Monthly Archives: January 2013

What We Inherit

An old friend tells me that he cannot wait to have children so he can teach them what he knows. His face displays an urgent, happy longing—as if he is a jug already nearly full, and running out of time to find a cup to catch what he’s collected. I imagine him so, overflowing with every useful skill and scrap of wisdom of his life. He is carrying both mistakes and successes like holy water. A child, he seems to mean, could receive those things in time: protect, in some way, the sweet accumulation of his own experience.

I’m beginning to think that nurture doesn’t exist, my brother-in-law informs me quietly in the middle of a lull during a dinner party. Both our gazes rest on his son, my nephew, playing by himself. Asher—at nine as inventive, impatient, tricksy, and content as he was at one—sits salty from a long day of sailing and squirming out of trouble. His face is lit by the screen of an iPad, and he is chortling to himself. His father sighs to see himself reflected so, half amused and half resigned: These days I think, he says, it’s pretty much all nature. They are who they are, and nothing you do makes a difference.

What do we bring into this world, and what do we take from it?

My mother sends me emails that bring home across the seas. The yellow birds graced us with a ballad on the palm tree in front of the house the other day, one reads. Another: The Good Lord knew that I needed cheering up, so he sent the yellow birds to fly across my path on my morning walk. She writes: Five o’clock in the morning and the yellow birds are welcoming the dawn with a magnificent symphony.

The yellow birds she’s talking about are black-naped orioles (Oriolus chinensis), one of Singapore’s most common avian residents. These are slender, jay-sized songbirds plunged in intense yellow coloring as rich as the perfectly boiled yolk of a fresh egg. Against this background, a wide, inky band of feathers passes over the eyes and wraps around the head (exactly where a bandit might tie on a mask). The black-naped oriole’s wings and tail are dipped in the same immaculate pitch, and on the downward beat of a wingflap—the two sides of its Stygian cloak whipping together, its yellow back careless of danger—this plumage has an air of rashness, of audacity.

Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis maculatus) in flight
(Photo by Yap Lip Kee.)

Indeed these Old World orioles (unrelated to a doppelganger family of birds also called orioles, the Icteridae I’ve come to know since I moved to the U.S.) can be cunning looters, stealing eggs and nestlings from other birds’ nests to supplement their otherwise humble diet of insects and fruits. They are hardy, wise. They’ve learned to thrive in the urban mess of concrete and tropical greenery that is Singapore. But bright and beautiful they are, and so are the endless variations of their metallic song.

I’m not sure how much of who I am today was dictated by birthright, how much I was taught, and how much I have clutched to myself over the years and pasted on like false eyelashes. But I like to think that even if I didn’t come equipped with either her patience or her sweetness, my mother passed her wonder down. I feel her in me when I look out the window here in the New World, catching the spark of a goldfinch or a kinglet— or a Bullock’s oriole, deep orange counterpart to its yellow cousin.

And on it goes. Home for a visit a few weeks ago, I see the same attentiveness emerging in Sophia, my six-year-old niece. Sometimes when I’m not doing anything else, Sophia said one day, I like to stand in front of the window and watch the wind. And sometimes when I’m frustrated I just sit on the edge of the bed like this and look at the yellow birds.

My mother smiled. I, too. That day three generations followed gold amongst the trees.

Hello, new friends. From the archives, another birdy post from the last time I was home in Singapore.

A Note to Old Friends

Hello, stalwart readers.

When I set up The Science Essayist in 2009, I saw it as an experimental space—a place to test, quietly and without fanfare, approaches to writing and making discoveries about the world that were new to me and that I wasn’t at all sure would work. For the most part I’ve never made any great effort to publicize this site, although at times I have considered it an extension of my heart and mind. I have simply counted myself extraordinarily lucky each time a stranger or two—some of whom later became very dear to me—stumbled upon it and decided to stick around.

Keeping my nose down in this way suited the extreme—and, I now understand—ironically vainglorious—aversion to self-publicity I’ve harbored for most of my life. But over the past few years I did discover a large and tremendously varied universe of experiments far more advanced than my own, conducted by knowledgable and talented people engaged in a deep conversation about the role of science in society. Together they form a community writing about life, research, meaning, and the complex relationships between humans and the natural world.

Again, I hovered at the outer fringes of this passionate group: wanting to take up hands with it and join in its shared investigations, but held back by something I once would have called shyness and now simply want to name a bad habit.

But the past few months have wrought many changes to this lone wolf self, this strange habitual brain of mine, and when Madhusudhan Katti, who writes beautifully on birds and biology at Reconciliation Ecology, invited me to join the new Network, I found myself saying yes almost despite myself. was founded a few months ago by Chris Clarke, a natural history writer whose work marries the personal with the political better than I would ever have thought possible. It’s a new network, still growing, that’s bringing together bloggers who are all interested in biodiversity, the environment, and the living landscape. I’m very honored to be part of it.

My old site, and everything on it, will remain—but from now on new posts (including this one!) will be published at this blog, Dispersal Range. If you’ve made your way over, I hope that you’ll wander around and get to know the other fine writers and naturalists who are part of the collective.

Besides Chris and Madhu, they currently include the excellently named Toad in the Hole (written by Ron, who is a much more serious birder than I am and also happens to live in Berkeley!) and Slow Water Movement, a totally engrossing Vermont-based project documenting the paths water takes through the landscape. It’s time for this little blog to grow up, get over its shyness, and embrace some wonderfully smart, inspired, and thoughtful company.

Almost Two