Tag Archives: literature

Fallout From a Fatal Gift

There’s this eerie sound that eucalyptus trees make when the wind is passing through the spaces between their belts of peeling bark. It’s not like any other tree I know of; when eucalypts talk, I hear the metal gate in front of the house my father grew up in, creaking on its hinges. That gate, along with the house and its porch and the purple and white periwinkles that grew in its garden, were all destroyed years ago to make way for new condos; but when I was little I used to stand on its bars and hitch the thing back and forth with all my weight. I was a very quiet child, and it was as much the creak as the swinging I enjoyed: a small assertion that I could disrupt the world.

I was waiting for something else to disrupt the world early this Saturday morning, lying on my back on a ridgetop in the Berkeley hills and listening to the eucalypts blowing in the oceanic wind:

We call them falling stars, as if they simply floated down like ash from someone’s cigarette late in the quiet night—as if they did what fond hearts do in love. We call them shooting stars, and this is a less gentled name; but if the incandescent streaks we see are missiles, who is hurling them?

They also call us.

It was the Geminids I’d come to answer at 4:45am. Forty-five minutes earlier I’d woken to my alarm, made myself a thermos of hot, sweet tea, petted a confused cat on the head, and driven up to Wildcat Canyon. Though city lights washed out the sky, the night was cloudless, fogless, and as dark as I could hope for it to be, since I had waited till the waxing moon had set like some great, aging cinder to the west. I was alone. Was quite awake. And waiting. God, I wanted the whole damn thing to fall.

It didn’t, but for over an hour and a half I watched pieces of the firmament break loose and arc across the sky, and was entirely happy to be where I was. One was a tremendous fireball that caught me in mid-step even before I’d settled down, bright as a sparkler and leaving a white trail behind it that remained for nearly a full minute afterwards.

Most were quite clear, but with short-lived trajectories; some were so faint they whispered in the corners of my eyes and on another night I might have talked myself into believing I’d imagined them. They came every few minutes, and I’m sure I missed a few pouring tea into a cup and sipping quickly as I could, unwilling to release the sky from view. But come they did, and after a while I knew I would not stop seeing them until the sun came up.

It’s a strange sensation, having confidence in shooting stars.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The year’s last major meteor shower goes by The Geminids because the shooting stars it sends out seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, whose twin stars ride high and clear in the winter sky. Every shower has a core like this: The radiant of the Perseids is Perseus; the radiant of the Leonids, Leo. And every shower has another, truer, core: a comet following its own eccentric path across the solar system. When comets pass the sun, they heat and simmer, and along with steam they boil off parcels of cosmic debris that linger in a stream in space, only to burn up in our planet’s atmosphere as we hurtle through them every year.

There’s no such thing as an ordinary display of shooting stars. No wild, incendiary hail could ever be pedestrian. But the Geminids are special even among meteor showers.

They’re relatively young, for one thing—people have been watching the Perseids since before the Common Era, and the Leonids for over a thousand years. The Geminids showed up out of the blue, out of the black, out of the winter night, fewer than two centuries ago. They’ve grown steadily in number and intensity since then, and seem still to be mounting; a single fireball last year burned brighter than the full moon. Their fusillade lasts longer than a day, so you can watch them everywhere on earth.

The Geminids are mysterious, too in that lovely way scientific mysteries have of deepening even as their details come to light. Their source, the mystery goes, is not obviously a comet. Instead it is a dense, rocky body that looks more like an asteroid, and wouldn’t seem to be capable of burning off meteoroids as easily as an icy comet would. The latest theory astronomers have is that the body is in fact an old comet, still carrying ice within its heart but covered now in a clotted crust of interplanetary dust that makes it look like solid rock.

This doesn’t, prettily, explain it all. The debris this asteroid-comet-comet-asteroid casts out every year isn’t enough—not by a long shot—to account for the mass of the Geminids. And so our modern skywatchers wait, and scan the heavens, and hope to understand a little more about their secrets every time our orbits cross.

One thing they did right in the meantime, I think: they gave the strange fountainhead of the Geminids a wonderful name. It’s called 3200 Phaethon. The 3200 is because it was the 3,200th asteroid (or asteroid-like object, anyway) to be formally named. The Phaethon? Ah.

I remember Phaeton, although he’s not one of the more prominent figures in Greek mythology, because when I was 13 we did a series of skits based on the classics and my group performed unlucky Phaeton’s story. I think it was the tragedy that appealed to us—the tragedy and the crisis of identity. In case your own checkered past did not include such dramatics, I’ll tell you Phaeton was the mortal son of Clymene, a water nymph, and Helios: the god of the sun.

Around the time Phaeton came of age, we’re told, Clymene revealed his shining origins. None of his friends believed he’d come from divine stock, and to be honest, the young boy didn’t know if he believed it either. Off Phaethon went to find Helios, who embraced him warmly. But this wasn’t enough for our hero; he wanted to become his father. Let me, begged Phaethon, drive your chariot, the sun, across the sky. Just for one night. Let me take your place.

This goes as well as you’d expect. Phaethon, incapable of controlling the wild horses of the sun, careens across the sky and scorches heaven and earth alike until Zeus shoots him down with a thunderbolt to save the universe.

Some scholars believe the Phaethon myth was based on real celestial event, or that its purpose was to explain the desertification of the Sahara some four or five thousand years ago. More recently, it’s been employed as a metaphor for our own passionate mismanagement of the earth. We too, you might agree, have lost control of the reins we took. And there are monsters on the road.

“Suppose I should lend you the chariot, what would you do? Could you keep your course while the sphere was revolving under you? Perhaps you think that there are forests and cities, the abodes of gods, and palaces and temples on the way. On the contrary, the road is through the midst of frightful monsters….Nor will you find it easy to guide those horses, with their breasts full of fire that they breathe forth from their mouths and nostrils. I can scarcely govern them myself, when they are unruly and resist the reins.

Beware, my son, lest I be the donor of a fatal gift; recall your request while yet you may.”

—Bulfinch’s Mythology

Prep Lab Shenanigans

As most of you probably know, volunteering as a study skin preparator has been a big part of my life since 2008. I used to write a lot more about prep lab life and the birds I skinned at the Field Museum over at my old site, The Science Essayist (all those archives, by the way, are mirrored here). I realize that I haven’t said much at all about volunteering at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, my new skinning home. Partly that’s because it took me a long time to start feeling comfortable there—something that was not at all the MVZ’s fault, and had much more to do with how close to my heart The Field was and how much I missed it.

Anyway, to make up for this lapse I thought I’d share some photos from the last year in the MVZ lab. Warning: Almost everything you see will be dead. But I did leave out the skinned mouse floating in a bucket of water.

Like hospitals, funeral homes, and graveyards, the prep labs of natural history museums tend to be workplaces where gallows humor thrives. This is just sitting on the shelf above the catalog binders, data sheets, and field guides.

This is just sitting on the shelf above the catalog binders, data sheets, and field guides.

I think these are voles, but don't quote me on it.

I think these are voles, but don’t quote me on it.

I *just today* learned how to ID white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) by two of their calls; they were hopping in Briones Regional Park this morning. This was the first bird I prepped for the MVZ, a beauty of a thing.

I *just today* learned how to ID white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) by ear, or at least by two of their many calls; they were hopping in Briones Regional Park this morning. This was the first bird I prepped for the MVZ, a beauty of a thing.

This is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris). Don't you love it when wrens are named for where you'll find them? So helpful. Also, don't you love wrens? They're a little bit perfect.

This is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris). Don’t you love it when wrens are named for where you’ll find them? So helpful. Also, don’t you love wrens? They’re a little bit perfect.

This is a juvenile red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber); if you've ever seen a pine tree ringed with rows and rows of neat holes, those are likely where sapsuckers have been earning their name.

This is a juvenile red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber); if you’ve ever seen a pine tree ringed with rows and rows of neat holes, those are likely where sapsuckers have been earning their name.

Jun Senseri is a professor of anthropology at Cal, and among other things, he studies foodways—the social, cultural, and economic context surrounding how a particular group of people make and eat food. The prep lab has been processing sheep and goat remains that Sunseri collected from indigenous communities after the animals themselves were consumed.

Jun Senseri is a professor of anthropology at Cal, and among other things, he studies foodways—the social, cultural, and economic context surrounding how a particular group of people make and eat food. The prep lab has been processing sheep and goat remains that Sunseri collected from indigenous communities after the animals themselves were consumed.

I do not know why we had a warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) but I'm guessing it was from the zoo. I'm also guessing it had a bit of a violent life (look at that broken tusk!). I have no guesses as to why it chose to wear that embarrassing hat.

I do not know why we had a warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) but I’m guessing it was from the zoo. I’m also guessing it had a bit of a violent life (look at that broken tusk!). I have no guesses as to why it chose to wear that embarrassing hat.

This is a beautiful green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus); I think this particular bird has unusually dark olive/gray plumage on its back. You can just see a hint of a brighter green—almost yellow—at the edge of the left wing, and that's the same color in the tail that (mostly hidden on this bird) gives it its name.

This is a beautiful green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus); I think this particular bird has unusually dark olive/gray plumage on its back. You can just see a hint of a brighter green—almost yellow—at the edge of the left wing, and that’s the same color in the tail that (mostly hidden on this bird) gives it its name.

SEA TURTLE UNDERCARRIAGE!

SEA TURTLE UNDERCARRIAGE!

I am not sure what was going on here, but I think it had something to do with things decomposing at a particular temperature.

I am not sure what was going on here, but I think it had something to do with things decomposing at a particular temperature.

If this looks like a hummingbird chick that was mummified in its nest, that is because that is exactly what it is. Sad, but incredibly cool. I can't say for sure, because it came out of a freezer and I'm not sure how the museum acquired it, but if it was from around here it was probably a ruby-throated hummingbird. (Archilochus colubris).

If this looks like a hummingbird chick that was mummified in its nest, that is because that is exactly what it is. Sad, but incredibly cool. I can’t say for sure, because it came out of a freezer and I’m not sure how the museum acquired it, but if it was from around here it was probably a ruby-throated hummingbird. (Archilochus colubris).

These are chipmunk skulls in tiny vials. It doesn't take much room to store a chipmunk skull, which is lucky if that is what you are studying.

These are chipmunk skulls in tiny vials. It doesn’t take much room to store a chipmunk skull, which is lucky if that is what you are studying.

That’s enough of that for now; I’ll try to tell you more about the MVZ when I can. It’s really a very special place, even if it’ll never come close to replacing the Field Museum prep lab in my heart.

*******

One of the other things keeping me busy just lately has been a 10-day virtual book tour I did to promote the new edition of my book Mountainfit. You can find links to all ten stops here; my favorites include:
— This heart-to-heart with the brilliant eclectic Sienna Latham;
— This video chat with the endlessly charming Chris Clarke;
— This Spotify playlist, hosted by book-blogger Introverted Jen, which you can enjoy whether or not you read a single page of the book; and
— This guest post on DeLene’s wonderful blog Wild Muse , about peat moss, sucking bogs, and whiskey.

Many thanks to Jason Pettus, owner of the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing, for requiring this demanding but rewarding task of all his writers, and to Lori Hettler, CCLaP’s marketing director, for scheduling all these stops.

Walking With Chris, Walking With Zeke

I didn’t take a lot of notes in college, so I’ve forgotten most of the discussions about books that went on around those scratched wooden tables I scrambled to. I can’t tell you what makes The Stranger a political novel, which misfit puzzle piece of Pale Fire connects to which other. But I’ll always remember what my dear A. said about Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pulling what in my memory is an old Dover Thrift edition from under the pillow of his dorm room bed—the book’s cover showing the dour, mustached face of Nietzsche himself, and not the cool and distant mountain of more recent editions.

“Sometimes when I really, really love a book,” said A., all blazing eyes, and curls, and wire-rimmed spectacles: “this is what I do.” And he brought Nietzsche to a pair of smiling lips and planted on his paper cheek a great big smackeroo.

I’m not sure either A. or I would make the same gesture of affection toward Zarathustra today. It remains beloved to me, not least because of this memory, but as with so many formative books that have not yet been reread, I can’t say what my present self would think of it. The gesture, though, I immediately adopted and have never relinquished. It was in this context that I posted the following tweet last week, and against this backdrop I’d like to tell you a little more about why this book deserves a kiss.

zeketweet

It is probably worth mentioning that Chris Clarke is firstly the author of Walking With Zeke, secondly the founder of the Coyot.es Network, where I write, and thirdly a person I happen to think is kind of the bee’s knees. I may not be the most impartial observer of his writing. But it’s also worth mentioning that a big part of the reason I like Chris so much—we’ve never met, and our digital lives have only recently become entwined—is that I’ve read his book.

His big-hearted, deeply intelligent, surprising, wholly satisfying book.

People sometimes volunteer that the highest compliment one writer can pay another is to say I wish I’d written that. I write about some of the same things Chris writes about—nature, place, identity, memory, the pull of wildness and the ache of home—and I had plenty of I wish I’d written that moments while reading Walking With Zeke.

Sometimes it was a single word I’d envy: the way Chris made me see that yes, coyote nostrils do “seine” breezes for scents. Yes, the partnership between a man and his dog is “thigmotropic.”

Sometimes I coveted a list: “I want no part of any enlightenment posited on the nonexistence of bird song, of capsicum, of salt water or libido or tooth enamel.”

And sometimes an image would arrest: “She is wearing black spandex, her body and the slickrock rhyming.” Chris is an incredibly gifted observer of the world, and I can’t count the times I felt like if I looked up quickly enough from the page I’d catch it: that screaming streak of a Steller’s jay or the trampled carpet of Bradford pears he was seeing when he wrote the words. I’d give a lot to be that clear and true.

But thing of it is, for me there are still higher compliments. I wish I’d thought that. I wish I’d known that. I wish I’d lived that. And in a way I have, now. Reading this book is to spend, in the course of a scant 150 pages, several years in great intimacy with both Chris and Zeke. It is anguish to be there when Zeke seems lost in the dark of a gathering storm in Nevada, and a thrill to be there when the aging, ailing dog has a wonderful day that involves explosive playfighting with a poodle, running circles around Chris, and making a clean 18-inch leap up a driveway wall.

This is not a book that feels confessional, though it is terribly, startlingly honest. It is not a memoir. But walk after walk, entry after entry, we cannot help but come to know the secret happiness and pain of someone who begins, to most readers, as a stranger. It is a book about a man and his dog; it is a book about the great, sweet, dizzyingly beautiful world. It is a book about growing older, and growing old, and growing something that is not quite wise.

Each chapter in Walking With Zeke was originally a blog post, and I will admit that when I bought it I was not looking forward to feeling like I was sitting at my computer clicking through a patchwork of random posts. Please don’t be put off by the origin of these words. The most surprising thing about them is how fluid, cohesive, and complete they feel. This is a work that seems to have come into the world fully formed, and it is extraordinarily hard to believe that Chris did not have a book in mind when he wrote these pieces.

If it seems I may be overstating how lovely this book is, and if it seems I may be doing so because of how much I admire and like its author, I can only say that I have read several books by friends and acquaintances, some much closer to my inner circle than Chris—but this is the first time I have ever written more than a dozen words about one.

I am not alone in encouraging you to pick up a copy of Chris’s book. Other people besides me—far more Internet-Famous people—have done so. Still, I may be alone in urging you to do this right: Learn from my mistake. Buy yourself an actual paper and ink copy. When you close the book on its last page, do not be surprised if you want to bring its lovely cover to your lips. (And do not be surprised if they are a little wet with tears.)

This photo of Zeke, courtesy of the Walking With Zeke Facebook page, was taken in his earlier years; Chris notes that "he didn't always look noble."

This photo of Zeke, courtesy of the Walking With Zeke Facebook page, was taken in his earlier years; Chris notes that “he didn’t always look noble.”

Nightfall

There is a story by Isaac Asimov called Nightfall. I say “there is a story,” but in fact it is Asimov’s most famous piece of short writing, and the one that has been anthologized more often than any other. There is a story, and it takes place on a planet whose sky is lit by the blaze of six suns. These massive bodies, like our own familiar sun, appear to rise and set. But with so many effulgences, at least one rides high in the firmament at any given time; and so the approach of darkness has been unknown here for the past 2,500 years.

At this interval, Asimov explains to us (and history books explain to the planet’s people), an immense eclipse always occurs whose gloomy shade blots out all six suns simultaneously. And after every eclipse, whatever great civilization has arisen on the planet in the intervening years tips into chaos—crumbles—must be begun anew. No one knows what governs this pattern of events. Perhaps, astronomers speculate, the sudden cover of blackness somehow plunges the entire population into a state of madness. But why? What could be so terrible about this thing the books call Night?

Apprehensive, everyone prepares without really knowing how for the eclipse. And when darkness finally falls it brings something more frightful than anyone could ever have imagined: It brings stars.

Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world…

“Light!” he screamed.

Anton, somewhere, was crying, whimpering horribly like a terribly frightened child. “Stars—all the Stars—we didn’t know at all. We didn’t know anything. We thought six stars in a universe is something the Stars didn’t notice is Darkness forever and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and we didn’t know we couldn’t know and anything—”

Someone clawed at the torch, and it fell and snuffed out. In the instant, the awful splendor of the indifferent Stars leaped nearer to them.

Photo by the incredibly talented night photographer Phillip Chee.

The precise time and place of my encounter with Nightfall are lost to memory, but I do know that I was about 13 (that was the year I discovered Asimov, probably because it was the year he died and elegaic radio and television programs began stiffening his life’s work into myth). I might have read it sitting on hot cement stairs at the edge of my schoolyard, waiting for the bus home; more likely, I was sprawled on my bed after dark, my body crunched toward the ellipse of light that fell on the page from my dim wall lamp.

If I shivered when the last line came, it was not because of the cool kiss of the air conditioner. Nightfall, despite its pulpy prose—Asimov was an ideas man, not a stylist—is a shivery sort of story. What would it have been like to see that first nightfall? To live with only sun all your life and know it as friend and mother, as helper and friend, and then have it torn away? What cruelty to face a sky shot full of an infinitude of burning stars, not a single one of which could be apprehended or moved by anything you did or said.

We are diurnal creatures, and the sun shines light on all we are. I think it feels, in some deep way, like a witness to our lives. We live on a grain of sand, but on a clear afternoon the sun’s brightness turns the sky invisible and our eyes down to the world.

But night hides our world from us and us from each other. In its quiet gloaming it seems quite blind to our existence. And there is nothing besides the stars that better teaches us there are no corners to the universe.

I am so grateful that on this planet, in this life, we have a thousand and one chances to befriend nightfall.

Last Monday, 2 a.m. I’m sleeping in a tent. I have to pee. I uncocoon and stumble out. It isn’t till the deed is done that I remember to look up. I know it sounds absurd, but all the same it’s true: I make the sound you make when the one you love goes upstairs in jeans and reappears in a tuxedo, or a dress cut with diamonds. It’s so fucking big. They are so fucking close.

Oh, you know. We all know. We on our lucky, one-sun earth. There’s nothing wonderfuller or more staggering than looking up into that bottomless pool.

I think: Black is a different color here in the Sierras.

I think: Stars are a different shape.

There is no call for going back to sleep just now, so I lie down outside and look for friends. In this season Orion, whom A. always used to call the “Hanging Man,” won’t come to spend the night with us. But there are Ursas Major and Minor, the great Summer Triangle. The Big Dipper slopes toward the bottom of the night and moves to scoop the country up.

And across the sky the sweet, sweet puff of the Milky Way holds us all in. I think: I want to imagine a god just so there could be someone to have breathed that gentle breath.

Asimov wasn’t the only one of us who invented the night.

History of the Night

Through the course of generations
men brought the night into being.
In the beginning were blindness and dream
and thorns which gash the bare foot
and fear of wolves.
We shall never know who fashioned the word
for the interval of darkness
which divides the two half-lights.
We shall never know in what century it stood
for the starry spaces.
Others began the myth.
They made night mother of the tranquil Fates
who weave all destiny
and sacrificed black sheep to her
and the rooster which announced her end.
The Chaldeans gave her twelve houses;
infinite worlds, the Stoic Portico.
Latin hexameters molded her,
and Pascal’s dread.
Luis de León saw in her the homeland
of his shivering soul.
Now we feel her inexhaustible
as an old wine
and no one can think of her without vertigo,
and time has charged her with eternity.

And to think that night would not exist
without those tenuous instruments, the eyes.

—Jorge Luis Borges

Write, Release, Reprise

Longtime readers know that about a year ago I self-published Mountainfit, a little book of natural history essays that bloomed out of a summer’s worth of volunteer fieldwork at the beautiful Lake Ånnsjön Bird Observatory in Handöl, Sweden. It’s my very great pleasure to report that a second edition of Mountainfit is being released, this time by a small press named the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing. Here’s the blurb from the CCLaP site:

In 2011, a tiny bird observatory in far western Sweden found itself hosting its first American volunteer, and Meera Lee Sethi found herself exactly where she wanted to be: watching great snipe court each other under the midnight sun and disturbing lemmings on her way to find a gyrfalcon nest. Mountainfit is an ecological field notebook, a keenly observed natural history of the life that sings from the birches, wheels under the clouds, and scuttles over the peat bogs of the Swedish highlands. And it is a letter, in 21 jewel-like parts, from a well-read and funny friend. Meera’s vigorous, graceful prose communicates a wry understanding of how utterly ordinary it is to long for more out of life — and how extraordinary it can feel to trust that longing. Meera’s intent was to create a book small enough to fit in your pocket and read on the train to work in the morning. It is that. But it’s also large enough to contain a mountain or two.

Publishing with CCLaP is really neat for a bunch of reasons.

1) They traffic in ebooks, but they also release incredibly beautiful, hand-bound editions of all of their titles. We used three photographs I’d taken in Sweden for the new Mountainfit.

2) You can download an ebook version of any CCLaP title for free, or you can choose to donate as much or as little as you like. This model makes me happy because it means no one is deterred from reading by a sticker price, but people who want to support the book can do so to exactly the extent that they wish. I wish I’d thought of it when I put my book up for sale on my own website last year.

3) CCLaP books are released under a Creative Commons license that allows people to translate them, convert them into new formats, or produce derivative works (like films, comic books, or art projects) as long as they don’t alter the original text or remove attributions from it. I love this part of the model, too.

The first edition of Mountainfit was never intended to reach very far. I was doing something very important to me personally: testing the idea that I could be good at working in the field, and that it would bring me a kind of joy I’d been missing. Promising to write about it was my way of committing to the experience, a means of making sure I’d reflect on what I saw without letting it slip through my fingers. My goal was to print copies for the 100 or so people who backed me on Kickstarter. (Some were friends and family, but more than half, to my surprise, turned out to be strangers who offered such affectionate, generous support that we have since become friends.)

When I finished the book, I thought it was good enough to warrant making a page on my website to sell digital copies to anyone who wanted one, but I never did much to spread the word about it. This was partly because at the time I was caught up in a tangle in my life that’s only recently come loose, and partly I was preparing to leave for another 10 weeks of fieldwork in the Alaskan wilderness (a wonderful summer that will become a second book, I hope).

Among the few things I did was try to get the book reviewed. Jason Pettus, CCLaP’s founder, was one of about three strangers I invited to read it (and the only one who followed through). I had bought and enjoyed a CCLaP book, I thought Jason’s book reviews were smart and thoughtful, and I was living in Chicago and liked the idea of being reviewed by someone in my own city.

Months after I sent him Mountainfit, Jason wrote back to tell me he loved the book, and would rather publish it than review it. And so here we are.

Please help us spread the word about this—one of my jobs as a CCLaP author is to promote my work as much as is humanly possible, something this human often finds impossible to do. But the more you’re willing to say something nice, the easier it is for me to as well. Thank you. Now go download a free copy of the book! I hope you enjoy it.

The Tonic of a Northern Goshawk

I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow to attend Science Online 2012, a small but by all accounts raucous conference that brings together scientists, science writers, and science lovers for a three-day conversation about ways to communicate science in this age we call (rather quaintly) digital.

I feel about this sort of the way you might feel about going bungee jumping: I think it’s going to be fun, but first I need someone to throw my butt off the mountain. As it happens, the person who threw my butt off the mountain was Meera-of-two-months-ago, who registered late one night while she was alone in the house, in a sort of haze of reckless abandon.

At any rate, since I’m going to miss my regular Thursday at the bird lab, I went in today to make up for it—and Dave, who has of late been almost as excited about giving me new species as I am about preparing them—had put out something wonderful for me to work on. It was thawing under a lamp when I walked in, all streaky and soft and pantalooned and raptor-y. It had a long tail, broad, pointed wings, and a beautiful curled bill. It was a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a bird I had never seen before either in life or death, and it was breathtaking.

According to the data associated with the bird, it had been picked up on October 12th of last year in Duluth, Minnesota; no other information about its condition or circumstances was available. But I couldn’t see any signs of injury as I prepared it, and it was very thin. Dave thought it might have starved to death; an ill-fitting end for a fierce and clever hunter. Almost every description you read of the Goshawk will tell you that it is such a potent symbol of ferocity that Attila the Hun had its image emblazoned on his helmet: a story that goes back at least to the days of the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus.)

I knew the Gos was a bird to admire as soon as I discovered that although it mostly eats grouse, songbirds, and small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, it is also one of only a few birds of prey that will go after corvids like rooks and crows. Corvids are notoriously ingenious, aggressive, and apt to harass falcons, hawks, and owls in great black mobs. In my book, any bird that regularly chooses and vanquishes such a target must have a fine heart, a quick eye, and sharp talons.

As I was skinning, some friends from the Division of Fishes stopped by to make their rounds through the beetle room. One of them, Kevin, is a birder, and he always likes to talk about whatever I happen to be working on when he arrives. Today he told me about once being swarmed by a pair of angry Goshawk protecting their nest, and the eerie sound they made. I’ve since listened to a Goshawk’s alarm call, and it’s a gorgeously harsh, high-pitched wail that’s almost gull-like. I can imagine being startled by it in the middle of a midwestern forest.

T.H. White, whom I otherwise know only from a rapt childhood reading of The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, once owned a young male of the species. He wrote a 200-page book—or, from the few excerpts I’ve read so far, something more like a 200-page love letter to a difficult, complicated and extraordinary friend—about his relationship with the bird. I leave you with his assessment of what it is to find oneself in such a kinship:

The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.

The thing about honorably preparing the fallen body of a hawk for scientific study is also that one cannot be slipshod about it. And I don’t think I was.

Northern Goshawk

Lessons from Plants in Pain, or What We Talk About When We Talk to Ourselves

Roald Dahl, sovereign of the strange idea played out in matter-of-fact sentences, once wrote a story about a man named Klausner who invents a sound machine. With it he’s able to hear rarefied notes—tremors of the air that otherwise range, like so many things, outside the limits of human perception. When he turns on his invention, Klausner finds himself initiated into an entire universe he hadn’t known existed: a universe of plant communication.

You might think, on the face of it, that this would be a fine and lovely thing. You might think of how you generally experience the green and the growing, and imagine Klausner entering a soundscape filled with music, strains that match the beauty of a field of wildflowers or the elegance of autumn leaves. But instead, he mostly apprehends the noises of plants in distress. “Fierce grinding discords” fall on his ears: he’s shocked by the shrieks that roses make when they’re clipped off the bush. He’s tormented by pity when he hears the awful moans of a tree trunk split by his own axe.

Dahl leaves the question of whether the machine really works open to interpretation—but what I like about the story doesn’t rest on the definition of Klausner as either brilliant or insane. The thing that’s stayed with me, long years after I first read The Sound Machine, is Dahl’s bleak view of what speaks loudest in this world, what he thinks drives the “speech” of all living things—and that is pain.

*******

343 (Mimosa plant, before)

Most disasters, even if they’re built on long and quiet years of brewing, eventually befall us with what feels like too little warning. A stroke slams down upon the pathway blood must take to brain, a guillotine that splits a thought in two. Your partner’s eyes, warm as summer lakes, freeze over for no reason you can fathom. A midnight switchblade sticks its cutting edge between your ribs; you gasp awake, pinned by the sharp awareness that you’re inside the wrong life. Tomorrow you might lose your job, your home. Be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know the air is humid with the vapors of oncoming injuries, each one remains invisible until the day it’s churned into a storm.

I don’t think we’d be better off if we could see the future. I’m pretty sure I, anyway, would be flattened by the weight of full omniscience. But some small bit of notice, a clear advisory or two—watch out, here’s danger on the way!—now that, I’d take. Wouldn’t you? I think that wish must have something to do with why so many of us sit ourselves down to write quite undeliverable letters to the people we once were—an act that’s whimsical and sweet, and yet somehow forlorn.

Maybe it’s also why I’ve come to be, especially of late, a great collector of stories about other people’s hurts. (A cheerful philately.) If you’ve been wounded, come and bend my ear. I want to hear your warnings. And sometimes I eavesdrop on damages that strangers speak of. Years ago I spent almost half an hour lingering over my coffee—which was bad—because the girl at the table next to mine, fresh off her honeymoon, was wiping hot tears from her face and telling her companion how miserable she was to be married. She wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t my problem. And I’m not at all proud to have been riveted. But it was impossible not to be. My body rang (unobtrusively, I hope) with borrowed sorrow, and I still recall her cadences.

I think that moment meant so much to me because, respectfully, Tolstoy was not entirely correct about unhappiness. Life doesn’t feel the need to plan new slights and sicknesses to suit each one of us. Its threats recycle. I’m a realist: I know that, private though they feel, my troubles hover at the average, coinciding with those of my species. Whatever has battered some other Homo sapiens may soon come for me, and I would like to start preparing my defenses.

If this sounds ghoulish to you, well. I understand. But you should know that I am not alone in paying close attention to the suffering of my peers for my own sake. I stand with graceful trees: with willows, alders, poplars, sugar maples. The sweetest and most useful crops, as well—pea pods, beans, tomatoes, cotton—are selfish just like me. And ears of barley, ears of corn—these listen, too, to their beleaguered neighbors.

Klausner (tender soul!) was driven nearly mad by sadness when he overheard plant pain. He called a doctor for his broken tree and made him paint iodine in the wound. Plants themselves know better what to do.

*******

It was in the early 1980s that a few scientists first began to report on trees that seemed to send each other stress signals. One was a zoologist named David Rhoades, at the time studying Red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) defense mechanisms at the University of Washington. Rhoades fed caterpillars leaves from trees their brethren had previously attacked. He found that they began to lose their appetites, and often died prematurely. Presumably this was because of some chemical compound the trees were able to release into their leaves as a form of rapid resistance—precisely the kind of thing he’d been looking for.

But Rhoades was surprised to discover that the very same thing happened to caterpillars fed the leaves of undamaged control trees, planted a little distance away. Could the attacked trees be emitting some kind of pheromonal warning that their counterparts could “hear?” Could they be telling their fellows to put up a fight against their leggy foes?

This study inspired a similar experiment on potted poplars (Populus euroamericana) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) by a pair of researchers at Dartmouth. Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin found higher concentrations of mildly toxic compounds called phenols in trees whose leaves they had torn. They saw the same thing when they checked on unscathed trees, after they were exposed to air pumped in from the chamber where the damaged trees were housed.

The scientific community as a whole reacted to these findings with great skepticism, some of which was not undeserved: methodological problems and an over-confident interpretation of statistics tainted both sets of results. But there was also, apparently, not a little ridicule, with some ecologists scoffing over the idea of “talking trees” and animal behaviorists closing ranks around the definition of communication.

In hindsight, this part of the negative response was somewhat less justified. In the first fourteen years that followed Rhoades, Schultz, and Baldwin’s reports, only three studies regarding plant-plant communication were published (perhaps because of the disbelieving atmosphere they would have emerged into). But times have changed. According to this overview of the literature on the subject, that figure increased to nearly 50 papers between 2005 and 2010.

At this point, the evidence that plants can receive, act on, and benefit from specific signals produced by their distressed coequals is pretty compelling. We’ve learned, for instance, that corn seedlings primed with compounds released by damaged plants give off more of their own defense hormones and chemicals when subsequently slashed with a razor blade or painted with caterpillar regurgitant. (Science is cruel.) We’ve learned that certain unrelated species, like sagebrush and tobacco, can interpret each other’s cues about dangers like hungry herbivores or clipper-happy researchers. We’ve even learned that well-watered pea plants, having overheard a warning from a thirsty neighbor, can pass on that message to still other plants, further away—although this game of vegetable Telephone seems to be played through the medium of soil, not air.

In my favorite recent study, which delights me more because of how the plants defend themselves than how they talk about it, Lima beans infested with spider mites—as well as those exposed to leaves from infested plants—react by activating a set of genes that trigger the emission of a volatile organic compound. This compound, in turn, attracts spider mite predators that come and hoover up the pests.

How wonderful is that? I call it very wonderful, especially since our own apartment has witnessed the expiration of a beloved dwarf Meyer lemon tree that succumbed to a spider mite blitzkrieg. If we’d had two trees, I wonder if one could have saved the other?

Maybe what Dahl got wrong was not the thought that pain is the seabed of all our most essential speech. Maybe where he erred was in suggesting that the anguish Klausner heard was simply that: anguish, pure expression with no purpose and no useful end.

I think of myself sitting at a coffee table, leaning in, despite my better judgment, and breathing in the chemistry of someone else’s heartache. In my mind, now, I see it as a moment of anointment, an inoculation. I think this even though I have no way of measuring what changed in me because of it.

Our bodies fail. Our partners leave. We wake up sick, or shipwrecked. Shocked. And I am hungry to be put on guard, to know when something wicked this way comes.

*******

It’s clear that unscathed plants do eavesdrop, like me, on strangers in distress, and make themselves stronger when they hear of trouble. What’s less clear is what is happening for the plant in pain. Is its anguished warning—Watch out, danger!—really meant to serve as counsel to the ones around it? It’s possible, of course, that some plants evolved to give off stress signals altruistically, because neighbors are often kin, and one example keeps the group as a whole safe. But many times, letting a neighbor in on danger makes you more vulnerable. A Lima bean plagued with spider mites might not want its compatriots to be protected by mite-eaters. (One lemon tree might have saved another, but reluctantly.)

Instead of selfless exhortations, the story of plant stress signals seems at once more simple and more strange. The thing is, a plant that’s hurt and sending out a warning is very likely talking to itself.

Most plants have sophisticated vascular systems, and that’s often how they transmit chemical messages. But volatile compounds, diffusing through air, can travel faster than molecules moving against gravity through tiny tubes. Airborne signals also allow parts of a plant that don’t have a direct connection to each other to speak. Why, though, would a plant need to warn itself? What does that even mean? Well, think of this: A caterpillar munching on one leaf will probably move on to another, a little ways off. That second leaf has time—not much, it’s true, but some small span—to put up its own garrison against the tyranny of tearing insects. That second leaf is far from doomed. And it could use some notice. A body needs to take care of itself.

Most disasters befall us with what feels like too little warning. But maybe that’s because, wrapped up in where we hurt right now, we don’t imagine taking steps to care for what is still undamaged. I know; we are not plants, with separate fates for separate parts. When I’m in pain, it feels as if I ache completely, my entire consciousness consumed by one calamity. And yet. Could there be, do you think, something in this selfish signaling? Some way for us to be like willows and like alders?

I’m not entirely sure. But this past year, and nearly two, has felt like injury to me; so now seems like the time to test the case. I’d rather not be Klausner’s roses, crying out futility. I’ll trust instead that there is strong and healthy matter that remains in me, and let the weaker parts speak loudly to them. More importantly, I’ll try to listen and to learn. Because it’s not, I think, too late to start talking to myself.

And you? Ah. If you eavesdrop, let it be.

*******

Mimosa plant, after

Highly recommended further reading: This wonderful article about visionary biologist Chandra Bose, and his experiments in plant sensation and behavior.