Tag Archives: the body

On the Sunrise View

About six months ago, I took a hard fall on a wet road. I wasn’t doing anything heroic—just coming back from taking the trash out at the field house in the foothills of Rainier where my advisor and I were staying that weekend, with seven undergraduates taking her fall quarter community ecology class. In my memory, I managed to slip spectacularly on a shoelace that was tucked inside my boot. All particularities of my gracelessness aside, the upshot (downstruck?) was that I fell, decisively, on my right knee. Stars were seen; breath was lost; tears were shed. Some combination of embarrassment, bravado, and a feeling of responsibility—I was the TA for the class and didn’t want to be the cause of delay or inconvenience—prevented me from mentioning much about this to anyone else. I limped over forested slopes with our students for the rest of the morning, and later drove over a hundred miles back to Seattle with my un-rested, un-iced, un-compressed knee twanging like a banjo and crunched into a very un-elevated position.

I had some x-rays taken, after three months with little improvement in pain. Here they are:

knee fracture//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

“On the sunrise view,” wrote my doctor, “there is a stepoff consistent with fracture, but this is not evident on the lateral. On the anteroposterior view there’s a subtle lucency superomedially…consistent with a longitudinal fracture of the patella.”

Aside: I love sunrise view. It’s an x-ray taken with a bent knee, so you can see between the patella, rising like the sun, and the horizon of the femur. It’s the bottom right image here.

Surprisingly enough, I didn’t write this post to describe my knee injury. I wrote it because what I did to my knee that day is going to be something I carry with me for the rest of my life. The bone damage has likely healed, but joint fractures are quite prone to post-traumatic arthritis, and it seems likely I also crushed my patellar cartilage. (Alas—adult cartilage doesn’t repair itself.) Six months of rest and physical therapy later, I’m back on my bike every day and in the mountains every weekend, and most of the steps I take are pain-free—but I still feel a knife in the kneecap whenever I squat deeply or take a steep step up or downhill. It’s also taking a long time to unlearn the sneaky habits I formed in the immediate aftermath of my fall, when I started favoring my right leg to avoid the pain of putting weight on it.

I know I’m burying the lede here—not entirely unintentionally—but as my knee goes, so goes my brain. It’s no particular secret to most people who know me well that I have lived most of my adult life with depression. Major recurrent depression, according to the lovely Berkeley psychiatrist I was lucky enough to see several years ago.

Aside: I used to hate psychiatrist, but after I knew that the Greek iatros, which means “healer”, may come from iaino, “to heat, warm, cheer”, it became easier to appreciate. I take a small pink tablet each night, and so light a little warming fire under my soul.

What I want to say about depression, because I think it bears talking about even though, or perhaps especially because, I am currently quite well, and very grateful for my life—is that for those of us who have it, it never fades into memory.

Depression can bring acute pain, and this takes different forms for different people at different times. Once, I stared at a tear-slurred face in the mirror in a hotel bathroom in Hong Kong, attempting a smile but succeeding only in a terrifying rictus. I remember grabbing my cheeks in both hands and moving my muscles roughly around, in search of the person to whom the face used to belong. I was utterly unrecognizable to myself. That injury was fresh.

But these days, things are good. They have been for many, many days past; and this month, in fact, they’re great. I passed my PhD candidacy exam 11 days ago, which means if nothing else that five people whom I respect immensely believe I’m probably going to be capable of finishing what I started. I won a few small awards this season that I can use to fund my field research. My lab is changing, and while I’ll miss my amazing lab mates who are graduating soon, I’m so proud to be part of this lineage—and amazed and excited that I get to play the role of “older grad” to those who are joining us. I’m doing what I love, in a city I love, I have a climb of Mount Baker on the calendar for early June, and I might get to see my whole family again in December. Of course, I know that every hill rolls inexorably down to a valley, but this is my life right now: steady, satisfying.

And yet, while most of the steps I take these days are pain-free, depression continues to show itself. I honestly don’t think about this very much, because I’m so used to it. But when I woke up in the middle of the night last week with the most cynical, jaundiced, privative thoughts running through my mind—at a time when I should have been feeling proud and relieved—I think I finally realized how deep this scar tissue runs.

Here is the prosaic truth: I’ve gotten very good at batting away its attack, but every single day, multiple times a day, something inflames my immortal mosquito of fatigue and self-loathing.

Occasionally, this strikes me as deserved—because I think I am, in fact, all the things it accuses me of being. More often, it strikes me as ridiculous. Ungrateful. Unproductive. But most of the time, it doesn’t strike me for very long as anything at all, because I forget about it in a moment…until the next time.

I don’t really know where this is going. I really just wanted to share it because I know that from the outside, I generally look like I have a good head on my shoulders, and I can take stairs on my bad leg. I have been incredibly lucky—or as Ross says, unlucky to have the brain chemistry I have, lucky that it responds to treatment. And I still have to listen to this crap from my own brain. So if you hear it, too, or more, you’re not alone. And if you don’t think you know someone who does, remember: Some things are only visible on the sunrise view.

The Nearer Your Destination

In the vocabulary of rock climbers, a problem is the physical space between where you are right now and where you’d like to be in just a little bit. A solution is any one of the set of ways in which you might traverse that space. The joy of climbing, you immediately understand, lies in both problems and solutions: A particularly beautiful solution requires an especially interesting problem.

I wouldn’t call myself a rock climber, but I’ve done enough of it in the gym to have collected a small stockpile of techniques—I have a sense of how to stretch, and twist, and push on, and pull with, various bits and pieces of my body in order to make a seemingly inaccessible position accessible. I have a sense of how to approach the physical mass of a rock face, how to see hand-holds and foot-holds and how to exploit my contact with the rock itself so that friction and reaction forces give me extra leverage.

Ross and I let our Berkeley rock gym memberships lapse quite a while ago, but we like using these skills to scramble. If you’ve never heard of scrambling you can think of it as the middle ground between walking, which generally requires no skill or equipment—and technical climbing, which requires both training and gear. Yesterday the two of us spent a few hours inhabiting that middle ground in Sunol Regional Wilderness, a gorgeous park that lies just east of the Calaveras fault (part of the San Andreas fault system) and is blessed with an abundance of otherworldly blue-green serpentine and rich brown-black basalt rock erupting at intervals out of rippling hills. We scrambled in the sweet, clear waters of Alameda Creek, which has so many good-sized boulders in it that you can go nearly a mile straight through the creek itself and only occasionally have to hop over to one or the other bank. We scrambled up Rock Scramble Trail, whose nature does not belie its name.

I was having bouts of lightheadedness that day, on which more in a moment, but the weather was fine and the problems were interesting and the solutions satisfied. The daily push ups I’ve been doing for a few months helped me strong-arm my way up at least one rather tall boulder. I made a couple of singularly enjoyable moves that involved getting nearly horizontal, hands pressed to one whorled stone surface and boots pushing back against another. I got sweaty and I slipped and I ate a fly, and I thought: I wouldn’t mind it if the world were all boulder.

The lightheadedness was a thing of some note, though thankfully it was not only mild but almost enjoyable, in the way that, if you’ve ever gone under, the first flush of anesthesia hitting your veins can make you understand why “giddy” has two meanings. Sunday was the first time I became aware of it, though it’s continued through today and I imagine it may take a little while to subside. About ten days ago, I don’t mind explaining, my physician and I agreed that it was a good time for me to start transitioning off the medication I’ve been taking for the last 14 months. I was given a list of “discontinuation symptoms,” some of which were moderately terrifying and most of which I have very luckily avoided. But I’m pretty sure that this is where the lightheadedness came from.

The only other effect I am experiencing as a result of going off the drug is also of some note.

I have noted it in a conversation with Ross, and today in a letter to my dear friend Sarah, but I find it difficult to note it here, for some reason; perhaps that it requires telling you about one of the parts of myself I find the ugliest. The past 14 months have been good ones, and because of that and possibly because, I now realize, of the medication I’ve been on, this ugliness has not manifested itself very much at all. But it surfaced this past Saturday, while I was studying for an upcoming physics exam and struggling to call upon the concepts and equations I’ve been learning quickly enough to solve my list of practice problems in a reasonably finite period of time. And it surfaced on the drive back from Sunol yesterday, when I made several wrong navigation moves in a row on a busy highway.

Ugliness, in this case, is a sudden, blooming unhappiness—a kind of black choler rising in me like a force of nature—or at least, that is how I thought about it for most of my life. Ugliness is the choler itself, which is usually triggered by the sense that I’ve done something wrong or that something has gone wrong. It is also a secondary sense of outrage and panic about being infected with this feeling, and the desire to cut it out of myself as expeditiously as possible. And it is the almost automatic projection of both of these unhappinesses onto someone else, preferably in a way that has them wronging me—so that even if I have to be miserable, it doesn’t have to be my fault.

I was alone when it happened on Saturday, so Physics Itself took the brunt of my projected unhappiness, which was quite mild anyway and fortunately didn’t last very long because I had to shut my books and head off to meet an old friend. I noticed the choler, though, because it had been so long since I had felt it. Huh, I thought. It’s you. I haven’t missed you. It felt, a little, like a slipping.

On Sunday, of course, Ross was next to me in the car. It wasn’t exactly pleasant for either of us, but I’m very glad to be able to tell you that even without the smoothing benefits of a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, and even though I could feel the ugliness growing like a little massif between my ribs, the whole thing blew over within a couple of minutes. My old friend hasn’t changed, but I have. After an initial convulsion of frustration, I clued Ross—who’d been, understandably, mainly focused on helping us navigate safely home—in on what was happening with me. It took several minutes more before I could say I was no longer angry, or unhappy, or vehemently desirous of not being in the wrong, but I didn’t push those things onto him and I didn’t gorge myself on them.

There was a space between where I was right then and where I wanted to be in just a little bit. There was a set of ways to traverse that space. And I don’t know if it was beautiful, but I found one.

Not all the rocks we scrambled in Sunol had taken their place there as a result of the tectonic forces at play beneath our feet, but this is true of a lot of the park’s most remarkable and interesting problems. Because the fine-grained, iron-rich basalt that dominates the ocean floor is heavier than the the phaneritic (large-grained), silica-rich granite that makes up most of the Earth’s land masses, an oceanic plate will slip-slide below a continental plate when the two have a contest of borders. Down in the mantle, the subducted basalt will melt, be reformed, and alter in character before some of it is unearthed by other geologic events.

Zeb Page, a petrologist at Oberlin whom I do not otherwise know, has won my heart by pointing out that these rocks represent the only material in the world that was once subducted but is now available for study. This is rock that came from the depths of the Earth’s core, became part of its skin, was pushed back under for a second spell in that fundamental forge none of us will ever see, and then returned again.

And we get to climb on it. We get to practice getting nearer to our destinations—even if, after all, Paul Simon was a little bit right about that slipping and sliding thing.

 

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.

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.

Persistence Hunting

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

As to stubbornness: I have stood my ground, bruised and bloody-minded, so many times over so many things that the specifics blend into each other; a plate of vegetables I refused to eat at age six resides in the same part of my brain as an apology I refused to make at age twenty seven.

As to running: I have tried it so few times with such pitiful results that the specifics are horribly stark; a single night-excursion with A. through the stony streets of Jerusalem, ending mere minutes later in shame and sweat and heart palpitations, is as vivid as if it had been stitched into a medieval tapestry and hung on my wall.

A few years ago, when Ross and I lived in Boston and I volunteered as a gallery guide at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, we used to go there fairly often to listen to public lectures in the evenings. The details of most of the talks we attended—on, for instance, the physiology of singing insects or whether morality is learned or innate—are lost to memory.

But one event in particular impressed me so much that I still think about it from time to time, and it has been on my mind this week. It was by a Harvard researcher named Daniel Lieberman, an anthropologist who studies human evolution. At the time, Lieberman was obsessed with the question of how and why we run.

The conventional wisdom about locomotion, he argued—that early hominids whose bodies were more suited to bipedalism were the ones who survived when they left their shady tree-dwelling lives to forage for food on the open savannah, and that the human ability to run was simply a byproduct of the ability to walk—was all wrong.

Listen, he said: Our cousins the Australopithecines could walk on two legs, and their bodies—hunch-shouldered, short-legged—were nothing like those of the genus Homo. Plus, Australopithecines continued to lead a partially arboreal existence for millions of years, even after they evolved to be bipedal.

Walking, Lieberman announced to the room, didn’t bring us down from the trees, and it didn’t give us our human shape.

Running did.

Only look: The human body is exquisitely well-designed to run. It has long, elastic tendons in its legs and feet that store energy like springs when compressed, something we do much more when we run than when we walk. It has large gluteus maximus muscles that pull our torsos backwards and keep us upright when we lean crazily forward into the off-balance pitch that starts each new step of a run. It is relatively hairless, and can sweat—both adaptations that allow us to release the heat of extreme exertion.

The reason we evolved to lope, dash, scamper, gallop, hurtle across this great green Earth?

Well, the anthropologist grinned, we hadn’t yet invented the bows and arrows that would enable us to kill over long distances; we hadn’t yet tamed the wild horses that would one day carry us close to fleeing animals.

We learned to run, he argued—and run, and run, and run—so we could hunt prey to exhaustion, track it for hours if necessary, past the point at which a quadruped (built to gallop only for short distances) would have to stop to pant. And then we would stop running, too, and have done with it.

I remember being struck, at the time, by how extraordinarily steely this seemed—how the idea of it made me simultaneously marvel at and recoil from my strange, inherited human self. If this was true then we were born to conquer; born to do it without tools, without thought, and without guile, but through a simple act of complete and total obstinacy. To run, it seemed, was to be stubborn.

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

For thirty-two years I have lived with both these ideas about myself. But (ask a Harvard anthropologist!) being deeply contradictory truths, perhaps it should not so much surprise that one of them would someday fall.

So far this week, heart and legs and mind stronger than they have ever been from a summer’s worth of field work, I have run a total of nine miles—by the lake, at the gym, through the streets of my neighborhood in Hyde Park. It isn’t much, I know; nine miles is far from an endurance-run across the Kalahari. There is a long, long way to go.

But I have not stopped to pant. I am persisting. I am claiming my strange, inherited human self.

And one of these days I’m going to outlast whatever it is I’m hunting, and have done with it.

lake run

(This is the 3-mile route Ross and I have been running.)

*******

(You can read more about Lieberman’s work in his 2004 paper on the evolution of running, or in any of a number of popular articles it spawned.)

Hands-On

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I’ve never believed my hands were particularly nice looking. When I was 12, I was envious of the long, slender fingers on my friend Beth. You couldn’t really hope to be an artist, I thought, without the right pair of hands. Either you were born with both the temperament and the digits—which, according to all the Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery novels I was reading at the time, arrived together—or you were doomed to a prosaic life.

I’ve also never believed my hands were particularly strong or skilled. When I started volunteering at the Field Museum two and a half years ago, it was the first time in my life that I’d really done anything useful with them. But that work, satisfying as it is, didn’t do much to transform my hands into Tom’s hands—which I watch whenever he’s working on a study skin or a taxidermy mount in the lab. Tom’s hands perform the most deft and precise motions. Yet they’re also large, callused, and muscular, and marvelously capable looking. They’ve been out in the world.

A week ago, I returned to the observatory from a long afternoon of tracking. I had just fallen from my too-tall borrowed bicycle onto a dirt and gravel road while speeding downhill, and I was feeling particularly incompetent as I walked into the yard, brushing at my bleeding lips and forehead. There I found Jennie—who grew up here in the Swedish countryside—out by the shed, fixing the bottom of the observatory’s power boat by nailing wooden planks together. “You can do anything,” I told her, meaning “I can’t.”

My hands don’t know as much as Jennie’s. They haven’t built many things, or used many tools, or been trained to keep me alive when the world goes all to hell. They’re nice hands and all; they’re just not very experienced.

Or they weren’t until now.

For the past two and a half weeks, my hands have been busy carrying field equipment, helping me push my way through birch branches and willow trees, reaching out for balance on rocks, brush, and muddy ground as I stumble up and down mountainsides, wielding rakes and paint brushes, hauling stones, helping to pull a boat by its rope, measuring and cutting wood, and—today—building an owl-sized nest box with a hammer, nails, and a great mess of splintery wooden planks.

And do you know what? Small signs of change are showing themselves on my hands. They’re a little scratched up. They’re dry and rather rough. They’ve got some cuts and scrapes and blisters on them, and a good amount of dirt seems to be baked into a couple of my fingerprints.

My hands still aren’t Tom’s hands, or Jennie’s. They’re definitely not getting any more artistic. But they’re engaging with the world in ways they’ve never done before. And I like the way they feel.

small signs of change


P.S. Here is the nest box I made today:

My first Tengmalm's Owl-sized Nest Box

And here is the Great Snipe nest I found, a few hours later, hands on my antenna.

Finding #25

The Lost Panther

Preface and Disclaimer: The following is an account of one family’s experience with a complex childhood malady. It is in no way intended to represent universal facts about anorexia nervosa, infantile anorexia, or the diagnosis known as failure to thrive. It is published here as a gift to Regina, whom I “met” last year when I was researching hunger and who opened her life to me with extraordinary generosity. Any errors in the science are mine; any truths you may find in it are due to her honesty. I hope you find Regina and Eicca’s story as compelling as I did, and that you approach it with respect.

I think that this is largely why people have children:

You think of hunger as a panther with a step like snowfall, prowling at the edges of your sight. You think of hunger as an itch yawning across your skin, demanding to be scratched. You think of hunger as a man cracking a whip, and you its slave. The way you know hunger is the way you know pain, the way you know fear, the way you know love: as a force that inhabits the body. It lives in the spasming of muscles in your gut, the strange internal seething of gases and fluids. You do not think of hunger as something you must find—like a lost ring buried deep beneath a sofa cushion. Like a little boy gone astray.

The sensation we recognize as hunger is the result of a deft physiological machinery: invisible to us, but nevertheless highly efficient. Dozens of chemicals of varying importance are believed to be involved in the complex play of reactions that results in the arousal of appetite, not all of them yet identified by science. A few central pathways, though, we can describe with reasonable confidence—a few guides for those who seek to find.

Here is one, for example. Go long enough without eating, and cells in the gastrointestinal tract secrete a chemical comprising a single chain of 28 linked amino acids, first discovered in 1999 and known in the scientific literature as ghrelin (but immediately christened “the hunger hormone” because of the role it plays as a messenger for an empty stomach).

Ghrelin seems to work by stimulating specialized receptors at the end of an abdominal branch of the vagus nerve: a bundle of fibers that wanders a remarkably long and complex path through the body and connects, at its zenith, to the brain. With these receptors activated, a signal vibrates up the length of the vagus nerve until it reaches an appetite-controlling center in the hypothalamus. The message it carries is as simple as it is insistent: We’re running on empty!

And then, before you know it, there you are. Losing your train of thought. Feeling saliva prickling at your mouth like tiny bees. Arrested by the memory of a particular sandwich you once ate in a restaurant in Boston, sweet with cranberry chutney and salty with Havarti cheese that melts like cream on your tongue.

This is how it works, how it’s always worked. You are born with the blueprint for hunger tattooed onto your cells, an appetite for food that is inseparable from the appetite for life. This is how it works—until it doesn’t.

*******

It is an icy January day in Oulu, Finland, on the eastern shore of the Baltic sea, when the most wanted child on earth is born. His safe arrival has been a long time coming—following, as it does, eight years of attempts to conceive, four intrauterine inseminations, two cycles of in vitro fertilization, one miscarriage, and 38 weeks of anxious pregnancy. The mother of the most wanted child on earth touches her son’s warm cheek: soft as a rising bun under her finger. She whispers his name: Eicca. She whispers munkki, my little munkki: the Finnish word for doughnut. She thinks: I have loved you from all time. She does not know that, in one way at least, this baby is incomplete: he has come into the world without his hunger.

When Regina is hungry, it is the junk food she grew up on in San Francisco that tugs at her thoughts. She dreams of Cheese-Its the crackling color of a neon traffic sign, Carl’s Jr. fries that leave a film of hot, delicious oil on her fingers. She has an especially fanatical affection for the sweet-salty taste of Reese’s Pieces. But because she has always been overweight, Regina usually tries to hold herself in check. In time, she will wonder about this. Could her own lifelong struggle to combat what sometimes feels like an immoderate hunger somehow have affected Eicca’s appetite? Could he have inherited a subtle, invisible disposition to quell his hunger? These questions, when they come, will be at once utterly absurd and completely irresistible. But that will be later.

At 27 weeks, Regina is nervous. The time has come for her to take a glucose challenge test to see how efficiently her body processes sugar. Because of her weight, she is at a high risk of developing gestational diabetes, a temporary form of high blood sugar that only occurs during pregnancy. It doesn’t usually threaten a pregnant woman’s health, but if left unchecked gestational diabetes can lead to problems for the baby she carries, including jaundice, excess growth, or respiratory distress. The night before, Regina and her husband Marco sit together and eat an entire box of chocolates, piece by piece. If she fails the test, Regina reasons, this will be the last time in months she’ll get to indulge her sweet tooth. She had better savor this night while she can. The Finnish chocolates are no substitute for Reese’s Pieces, but she is nearly seven months pregnant and she is hungry and she is not ashamed to say that they are good. When the box is empty, Regina laughs. She puts her hands on her belly, full of chocolate and Eicca. Then she fasts for ten hours. By the time the little cup of glucose slips past her lips, she is starving. But she passes the test with flying colors.

For Regina, as for most of us, food is temptation and memory and indulgence and pleasure, all at the same time. This is how it works, how it’s always worked. This is how it works, until it doesn’t.

*******

In retrospect, the signs that Eicca’s hunger is missing are present almost from the start. At Regina’s breast, he drowses instead of drinking. When he does suckle, it is slow and fitful, and very quickly he stops, turns his head away, and falls asleep. It is as if eating is a pointless tedium instead of what it should be: the central occupation of his life, the drive behind the doubling of his cells and the development of his brain, his heart, his reaching fingers.

Even when he has gone three or four hours without feeding—the length of time it takes most infants’ stomachs to empty to the point of discomfort—Eicca shows none of the behavioral marks of newborn hunger described in a set of child feeding guidelines issued in the European Union. No increased alertness or activity, no rapid eye movements, no hand-to-mouth and suckling motions, no soft cooing or sighing, sucking sounds, no fussiness. Watching Eicca as time stretches out since his last sip, the last second is the same as the first. At night, it is the sound of her alarm that startles Regina awake for feedings; Eicca never wakes or cries for food.

You do not think of hunger as something you must find.

*******

Soon, Regina and Marco switch to feeding Eicca bottled breast-milk, supplementing it with a store-bought formula. Even so, at five weeks he is drinking less than seven ounces of food every 24 hours, a fraction of the recommended daily intake for an infant of that age. But since he is growing, if slowly, Regina puts aside her concern.

At seven weeks, a nurse comes to the house to check on Eicca and weigh him—standard practice in Finland’s universal health care system. Though all seems well at the appointment, the next morning brings a call—the voice on the other end of the line brooding and uneasy.

“I’ve been up all night worrying about your baby,” the nurse blurts out.

*******

The word anorexia literally means “without appetite;” but for most adolescent or adult sufferers of the disorder the label is precisely false. What studies of women with eating disorders show is that ghrelin levels in the blood plasma of anorexics are significantly elevated compared to healthy subjects—and they don’t drop after meals as in normal controls. The findings help to explain why many anorexics, especially in the early stages of the disease, report feeling an almost constant sensation of hunger. Besides a distorted view of your own body, this might be one of the deepest reasons for someone to deliberately lose an appetite—to push it deep beneath the cushions—the fear that if you once began to eat, you would never stop.

It’s clear, of course, that this terror is groundless—pathology, not prescience—but it has an ancient precedent. We have lived for millennia with a dread of the hunger we harbor. In Greek myth, when the mortal Erisichthon strikes down an oak tree beloved of Ceres, she sends Famine to breathe herself into his veins, like poison, as he sleeps.

When he awoke, his hunger was raging…What would have sufficed for a city or a nation was not enough for him. The more he ate the more he craved. His hunger was like the sea, which receives all the rivers, yet is never filled; or like fire, that burns all the fuel that is heaped upon it, yet is still voracious for more….at last hunger compelled him to devour his limbs, and he strove to nourish his body by eating his body, till death relieved him from the vengeance of Ceres.

Bulfinch’s Mythology

Inhabited by this ancient fear, anorexics train themselves to master hunger. Some even grow to love the painful, drawing sensation of an empty stomach for what it represents: a virtuous triumph over desire. One textbook on anorexia quotes a patient whose symptoms first began at 17. The immediate effect of self-starvation, she explains, “was a feeling of exhilaration verging on euphoria. The hunger was hell…but the hell was far outweighed by the reward.”

You think of hunger as a man cracking a whip.

*******

When anorexia occurs in infants, its rewards—if they exist—are much harder to understand. First described in detail by pediatric researchers Irene Chatoor and James Egan in the 1980s, infantile anorexia typically makes an appearance when a child reaches 3 to 6 months of age, a critical point of transition between bottle-feeding, spoon feeding, and self-feeding. The disorder originates, Chatoor has asserted, in a pattern of maladaptive interactions and conflict between an infant and his or her caretaker, and reflects a young child’s growing struggle for independence. “The infant refuses to eat in an attempt to achieve autonomy and control with regard to the mother,” she wrote in 1989, “a maneuver that serves to involve the mother more deeply in the infant’s eating behavior and to meet the infant’s need for attention. Mother and infant become embroiled in a battle of wills over the infant’s food intake. The infant’s feeding is directed by his emotional needs instead of physiological sensations of hunger and satiety.”

While this description doesn’t fully explain the source of Eicca’s troubles—which start much earlier than those of the infants in Chatoor’s studies, and seem almost congenital—its dour pronouncements seem to grow more accurate over time, as a vicious circle of insistence and refusal forms. The more preoccupied Regina becomes over her son’s lack of interest in food, the longer and more fraught mealtimes become, until she is literally trapping him into his chair with one stiff, outstretched arm while she spoons carrots and peas into his mouth with the other. While he screams. They are on vacation in Hawaii, the air coming through the windows fragrant with frangipani, and every morning it is on the schedule. Force-feeding Eicca in paradise.

Though infantile anorexia is considered a psychiatric disorder, it is not infrequently associated with physical conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease, the abnormal tendency for stomach acids to flow backwards to the gullet and cause food regurgitation. By the time Eicca is six months old, he is vomiting as often as ten times a day, sometimes several times an hour, despite being on Zantac: a powerful ulcer medication designed to block acid production in the stomach. The air in the apartment acquires the sharp, sour smell of vomit; you can smell it as soon as you walk in the door. At last, driven by a kind of exhausted pragmatism, Regina begins feeding Eicca in the bathroom, watching him closely in the mirror for signs of an imminent purge. When he throws up, she holds him over the bathtub, tears streaming down her face as the hot milk splashes onto the sleek porcelain. Then she wipes him clean and tries again.

In early 2009, just before Eicca’s first birthday, he and Regina move into a tiny room at the hospital—Marco, who has to work, sleeps there with them at night. Every day, five times a day, for three weeks, three pediatricians, a gastroenterologist, a speech therapist, and a bevy of nurses orchestrate Eicca’s feedings. They film him eating. They time his meals. They measure and record what he consumes. And all the while they watch him for signs of hunger or aversion, like wildlife biologists encountering a new species. Some days are good: once, Eicca consumes 100ml of milk, 50ml of blackcurrant soup, 80 spoonfuls of pureed mango yogurt, meat, and potatoes, 20 spoonfuls of porridge, a few bites of cheese, and the corner of a piece of bread. Regina cannot believe her eyes.

But mostly, meals are just like they are at home. The very next day, he eats nothing except for a few bites of pear, a few bites of bread, and a few sips of milk. At the end of three weeks, Eicca is still turning his head away from food. He has lost one kilogram.

*******

Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History, explains that motherhood made her searingly alive to the improbability and injustice of a hungry child: “I gave birth to my daughter and fed her my body. Later, I had a son and he, too, drank from me. I was feeding the world. This was not aggrandizement so much as myth. At the center of our life, we are Eve or Prometheus or Odysseus. At the center of my life, I fed the world, and yet children were dying.” At the center of her life, Regina offered her son the world, and he refused it—would, if she hadn’t fought with him, have died for lack of all she had to give. The improbability, the injustice of this.

The Oulu University Hospital doctors who counsel Regina and Marco about Eicca have a mantra. They will repeat it over and over through the months and years of hospital visits, say it so many times that hearing it will make Regina want to scream. You must let him find his hunger, the doctors insist. Just give him a chance and he will find his hunger. As if Eicca’s appetite has been accidentally misplaced, forgotten in a corner like one of the toy train cars he loves to race around the house. As if sooner or later he will simply realize that he needs it, this hunger of his, and go looking. As medical advice, it borders on the magical. But—at least for the moment—it is all that science has to offer.

As he gets older and continues to show almost no interest in food as a source of pleasure, Regina and Marco sometimes resort to spooning butter into his mouth, letting him dip both hands into a jar of pure sugar and smear the grains onto his tongue. The rules of healthy childrearing that normal parents set for themselves—give your child lots of proteins and vegetables, keep them away from junk food—are nothing but mythology. When Eicca is two years and seven months old he falls briefly in love with a particular brand of Finnish shortbread cookie, stuffed with a hazelnut cream filling and sprinkled with chocolate chips. Regina is overjoyed.

Love, of course, is relative. Falling in love, for Eicca, means he will cry to have a package opened, then eat one tiny corner of one cookie before turning his head away. And yet it is a blessing. A glint, perhaps, of some lost bright thing that might someday be found.

flan de queso

This Constant Heart

I’ve been going to bed alone this summer while Ross is in England, and the nights are hot and still. As the day ceases to stir and I grow deaf to the low drone of the fan, the spaces between sounds spread till they touch, silence to silence. No other body breathes; no other arms shift raspily against sheets. Sometimes I find it hard to sleep in the hush. But then I turn to rest my ear against the pillow, and I am not alone. The rhythm that has inhabited my body without fuss or fanfare all through the day makes itself known: my heartbeat.

As it does I am engulfed by a sensation of amazing intimacy and fascination. I don’t control my heartbeat. Like perspiration, salivation, digestion and the dilation of the pupils, the beating of the heart is a process that falls under the control of the autonomic nervous system, and is largely involuntary. Yet it feels in this moment as if I can magic it into and out of existence—lift my head and it disappears; lay it down and it returns. It seems what it is not: ephemeral.

The thump itself, when I rest my head, is familiar. Primeval. It’s a version of the maternal rhythm I must have heard as soon as my newly forming ears began transmitting signals to my newly forming brain, weeks after conception and not long after my own primitive heart hiccuped into being.

(Before the heart becomes a servant to the rest of the body, it may beat for its own sake. The first contractions and expansions of the heart, some scientists think, are not required for the diffusion of nutrients and respiratory gases throughout the developing fetus. Instead they trigger the formation, shaping, and growth of new cardiac muscle and the tiny blood vessels that are starting to finger out from the heart. In other words, every heartbeat begins as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

This beat I hear now, though, is distinctly mine: made by the specific mechanical properties of my muscles, bone, and blood. And no one else can experience it in quite this way: no doctor channel it through a stethoscope, no lover rest an ear to my chest and capture the same immersive resonance. Having my heartbeat in my ear is like listening in on a secret conversation, my body speaking to itself.

This Paper Muscle in My Chest

Structurally, the heart is a beautiful thing, designed for one thing and one thing only: to pump. It has two muscular halves, each of which is divided again to form an upper atrium and a lower ventricle. A heartbeat may sound simple, but it’s only the barest glimpse of the complex, precise, and exquisitely coordinated choreography of blood into and out of these four chambers.

First, the upper chambers of the heart contract: the muscle twisting and tightening like the fabric of a dish rag being wrung dry. This squeezes blood from the atria into the ventricles, which relax to receive their cargo. Next, a complementary event: the atria relax and the ventricles contract, squeezing blood into the arteries (blood from the right ventricle travels to the lungs to pick up oxygen; blood from the left ventricle travels out into the body to deliver it).

Most of this movement is silent to me, except for the opening and closing of the heart valves—each a set of two or three half-moon-shaped flaps that direct the flow of blood into and out of the organ. They are responsible for the beat repeating in my ears as the whole astounding process takes place, over and over, in the still of the night. Lub and the tricuspid and mitral valves pull shut behind the blood that’s just pumped into the ventricles; dub and the aortic and pulmonary valves do the same after the blood that’s just pumped into the arteries. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub: such a sweet, optimistic sound.

I think what makes the thing seem loveliest of all is the deep choreography behind it. A heartbeat is all about the careful management of the balance between contradictory states: open, closed; expanding, contracting; inwards, outwards; full, empty; oxygenated, deoxygenated; at work, at rest. And out of the unceasing transition between these states, we get steadiness. It’s practically a Zen koan written into physiology—a most muscular teaching.

The reason this koan rushes through my ears when I place my head against my pillow? For that I can thank the internal carotid arteries that ribbon up each side of my face. On their way to the brain, these arteries pass right in front of the tympanic cavity: that inner cave of the ear where three tiny bones are curled, their only job to vibrate in response to waves of pressure and begin converting them into what I perceive as sound. It is not my heart itself I sense throbbing in my ears, but a kind of echo, as dipping your hand into a fast-moving river you feel the push of a wave that originated many miles upstream.

spanish graffiti is romantic

This past Thursday in the bird lab, I heard—or rather, saw—another echo. After one clumsy move with a scalpel, I opened a cut the length of an eyelash on the skin of my left index finger. There was a moment of what seemed like stunned affront on the part of my cells—and then I bled. Swaddling a band-aid around my finger, pressing vein against bone, I felt my pulse grow tight and insistent. I held my finger up to stare. The vessel I’d cut into was quite a long way downstream from the heart, but blood was still being propelled through it with enough force that if I looked closely I could see the shape of each echoed beat, thrusting against the flimsy fabric barrier I’d put up around my wound.

It was almost as if my heart had doubled: sent a second, smaller, version of itself to the precise location of the insult I’d created. The finger ached a little, but I smiled. To be cut, bruised, hurt, I understood, is to be aware of the heart’s extraordinary compass. There is no place in the body to which its drumbeat does not carry; no tissue it cannot touch.

Every squeeze of a healthy, reaching heart drives about three ounces of blood through its chambers (as much of the stuff as you could carry onto an airplane in a single plastic container, if you were so inclined) and fifty times that volume through the body as a whole. So much power lies behind the heart’s contractions that in the space of one minute a single red blood cell, pushed along on the tidal wave that begins in the heart, can whiz through an average of three full laps around the circulatory system—journeying each time from heart to lungs to heart to oxygen-hungry cells, and back again.

This is a fabulous statistic, so to try to get inside it I start walking and count to twenty, the time it takes for one such round. No fucking way. It’s hardly long enough to get from the kitchen to the living room window. And in that time, I am supposed to believe, trillions of blood cells have completely traversed the length of what is, for them, the entire universe? Driven by this crazy heart of mine?

It is fierce, this muscle. With a strong heart on your side, nothing seems impossible. You might run 10,000 meters in under 30 minutes. Dive the height of a skyscraper on a single one of your own breaths. Me? I don’t reach that far. But I’ll tell you that I’ve been working with my heart at the gym for three years, and I can now run for a bus without sending it into palpitations. Some of us will take what support we can get.

184


Some don’t believe their hearts are on their sides at all. Another word for steady is inexorable, and the phrase keeping time has a dark second half—until it runs out. Something wild and fearful lies just on the other side of the calm thrumming that keeps me company when I’m in bed. The other day I read the following plea for help on a mental health forum.

I’m terrified of my heartbeat. I hate that my life is controlled by my heart. It’s a small muscle and it’s so powerful. It’s in control, I am not. I hate it.

I wish somebody could snap me out of this horrific phobia. I can’t stop thinking about it because it’s always there, always beating.

It’s horrible.

I get happy and then I stop, remembering I have a heartbeat, I’m human, and if I’m alive and not here to live a crazy life, I’m just here to be a mammal, because I have a heartbeat. I’m not here to have a job, or love…I’m here to eat, survive, reproduce and die.

It’s horrible. I hate having it. I wish somebody could convince me my heart is my friend and not my enemy.

There is part of me that understands this terror.

I imagine a stranger offering to put a metronome inside me that would tick off the moments remaining in my finite existence, beat by beat. I would, they’d explain, be able to feel and sometimes hear—but not very well control—the cadence of this morbid little clock. It would feed my body and give it breath, but could itself be damaged, and when it finally ran down, so (most likely) would I. As life rests on it, so a heartbeat can be an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality: making it ideal for starring roles in horror stories, and lending creatures that echo its modus operandi a shivery air.

There is part of me that understands this terror; but I don’t feel it.

In all these nights I have been, more than anything, comforted by the constancy—the mad beautiful stubbornness—of my heartbeat. Its metric varies from time to time, but the basic pattern it follows was set in motion in the womb, and continues, careless of my will. This fidelity of purpose amazes me; no wonder we say truehearted when we mean loyal. In my breast I carry a soldier who received a single order 31 years ago and has never once faltered.

Listen: On the strength of that order, in the space of one day the human heart beats approximately one hundred thousand times. One hundred thousand.

I find this figure frankly insupportable, and I’ll tell you why. It means, you see, that since Ross left the country mine has pulsed no less than four and one half million times. And how this is possible I can barely comprehend.

Without him here I have been left bereft of order, customs, habits. I don’t mind being on my own, but after years of learning to match the tempo of another person’s life this sudden solitude feels a little strange. The everyday beat that drives my world—the one I didn’t even realize was there—has bounced all out of time and now seems to syncopate beyond recognition. Each morning for the past six weeks I have woken and started over, trying to reestablish it.

Yet somehow in the same period my heart has stuck to its plan—followed its single basic order, in the face of the confusion I have felt. It has beat, same as always, four and one half million times. It has not asked for my permission. It has not needed my participation. It has simply proceeded, knowing exactly what it ought to do, in a way that I have not.

So I keep my head against my pillow, just a while, as darkness falls on each of these summer nights. The larger rhythm of my life may be a little hard to hear right now, but the one I hold within doesn’t seem to be skipping a beat.

The Virtue of Stiffness

I realize how determinedly morbid this is going to sound after telling you not three weeks ago that I am obsessed with death, but at 7 o’clock this morning I got down on my hands and knees in the bathroom to pull the stiffened body of a dead cat out from underneath my claw foot tub, and at 5 o’clock this evening those same two hands of mine drew the cranium and jaw bones of a raccoon, tenderly packed in bubble wrap and Styrofoam, from the recesses of a box that arrived in the mail.

But hey, sometimes that’s just the way your day turns out.

The expired cat was not, I hasten to add, my cat; if it had been I would be in no state to write these words. As it was I slept poorly last night, knowing the poor thing was just on the other side of the bedroom wall and likely close to death. My dreams were full of it. In life, the cat was a small, black, medium-haired beastie, with egg-yolk yellow eyes and a burbling purr (cats purr when stressed or traumatized, not just when content). In death, those eyes, I noticed, were open: their pupils—like those of human corpses—fixed and slightly dilated. When in its prime it was undoubtedly a pretty little thing.

Ross and I picked up the cat yesterday evening about two blocks from our apartment. It was drenched to the bone and without visible signs of injury, but moving slowly and with an almost drunken gracelessless very uncharacteristic of a feline. We thought it might have fallen out of a window or been hit by a car, and brought it into our home with the hope that the creature would survive the night and we could take it to the nearest vet as soon as it opened today—but sadly, our best efforts were in vain.

The cat had mustered what little strength it had in order to crawl underneath the tub before it died, probably because it felt a little safer in that narrow, constricted space. It was there in the morning when we went in to check on it, and if there had been any doubt about its expired status, a hand reached out to touch it made a definitive answer immediately apparent from two things: coolness and rigidity.

The average core body temperature of a cat is about three degrees higher than the average core body temperature of a human, or about 102°F. If a cat has ever sat on your lap, you already know this. A living cat is a thing of reliable warmth. Mine, for instance, is a blanket that provides snug comfort in winter and transforms into a heavy irritation in summer. This cat was cool, though not cold, to the touch.

someone's got to do it

In death, the systems that the body relies on to regulate its temperature start to fail.The rapid contraction and expansion of the muscles that produce a warming shiver can no longer take place; nor can the vasoconstriction (tightening of the blood vessels) that keeps heat from escaping from the skin, or the chemical reactions that can transform fat directly into heat in our cells. Cold as death, they say. I can tell you that what they say is true.

If I had had the means or the inclination (macabre even for me) to take its temperature, I might have been able to determine the approximate time at which this cat crossed the border between life and death. To do this I could have used the knowledge that the average mammalian corpse cools at a rate of about 1.5°F per hour, although it would have been difficult to come to a precise estimation. Algor mortis (Latin for “the coolness of death;” and death is, I fear, a cool customer) might have been affected by the size of the cat, the amount of insulation it carried on its slight frame, the ambient temperature in my bathroom and that of the tile on which it was resting, as well as other factors.

Still, a calculation could have been made. It is possible, for instance, that I could have somehow aligned the cat’s hour of death with one or another of the times in which it had wandered through my fitful sleep in the form of a dream-black-cat, healthy and mewling and full of vigor. If I were of a soul-believing bent, that might have been comforting.

But even if the cat had somehow managed to retain a good deal of its body heat after its death, the rigidity of its body would have told me it was gone, and had been for some hours. Rigor mortis (Latin for “the stiffness of death;” and death is, I fear, an inflexible wretch) is a tightening of the muscles that sets in in small mammals, like cats, within a couple of hours of the end. Apparently, the use of the term stiff to refer to a corpse dates back to the very beginning of the 13th century—so clearly has the phenomenon of rigor mortis been associated with death, and for so long.

What causes this stiffness is a sequence of chemical events that is, frankly, marvelous. (I think so, anyway.) Here’s how it goes. Normally, muscles contract because they’ve received a signal in the form of a nerve impulse from the brain. When that impulse reaches a muscle cell, it triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plugs itself into receptors on the surface of the cell, opening channels through which sodium ions enter. The sodium, in turn, causes a flood of calcium ions to be released within the muscle cells. Finally, the calcium ions enable two kinds of muscle fibers—actin and myosin—to bind together and cause the muscle as a whole to contract. In order to release that contraction, an infusion of energy is required to push out the calcium ions and return the muscle fibers to their relaxed positions.

It’s all a beautifully rehearsed and executed electrochemical relay race that results in tight, or rigid muscles. (Want to set it in motion right now? Clench your fist. There. Nerve impulse—acetylcholine—sodium—calcium—actin/myosin—clench. If you squeeze your eyes tight, you can tell yourself that you almost feel those microscopic channels opening and closing. You’ll be lying, but it’s a beguiling notion.)

After death, accumulated calcium ions tend to leak across the cell membrane into muscle fibers, causing a contraction that cannot be released because the cell is no longer generating energy. And so: Stiff as a board, they say.

I can tell you that what they say is true. By the time we looked in on our sweet, unfortunate stray in the morning, its limbs had hardened to the point where it was difficult to draw from its hiding place. Ross had to kneel beside the tub and push gently on its back legs, while I pulled gently on the scruff of its neck, to get it out. If I had held the animal up by its torso, which I did not, its legs would not have hung loose and sweetly heavy like those of my living, breathing cat. They would have remained as they were: curled around its body like armor.

(If I had waited several more hours, though, loose they would have come. Rigor mortis dissipates as decomposition sets in, breaking down muscle tissue and releasing the contracted fibers.)

I could see, as he pushed and I pulled, that Ross was a little red-eyed and sniffly to see the creature in what must have seemed, to him, a strange and unnatural state. I, on the other hand, had grieved the night before. It was much more difficult for me to witness the cat as it was before death, its hot breath coming in and going out in ragged pants and its body so lacking in strength and nimbleness, as if it had forgotten how to move its four paws. Life, as the Buddha says, is suffering.

But this morning as I lifted the limbs that had once lent it the lucky poise of nine lives and felt how they had gone hard and inflexible, it was clear that the cat had ceased to be a suffering being and become, instead, a body. Its very stiffness protected me from pity, providing a hard, unassailable demarcation between life and death. For that I am rather grateful, because no matter how interested one is in death, it is no lovely thing to pick up the cadaver of something whose nose you stroked the night before. I am curious, not ghoulish. This cat’s death was both unnecessary and melancholy.

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About my adoration for this raccoon skull, on the other hand, I have no excuses. A friend, knowing my predilections, offered to find it for me: and so it was found. And cleaned. And packaged. And sent. And the stiffness of its beautiful bones has a different sort of virtue.