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Millions of years ago, there they were. Floating around, taking
in the sights as much as a single-celled organism can, turning carbon dioxide
into oxygen, supporting the food chain—diatoms did all the things that they
still do now. And then, they died.
When they died, they drifted down to the bottoms of lakes
and rivers and the ocean. Their silica-packed cell walls remained and piled up,
over time becoming chalky deposits called diatomaceous earth.
They’re still out there, of course, the diatoms, doing all those helpful things for us. But today it is the shells of their former selves that I praise and thank. Diatomaceous earth has saved my sanity more than once. It is known to fight pests by drying up their exoskeletons. It also can be used to filter important liquids, such as drinking water, wine, and beer. Diatoms were there for the pinworm incident. They were there for the beer that I needed to drink after the pinworm incident. And now, they are here for my strawberries.
Oh, my strawberries. They are part of my lazy gardening
effort to create a Sunset-worthy
edible backyard while putting in very little money or effort. Strawberries!
They are ripe and red and delicious, unless you happen to have a berry phobia,
like my son’s best friend does. Fine: more strawberries for me.
This spring, when I went out to get the first strawberry
from my cute little plants, I found that I was not the first in line. The roly
polies had gotten there first, each of their little segmented legs giving that berry
a full-body hug. It was as if the strawberry had been dipped in chocolate.
Except it wasn’t chocolate, it was little gray exoskeltons.
I usually like roly polies. They are charming when you pick
them up and they curl into a little ball and small children squeal with delight
at how their tiny legs tickle on their palms. And it is fun to say roly poly.
But then you see a horde of pillbugs gathering underneath a berry that is about
to ripen, like a mosh pit in waiting, it is not charming. This is when you look
them up and learn that their name is Armadillidium vulgare, a crustacean known as the common pill woodlouse,
and you will never call them by a charming name again.
Enter the diatoms. With deep apologies to the roly poly horde in the strawberry planter, I sprinkled the white powder around my strawberries. Suddenly, the crowds moved on to another show. I knew that there was more out there in the garden for the remaining roly polies—they can eat rotting things, like dead leaves and fallen oranges and maybe even that Easter egg that we still can’t find from two years ago. And then there was a ripe strawberry, waiting just for me.
Our boy, Abstruse Goose, has gone missing again. We sympathize: anyone posting anything on the regular is bound to run dry sooner or later. (The exception of course is the People of LWON.) Anyway, luckily AG has left an archive of cartoons, some of witch turn out to be timely.
One day Erik and I were chatting happily about birds and birdfeeders, all sweet reason and collegiality. Then he said he’d found a squirrel-proof birdfeeder. And the conversation turned dark. Words were said in haste. We eventually calmed down enough to state our cases in a pleasant, civilized manner.
E: It’s a question of thumbs. I have them and squirrels do not. Thus, I believe that I will prevail over these horrible hairy creatures. I mean, okay, technically squirrels have little thumb-like digits. But they are gross, so they don’t count.
A: We completely agree about the nature and character of squirrels. Where we disagree is over whether thumbs make any difference. Squirrels are smarter than we are. Can we instantly calculate the distance, velocity, and gravitational drag necessary to leap from one tree to another and nail it every time? We can not. So when you tell me you have a birdfeeder that squirrels can’t outsmart, I can place no faith in your account.
E: Technically I have three birdfeeders. And a plate of rotten bananas that the internet says attracts waxwings. And while, yes, the local squirrel seems to access them with ease, that’s about to change. We put people on the moon. Not me personally, but my species did. Do you see any acorns buried in the lunar dust? No, you don’t. I’m confident I can beat a squirrel. FYI – there are SO many good videos on YouTube.
A: Internet videos are not evidence. I have been collecting evidence for decades. I hung a birdfeeder on the branch of a full-grown maple, strung a thin wire from a high branch to the feeder, maybe 50,000 feet of wire. Squirrels went down it headfirst, like up/down was the same as across, made no difference to them, and ate all the birdfeed.
E: So a friend offered me a couple free birdfeeders. For some reason, I feel more compelled to use something given to me than if I bought it. It’s like I’d be letting them down if I didn’t. I brought it home to dozens of grateful birds and one greedy tree rat, who immediately sacked it like a Mongol horde at a birthday party. And it, as they say, was on.
A: I didn’t finish telling you my evidence. Then a friend gave me a pinwheel to nail to the tree, attach an ear of corn to each arm of the pinwheel, a squirrel perching on the arm to eat the corn gets pinwheeled off. The squirrels didn’t care, they just went around with the pinwheel and ate all the corn. So now, tell me about this famous birdfeeder that no squirrel can access. It involved a slinky? I can’t quite picture it.
E: Slinkies and duct tape are the two greatest things thumb-havers have ever invented. You attach one side of the slinky to the pole holding the feeders and let the other dangle down. The varmint tries to climb the slinky and drops like a bear on a bungee cord (hilarious video here). Checkmate.
A: Mm-hmm. And then?
E: Well, then the squirrel found a screw farther down the pole that he hooked to the bottom of the slinky, turning it from bungee cord to ladder.
A: That’s what I’m talking about. You do know what you’re up against here? the kind of skill that can cause the failure of the electrical grid? This is a real quote by an ex-spy: “I don’t think paralysis [of the electrical grid] is more likely by cyberattack than by natural disaster. And frankly the number-one threat experienced to date by the US electrical grid is squirrels.” – John C. Inglis, Former Deputy Director, National Security Agency 2015.07.09
E: So I put duct tape on the screw, making it impossible to hook a slinky to. I must admit that it was surprising how quickly they had found a weakness. But it kind of reinforced the idea that as long as the slinky is working it keeps them off. Their trick is to disable the slinky. Which is a delightful phrase, if you think about it. Now checkmate.
A: 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .
E: Then the squirrel started reaching through the slinky to the pole and climbing. So I put some slippery PVC pipe around the pole. See? So far, so good.
A: I really appreciate your inventiveness and determination. I’ll sit quietly and wait.
E: Okay, the little fluffy-tailed demon hamster got up the PVC pipe. Should have used steel. Anyway, I’ve now attached a longer PVC to an actual bungee cord so that the whole thing drops when the critter crawls on it. It’s all on the internet, I swear it will work.
If that fails, I’ll put chili paste or Vaseline on the PVC. And if that fails, I’ve ordered a metal cone designed to block the squirrel.
A: I know for an experimental fact that the metal cones don’t work. Squirrels slide down them, reach the edge, then jump onto the birdfeeder. And eat all the birdfeed. I’m sorry we can’t keep this post going until the squirrels win definitively and you acknowledge losing.
E: Okay, but my cone will be under the feeders, which means gravity is working against them. Checkmate! Surely, that, plus the slinky, plus the PVC, plus whatever else I find on the internet will work. I will prevail. I have the thumbs. There are no acorns on the moon.
A: I have to leave now. I’m turning off the lights and closing the door.
E [alone in the dark]: Hmm, maybe I need a taller pole. Or a metal slinky. Yes! That will do it.
This cat is celestial. Brought to the house on a sled down a snowed-in road, he arrived in the deepest winter in years. Fresh from a shelter, he entered our home wide-eyed, a couple years old, sniffing everything. My girlfriend said he was perfect.
The year before had been hard. We’d lost four cats, each a stray that stopped in. Understand, we did our best to keep them before they vanished. Eaten, no doubt. I wrote about them here.
In rural country, most outdoor cats mean meat for wild carnivores. The wiliest survive, while the rest of the barn cats are picked off by birds of prey, eaten by coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, squashed while running across a back road. You don’t get too attached to barn cats. Some aren’t named for ten years or more.
This one was from a shelter, not a feral that came sniffing around and decided we were the better option. Once we got records we learned he had, indeed, been a neutered feral from a mesa near where we live, traveled to the shelter an hour away just to come back home.
Records showed this plump Russian blue as having started as a barn kitten. A few phone calls revealed he had charmed his way into a house, fell in with the right people, petters, door-openers, the ones he was looking for. After that, he was separated, went through different hands, and ended up at a shelter. Original owners said they were glad he’d found a loving home. They said he was a special cat.
Special, I discovered, meant he slept most of the day and, as far as I could tell, most of the night. He ate kibble, snuggled up to us in front of the wood stove, and purred like a furnace. He seemed happy to be inside, happy to be alive. He stepped out once into the snow where flakes touched his dark fur like stars. Startled, he ran back inside. Like he didn’t know.
The snow was not what sent him fleeing. It was his gaze caught in the dim understory of pinyon and juniper around our house. It was his pause, peering into the corridors between trees. He had some sense of what could be out there. The only marking he had was a nip taken out of his left ear, could have been anything, swipe of an owl claw, the tooth of a coyote, a close call.
As spring began, he wanted out. Left alone with food and water for a few days, he’d start peeling at the threshold on the door, bending back metal. His eyes sharpened whenever we opened the outside door. His head would snake to see what he could through the gap.
It’s now May and we leave the doors open. That means he’s lived longer than the others. He steps outside, takes in the sun, and looks to the woods like he might fall into them. He’s been a good mouser, which was our hope, and prefers to stay indoors, increasing his chances of survival.
Whenever the door opens, he peers with palpable curiosity. You can tell he’d been an outside cat, just from that.
A question came up online recently, should a cat stay inside or be allowed out? Countless answers came in. Mine: most city cats should stay inside, devastating for bird populations that use the city as refuge. In rural country, cats are more part of the ecosystem, keeping house-perimeters. Much farther than that, they get eaten. There’s balance.
I walk with our cat now and then. We go farther than he’s explored. He follows. I watch him. He is an antenna. His ears and the small gray heart of his nose rise to attention. Any sound, any bird click or branch, gets a sharp stare.
Maybe there’s hope, I think, as he wanders ten feet behind me like a trigger-happy scout. I give him a quick lecture on predator-prey relationships when you’re out this far. You have to be at the top of your game away from the house, or you’ll be et. I feel like a father
Maybe the cat hears me. He is at least listening, his ear ticking toward me. Come on, I say, follow me.
Don’t tell my girlfriend that the two of us walk to the canyon’s edge together, possibly farther than he’s gone before. She doesn’t want to lose another cat, but that cat has to live. In former lives, he’s crossed country, trekked mesa to mesa. Who knows what he’s seen out there? We have that in common. He doesn’t want to be inside, however comfortable it might be. The former owners, once we figured out who they were, said he’d tear through screen windows to get out.
How about a little farther? How comfortable are you? The cat follows. I’m not trying to get him eaten. I am a guide, allowing him freedom from the couch, watching his senses tingle. Is he not another person like me? Is he not flesh and bone, and eyes with fire in them?
I sit at the edge of the canyon and he comes near, meowing sweetly, back arched for a touch, ears like radars. He peers over the rim, seeing steep slopes of woodland boulders and a creek at the bottom. We look at each other. I say, sure. He hops over and we go down.
This post originally appeared in 2016, but now that my morning ritual involves picking at least one fat tick off the dog, I figured it was time for a reprise.
There’s a certain category of mundane but distinctly unpleasant
discovery: The blueberries you just mixed in your oatmeal explode mold
into your mouth at 6 a.m. You read that Donald Trump won
the Nevada Republican caucuses. You roll over in bed to find a tick
lodged midriff-deep in your shoulder, wiggling about with a tenacity
that suggests she plans to spelunk all the way through to your lungs.
“Fortuitously, the antibiotic you take prophylactically for Lyme
disease is also the one you take to treat Chlamydia,” the doctor tells
me cheerfully a day later when he checks the bruised and swollen bite
and gives me a prescription. I stare at him, wondering why he thinks I
need this information. It’s unlikely that I’ve got Lyme. Though local
incidence is going up, Oregon saw only 44 reported cases in 2014 and Washington generally gets fewer than 30
a year – with just zero to three stemming from local ticks. But the
fact that odds are in my favor fails to cheer me as I pluck tick after
ever-more-engorged tick from my dog over the next several days. They’re
small and hide well in her fur, so unless they pop out of her ears and
stroll calmly across her face (some do) I can’t seem to find them until
they’re attached and on their way to becoming fat and shiny as coffee beans.
Their emergence is, of course, just as much a sign of spring as the lovely purple grass widows my friend Roger and I had been out looking for when tickmageddon started last Saturday. By tick 10, I started to wonder: Aside from their reputation for transmitting more diseases than any other blood-sucking arthropod, why shouldn’t I find a way to appreciate ticks, too – from a safe distance away? Maybe I could even learn to love them a little bit.
“I find them to be quite cute,” an “arachnopeon” by the handle of
Exuviae told me when I posted a query to a forum on Arachnoboards.com. Cute.
I squinted at the ziplock baggie where I had placed the tick my
roommate had attempted to burn out of my skin with a match before
yanking it out with tweezers. With eight segmented legs, a tear-drop
shaped black and brown body, and a set of jutting mouth parts, it
belonged to the Ixodidae family, or the hard ticks – one of two major
tick families. (The third, the enigmatic and somewhat musical sounding
Nuttalliellidae, contains a single species that hasn’t been collected in
80 years). Though dead, my attacker did appear to be waving at
me – almost as if it were still “questing.” This charming name applies
to an equally charming-looking behavior: When seeking food, hard ticks
perch atop tall grass or leaves, spreading their wee forelimbs
wide like a toddler seeking a hug, in hopes that you’ll walk straight
into them. Once they find tender skin, they embed their vaguely chainsaw-esque mouthparts
– barbed backward to make removal difficult, and cemented in place with
a chemical secretion. No wonder my hitchhiker left such a bruise.
Like mosquitoes, ticks aren’t necessarily a key source of food for other species. Their role in ecosystems may be more as a balancing force in the same way predation can be – thinning out populations of various creatures with the pathogens they spread.
Scientists have described nearly 900 tick species worldwide – a
diverse array that occupies every kind of habitat, from desert to
tropical forest, from sub-Arctic to Antarctic. And while some sample
cuisine widely across the animal kingdom, even noshing from amphibians,
others are endemic to a single host – occupying a rhino, say, as if it
were its own separate planet. (Clearly this is where John Mayer got the
original inspiration to write “Your body is a wonderland.”) To support study, there are even curated libraries of ticks – the U.S. National Tick Collection at Georgia Southern University contains over one million specimens filed away on slides and in vials of alcohol.
Given the sheer variety – and, let’s be honest, the middle-school gross/cool factor
– I was starting to see how someone might become a connoisseur of this
corner of the Arachnid class. A renowned tick researcher and taxonomist
named Jane B. Walker even “had her own likes and dislikes amongst the
tick genera,” Ivan Horak, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary
Ectoparasitology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, wrote in
Walker’s 2009 obituary. “She was without doubt the expert on the genus Rhipicephalus, with which she had an ongoing love affair. She was greatly distressed when it was proposed that the genus Boophilus become a subgenus of her beloved Rhipicephalus, a subject which the protagonists of this change preferred not to discuss with her.”
Walker and her coauthors revealed this same fondness for their
subjects in their scientific writing, edging occasionally from empirical
detachment into clear admiration, describing one tick species as “among
the most unusual, beautiful, and rare … known to the world.” Looking
through some of the tick specimens in the National Tick Collection site,
I had to admit that they were kind of beautiful – intricate, translucent, caramel-colored.
Creatures with their own inscrutable priorities and value. But when my
dog followed me to the kitchen for lunch, I discovered yet another tick
under her chin. And, without a second thought, I plucked and smashed
this one, too.
Today, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that grizzly bears and
wolves and other charismatic megafauna are worthy of our love and
admiration. But as Jon Mooallem so aptly points out in his book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America,
our attitudes towards such species have shifted in proportion to the
amount we’ve neutralized the threats they may have once posed to our
lives and livelihoods. Changing the environment and actively killing
them off, we’ve reduced them to rare novelties, under the thumb of
constant management and human influence.
Ticks are different. We’ve never managed to head off the threat of
tick-borne disease. And in fact, human-caused imbalances in the
environment have only magnified it. Climate change is helping facilitate
the spread of Lyme-disease bearing ticks into new places, and shorter, warmer winters mean longer periods of activity – and more potential for transmission. That dynamic has also helped make “ghost moose” – so plagued with ticks each winter that they rub off their own hair and often die – a regular phenomenon in New England.
No wonder ticks themselves still seem so gross and alarming. They
represent, in a way, a wildness that is much harder to tame. And they
confront us with some difficult truths about ourselves.
The image, taken by Flickr user John Tann, shows an Ixodidae tick in western Australia. Clearly it wants a hug.
Liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-70, July 13, 1995. Credit: NASA
Last week, on my visit to the Moon rocks, I walked across a bridge topping a marsh. To my right were tall grasses emerging from a long, thin body of water, bending toward the east. To my left was a space shuttle perched on a 747. I heard waterfowl piping and chirping, but I couldn’t see them in the already-humid morning haze. I could see the Saturn V, the biggest rocket ever built, the one that took people to the Moon.
The incongruity of the scene was so incredibly disarming: A glistening natural scene interrupted by tall, skinny bombs made to throw people and machines off this planet.
But then I realized I’ve seen something like it before. Johnson is another of NASA’s marshes. A liminal space for people of liminal minds.
When you visit the buildings erected for America’s space program, you are also often visiting protected wildland. These places are full of birds and deer and alligators, as well as some of the smartest people in the country.
Johnson Space Center in Houston, a couple miles from Galveston Bay, is home to the astronaut corps and their training facilities. It’s also a wildflower refuge, and home to belted kingfishers; nine-banded armadillo; alligators; and lots more.
Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., shares space with Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Canaveral National Seashore. It is home to the launch pads that sent humans to space since the 1960s, as well as the, um, launch pads of nesting sea turtles, who hatch on the shore and make their way to the Atlantic. NASA uses several warning systems, including sirens, to shoo birds and other animals away from its spacecraft, but animals gonna animal.
STS-110, a flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis in April 2002. Credit: NASA
When the space shuttles were flying, video of each launch always featured the startled sudden flight of birds, who sensed that they’d better get the hell out of there. Sometimes they didn’t. In one infamous incident, on July 26, 2005, a turkey vulture flew directly into the flight path of Space Shuttle Discovery, at that moment slowly rising off the Earth.
There are other wildlands in the space program. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., sits along the Tennessee River near Wheeler Lake, just a few miles from Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Even the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., sits at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles National Forest.
There are obvious security reasons for this; you wouldn’t want to put your rocket factory in the middle of town—Marshall, where most rockets and their engines are made, is a Superfund site—so it makes sense that these places would be off the beaten path, away from people, which happens to also be the places we’ve carved out for animals.
But the marshes of NASA are appropriate for other reasons.
A marsh is a liminal place, where water meets land and the two mix. By definition, they are a transition zone between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. A space center is a liminal place too. They were built as bridges, connecting humans to the very edges of Earth’s tenuous outer atmosphere. The space program ties the only home we’ve ever known to everything else, in the whole broader universe.
Marshes are a perfect place for a space program to take root.
I know a guy who doesn’t have a birthday. Andy* was born in the Moroccan desert. His parents were nomads. There were no smartphones in the 1960s and a nomadic tribe didn’t have much use for the Gregorian calendar. And when it came to recalling the exact day and month of Andy’s birth, there were higher priorities.
Twenty years later, planning to move to Switzerland, he needed a national ID. Thanks to some artifact of Moroccan bureaucracy, he found himself with a state-issued birth certificate that listed only a date – 1969, his best guess at the year of his birth.
When he arrived in Switzerland, he needed a driver’s license. Because of the mismatch between required fields and available data, the compromise was an ID with the birthdate 0/0/1969. If you believe the science around birthdays. maybe that was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“It’s made of solid iron, it weighs a ton or two, we know you’d like to meet it, it wants to meet you too!” – The Anvil Song, Animaniacs
My friend Brian spends a lot of time in a marvelous, mostly empty old barn. The barn is everything a barn should be – high wooden rafters dribbled in bird droppings, rusted farm tools, the smell of hay and cow manure. Chickens wander in and out, littering the floor with feathers and footprints. When sunlight shines through holes in the barn’s aluminum siding, it illuminates the interior like a punched-tin lantern.
This is where Brian keeps his blacksmithing equipment: a forge, anvil, and many hammers. I asked Brian to show me his shop because I’m interested in metallurgy, the science that brought us ploughs, swords, and the Industrial Revolution. I wanted to understand how we got from melting copper ore in campfires to skyscrapers and smartphones. And obviously, I wanted to hit red-hot metal with a hammer.
Brian is a professional welder, about to finish his degree in metallurgy. He can discuss the chemistry and history of metalworking in encyclopedic detail, from the development of sophisticated forging technologies in Africa during the Iron Age to the ultra-sharp Damascus steel swords that inspired Valyrian steel in Game of Thrones.
Like baking, metallurgy is all about inducing the right sequence of chemical reactions. To make steel that is hard enough for a sword, but supple enough not to shatter, for example, blacksmiths combine iron with just a tiny dash of carbon. Carbon atoms reinforce iron’s relatively malleable crystals, making the crystals stronger. Add too much carbon and you get cast iron, a porous metal that’s great for soaking up bacon grease in a skillet, but is brittle and easily corroded — not an ideal tool for battle.
Brian fired up his propane furnace, which made a steady, soothing roar. Pale orange flames flicked out of the forge’s mouth — blacksmiths call it dragon’s breath, he said. Although early blacksmiths didn’t understand the chemistry of metallurgy, they transmitted the craft based on look, sound and feel. Brian can judge the temperature of steel within about 100 degrees based on its color, he says. At around 1000 degrees Fahrenheit it turns dull red. At 1300 degrees the metal looks like a glowing raspberry popsicle that you should never put in your mouth. By around 1500 degrees it starts turning orange, and from there on up to yellow, to glowing white.
Brian pulled an orange piece of steel out of the forge and started to beat it into shape. Little by little, he transformed it into a tool shaped like a bird’s beak, which he planned to use to scrape off a waste product of smelting called slag. Next, he held the steel bird over a cherry-red chunk of hot metal to temper it, reheating it at a lower temperature to make it less brittle. The surface steel turned a golden straw color at around 400 degrees, like a perfectly roasted marshmallow. At the target temperature of 600 degrees, it turned an iridescent peacock blue-and-purple.
It was my turn. Brian gave me a rod of copper out of which I was to make a marlinspike – a tool sailors use to untangle knots and splice rope. The goal, Brian said, was to flatten the round edges of the rod into an octagon, then hammer it into a sharp, round spike. Every time I brought down the hammer, a chicken clucked. Clang! Cluck. Clang! Cluck. When the copper cooled and became difficult to shape, Brian put it back into the forge for a few minutes then pulled it back out. As I plunged it into a wine barrel full of murky water, the hot metal jerked and squealed.
It didn’t take long before I had shooting pains in my forearms and wrists and could barely hold the hammer straight. Bright flecks of copper flew as I rasped at a tiny fold in the metal, a minute flaw that Brian said could doom the tool to corrosion. I imagined forging enough weapons to fend off the White Walkers — now there’s a deadline – and all the nails I’d need to build a house. I understood why blacksmiths were once so important to many cultures that they had mystical status.
Once upon a time, blacksmiths forged chains that could restrain monsters. They tamed fire and frightened the Devil. They were legends, like Hephaestus, the lame Greek god of blacksmithing, or Wayland the smith, a Norse blacksmith whose hamstring tendons were severed by an evil king to force him to stay and forge weapons. Wayland retaliated by making goblets and jewelry from the skulls and teeth of the king’s sons, then flew away on his own, cleverly fashioned wings.
We don’t need metal-working gods anymore, thanks to the invention of industrial steel production and processing techniques. Instead, we have a seemingly endless supply of cheap, interchangeable metal objects that no one has to hammer. There’s lots to love about living in the age of industrial metallurgy: surgical scalpels made of stainless steel instead of flint or rusty iron; airplanes made from aluminum instead of muslin; buildings that can withstand earthquakes; cans of beer. But our pursuit of new metal tools and toys has also made it terrifyingly easy to kill lots of people and wreaked havoc on the planet.
According to Lev Vygotsky’s psychological development theory, children should be given experiences that are in their zone of proximal development. That is, things that are beyond their own independent capability, but that can be achieved or understood with the guidance of a “knowledgeable other.” The adult’s help provides scaffolding that can eventually be dismantled as the child’s sphere of competence grows.
Physicist Brian Cox is on a world tour with his show, Universal, and when I saw he was speaking in our city, I was torn. Reviews complained that while the tickets were sold on the promise of “not a physics lecture”, it most certainly was a straight-up physics lecture, and it went completely over the reviewers’ heads. My 10-year-old, Oliver, was probably a few years away from really being able to engage with this sort of thing, and if I brought him to something baffling and boring, he might be turned off serious science altogether. Worse yet, it might be a blow to his confidence. This was not a children’s show, to say the least.
On the other hand, while completely unknown in Canada, Brian Cox is a household name in England, regularly placed alongside David Attenborough in the science communication halls of fame. In a place like Ottawa, you never know when an interesting visitor will ever stop by again. In fact, this was Brian Cox’s first ever lecture in Canada.
I had to take this opportunity now or risk my son’s never seeing him at all. Anyway, the zone of proximal development does not only depend on the material to be learned. It also depends on the skill of the knowledgeable other. The more deftly a teacher can lead a student to scramble and climb over carefully constructed scaffolding, the farther from the child’s current understanding they can venture. I booked tickets and crossed my fingers.
A stumbling block arose—I realized I had invited one of Oliver’s friends for a sleepover the night before the lecture. Rather than risk a tired brain or, worse still, a fatigue-induced meltdown, I hosted the two boys in separate rooms. Miraculously, they got a real night’s sleep. Then I invited Oliver’s most Hermione-type friend to accompany us to the lecture. If anyone could normalize for him–through sheer enthusiasm–the idea of 10-year-olds learning physics in a crowd full of adults on a Sunday night, it was this girl.
The show was fantastic. High production values, gorgeous and enormous images of the universe, palate-cleansing banter from comedian Robin Ince. To demonstrate the speed of light’s relationship to space-time, Cox used moments in his own life, complete with family photos from the 1970s. He described entropy in the universe in terms of a coffee with a layer of foamed milk on top, being stirred. According to him, we’re at that interesting bit where beautiful, complex swirls appear around the spoon—before the entropy of a homogeneously stirred latte engulfs the universe.
After the lecture, we walked Oliver’s friend home across a dimly lit park under the stars. It was the first proper Spring evening in Ottawa, and it was a joy to listen to the two of them chatting. If the starlight we see really does come from the distant past, they reasoned, then you’re actually seeing the past everywhere you look. I felt grateful to Cox for bringing these children into a moment when they could question, in new ways, the forces around them.
I hadn’t heard a peep about it since, and I had stored the night away as a treasured memory. That is, until I found this on the floor of our playroom:
I so relate to those brackets and question mark—the problem of time is such a tricky one. The lecture’s mind-stretching insights are still in that head of his, being pondered along with a zen-like theory of the oneness of all things. I would say that’s worth the ticket price.
A few weeks ago, I started watching the eight-part series Our Planet with my daughter. I thought it would be a good alternative to cartoons. “Ahh, a nature documentary,” I thought. “She gets to watch TV. I get to feel like she’s learning something. Win-win.”
I was so wrong. The show delivers spectacular footage and animal antics, sure, but the content is hard to stomach. Even the soothing sound of David Attenborough’s voice can’t soften the main message: climate change is profoundly affecting all life on this planet and, unless we do something fast, we’re all screwed.
How do you explain this to a three-year-old? Mostly I don’t.
When a polar bear killed a baby seal, we both cried. She was crying for the seal. I was crying for the seal too, but also for the polar bear and for us. I was crying for everything.
I don’t need a nature documentary to tell me that it’s time to panic. I think about climate change almost constantly. Even when I’m not consciously thinking about it, I still experience low-level dread. It’s hard to imagine how the news could be worse, yet somehow it always is. On Monday, the United Nations released findings from its first report on biodiversity. Because of human activities, as many as a million species face extinction. Their loss would be a tragedy, but also a crisis for humanity.
In a Slate essay published this week, Susan Matthews calls Our Planet “unwatchable” because it makes viewers “profoundly uncomfortable.” And while I’ve managed to watch three episodes, I can’t disagree. One particularly grisly scene shows walruses, desperate for somewhere to rest as the sea ice disappears, humping their massive bodies up rocky cliffs in Russia and then plummeting to their deaths when they try to return to the sea. The footage made me more than “profoundly uncomfortable.” It made me feel sick, and angry, and utterly helpless.
That last feeling is problematic. The goal of Our Planet is to inspire action. But who should act and how? Can my Energy Star refrigerator give the walruses back their sea ice? Will forgoing meat every Monday prevent a mass extinction?
Of course not. Individual actions aren’t enough. The sweeping solutions we need — new legislation and innovative technologies — are not solutions I can provide.
Doomsayer David Wallace Wells agrees. “… the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve,” he writes. “Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply.”
Politics, he continues, offers “an exit from the personal, emotional burden of climate change and from what can feel like hypocrisy about living in the world as it is and simultaneously worrying about its future. That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.”
In some ways, this feels like a cop out. If I’m talking the talk, shouldn’t I be walking the walk? But maybe I need an out. If I can set aside the crushing guilt of my Western lifestyle and accept my carbon footprint, maybe I can let go of the idea that I have to do everything — or nothing. I just might be able to find a way to cross the vast chasm between terror and action.
*** Image courtesy of Curt Carnemark / World Bank via Flickr