths belong. The samples included individuals from the two yucca moth genera Tegeticula and Parategeticula; from the so-called “bogus” yucca moth genus Prodoxus, whose members lay eggs in yucca fruit without providing pollination services; and from several other related genera of moths which feed on plants belonging to a number of other families. They analyzed the relationships among the moths and built a cladogram (an “evolutionary tree”) that described the lineage of each species with approximate dates of divergence at each branching point. GIven the characteristic morphologies and behaviors of each sampled species and the likely characteristics of their common ancestors, the researchers were then able to estimate when yucca moth behaviors and other traits arose. They found that even before yuccas and yucca moths started working together, the ancestors of today’s yucca moths already had most of the physical traits and behaviors their descendants now use in partnership with yuccas. Aside from active pollination (yucca moths deliberately pack pollen into the flowers’ stigmas instead of transferring it “accidentally”), a behavior unique to yucca moths and fig wasps, and the fascinating tentacles female yucca moths possess with which they perform that active pollination, yucca moths were already pretty much yucca moths before they started hanging out with yuccas.

Jeremy Yoder and I caught up with each other on Twitter in the wake of the Scienceblogs.com debacle last week, and he was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions about the paper.

Jeremy, thanks for agreeing to an interview. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Let me start by thanking you for your interest in the new paper, and for inviting me to answer questions about it. I’m a doctoral candidate in the lab of Olle Pellmyr at the University of Idaho. I study the evolutionary consequences of species interactions—how predators and prey, hosts and parasites, or plants and pollinators shape each others’ evolutionary history. In my spare time, I do a lot of running — I’m signed up for my second marathon this fall — and I write at Denim & Tweed.

How did you come to decide to work on yucca moths?

Well, the short answer is that I’m drawn to cool natural history stories. The longer answer is that after I finished undergrad, I spent a year as an ecology intern at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, doing, among other things, a lot of plant community ecology surveys. In the research I did for that project, as well as reading on my own time, I realized I was really interested in the evolution of species interactions—and one of the interactions that kept showing up in my literature searches was the yucca-yucca moth mutualism. So I wrote to the author of all those papers, Olle Pellmyr, and asked if he wanted a new graduate student, and it turned out he did.

The title of your paper — How to Become a Yucca Moth — is intriguing, and in relatively plain English compared to many such papers. Is there a similarly plain-English answer to the question your title poses? How does a moth species become so closely dependent on a plant partner?

Well, to be honest, no single paper can answer that question! But the results we present offer some significant clues:

First, that the ancestors of yucca moths had probably already been feeding on the developing seeds (the floral ovaries) of their host plants for a long time before they became yucca moths. This suggests that the active pollination behavior, and the physical adaptations to support it, probably evolved to help ensure a food source for the moths’ larvae. Active pollinators are much more efficient than most other pollinating insects—they apply the pollen directly to the flower, and don’t eat any of it—so you could imagine that the plants would then evolve to rely on the moths’ pollination services.

Second, our analysis suggests that the ancestral moths fed on members of the family Rosaceae, which includes roses (of course), but also everything from blackberries to apples. This is interesting because the members of this family used by modern members of the yucca moth family are mostly adapted to cooler, wetter environments—nothing like the places where most yuccas grow. So in order to colonize yuccas, the ancestors of the yucca moths must have had to make a fairly big ecological transition as well. Maybe moving from moist mountainsides to deserts somehow contributed to the evolution of the obligate mutualism.

How old is the partnership between yuccas and their moth colleagues?

We don’t really know how old the relationship itself is, and the clues we have don’t give us a very clear answer. The last phylogenetic study of the yucca moth family (PDF available here) estimated that the genus Tegeticula, which contains most of the yucca moths, is about 40 million years old. On the other hand, a more recent analysis (PDF here) estimated that the age of the genus Yucca is between 6 and 10 million years.

So maybe Tegeticula was around for quite a while before it colonized yuccas; or maybe a new analysis with more data and up-to-date statistical methods would find that the yucca moths originated more recently than 40 million years ago. And neither of these estimates really tell us when the obligate pollination mutualism originated; Tegeticula might have used Yucca for a long time before evolving the mutualism, or it might even have had a similar kind of relationship with a different group of plants before it colonized yuccas.

Your work describes the phylogenetic relationship between the two sister genera of yucca moths — Tegeticula and Parategeticula — and their closest relatives the “bogus” yucca moths, in genus Prodoxus. Bogus yucca moths use developing yucca fruit as nurseries for their larvae, but without providing pollination services to the yucca, in effect parasitizing the relationship betweem yuccas and “true” yucca moths. Before now, my understanding had been that that kind of “cheater” behavior evolved in Prodoxus moths as a way of gaming the existing relationship between Yucca and the “true” yucca moths. However, your work indicates that yucca-moth mutualism arose after true and bogus yucca moths diverged. Do you have any thoughts as to how the common ancestor of true and bogus yucca moths might have made its living, and how cheater behavior might have evolved from that behavior?

That’s a good question. What we see in our reconstruction is that the moths who would evolve into pollinating and “bogus” yucca moths were already eating the developing fruit of their host plants, so the “parasitic” aspect of the way Prodoxus makes a living is really the ancestral condition. That is, Prodoxus only looks like a cheater because mutualists evolved. However, our reconstruction also suggests that Prodoxus has actually changed what part of the plant it uses—the ancestral moths used floral ovaries, and most members of Prodoxus use mature fruit, or the floral stem, or (in one case) leaves.

This might be evolution in response to the origin of the pollination mutualism. We know that yuccas kill off flowers that receive too much damage from pollinators’ egg laying, which helps prevent the pollinators from over-exploiting the mutualism. Maybe Prodoxus evolved to bypass that check on moth behavior by laying eggs in other parts of the plant, or in fruit that’s already well developed.

What struck you as the most surprising result of the work that went into this paper?

I think it might be the finding I just described above—that the Prodoxus habit of feeding in non-floral tissues is probably not the ancestral condition. The other members of the yucca moth family in our analysis use a lot of different parts of the host plant, and I might have said, before the analysis, that feeding in floral ovaries was closely tied to the pollination mutualism in Tegeticula. Now it looks like yucca moths were doing this long before they became mutualists.

What are you working on now?

I’m wrapping up data collection for a study of how yucca moth host preferences might be shaping gene flow between two different forms of Joshua trees—part of an ongoing study of Joshua tree and its pollinators. I describe the latest published results in that system here. That project is the capstone to my dissertation work, which includes the “How to become a yucca moth” study, and some evolutionary theory work; I’m lining up to graduate next spring, and looking at options for postdoctoral positions.