Friday, September 6, 2019

The Last Mammoth: A Tale of the Pleistocene

"In the long view, extinction seems normal in the history of life. Indeed, most species that ever lived are extinct."  

It was a coolish afternoon toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch. The Wisconsin glaciation, the last of the epoch’s eleven ice ages, was drawing to a close. Its egress would be dramatic.

During two millennia beforehand, a great ice sheet, the Cordilleran, had formed over much of Canada, the Rocky Mountains, and the Idaho panhandle where it episodically dammed up hundreds of cubic miles of river water. In the midst of warm spells when the ice dams collapsed, there were floods of biblical proportions. The rushing waters carved out huge coulees and sculpted the butte-and-basin topography of southeastern Washington’s Channeled Scablands. There were other signs of the glaciers, too –  polished and striated basalt bedrock, glacial erratics, drumlins, eskers, moraines, meltwater channels, glacial till, and glacial lakes of all sizes. 

High up on the Okanogan Lobe, a sort of outcropping or peninsula of the Cordilleran that stretched far into central Washington, a lone mammoth named Woolite picked his way downward through jagged ice flows toward the permafrost at the glacier’s base. He had been on a pilgrimage with the rest of his tribe, the Anodynite woolies, to celebrate the summer solstice and appeal to serene Nuccynta, goddess of tranquility, that no more great floods might threaten. Sadly, the journey had ended in catastrophe when, save for Woolite himself, the entire herd had been flash frozen in a crevasse.

"At least they’ll be preserved for posterity," sorrowed Woolite. "Someday, creatures from the future may discover them entombed in the ice and prize them as valuable artifacts. Or perhaps just serve them as frozen dog food. Who knows? Either way, it’s beats drowning in another big flood."

Whatever store Woolite might have set by supplication to Nuccynta, there were indeed more floods to come – as perhaps he had already divined.

Having traversed the permafrost or frozen ground at the base of the Okanogan, Woolite set out across tundra dotted with scrubs and sagebrush. After a day’s march, tundra gave way to prairie covered in bunchgrass, buckwheat, buttercups, spearworts, and patches of coyote mint. Then followed forests of conifers and deciduous trees – pinyon pine, artic birch, and alder – that afforded protection from the chill northwest winds. 

One night, Woolite slept fitfully on his feet under the spreading branches of an Osage orange. In the morning, it’s bumpy, bright yellow-green fruits make him a hearty breakfast before he set off again. 

Around noon that day, off to his left in a copse of juniper, he spotted Donovan the saber-toothed tiger – "Smilin' Don" as the baleful beast liked to style himself on account of you could always see his pearly whites, especially the two scimitar-like ones in front – ripping into the carcass of a long-horned bison. The big cat bit in with the sides of his mouth using his razor sharp carnassial (molar) teeth. This avoided interference from his impossibly long canines.

Woolite gave a shudder and quickened his pace, childhood memories flooding back to him.  In school, the students had teased Donovan mercilessly about his big front teeth, calling him a buck-toothed
Later still...
pussy. There'd been no end of it. 

Then one day Donovan snapped – went postal. “I’ll show you overbite!” he roared, and slaughtered half the 6th grade. He’d been like a one-man charnel house ever since.

"It’s a shame he couldn’t have consulted one of those enamelback dentodonts from the Pliocene and had those teeth shortened," regretted Woolite. "Things might have evolved differently otherwise."

But dentodonts had gone extinct by then, and Donovan remained a committed carnivore, thrall to his own predacious impulses. 

A pack of baying dire wolves loped by in pursuit of some Pleistocene camelids. Woolite watched as they passed and silently rooted for the camels, fellow herbivores.

Much later...
After a trudge of several more miles, in the lee of an esker or glacial sand bank Woolite spied Slocum the giant ground sloth methodically munching branches from a quacking aspen. A hulk of a fellow, Slocum used his huge foreclaws like knives to cut through the tree limbs. He and Woolite had been classmates of saber-tooth Donovan and witnesses to Donovan’s murderous rampage. But even as 6th graders they’d been too hefty for any paleo-cat to tackle and came out of the melee unscathed. Despite this shared ordeal – or perhaps because of it – however, he and Slocum had drifted apart. 
Woolite gave him a polite wave of his trunk and moved on.

Late on the fourth day, Woolite at last reached home – ten square miles of browsing range abundant in trees, flowering herbs, and grasses. There were also a number of glacial lakes wherein dwelt many of Woolite’s aquatic friends. Chief among these was Fin Tso Fong, an Asiangian grass carp of moderate dimensions (as grass carp went at the time) who’d known Woolite since calfhood.

How Fin Tso Fong had come to be in central Washington from Asiangia was as much a mystery as his encyclopedic knowledge of paleontology. Some believed he’d had rode in on an ancient tsunami or cyclone; others, that he’d somehow hitched a ride on continental drift. In any event, he was old and wise, a living fossil, and Woolite had long relied on his advice.

Now Woolite stood at the edge of Fin’s pond peering down at him in the water while he sucked in a trunk-full to drink.

“Where have you been?” asked Fin.

“Up north on the glacier sacrificing to the goddess, beseeching there be no more floods,” slurped Woolite, squirting water into his mouth.

“And what did you offer in the way of a sacrifice?”
And finally...

“As it turned out, the entire mammoth troop except for myself,” replied Woolite with uncanny matter-of-factness. “They were flash frozen in a crevasse, every one of them – surely a sacrifice befitting any goddess.” In this last there was a tinge of bitterness, too.

“Well, your supplications were answered then,” observed Fin, “or at least your troop’s were. In as much as they’re now deceased, they won’t be suffering any more floods. When it comes to beseeching the gods, it pays to be careful what you ask for.”

“But what about me?” wondered Woolite. “I was a supplicant, too. Would I be covered by the sacrifice even though I escaped the quick freeze?” He sounded factious by half yet also half serious.

“Did you lure the tribe into that crevasse?” asked Fin, “or was it an accident?

“An accident, surely!” gasped Woolite, aghast.

“In that case, you’re not covered,” adjudged Fin. “It’s like insurance. An accidental sacrifice doesn’t count unless you’re somehow laid low yourself or otherwise harmed. For all the good the pilgrimage did you, you might just as well have stayed home.”

“But I sustained a great loss – my whole tribe!” objected Woolite, “Why wouldn’t I be indemnified?”

“In a way you have been,” countered Fin. “You’re still here, aren’t you?”

“That’s true, conceded Woolite thoughtfully. I hadn’t realized the gods were so dialectical, so juridical. It’s astonishing!” 

“You have no idea,” Fin went on. “A lot of folks rely on soothsayers or mystics to apprehend divine will.  But soothsayers aren’t like CPA’s. If they screw up, the gods blame you, not them. Back in the Jurassic, there was a coelacanth seer named Ichthyolon. A flap of pterodactyls consulted him about the best places to fish – odd, you’d think, because Ichthyolon was a fish. Ichthyolon thought it odd, too, and steered the pterosaurs to a school of leptolepides sacred to Mukyumm, god of the ocean floor. The pterodactyls were never seen again, whilst Ichthyolon fared better than ever. Mukyumm, it seems, believed the pterosaurs to be a burnt offering (albeit, he ate them) sent by Ichthyolon and rewarded him accordingly. Goes to show how treacherous this business can be.

What will you do now without your tribe?” Fin continued.  “Do you have kinfolk hereabouts?”

“Minus the Anodynites, there are five other tribes of wooly mammoths – the Dolorites, Malachites, Mizrelites, Amorites, and Gelignites – who live hither and yon. They’re all bad news, unfortunately. Take the Dolorites. They’re forever wailing about something or other. The Mizrelites are, well, relentlessly miserable. The Malachites go about wishing ill upon others, while the Gelignites explode into violence at the slightest provocation. The Amorites are all about free love and fairly peaceful but otherwise completely amoral. The Anodynites were the only ones who saw things in a positive light and came remotely close to behaving themselves. If those parvenu hunter apes, the homo insipiens, were to thin out the rest of the mammoths right now, it’d be no great loss.

For my part, I’m going to stay put and get on with my life. And I’ll start by molting my winter overcoat. Do you need any hair?” 

Woolite plucked at the course hair of his top coat, pulling out a few large tufts. 

“Um, I think not,” demurred Fin, lunging at a careless dragon fly. “I’m not planning too far in advance these days, anyway. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from paleontology, it’s that nothing lasts forever, not even the gods. Remember Mukyumm the sea floor god I mentioned? While you worship Nuccynta, he lies fossilized in a stratum of Jurassic silt. That'll be the fate of Nuccynta, too, one of these days.”
“I need hair, though!” panted Trichophilant the wooly rhinoceros, galloping up all out of breath. “I’m proclaiming myself king of the Pleistocene woolies and have in mind to construct a throne made entirely of winter overcoat hair dyed blond – the Cutex Regialis, as I call it – and it’ll take loads of hair, all I can get.” 

Woolite rolled his eyes and with a perfunctory sweep of his huge trunk, skewered a clump of shed hair on the rhino’s horn. “There,” he sighed wearily, “knock yourself out.”

With that, the three of them parted company and went their separate ways.

The sun sagging in the west heralded day’s end – and what might have otherwise been a quiet evening. But from somewhere afar came the plangent roar of an immense wall of water racing southward faster than a Pleistocene cheetah.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A Casualty on the James (Or Life in the Colonies)

In grade school, Virginia kids of my generation were taught a bronzed and hallowed version of the way Great Britain colonized the New World beginning in 1607 with Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. In what today would sound rather like Jacobean propaganda warmed over, America, we students learned, was an empty continent with but a few scattered indigenous inhabitants awaiting the advent of civilization (read dominion), commerce, and, of course, Christianity.

Consider in this light the words of Richard Hakluyt, an English writer and ordained priest, published in 1585:

The ends of they voyage [to America] are these: 1. to plant Christian religion, 2. to Trafficke, 3. to conquer.

And so, it began. In 1606, three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, were dispatched by the investor-owned London Company bearing mostly noblemen who couldn’t so much as light a campfire, along with a few sailors, to discover gold and found a colony.
Scale model of early American gunboat. Birch bark cladding reliably lulled opponents
into Trojan horse complacency. Yet as its native crews succumbed to imported English diseases,
small pox and measles, the vessel did little to turn the tide of British colonial expansion.

And discover they did! Within a few short weeks of landing at Jamestown, Christopher Newport, captain of the Susan Constant, set sail for England laden with a cargo of “fools' gold” and other “precious” minerals. Imagine the investors’ consternation when the good captain fetched up in London with a boatload of worthless rocks!

Gold was never found in Virginia.

Historical marker on Virginia Route 10 near the headwaters 
of Powell’s Creek. Captain Nathaniel Powell was acting governor 
of the Virginia Colony for all of ten days between the sudden departure 
of Governor Samuel Argall on April 9, 1619, and the arrival of Sir 
George Yeardley on April 19. Powell was among the first English 
settlers to arrive in Virginia in 1607. His map of Virginia, now 
preserved in the British Museum, was the first one ever. Unfortunately, on 
the morning of March 22, 1622, Powell, his family, and retainers of 
his Powle-brooke plantation reportedly became the first victims of the 
Jamestown Massacre, an Indian attack that took place over an 80-mile 
front killing 347 people, a quarter of the Virginia colonists. Powle-
brooke plantation, later Merchant’s Hope plantation, is now the James 
For the fledgling colony, the upshot of all this was a debacle. When the winter of 1609 finally came to an end, only 61 of 400 settlers remained alive, and at least some of them had resorted to cannibalism. One worthy killed and salted his pregnant wife for food and was executed for his trouble – the ultimate price for groceries, one supposes. Besides starvation, colonists succumbed to malaria, scurvy, and dysentery. Hardly anyone guessed obesity in the land would one day become such a problem.

Not surprisingly, the settlers were from the get-go sharply at odds with America’s indigenous people, the Indians, who realized in due course that the English had come to seize their lands – and exterminate them in the process as needs be. Adding insult to injury, the settlers also relentlessly sought to “Christianize” the Indians who cottoned to this about as readily as they did the seizure of their lands. Perhaps they simply preferred their own pantheon to the Christian trinity. Or maybe they sensed a subtle disconnect between what was being preached and what done. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Matthaeus Merian's woodcut (1628) depicting the Jamestown Massacre of 1622. Dots
on the map represent sites of the coordinated Indian attack that destroyed at least 31 English
Over a span of thirty-odd years from 1610 through 1646, there ensued a series of three intermittent conflicts, the Anglo-Powhattan Wars (interestingly, during the same time period, 1618 to 1648, the internecine Thirty Years’ War was raging in Europe – for the English, a largely missed opportunity for diversion closer to home). The first of these wars began as a result of settler demands for – indeed, habitual theft of – corn and other foodstuffs from the Indians. The two subsequent major encounters came on the heels of repeated smaller scale attacks and reprisals by both sides, with the colonists systematically destroying Indian villages and crops, and Indians ambushing colonists.

For their part, the Indians did enjoy some military successes – in 1622 and again in 1644 when they managed to kill, respectively, some 300 and 500 of the English. Unfortunately (for the Indians), they failed to consolidate these victories with mopping-up operations to dislodge the invaders once and for all. Instead, they’d fade back into the forest, assuming that the colonists had gotten the message and would pack up and head home to England. But alas, no such luck – the colonists stayed put, re-grouped, and mounted counter-offensives.
Throughout the 17th and 18th century, tobacco – disease-causing and more addictive than heroin –
was the cash crop of the Virginia Colony. Used as currency, it was referred to as “brown gold.” With
slavery firmly established by 1660, large scale production and export became feasible. The resulting
commercial boom may well have spared the colony economic collapse. Today, drug and human
trafficking would be seen in such doings. 

Even so, you wonder if in the end, follow-up strikes by the Indians would have made any difference. For it was the colonists’ alien germs, not their primitive, unwieldy firearms, that proved more lethal for the natives. If you nicked yourself scalping an Englishman, who knows what you might have picked up and passed on to your tribe? There were no latex gloves. Or condoms.

Indeed, the losses suffered by the Indians were staggering. When the English first arrived, the region was occupied by about 14,000-21,000 Powhatan inhabiting some 200 villages along the rivers. By 1669, Indian numbers had fallen to around 1,800 and by 1722, many of the tribes that made up the Powhatan Confederacy were reportedly extinct.

As scientist and author Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: “For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus’s arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent.” And, adds Diamond, “The main killers were Old World germs to which Indians had never been exposed, and against which they therefore had neither immune nor genetic resistance.”
      "Again, all in favor of bringing back powdered wigs…"

Such were the circumstances during Virginia’s colonial era as, in a sort of plot reversal of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, it was the invaded, not the invaders, who fell victim to alien microbes – in droves. The fact that no one knew about the germ theory at the time seems a poor excuse for genocide.

Ironically, perhaps, the colonists of 1607 had been able to occupy Jamestown island without displacing a single native – this because the Indians knew better than to set up housekeeping there. The place was swampy, brackish, short on game, and ridden with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Thus, in 1699, Jamestown was finally abandoned in favor of a new capital in Williamsburg about seven miles distant. Whereas big-sized Native Americans had failed to rid Jamestown of settlers, tiny ones – mosquitoes and other flying insects – enjoyed a bit more success.
During the 18th century, one of these contraptions is said to have stood at Ducking Stool 
Point on the James River.

Amongst these arthropod foes of colonialism – although escaping historical notice – is a particularly vicious and noisome one, the deer fly. These blood-sucking pests are especially prevalent in marshy estuaries and creeks along the James River where they breed, sometimes in numbers large enough to clog a car radiator. Undeterred by insect repellants, they shelter in shady, wooded areas awaiting a blood meal. Swift, strong flyers, they'll orbit your head and shoulders in haphazard circles looking for a place to alight, bite with scissor-like jaw blades, and sop up your blood with a spongey mouthpart. What’s more, they’re extremely persistent, even if occasionally you can wave them off or even nab them in midair. An encounter with one usually ends with the prospective blood meal fleeing, taking shelter indoors (where deer flies won’t follow), or the fly getting squashed. If you’ve ever dealt with the little buggers and felt their painful bite, you know full well how exquisitely satisfying is it to squash one.
"Let’s propose to her. Between the two of us, we could still make
a functional husband."

Recently one sunny afternoon while plying the James at Tar Bay with my friend Fred in his outboard skiff – about thirty miles upriver from Jamestown – a deer fly suddenly appeared and began circling me. This was surprising because we were quite far from shore. Either the little delta-winged nuisance was out on long range reconnaissance, or she’d (it’s the females that bite) stowed away. She’d circle me for short spells, then alight on the bow deck for a breather.

This foray of hers, you see, would have been quite taxing. The boat was doing ten to twelve miles per hour, so she’d have had to fly something like a trochoid pattern in quick step (the green line represents her flight path; the traveling circle, my head) in order to buzz me while keeping up with the boat.

Time and again I tried to swat her when she landed on deck. But too quick she was, and the dance went on.

At last, she made a strategic blunder. Instead of the deck, she alit on the underside of the bowline which completely shielded her from view. Was she trying to hide? Trying to find shade? Who knows? In any case, I was now as invisible to her as she to me.
"Nothing’s perfect!  At least I don’t have to carry a cane anymore."

WHAM! I swatted the rope. Prizing her off, I flicked her overboard for the channel cats – which is more or less what the Indians might have done with the English if they’d had measles vaccine.

These days, we legacies of the colonists, interlopers from hither and yon, go right on pushing our luck in Indian territory – “rez” casinos where the game is now rigged in favor of the natives. It must be satisfying for native gaming hosts to watch us suckers play the slots to the tune of dice shaken in the cup and the little white ball rattling around the roulette wheel.

“So, you’ve come to shoot craps? Come a cropper as yet? What comes around, goes around – this you’ll learn at roulette. Still trying to get rich off us?  With the croupier, place your bets. You’ll wind up at the cleaners. We’ll have no regrets.”

The moral of the story is merely this: whether for purposes fair or foul, sometimes it’s better to pursue your objectives in plain sight.

Powell's Creek, James River, Tidewater Virginia

Maycocks Point, confluence of Powell’s Creek and James River, Tidewater Virginia. The
stowaway’s (inset) attempt at stealthiness proved her undoing. 

Estuary of Powell’s Creek, James River, Tidewater Virginia. Mats of Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata),
aka., tuckahoe, black potato, wampee, or wampi, flourishing in the shallows give the creek a primordial
look harking back to prehistory. The plant, with its heart-shaped leaves and blue inflorescence, is common
from Nova Scotia to Florida and Texas. Though it played little role in the Native American diet, the seeds
and young leaves are edible and nutritious. The Montagnais tribe of North America and Canada considered
pickerel weed an all-purpose remedy, whereas the Malecite and Micmac are said to have used it as a
contraceptive. Efficacy as the latter might explain its absence as a dietary staple, though modern evidence for 

this is lacking.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Cosmology 101: The Mind of God

“We think we have solved the mystery of creation. Maybe we should patent the universe and charge everyone royalties for their existence.”  – Steven Hawking

Did God create the universe? The late cosmologist and theoretical physicist Steven Hawking thought not. The creation event or Big Bang was inevitable, he believed, mandated by the laws of physics.

“The realization that time behaves like space presents a new alternative. It removes the age-old objection to the universe having a beginning, but also means that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn’t need to be set in motion by some god.”
                                                                                              – Hawking, The Grand Design

Perhaps so, but Hawking’s certainly isn’t the only conjecture here. Other cosmologists like Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics disagree. They contend that not only is time real, but everything real is situated in time – nothing exists outside of time. Even if science must confine itself to what is observable, they believe, one cannot definitely exclude religion or mysticism.

So, what exactly happened 13.8 billion years ago when the universe began? Was it the hatching of the Cosmic Egg? Evolution of the Primal Atom? Something to do with Ylem, the primal plasma?  Or simply nonnihil ex nihilo – something from nothing – as Hawking thought? Like Smolin, I doubt any of these possibilities can definitely be excluded.

Yet perhaps something else altogether occurred. Could it be that in a colossal spasm of creative destruction, it was the very Mind of the Creator Himself that went off? Rumination taken to an extreme can sometimes turn in upon itself with unpredictable, even precarious results. Perhaps the universe didn’t spring from the Mind of God. It’s what became of His Mind during the Big Bang: transformation of pure thought into matter and energy. More than merely the Word becoming flesh, divine cogitation may have erupted irrepressibly as the entire universe aborning.

Since we have no idea whatever, not even theoretical, what if anything preceded the Big Bang, this prospect makes as much sense as any. (Parenthetically, don’t confuse the exploding mind scenario with the similar yet fundamentally different head conk model.) Besides, it could help address a number of pressing theophilosophical issues.

'I warned NASA this was no place for a landing, but oooh
Despite widespread skepticism, Roswell was sure he’d seen a UFO 
at Broadbent Avenue and Lake.
For example, world religions virtually from the get-go have struggled with the inscrutability of God’s Mind. According to the Bible, “There is no searching of His understanding” [Isaiah 40:28]; “The Almighty, we cannot find Him out” [Job 37:23]. Or from Buddha, The Eightfold Path: “How can the created understand the nature of one who is uncreated, unformed and not born into existence? It’s not possible!”

Clearly, if God lost His Mind to the Big Bang, “to find Him out” would indeed be impossible. There’d be little or nothing left to discover, let alone understand. End of story.

A narrative that crops up in various species of faith – that God ordained  human sacrifice for mankind’s benefit and then tacked on ritual cannibalism (Christianity) to celebrate it – could be discarded as well. Doing the condign, God would have sacrificed Himself, not somebody else, for our sakes. He’d have willingly given up thinking and forgone ritual in order that we might have our big moment, however brief, in the sun. It’d be like Abraham resorting to felo-de-se rather than knock off Isaac. Free will after all isn’t just about saving your own skin.

So, what fate divine cognition? Could anything intelligible have survived the creative scramble?

It seems unlikely. At best there’s cosmic microwave background noise – the static “snow” on your grandparent’s black-and-white TV set. Regrettably, this static is all too often “received” by clerics and self-styled seers – as though their heads were like old-fashioned crystal radio sets – as divine transmissions subject to self-interested explication. Which may explain why religious ideas, despite trending along similar paths, so often end up butting heads.  Static in, static out.
Throckmorton’s obsession over missing his annual fishing trip to 
Lake Lomax was becoming strangely apparent.

And, oh, the mess it’s made!  The price we’ve paid, and are imposing on the rest of creation, for simply existing in the first place. Perhaps Hawking was right about charging royalties.

Here’s another conundrum we could dispose of. If no one were around to imagine God, would He exist? The answer, of course, is yes. Indeed, God could only exist if no one were around to picture Him. God is eternal, certainly, but not all the time. Thus, you can have God and the universe, but not both at once. This should satisfy believers and nonbelievers alike since each would be in the right at least some of the time.

For their part, committed Bible thumpers oughtn't be in too big a hurry to discount quantum physics. Quarks, not Creflo Dollar, might prove to be the real basis of faith.

Finally, where is all this taking us, and what does science have to say?

1:  The Primal Singularity, or Mind of God (A), blows creating the universe 
and lots of stars (B). 2: Stars go supernova (C), imploding to black holes (D). 
3: Black holes vacuum up matter and light, concentrating it in singularities of 
infinite density. 4: Expanding universe hits quantum gravitational limits (E) and 
begins to implode. 5: Crowded together like peas in a pod (F), black holes 
everywhere merge, forming ultra-massive monster that slurps up everything left.  
6: Cosmic Trash Compacter (G) delivers final punch, imploding the whole shebang 
(H) back to the Primal Singularity. 7: Mind restored (I), God is back in business, 
thinking up the next universe. 
According to current research, the universe is expanding at an increasing rate. Due to the limitations of light speed, more and more of the universe will pass beyond our ability to keep track of it. Eventually, having evolved to a state of maximum entropy (no significant temperature differences able to perform work), it will cool to the point of a Big Freeze where nothing much at all happens. Alternatively, it might keep expanding until it tears itself apart, the so-called Big Rip.

I for one doubt the likelihood of either of these outcomes. The universe must finally obey the common-sense symmetry principle inherent in quantum gravity which states that, just as what goes up must come down, what expands must contract. In other words, sooner or later the universe will reverse its expansion and begin to shrink toward eventual implosion – the Big Crunch. At this point, the primal singularity, the Mind of God, will be restored – resurrected if you like. God comes back, but the universe vanishes.
Intimation of divine anatomy, the Helix Nebula
suggests a cataract problem.

The theological implications of this are obvious. It means that conservative evangelicals were right all along about the Second Coming – albeit it might be the 3rd, 4th, or ten billionth coming. Who knows? From this perspective, the End Times are surely approaching – perhaps in a few trillion years or so, but bearing down on us just the same – when God will indeed return. If any of the faithful are around for the spectacle, it should be quite a singular experience.

Given the violence that has typified everything in the universe from virtual particles to super-massive black holes – not to mention the depredations of humankind itself – you wonder why God bothers to cogitate creation at all. Maybe next time He’ll think twice…or not since this could spell double trouble, two universes at once. Even He – perhaps especially He – you’d imagine, has to watch out about overthinking things.

In the meantime, I believe, it’s up to us, avoiding the pitfalls of background static and divine revelation, to figure out how to comport ourselves.  After all, even our primate cousins and other creatures have done this to a startling degree and managed without stone tablets.

Full Disclosure: 

I received all this in a vision whilst observing a born-again Phoenix emerge from the flames.

Belated afterthoughts of the Big Bang

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Turn on the Tasman (Or the Rhyme of the Ancient Albatross)

"Water, water, everywhere..."

The Tasman sea stretches 1200 miles between Australia and New
Zealand and is one of the roughest patches on the planet for ship navigation. Storms blowing in from the Antarctic churn up thirty-foot waves with winds that can tear sails to tatters.

Even big cruise liners are not immune. We were a day out from Melbourne with two more to go before Milford Sound on the west coast of New Zealand  – “crossing the ditch” as the locals call it – and the sailing hadn’t been smooth.

“The stabilizers are out,” Captain Frigate repeatedly assured us, but it was cold comfort. Our ship, the Gamine of the Spume, rocked and rolled like a fun park pendulum ride. A sudden hard thunk against the starboard side amidships had me grabbing for my coffee cup before it slid to the floor.

The day had been otherwise uneventful, however. I’d attended shipboard lectures in the afternoon – “Entertainment and How to Enjoy It;” “Will the Apocalypse be Beautiful?” – given by a two authorities on cruise ship lecturing. For dinner I’d ordered room service.

Around midnight  the seas began to calm. I chugalugged the rest of my Glenlivet on the rocks (“Better the whisky than the ship,” bethought me) and was just starting to dose off when suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping at my cabin door. I sat up with a start, listening intently.

At first there was nothing more.

Then the tap tap tapping began again but now seemed to be coming from the heavy glass door that separated the stateroom from a small outside ocean veranda. Lumbering out of bed, I threw back the curtains and stared in amazement. For before me stood a seabird of considerable proportions crouching on webbed feet just beyond the glass. An albatross!

The bird looked to be about three feet from bill to tail with blackish-gray upper wings, back, and rump, her head and underparts, snowy white, with black smudges around the eyes. Her bill, pinkish with a dark hooked tip, bore two small nasal tubes at its base that looked like (indeed worked like) pitot tubes. Later I learned she was a Laysan albatross, one of some twenty-two albatross species.

Poetic justice about to land, the ancient mariner belatedly tumbles to the 
metaphoric nature of verse. 
Caught off balance, I was first inclined to close the curtains and hop back into bed. But I quickly thought better of it. Albatrosses are known to be quite persistent in their pursuit of a meal from ships at sea, so the tapping, though unusual, was most like to continue. Moreover, the bird had a sort of quizzical look about her, an intelligence of mien, that made me wonder if perhaps she had something to say.

Thus I opened the veranda door to admit her. She hopped straight through, almost gracefully considering her size, and with a perfunctory flap of her four-foot wings, made herself comfortable on a plush sofa cushion. The nautical pattern of the latter was so like the bird’s own coloration you might have thought she was having a go at camouflage.

“No, I’m not trying to hide,” she said with a laugh, anticipating me. “Thanks for letting me in, though. I don’t normally come knocking at ships in the night like this, but it’s been unusually rough out there. Any port in a storm, you know.”

Astonished at discourse thus articulate from a seabird, I groped for a reply.

“Port? I’ve only got Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve,” I finally managed, inanely twisting her meaning in a lame attempt at humor. “Or maybe you hadn’t noticed this is the starboard side of the boat.”

She grimaced, cocked her head, then replied archly. “I could cross to port on the other side of the hall if you like, but it might create a ruckus, and, well, it was you who let me in.”

“No, no, it’s fine, stay put! It’s just that I’m not used to having an albatross around my deck, you see, and was only trying to make conversation.”

Peering the length of her bill, she lowered her head slightly and fixed me in a steely gaze.

“Un-huh…well, perhaps it's time I introduced myself. I’m called Wisdom, and I’m originally from Midway Atoll – you know, the national wildlife refuge. That’s where I picked up this jewelry, too.”

She held up her right leg to display a red plastic tagging band embossed with white numerals.

“Believe it or not, I’ve worn six of these bracelets starting when I was five years old. That’d be 63 years ago now. They tell me I’m the world’s oldest banded bird and that I’ve flown over three million miles. But who’s counting?”

Amazment at the merely preternatural gave way to quotidian surprise.

For some reason, Icarus had taken a sudden dim view of mixed metaphors.
“Remarkable!” I exclaimed admiringly. “You must have had quite a life. Have you always been solo or have you had time for a family? For a bird your age, I imagine you might have collected a few relatives.”

“You might well ask,” she replied. “Yes, indeed, I’ve had lots of family over the years, including several spouses, assorted lovers, and about forty offspring. But, again, who’s counting? I’m planning to raise another chick this year, too, if I can find the right mate.

My first spouse Albus was a Laysan like me. Every year or two we’d meet up at Midway to raise a chick before going our separate ways back out to sea. We’d been together thirty years when he veered too far south below the Antarctic circle one season. There he ran across an old British square rigger threading the ice pack and alit on the bowsprit for a rest. For no reason at all – maybe just because he could – some depraved bosun’s mate shot Albus dead with a crossbow, a senseless act of cruelty. In a stroke of poetic justice, though, the ship soon came to grief – becalmed at the pole until most of the crew had rotted – nor was I sorry to learn of it. It’s bad luck to mess with an albatross, you know.”

She sounded portentous.  With a sidelong glance, I threw up my palms in a gesture of deference.

“My second spouse Alfonse fell victim to a freak accident. He happened to be roosting on calm seas far out in the Pacific one afternoon when one of those Poseidon rockets, the kind they shoot from submarines, welled up out of nowhere and lofted him skyward. He was never seen again, not even down range.

My third spouse Alfresco was a bit of a gluten and died of a ruptured gizzard after gorging on anchovies.

After that I lost count of spouses and lovers, not to mention my chicks, though I dearly loved every one of them.”

“I bet you’re hungry,” I interjected after a moment’s pause.  “There’s some calamari left over from room service. I believe you Laysans like squid. Please help yourself.”

I handed over the plate.
“Why, thank you!” she squawked with relief – she’d been surreptitiously eyeing the calamari ever since her arrival – adroitly scooping up the fried mollusks with her hooked beak. “We seabirds are fisher folk, you know, and welcome almost everything that swims and is small enough to swallow, especially squiddies. What about you? Are you a fisherman?”

“Alas, no,” I sighed. “Never had any luck with that at all. I once cast my bait amidst a school of halibut, but not a one of them wanted to play hooky. After that, I gave up.”

Exasperated with the ancient mariner’s lugubrious gloom, the sun blazes a 
condign reproach.
Wisdom snapped up the last bit of calamari, a small tentacle with three suckers. The food seemed to have settled her and she seemed more at ease.

“Say,” I conjectured, “I bet you’re not known as Wisdom exclusively on account of your age. In your experience, if I may ask, what sorts of things have you found most rewarding? Adventure? Travel to exotic places? Romance on tropical atolls? The challenge of soaring great distances? Would you have done anything differently?”

Slowly extending her neck to help down the squid, Wisdom looked thoughtful. After a final gulp, she sat motionless for a while, reflecting.

“Perhaps it’s over-simplifying, but there’re two lessons that have stayed with me,” she began. “First, your kids and grandkids are the most important things in your life. I haven’t been able to keep up with all forty of my children, but I see them and their kids off and on. They’re all very dear to me.

Second, you eventually learn who your friends are. A while back, I had a friend – ‘Grandma’ they called her, on account of her age like me. For many years we worked as a team, helping each other raise our chicks. She’s gone now, and I miss her very much. She was a true friend.

Do anything differently? Maybe I should have landed on the port side of this boat if it’s all the same to you.” She grinned the way only an albatross can.

“No,” I said looking sheepish. “I’m glad you came.”

“You’re 68 years old now, Wisdom,” I went on. “How long will you keep circling the globe, flying the southern oceans?”

“Quoth the seabird ‘Evermore,’” laughed Wisdom. “I love evoking Poe even if he was one ‘t’ short of being a poet, or at least an agreeable one. But, no, albatrosses never retire. We just sort of fade away.”

Beyond a line of scurrying clouds the sun had begun to appear over the slate gray sea. Stabilizers still hard at work, the Gamine of the Spume plowed on toward the retreating horizon.

Wisdom had taken up a position on the railing of the veranda, watching the waves intently. As a large one rolled in toward the ship, she plunged into the strong updraft on its windward side, soaring rapidly upward. I watched her go, her elegant cambered wings taking her higher and higher until she was only a speck against the menacing dawn.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Itsy Bitsy

“Unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.”

Robert Frost

You’re strolling along a leafy path or perhaps across a flagstone patio when splith! – you get a face full of spider web. Clingy, diaphanous strands adhere to your nose and lips like tacky arachnodactylic fingers. With a shudder, you recoil from the thought of a spider on your face or a mouth-full of half-devoured, silk-enshrouded  insect parts. You feel a frisson of dread that you’re trapped: the more you tear at the web, the more enmeshed you seem to become. Never mind that the spider, acutely attuned to vibrations from its web and knowing the difference between, say, a falling leaf and a moth, is probably more revolted than you and fleeing to safety down a silk dragline streaming from its behind.

Moon parka ($1,000 from The North Face, Japan) made of synthetic spider
silk developed by Spiber. Perhaps the ultimate wrap, but would you feel
 trapped like a spider snack?
Under the circumstances it might be hard to appreciate that spider silk is truly amazing stuff with a whole range of potentially useful applications. Weight for weight, some types of silk are ten times tougher than Kevlar, as strong as steel, and lighter than carbon fiber. They can stretch well beyond their original length without breaking. Natural spider silk has been used to make reticles for rifle scopes, small fishing nets, and wound dressings. It’s even been fashioned into violin strings, albeit of limited utility (high C sticks to the G-string, hampering arpeggios).
Limited edition synthetic spider silk neckties
(unisex, $314 from Bolt Threads) available
exclusively on, well, the web. Tie clasps
sold separately.

Unfortunately,  commercial production of natural spider silk is severely limited by the fact that spiders can’t be “farmed” the way silk worms can. Spiders are very territorial and like Eugene Field’s famous cat and pup, they unfailingly eat each other up: they’re hopelessly cannibalistic.

Indeed, creatures that yield workable fibers (sheep, goats, rabbits, llamas, camels, silk worms) are virtually all herbivores.  Were goats not vegan, you probably wouldn’t be wearing that cashmere sweater – even if, reminiscent of hapless Arachne, goats were transformed by the power of science into a source of synthetic spider silk. As indeed they have been! More about this in a bit.

Conspiring to caparison the world  in synthetic spider silk, CEO’s
of Amsilk, Bolt Threads, Kraig Labs, and Spiber are taken aback by the sudden
if unlikely intrusion of a supernumerary panelist and critic.
Though spiders can’t be farmed or herded, they can be rounded up and stripped of their textile payload one at a time. Outlandish or impractical as this might sound, two imaginative gentlemen, a Brit and an American, actually did it. Simon Peers, a British art historian and textile expert, and Nicholas Godley, an American fashion designer, both living in Madagascar at the time, hired a team of locals to collect female Golden Orb Weavers in the wild. In a roundup that made Texas cattle drives look downright tame, they eventually roped in 1.2 million spiders to extract their silk. After a protracted tug on their virtue, the ravished creatures were released (though some of them died, possibly of shame).

Four years and more than half a million dollars later, Peers and Godley had produced a magnificent hand-woven, saffron-colored (the silk’s natural hue), brocade cape that’s as much a work of art as garment.

Sacrifice of a Sacred King: To make crops grow and critters flourish, an
Araneidae priestess clad in a ceremonial cape made from the silk of more
than a million Madagascar Golden Orb Weavers summons the spider king to
his destiny
But if spiders themselves aren’t a commercially viable source of silk, why not genetically engineer other organisms to synthesize recombinant silk proteins instead, such as was done with human insulin (e.g., Humulin, Eli Lilly)? By 1990 researchers were able to clone the first fibroin (spider silk protein) gene for just that purpose. Since then, recombinant DNA techniques have been used to engineer fibroin expression from Escherichia coli bacteria, yeasts, plants, silkworms, and even goats, though the recombinant compounds  are typically inferior to the natural ones.

Interestingly in the case of goats, scientists from Nexia Biotechnologies developed a line of genetically modified nannies whose milk contains spider silk proteins. Unfortunately, compared to yeast and bacteria, goats require too much space and food and don’t reproduce fast enough to make commercial silk production feasible.

Still, you wonder if these extraordinary spidey nannies could be turned to some other purpose – say, making a super-springy cheese you could pass off as novelty Gruyère chewing gum to tourists in Switzerland. Or a buccal fitness-enhancing bubblegum for tubists and gaffers.

Two-foot orb web in my backyard. It’s weaver was
nowhere to be seen. The record-holder for such work,
found in Madagascar, is believed to be Darwin’s bark spider
that spins webs more than three feet in diameter with draglines
exceeding 82 feet. It’s silk is the toughest known.
Spider silk proteins are building blocks that can be converted, not just into  fiber, but film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber forms as well to suit a number of different purposes. Indeed until recently, they were used mainly in cosmetics such as moisturizing creams and for medical devices. Coating prosthetic implants – silicone breast implants, hip prostheses, intravenous catheters – with spider silk proteins may make them more bio-compatible and as well as infection-resistant, and clinical trials have been underway.

Compared to many other synthetic fibers, however, artificial spider silk is quite expensive to produce, and it’s far from evident that at least for some applications – designer garments, for example – it offers enough of a performance advantage to justify the premium cost. Nevertheless, several textile startups have moved full steam ahead with a variety of consumer creations.

The atonement of Arachne – and Paris!
Using material developed by Germany’s AMSilk, Adidas has pioneered the first sports shoe made entirely of Biosteel spider silk. Biosteel is strong, yet completely biodegradable and fifteen percent lighter than other synthetic fibers. AMSilk also has a deal with Airbus to create a new spider silk-based material for use in lightweight, high-performance aircraft.

Japanese startup Spiber joined with The North Face to make a synthetic spider silk fabric for a proof-of-concept winter jacket, the Moon parka. Sold only in Japan so far, the coat may soon be available in the U.S.

Bolt Threads of Emeryville, California, the fastest growing of the textile startups, is known for its Microsilk. It has teamed up with high-end fashion designer Stella McCartney and outerwear maker, Patagonia. Bolt itself sold a limited run of fifty neckties that were made entirely of Microsilk.

Finally, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories has a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to research and develop body armor made of the company's genetically modified spider silk, called "Dragon Silk."

This is all fine as far as its goes, but consumer goods like jackets, shoes, and neckties seem rather beside the point. For me, the implications of synthesizing Nature go well beyond such frivolities. The ravages of environmental change that now beset us – an insect apocalypse is already at hand – may one day soon make bio-tech and bio-engineering labs the natural world’s (us included) only remaining hope. Image swarms of scuttling micro-robotic cannibal spiders that rely on large quantities of high grade synthetic silk to trap and dispose of spring-loaded bionic grasshoppers and other such robo-pests (not to mention each other). Only Science might be able to keep them fully supplied and reliably on the job. With a little chemical inspiration – for the scientists, I mean, not the spiders – spider webs could become more complex and original than ever, virtual works of art.

While we’re about it, perhaps we could engineer the fake silk to feel less creepy when it gloms onto your face in, say, the rain forest section of some Plexiglas bio-dome.

We seem well on our way to achieving it all.

All abuzz

Thursday, October 4, 2018

California Driftwood

Oh, the beach, the beach. How folks love the beach, especially when it gets hot, and you can cool off at the beach. They come in droves. Locals with dogs wearing cute checkered bandanas. Mothers with dozing infants in Bugaboo Buffalo baby strollers. Youths toting  Rocket 
Fish surf boards. Aging hippies with deep tans, scraggly beards, tie-dyed T-shirts and Jesus sandals. Tourists speaking in foreign tongues, looking a little uncertain. Families with small children, cabana towels, picnic baskets, and Tommy Bahama umbrellas (or portable beach pavilions). Nerf ball and frisbee players. Surf caster fishermen, walkers, joggers, and amateur photographers. The occasional wedding party. Even
Stylized California highway marker (mission bell and
shepherd’s crook).  Its real-life counterparts can be
found along US 101 between Los Angeles and San Jose.
professional photographers doing fashion shoots for Elle or Vogue.

Some show up after dark with six-packs of beer and stay until late. Others, sometimes the homeless, stay the whole night.

Tidewrack shack with seaweed. A variation of the 
Paleo-Survivalist style emphasizing Spanish moss 
over seaweed is common along the southeastern 
Atlantic seaboard.
And amongst this multitude are the beach artists and architects. I’ve never actually seen them at work, but until swept away by the tides, their creations endure as testimony to their inventiveness. Just as children dig sand and build castles,  grown-ups fashion stuff from driftwood, seaweed, and rocks. Perhaps it’s the primitive urge to construct shelters or make art. Perhaps some innate impulse to repair chaos, organize things.  Or maybe just boredom after enough  sun and sea. The builders often work together, I’m told, like Mennonites at a barn raising.

Beach creations come in various shapes and sizes. Lean-tos, burners, tepees, A-frames, dugouts, pillboxes, circulars, and wind breaks are among the most common. Some aren’t so much structures as sand art incorporating driftwood, rocks, seashells, and feathers.

One way to build a driftwood sculpture without getting your feet wet is to 
photograph the scene, assemble the structure you want using available 
elements and really good software, and then trust to sympathetic magic. 
After all, what is more than but an avatar of something imagined?
The sky’s the limit when it comes to what takes shape on the beach, and some of this handiwork defies description. You might even be given to wondering whether some of it is cast up ready-made by the ocean itself, like Athena springing full grown from the head of Zeus. Recall that the first ever Burning Man event (1986) was held, not in Black Rock City, Nevada, but on a beach, Baker Beach, in San Francisco – and Zeus was from San Francisco.

“Welcome” sign, Nazca-like lines, cairns, bird’s 
beak totem with kelp. It seemed like the hip 
beginning of something – maybe a trendy motel.

Oh, the beach, the beach.

In some cultures, driftwood has been viewed as a sort of fundamental element, like earth, air, fire, and water. According to Norse mythology, Ask and Embla, the first human couple, were made from driftwood by Odin (god of a litany of things)  and his brothers, Vili and Vé. The Vikings had the habit of throwing wood into the sea before making landfall, then building their mead halls wherever the wood washed up. Perhaps they figured if you fell in the drink while drunk, you’d drift to shore like the jettisoned wood, not out to sea and be sunk.

A recent book, Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast by James Herman, waxes philosophical about all this. “Something deep and dark runs through the forts here [north jetty of the Siuslaw River],” he says. “It’s not a bad thing…The forts are smoky and talk to you, even if you aren’t listening.” Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so maybe Herman is on to something even it’s coming from smoke signals.

Flotsam’s many forms: Installation by Zoe Leonard (Whitney Museum of American Art, March-June, 2018, New York) reimagined for the beach. At first glance through the gallery doorway during your visit to this display, you might have meet with a little confusion – misread the installation and its uniformed guard as the queued-up, secured luggage of an actual tour group. For a brief moment you might have hesitated to go in. What on earth was a baggage room doing amidst an enfilade of galleries? And how come none of the suitcases had wheels or retractable handles?  So many questions, so few answers. Yet one answer may wash up on the beach.  For works of this ilk, it seems to me, are ideally suited to the beach. The rich offset of the shoreline, for example, would highlight the suitcases in ways not possible in an expressionless and otherwise vacant (except for a few wall-mounted photos) gallery. Ocean swells would bring to bear the timeless forces that ceaselessly work and re-work the wrack line, lending a certain dynamic. Slick with Vanicream®, visitors sporting Oakleys® and Tevas® would queue up galore for a glimpse of the plein air spectacle, especially during high water. And, yes, there’d be spare suitcases aplenty – where these came from. Just in case. 

“Standing Supplicants” (mixed media), 2017. This installation could be 
a museum piece, beach and all.
Yet I take at least mild exception to his idea of  the beach “fort” (not that he’s alone in this appellation). Typically, beach structures resemble shacks or huts, not forts. Moreover, none of them would withstand even the most faint-hearted assault if it came to that. Maybe the idea harks back to “forts” such as children build. Once while on a playground with my granddaughter, I noticed several of the boys had styled a simple open space as an imaginary base or fort. So for all intents and purposes, I suppose, a fort could be anything you want, including a mash-up of driftwood.

But I’d certainly agree there’s something primeval and mysterious about beach structures, particularly shacks or huts, as though they might be the haunts of sea sprites, places where nereids and other minions of Neptune go to relax, hang out, and sip Singapore slings in the heat of the afternoon.  Yet – absent a few slings of your own –  don’t aspire to catch even a glimpse of them. At the first sign of company they abscond beneath the waves, leaving leisure behind and you with the bar tab. Some say they guard a fabulous treasure, the Golden Egg of Stylth, but I have my doubts. Rumor has it the treasure is in the private collection of J.K. Rowling who guards it even more jealously than the sprites did.

            “Sticklers for a lineup” (seawater, wood on sand), 2018
Here are a few unwritten rules for building beach huts. You ought use only what you find on the beach – no nails, screws, or plastic zip ties. This makes sense because structures put together with nails, say, could pose a hazard once knocked down by the waves. Plastic would only add to the man-made refuse already adrift in the oceans. If you use tools, they should be ones you make yourself. Kindly refrain from dismantling someone else’s construction in order to build your own. They’re community, not personal, property. As one writer put it, they “belong temporarily to everyone and permanently to the ocean.”

A female long-necked sand sitter (Oslignum littoralis) restrains an eager pup 
while two older siblings playfully nuzzle. Sadly, these rare creatures have 
become prized for their fur by the luxury garment industry and face a rising 
tide of endangerment. 

Atrophy & Hypertrophy, demiurges of the primal flood. And Pericles!

At Hendry’s Beach, wooden park benches feature cast bronze memorials – 
a semblance of permanence aloof from the tides but also a reminder of the 

My Little Grass Schack