Monthly Archives: April 2011

On Getting a Kick in the Pants, or What I Have in Common With the New York Times

I’m not sure if it’s a cultural artifact so much as a pathological personality trait, but—like many of you, probably—I like asking for things about as much as I like sudden attacks of indigestion. I don’t know why, since I get asked for things all the time and it never makes me think ill of the people who ask me; still, for whatever reason, it’s a hard thing to do.

I say this to preface the biggest act of asking I have ever committed.

What you see above is a video I made for a Kickstarter project. In case you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, I’ll explain that it’s a website that people can use to raise money for creative projects of any stripe. You set a funding goal and a time frame, describe what you want to do, and create what Kickstarter calls “rewards” that people who pledge money to your project will receive. If you meet your goal in time, Kickstarter sends you all the pledges (and a project can keep raising money past its goal until the predetermined end-date). If you don’t, no one is charged.

As you’ll see in the video, what I’m asking for is a small amount of financial support for a little book of essays that I’d like to write while I’m in Sweden for two months this summer. I’m going there to volunteer as a field assistant at a bird observatory. In between the lake and the mountains I think I’ll find more peaceful writing time than I’ve ever had in my life, even though I’ll be working hard every day.

The book will be called The Language of the Birds, and it’ll be about all sorts of things—science, nature, myth, stories, what I see and hear around me at the observatory. It’ll be a lot like what I write here on this site, in fact. Which is why, like the New York Times, I know I may rub some people the wrong way with this request. No one likes to pay for things they’re already getting for free.

If you feel that way, I totally understand. In fact, I’ll tell you right up front, because I was not born for sales, that even if I don’t get funding, I’ll still write the book. It just might not take physical form, and I won’t be able to print broadsides using excerpts. (A broadside is a kind of old-fashioned means of publishing text—often poetry or literature—decoratively, on poster-sized pieces of paper.)

I decided to start a Kickstarter project because the site has been on my radar for about a year now, and whenever I look at it I find amazing, beautiful, brave, funny, exciting projects. They make me happy. I’ve pledged money to four so far, only two of which were started by people I actually know. (You can see the projects I’ve funded here. Two of them are still raising money. See if you’re interested in them, too!)

Since I—like many of us—don’t have a lot of disposable income to throw around, I’ve never pledged a large sum of money to any one project. But each time I’m glad to know my contribution helped someone make something cool. And while in the 14.5 hours my Kickstarter project has been live I’ve already become indebted to a few very generous friends (Thank you, you guys. You make my heart swell.), what I hope and expect is for the funding to happen through lots of small donations.

There’s more about my plans, including where the money will go, on the project page. And thank you—no matter what happens. If you’re reading this, you’re already making what I do here worthwhile.

Edited to add: As of about 3pm this afternoon, less than 24 hours after I launched the project page, you guys have fully funded my little book. I am beyond pleased; I am totally bowled over. You could not bowl me more over if you tried. Since there are still 29 days of funding left, I’m going to think about what I might be able to do if we hit another, slightly higher target. I’ll update the project page when I come up with something brilliant. And once again, thank all of you so much for your encouragement.

Distempered

From the time of Hippocrates the ancients believed that there were four cardinal fluids of the body—sanguis, cholera (or yellow bile), melancholia (or black bile), and phlegma.

These four liquids were known as humors (humor being the Latin word for ‘liquid’), and good health was thought to depend on the maintenance of a just proportion among them. The balance or commixture of the humors was known as a man’s temperament, that is, his ‘mixture’ (L. tempera, ‘to mix’)…

If the temperament…was greatly disturbed, the result was distemper

The Classical World, Classical Association of the Atlantic States

Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in th’ alarm,
Your bedded hairs, like life in excrements,
Start up and stand an end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience!

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4, William Shakespeare

*******


So many of our words for madness are blunt, pitiless, jarring to the ear and to the mind. Insanity wails like a siren; derangement veers headlong into an embankment like a car spun out of control. Crazy is something you spit.

But distemper, well. Distemper has a different air. Listen to the word: Its classical roots lend it a literary sort of elegance. It has the sound of a mild and floaty agitation that will eventually pass away, returning things to their properly settled and accustomed state.

Distemper: a momentary ripple in the cup of tea you’ve just stirred with a spoon.

Distemper: delicate enough to be applied to princes whose minds are at war with themselves.

Distemper: a condition that might be even a little romantic.

But words are sly, unscrupulous things.

*******

I spend quite a lot of time in Jackson Park, a lovely wooded space that runs right up against Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side. Ross and I often find ourselves there when we want to take a walk someplace calm, quiet, and green (or gray, depending on the time of year). It’s also where I go many weekend mornings, to join a small group of dedicated Hyde Park birders who spend two or three hours there each Saturday in search of warblers, thrushes, sparrows, swallows, ducks, herons, and the occasional thrilling raptor.

I like the tall grasses and woodsy forests of the place. I like that it feels—not wild, not that—but friendly to wild things that gather at the edges of my urban life. Among the wild things that have made Jackson Park their home are a small population of raccoons. We see signs of them, we birders, when we tramp by the water—mostly tree stumps chewed to pencil points, or trees still standing that have been fenced off from raccoon teeth by the Parks Department. Since we’re there during the day, the raccoons themselves are usually quite elusive, although binocularing into the opening of a hole high off the ground in one particular tree we have often seen a pair of raccoon babies deep in striped sleep.

Lately, though, the signs Procyon lotor has been leaving us haven’t been so sweet. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing corpses lying in Jackson Park clearings or on pathways, so many unanswered complaints. And sometimes now, you can even see a raccoon moving around in daylight hours.

There was one this morning, on the bank behind the coot and the mallards. It was an exhausted-looking apparition, weaving aimlessly, as if it were a man who’d just woken up in the woods, bruised and hungover, and didn’t know where it was. Red-winged blackbirds buzzed above and below, there was the raccoon. The time was eight in the morning and it was right there in plain sight, long tail sweeping the earth on a trail normally followed only by human feet.

That kind of behavior isn’t normal for a nocturnal creature. You might, if you’d been born several centuries ago, have been inclined to say something had left that raccoon distempered.

*******

Something probably has. According to Pat, our unofficial bird walk leader, the Chicago Parks Department is on the case, and will be sending out a biologist this week to take a look. But the most likely explanation is that the raccoons of Jackson Park are dying off as the result of an epidemic. And the most likely suspect is canine distemper, an air and fluid-borne virus that infects both domestic dogs and several species of wild animals, including coyotes, wolves, ferrets, badgers, and raccoons.

As diseases go, canine distemper is extraordinarily nasty. First it causes fever, shivering, diarrhea, vomiting, and inflammation and discharge in the nose and eyes. Somewhat later, after it attacks the nervous system, the infection delivers a second miserable wave of symptoms, among them seizures, tremors, muscle twitches, weakness, and general bodily instability. It also changes behavior in ways that look a lot like rabies, making for animals that seem oddly fearless even when their usual habits are suspicious and retiring.

There is no effective treatment, even for pets—let alone animals most consider pests. Death is inexorable, but perhaps not swift enough. And juvenile raccoons are especially susceptible to canine distemper, so the young ones we’ve watched in the tree have certainly already been affected.

I think of them and their relatives: all those swirling humors mixed into painful and unfamiliar combinations, all those temperaments disturbed beyond repair. No princes of Denmark, they. These antic dispositions haven’t been put on; they’re carried in the blood. This madness has no method to it, and it doesn’t matter which way the wind blows.

*******

For a disease named after such an ancient notion, canine distemper is remarkably wet behind the ears. The very first case of the infection is thought to have been described as late as 1905, by a French veterinarian known as Henri Carré. Its precise origins are unclear, but what does seem irrefutable is that the disease never existed in wild animal populations until they came into contact with their domesticated canid brothers. It happened to wild dogs in Africa. It happened to spotted hyenas in Kenya. It happened to golden jackals in Israel.

I’ll tell you what I find incredible. Even the king of beasts isn’t immune to this chaos. In the 1990s, an outbreak of the virus bloomed within and killed many of a population of lions in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Soon after, it spread to the lions of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National reserve.

(Neither the king of beasts nor man himself. Exposure to canine distemper virus doesn’t cause any symptoms in humans, but there is some evidence that it may be involved, years later, in the onset of Paget’s disease, a condition in which the body begins to break down and rebuild bone tissue in abnormal ways—making it dense, brittle, and fragile.)

*******

I wish there were some meaning to all this. If I were Hamlet I might spin a story here, tell you perhaps about a queer and painful retribution for the sin of rendering what was once wild tame. I wish the deaths of a few urban-living raccoons mattered more than they probably do to the state of the world in general. I wish the mere existence of a word so poetic reflected something true about our bodies and our minds. (That we were as mutable as fluids? As simple to mix and unmix?) I wish distemper were a romantic metaphor, instead of just a species of blunt and pitiless death.

Two weeks ago, on our way back from the beach, Ross and I encountered most of what looked like a raccoon skeleton—it was missing its skull—picked clean and made brilliantly smooth by the indifferent hunger of birds and bugs. The spine of the thing was incredible, a gentle, shroud-white curve upon the grass: half of an osseous S, one quarter of the motion you make with your teaspoon when you stir what’s in your cup.

the spine inside everything

*******

P.S. We have had a vaccine for canine distemper for over 50 years. Every domestic dog should be vaccinated, but not all are. Especially if you take your dog out to woodsy areas, please don’t let it get behind on its shots. Canis lupus familiaris may be the original source of this scourge, but that doesn’t mean a sick raccoon can’t pass what it got right back.

Ex ovo omnia

Peregrine falcon egg

Mary Hennen, who has run the Chicago Peregrine Program for over two decades, was out and about today monitoring several wild peregrine falcon nests in the downtown area. When she got back to the lab she had with her a clutch of three eggs from a nest on South Wacker. The nest, and its eggs, were abandoned after the male of the pair was killed in a fight with another peregrine last week. When this happens, Mary explained, if it’s early enough in the nesting season and the eggs aren’t very far along in incubation, the partner that’s left will often cut their losses and find a new mate with whom to try again. I guess it’s hard being a single parent, no matter what species you belong to.

More on the city’s peregrines at this wonderful blog I discovered today. Stephanie Ware, a Field museum staff member and volunteer falcon watcher, writes the updates.

Medium-Sized Mysteries

I continue to spend Thursdays in the prep lab. While I’m there each bird represents a small, self-contained mystery. What species is it, and is it new to me? Where did this particular individual come from—the collision monitors, a rehabilitation center, a museum security guard who saw something on the path outside and brought it in? How did it die? Was it healthy and well-fed on its last day? Was it young or old? I can answer most of these questions as I go along, using the bird’s outer (and inner) appearance and the information on its tag.

I also like to think about the bigger mysteries the Field’s specimen collection is designed to help researchers answer. How do bird populations change over time? Which ones are increasing, and which decreasing? Are migration routes and timings affected by global warming? Can we see evolution at work in the shape of a wing, or a bill, or a foot, if we go back far enough?

Sometimes, though, I get a glimpse of medium-sized mysteries: curious, spontaneous questions raised by the specimens themselves.

I.

In late September 2009, on a stormy night in Minnesota, hundreds of birds from a wide variety of species flew into a tall structure—a telephone tower or something like it—and were killed. The dead made their way, via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, to the museum. And eventually, after a long rest in the freezers (we’re behind on specimen preparation), Dave began taking them out for processing. When that happened, he noticed a strange thing. If birds of those particular species had been found at that time of the year in the Loop, the vast majority of them would have been juveniles. But the Minnesota birds were almost all adults, with fully ossified skulls and well-developed gonads. This held true over the entire range of birds (which include sparrows, warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, and ovenbirds, just going by what I’ve personally prepared).

Why would this be the case? Dave says that for now, he truly has no idea. So he’s working on collecting data about the entire group of specimens, and while he’s doing so he’s talking to his colleagues and trying to formulate theories that could explain this strange occurrence. Eventually, they’ll either come up with a brilliant explanation, write a paper about it, and let everyone in the community know, or they’ll remain stumped, write a paper about it, and invite everyone in the community to help figure it out. It seems like a pretty wonderful process: an example of the way science is supposed to work.

bay-breasted warbler
(This is a bay-breasted warbler from the Minnesota tower kill.)

II.

At some point in the day today I was looking for the box of yellow pins we use to fix study skins to the foam boards on which they dry, and it turned out Dave had spirited them over to the sink. When I got there I discovered that he was sitting in front of a giant tray of American woodcock carcasses, opening them up, and—if they were female—pulling out their ovaries and oviducts with a pair of tweezers and pinning them to little pieces of cardboard. Then he was putting them into a jar of formalin.

Why would he do such a thing? Well, it’s like this. The museum has a large number of woodcock specimens, collected as they pass through the area during fall migration. At some point Dave noticed that a lot of the female woodcocks had very large and well-developed sexual organs—a characteristic typically associated with the height of mating season. A few of them actually had eggs that were at the yolking stage. I saw one that was clearly yellow and as big as a large marble! Maybe, he thought, the birds were mating as they migrated. (An unusual behavior, worthy of study.) Also, he had a vague memory of someone, not a full time museum staff member but a scientist who’d passed through the lab, having been interested in a question like this—years ago.

So Dave decided to preserve the ovaries and oviducts of all the female woodcocks in the division’s freezers, against the event that that person—or someone like them—would eventually want to check the organs for sperm. He only regretted that he didn’t have the time or space to put them in liquid nitrogen so that the DNA they contained would be preserved. This would allow the future hypothetical researcher to also ID the sperm and find out if the females were mating with different males on different nights of their migration route. As it was, pinning out the ovaries took him hours (and was absolutely fascinating to watch). I made him let me take a picture.

american woodcock ovaries-oviducts, pinned for preservation

Medium-sized mysteries: maybe their answers will be of great scientific import; maybe they won’t. But it’s fascinating to see them appear without anyone even looking for them, like bits of flotsam washing up on the shore.

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

How do you stuff a human for display? Does one remove the innards, and if so, how is it accomplished? Is the stuffing made of cotton, hay, or what?

—Stephen T. Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums

2011.8. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads (Stephen T. Asma)

The really lovely thing about acquiring a reputation for being interested in certain sorts of things is that eventually you start to get the right kinds of presents. When I was visiting Sarah in February, she handed me a beautifully wrapped box containing, among other things, this book. I cracked the spine on it as soon as I sat down in the airport waiting room on my way home and finished it over several sessions on the elliptical machine (I read at the gym not because I’m too sexy-smart to plug into their TVs or my iPod, but because I can’t stand getting sweat all over my headphones.)

My verdict? Mixed.

I won’t say Asma’s book isn’t well named, but in spirit it is governed far more by its staid and scholarly subtitle than its deliciously black title. The book opens marvelously, with two early anecdotes setting an inquisitive tone: In one, Asma describes the awful fate of an Inuit man who followed polar explorer Robert Peary back from the Arctic to take up a job as a living specimen in the American Museum of Natural History, only to die of tuberculosis. Unbeknownst to his son, who had also made the trip, “museum staff removed Qisuk’s flesh, cleaned his bones, and put him on display for New York audiences.” In the other, the author writes of his fascination with Foma, a boy with only two digits on each hand and foot. Foma lived for years in Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities, and when he died, he was stuffed and put back under glass.

Gripped by the need to know how such a feat of preservation might be accomplished, Asma sets off on a viscerally fueled investigation into wet and dry preservation techniques, including taxidermy—but is soon drawn into a more academic analysis of the role that natural history museums play as both artifacts and architects of scientific epistemology. I would have been happier if he’d spent a little more time answering his initial questions about specimen preservation, especially since his discussion of how animals are processed when they come into a museum isn’t very nuanced. He says, for instance, that each one is first skinned and then skeletonized before it can be mounted for display—but with birds, you actually have to make a choice between preserving the skin or skeleton, since certain bones must stay in the skin for structural support if you’re going to stuff it. And he describes the taxidermy process as if it’s something that happens only one particular way, whereas in fact there are many choices and innovations individual taxidermists can and do make.

I also have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people who make the experience of going into the dermestid room sound unrelentingly lurid. I mean, it’s an astonishing place for many reasons. Some people find it hard. But really, I think Asma is reaching when he calls its smell “the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine,” and a “fetid odor, sweet and sour in a nauseatingly pungent combination.” He sticks in “gory” and “repulsive” while he’s at it.

These are, in truth, fairly trivial criticisms. All the questions Asma asks interest me—How exactly are biological specimens preserved? Why should we pay close attention to the processes by which scientists come to “know” what they “know”? In what ways do museum exhibits reflect the biases and intentions of their creators?—and he attacks them with an infectious and amiable spirit of adventure. There were many sections in which I was transported by his detailed visual descriptions of particular exhibits. And though there were equally many where I found myself dragged down by the slow and somewhat plodding formation of an argument, the arguments themselves were usually fascinating.

In particular, anyone interested in questions of classification will be held by Asma’s discussion of the differences between the curatorial decisions made by the 18th-century natural philosophers Georges Cuvier and John Hunter. Hunter, for instance, had a habit of arranging specimens according to similarity of function, without regard to animal groups. In one armoire, designed to demonstrate how Nature deals with the problem of digestion, Hunter placed:

“parts analogous to teeth in invertebrates,” including parts of parasitic worms, cicadas, locusts, Roman snails, slugs, cuttlefishes, and squids; then “parts analogous to teeth in birds,” including the beaks of vultures, woodpeckers, and puffins; then two shelves devoted to “true” teeth, including those of lions (“teeth composed of bone and enamel”) and those of horses and elephants (“composed of ivory, enamel, and cementum”).

These choices, Asma explains, reflected Hunter’s tendency to abstract traits from organisms. In this case, the concept of dentition was “excerpted,” as he puts it, from the individual animals and the ways in which these animals lived in the world. By contrast, Cuvier—who was Hunter’s contemporary but held vastly different ideas about how one ought to go about organizing knowledge about species—would almost certainly have placed each of Hunter’s teeth and psuedo-teeth in its own case, arranged together with other parts of the same organism. Asma sums up Cuvier’s approach as one that relates:

the parts of an organism to each other and to specific environmental conditions of existence. So the lungs of whales, for example, have a real causal relationship with the other anatomical parts of whales (trachea, blowhole, circulation system, etc.) and with the needs and demands of its aquatic environment. But there is no causal relationship with other animals that have lungs.

Over the course of 300 pages, Asma roams through seven different natural history museums in three different countries, including my beloved Hunterian, which I saw last September and which has colored my dreams ever since. He interviews curators and collections managers, gets lost in dimly lit halls and back rooms, and everywhere examines what he sees with the eye of an artist, a philosopher, and a lover of science. I get the impression he would not be unhappy to be considered a kind of rakish explorer of the macabre, and that Stuffed Animals is intended to be as much travelogue as thesis. (Hence the dramatic description of the bug room.)

In this, Asma does not quite succeed—what he has written, although more palatable than any academic work I have ever read, is a bit of an uncomfortable hybrid—not exactly dissertation, not exactly popular science. In a way, the in-between is an apt space for this book to occupy, given the author’s fascination with teratology, the study of “monsters” and “hybrids” (otherwise known as creatures with congenital abnormalities). But to my everlasting regret, Asma never does tell us just how Foma of the “lobster claw” deformity might have been preserved.



P.S. This is where I tell you that The Open Lab 2010 has gone on sale! I have an essay in it, but every piece it contains is really a delight and you should read them all online, even if you don’t want to buy a copy. But if you are lovely and do want to support the tireless efforts of the book’s two amazing editors, you can get it as either a paperback or a PDF here.