Wednesday, February 3, 2016

My Letter to the Seychelles

I fell in love with a phrase I heard the other day. Here it is: delicious anticipation.
Doesn’t that one just conjure up images of being a kid on Christmas Eve, or maybe waiting for an order of black tie mousse cake to get to your table at the Olive Garden? Mmmmmm…. Delicious anticipation.
The words were mentioned in a news story on how impatient we tenants of the technological age have become. Researchers at the superfast internet search engine Google say that 2.5 milliseconds is how long most of us are willing to wait for websites to load. Can you believe it! We’re now literally losing patience in the blink of an eye. That’s what the news story said anyway, that modern technology has ruined our ability to wait for things, and so we’re missing out on all that delicious anticipation.
It just so happens I know of a simple little device to cure all the ants in our collective pants. You can get it for free, or very cheap (K-mart sells them by the thousands for just a couple bucks) and it forces you – yes forces you – to wait weeks, months, or maybe even longer to witness what passes as a genuine miracle.
I’m talking of course, about a seed.
I don’t know why I’m so enamored with growing things from seed, but it seems I’m not alone. A friend of mine recently updated her facebook status as follows: Hello, my name is Carissa, and I’m a seed hoarder.
Hi, Carissa!
A visit to Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello show this Founding Father to have been a real seed-aholic as well. Our third president collected and exchanged countless varieties with friends and fellow seed lovers. He waited (no doubt in supremely delicious anticipation) for Lewis and Clark to return from their westward journeys with descriptions and seed samples of newly-discovered plants.
Part of the attraction to seeds must be in the power of their possibilities. My newly arrived batch of mail-order flower seed has the potential to turn my backyard into a private paradise “full of year-round color”. Never mind that in reality many of these things will never grow to even remotely resemble the picture in the catalog, and the ones that do will likely be eaten by insects or deer. But while they’re rattling around in their individual little packets, I can dream.
Seeds also let you get in on the ground floor of a new life. You’re there to witness the first green shoots struggling to rise up from the soil. If the plant grows to any appreciable age or size, you’re then able to say, “Ah, I knew it when…”
Seeds come in all sizes, from tiny, dust-like orchid seeds weighing one 35-millionth of an ounce, to the world’s largest, the nearly 40 pound  seed of a tropical palm known as the coco-de-mer. This “sea coconut” is a native of the Seychelles, a small group of islands in the Indian Ocean, where it’s considered a threatened species.
The coco-de-mer holds another botanical record - that of the longest germination time. Seeds mature inside huge fruits over the course of six to seven years. It takes another two years for the ripened seed to germinate.
How could anyone possibly contain themselves for nearly ten years, while waiting for a seed to mature and sprout? I would explode! My Blue Lake bush beans take only a few days and that’s borderline intolerable. When those first little bean sprouts start pushing up through the soil, right at the moment when the seeds begin realizing their potential, I get all giddy. Welcome to the world, little guys!
So I have to wonder, is there much celebration in the Seychelles when a bit of green coco-de-mer sprout first makes an appearance? There should be some sort of acknowledgement that this new life was nearly a decade in the making, don’t you think?
Normally when presented with a question like this, I’d Google it. I’d wait 2.5 milliseconds for some results and – Bam! – there’s the answer. But that seems somehow inappropriate under the circumstances. So I did the next best thing. I found an address for the folks in charge of coco-de-mer conservation (okay, okay, I had to use Google for that) and I wrote them a letter. I sent it, along with a small donation, to the Seychelles Island Foundation.
Now there’s nothing left to do except sit back and wait for a reply, in delicious anticipation.

The Storykeepers

William Zinsser died last month. He was a writer and a Harvard professor, and once said that the saddest sentence he’d ever heard was, “I wish I’d asked my mother about that.”

Late in his long career, Zinsser became passionate about memoirs, and encouraged writers to put people’s stories on paper. Once we’re gone, we’re gone for good. And unless someone has taken the time to preserve the bits and pieces of who were, then our stories are gone for good, too.

It’s true. My grandfather died when I was just a kid, long before I realized how important it was to ask about his work at a Schuylkill County coal breaker. It’s too late to talk to him now, so it’s a good thing there are at least a half dozen coal mining museums within driving distance, places I can go to still hear his story.

This is what museums do. They serve as our storykeepers, stockpiling the answers to questions about our past – even the ones we haven’t thought yet to ask.

Eckley Miner’s Village, the No.9 Mine Museum, and the Anthracite Heritage Museum, just to name a few, held on to everything for me (and for every other “coal cracker” in the region) keeping it all safe until I finally came around to realizing that stories of my past dictate who I am in the present.

There are all kinds of stories worth keeping, far more than what our parents and grandparents can relate. There’s the story of how the hammer evolved into such a popular tool, or how roller skating became a favorite American pastime; there’s the story of kidney dialysis, of spicy mustard, and of the vacuum cleaner; there’s the story of the kazoo, the banana, the tow truck, and the sewers beneath the glittering streets of Paris.

You guessed it! Somewhere in the world is a museum devoted to keeping each of these stories alive. Even the story of the moist towelette is securely kept and curated (oh, thank goodness) at a museum in East Lansing, Michigan.

Historical collections are important for sure, but I’m partial to natural history museums myself. If you ask me, that’s where all the really good stories are kept.

I remember going to the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a kid, looking up at a T-Rex and trying to imagine the fossilized bones covered in real muscle and skin, the mouth full of saliva and stink-breath. It gave me a humbling, goose-bumpy feeling unlike anything I’d ever felt before.

Dinosaurs still move me the same way. It was just last year when I stood in front of the T-Rex at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and got those same goose-bumps. Of all the stories in all the world, that of the Tyrannosaur gets my vote for one of the best.

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate natural history museums not just for what’s on display, but for what’s not. Worldwide, they hold 1.5 billion specimens, collected by thousands of naturalist explorers over hundreds of years.

Museums care for everything from whale skeletons to microscopic scraps of tissue, documenting each specimen’s history down to the smallest detail. Museum scientists painstakingly record massive amounts of data, by hand on special acid-free paper, with inks designed to last for hundreds of years. They go to great, meticulous lengths to save all of these wonderful stories, in as much detail and for as long as is humanly possible.

I once listened to a museum scientist talk for no less than forty five minutes about tape – tape! – and the best kinds to use for different museum applications. Not to be outdone, another museum professional once related the entire history of preserving things in liquid, starting back in the days of Herodotus and finishing off with a bottle of Everclear grain alcohol from the liquor store down the street.

Thanks to the internet, these people and the stories they hold are also incredibly accessible. I “lurk” on a few email list serves run by museum professionals, eavesdropping on their conversations. A lot of it revolves around (you guessed it) acid free paper, tape, and liquid preservatives, but there’s so much more.

Remember that movie, “The Ghost and the Darkness”? It featured Val Kilmer as an 1890s British Colonel determined to kill two lions that had taken to eating workers on an African railroad bridge project. The film was loosely based on a true story, and those lions did exist.

After being shot and killed (and serving as floor rugs for several years) the real lions’ remains were sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where their skins and bones reside to this day.

Only recently did scientists there begin to question whether the lions had been suffering from dental problems, which could explain their unusual man-eating habits. 

The discovery made the rounds of the list serves, and I actually got to correspond with Dr. Bruce Patterson, the mammalogist who’d uncovered the find.

Q: Why did it take so long for anyone to realize the lions’ teeth were so bad?

A: Can you believe it? No one had ever thought to look before.

What a story!

That scenario of simple discovery plays out a hundred times a day, in museums all over the world. Scientists from every discipline ask new questions of old specimens using x-ray technology, CT scans, DNA extraction, and computer generated data analysis. They’re solving old puzzles, creating more mysteries, and adding new chapters to the  story of life on earth.

Just recently, X-rays of over 800 ancient Egyptian cat mummies (gifts for the departed, akin to our funereal flowers and sympathy cards) revealed no cat parts whatsoever inside more than a third of the specimens.

Analysis of massive amounts of avian DNA done at Chicago’s Field Museum now show that (surprise!) falcons and parrots are more closely related to each other than to any other bird.

Even new species of mammals, birds, and dinosaurs are discovered with striking frequency - not from recently unearthed fossils, but from specimens that have languished in cabinets and drawers for decades. One museum even discovered a 6,500 year-old human skeleton that it didn’t know it had.

This is exactly how museums are supposed to work, preserving specimens well enough, and for long enough, for future scientists with advanced technologies to pick away at their secrets. The collections our natural history museums hold are like a colossal encyclopedia of life, so big that no one will ever be able to read through the whole thing.

Our own Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia houses one of the largest mollusk collections in the world, with over 10 million specimens! Got snail questions? They got answers, and they will for years to come.

For as important as this task of storykeeping is, it is also woefully underfunded. Limited budgets, staffing, and even storage space are common challenges for all museums, large and small. Last week I stumbled on two separate newspaper articles, one lamenting budget cuts to London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, home to one of the world’s largest plant collections, the other a short piece on the financial struggles of a firefighting history museum right here in Shenandoah,                 Pennsylvania.

If we don’t support these storykeepers, and make sure they stay afloat, someone else may. For    natural history museums this isn’t always good news. Ideally, these institutions carry a message that is free of politics and special interests. Is total objectivity possible, say, when fossil fuel lobbyists are contributing tens of millions of dollars?

David Koch of Koch Industries, one of the biggest greenhouse gas producers in the U.S., sits on the board at both the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. Both institutions are adamant that no special interests influence the content of their displays or education materials.

But people are talking, and some academics are insisting Koch step down, lest any scientific establishment be tempted to alter their message on climate change, even if just slightly, in order to please the sponsors with the deepest pockets. Scientific integrity and authority are just too            important.

A lack of funding isn’t the only modern day threat to our museums. Think about the terrorists who targeted visitors to a Tunisian art museum, or the ones who destroyed 3,000 year-old Iraqi stone figures with sledge hammers.

These are crimes against all humanity, on par with an assault on a maternity ward; our collective past should be valued and safeguarded just as well as our future.

Think of all that’s lost to natural disasters. Entire collections are destroyed by floods and insect pests; wax museums catch fire in London, and Corvette museums fall into sinkholes in Kentucky. Think of the statues, temples and monuments felled by the earthquake in Nepal. Stories lost, all of them. This is sad stuff, especially as we realize there’s not much we can do to prevent wars or natural disasters.

But there are ways we can help. Each one of us can choose the stories we feel are most                important – whether it’s coal mining or firefighting, dinosaurs or moist towelettes. We can help the storykeepers. We can send them $1, or $10, or whatever we can afford.

We can support local museum fundraisers – buy a pizza or run a 5K. We can like them on facebook, volunteer a few hours of our time for them, or maybe even just write down all those things the storykeepers in our own families might have to share.

We can remember that their stories are our stories, that each one is valuable in some way, and that they’re all far too precious to ever be lost for good.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ode to a Spleen

My sister is having a Second Act.
In a brave about-face, she has left the field of elementary education after 25 years to go back to school and become a licensed surgical technician. She's gone from molding the minds of impressionable eight year-olds, to learning how to help doctors rearrange people's insides.
My own morbid interest in people's insides has led to some interesting conversations with her. I'm always eager to hear about anatomy class - what's new with the endocrine system, or a refresher lecture on the Krebs cycle.
Anyway, she and I were both having trouble remembering what exactly the spleen is there for (and who doesn't have trouble with that??) so I composed the following poem.

May I present, "Ode to a Spleen".

We're in awe of the heart
of the liver and brain
And yet where are you, spleen
in our gutsy refrain?
Colored ribbons for breasts
for our colons, too
The former are pink
and the latter are blue
No awareness of you, spleen
Why? I know the answer
It's the thanks that you get
for not giving us cancer
"They're glorified lymph nodes!
Cut 'em out, you won't miss 'em!"
And yet they are key
to our immune system
Not paired like a kidney
an eyeball or lung
The spleen looks like a red beet
that's shaped like a tongue
It gets rid of old blood cells
helps fight off infection
Unsung hero the spleen
it deserves our affection
So consider your insides
which parts you like best
And remember that spleen
in your upper left chest

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Careful With That Axe, Eugene

Early October and it’s warm, with nighttime lows are in the mid 60s. Two days of rain have finally ended and tonight the air is thick with mist. The perfect night to head into the woods – with an axe.
No, it’s not a low budget horror flick; technically it’s not even an axe. More like a hand-held pickaxe. But I did head out into the woods with it last night, off to embrace my European heritage as a mushroom hunter.
For generations the men of my family have sought out edible wild mushrooms, and the women have boiled, broiled and batter-dipped them for the table. Like most mushroom pickers, they’re familiar with only a handful of species, but these are identified beyond any doubt. One is the Ram’s Head, aka Chicken-of-the-Woods, aka Grifola frondosa. Here’s a picture I didn’t take, since I’ve never found one of these myself.
The Ram's Head, picture from Wikipedia
 My grandfather was famous for finding Ram’s Heads, returning from top secret hunting grounds with armloads of edible fungus. He used to “feed” them by pouring milk on the ground nearby. Despite the general wisdom of Pap’s generation, there’s no basis in fact for this practice. Mushrooms gain nutrients from nearby dead or dying plants.
(Note: Scientists believe mushrooms and other fungi are themselves NOT plants, and are more closely related to animals, like us!)
The only other fungus regularly picked and eaten by my grandfather was Armillaria mellea; the Honey Mushroom, the Stumper or – if I’m truly embracing my ancestral roots here, I’ll call it what Pap used to call it – the Popinkie.
I remember Popinkies being picked by the bucketful in September and October, then spread out to dry over the coal stove. For Christmas, they were cooked into a vile looking, sour smelling soup that I wouldn’t eat on a dare. Not then. Not now.
When I went off into the woods with my pickaxe the other night, it was the Popinkie I was after, though not for eating. The mycelium of this organism, the part that spreads out like a root system in search of food, does something very bizarre; it glows in the dark.
For some mushrooms, the mycelium grows into the ground where it seeks out and digests organic matter. But the Popinkie sends its mycelium into trees or tree stumps. Hack up the stump with a pickaxe, then stand back and bask in the eerie glow. The effect – sometimes called “foxfire” -  is most dramatic on warm, foggy nights.
As for my nighttime expedition, good news / bad news. I did find the mushrooms, but the tree they were growing on looked far too healthy yet to be gone at with an axe. So I just picked them and gave them to my mom. She can make some soup that I won’t eat and I can show you another picture I didn’t take.
Foxfire photo by John Denk,
Here’s a link with more information on this glowing mycelium. It's where I found the picture.
And in case the title of this blog has you puzzled, here’s a link to a Pink Floyd video that should explain it. It’s an old song, and one that probably only appeals to those who might be, shall we say pharmaceutically inclined. Anyone who’d willingly sit through all 8 minutes of this kinda thing is likely interested in a very different type of mushroom – something like this one.
Psilocybe cubescens from Wikipedia
I didn’t take that picture either.