May 102016

Nathan Currier

But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. —Nathan Currier


Nathan Currier (1960) is a contemporary composer whose work is both bracing and intimate. Talking to Currier, one is immediately captivated by the span of his attention, which takes in hundreds of years and generations of scholarly thought. The breadth of his intellectual passions would have been familiar to composers, musicians, writers and intellectuals of the late Romantic period. In our own time, one marked by rigid specialization across all professions that has many artists stuck in self-referential ironic loops, Currier is one of the relatively few artists addressing the issue of climate collapse in a thoughtful and serious manner. “Never before has classical music been so needed by humanity, and never before has it been deemed so superfluous,” he warns.

Currier has long studied the Gaian theory developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. This Earth Systems viewpoint is based in a holonic understanding that something is simultaneously a whole and a part of its system. His largest work to date is a full-scale oratorio, Gaian Variations, based in the Earth Systems perspective. Music is an holonic expression: individual tones (which each contain the full expression of harmonic overtones) and classical music, as a language in itself, offer the most effective medium by which to understand and transform our understanding of Earth Systems. Classical music is, Currier suggests, “a brilliant model and lesson for the human mind to better contemplate complex system dynamics …(one) which evolved almost as a continuous narrative expression of the inherent properties of the holonic harmonic series itself…”

In addition to Gaian Variations, Currier’s works include Hildegard’s Symphony a piano concerto, many works for solo instruments and chamber music. Currier is also a skilled pianist, awarded the Silver Medal in the International Piano Recording Competition in his early twenties for his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A long-term collaborative relationship with the harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, principal harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic, led to many chamber works written for harp, including Possum Wakes from Playing Dead, Thirty Little Pictures of Time Passing, and A Nursery Sleep. He’s also worked with the visual artist Suzan Woodruff; Looming Atmospheres takes the theme of Currier’s Gaian Variations and uses it as the basis for a painting-film. Currier studied at the Peabody School of Music, and the Juilliard School of Music, where he also taught for over ten years on their evening division faculty. His principal teachers have included David Diamond, Joseph Schwantner, Bernard Rands, Stephen Albert and Frederic Rzewski.

Currently, Currier (along with composers Samuel Zyman and Christopher James) is initiating a new concert series (The Orchard Circle series) that will take place in New York and Philadelphia, beginning Fall 2016. This series will highlight the music of early and mid-career classical musicians through work that Currier feels are too often overlooked. The core of the events will be a 90-minute performance held within a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.

Currier is the recipient of many prizes and awards, including the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim award, and the American Academy of Arts & Letters’ Academy Award, given for lifetime achievement in composition, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Fulbright, Fromm, Charles Ives, Barlow, and ASCAP awards.

I met Nathan around a decade ago, both of us attending a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst, VA. We struck up a friendship immediately, and it was with pleasure that I embarked upon this exchange of emails that resulted in the following interview.

Looming Atmospheres is a work of Nathan Currier and Suzan Woodruff that takes the theme of Currier’s Gaian Variations and uses it as the basis for a painting-film.

Carolyn Ogburn: Would you say something about the way you see the value of exploring environmental themes through music? You wrote vividly about holonic structuring in your essay, “Classical Music in the Anthropocene”. Can you talk about how this might be interpreted, musically?

Nathan Currier: Pitched sound inherently bids us to engage with Natural design, even if it is unconscious: the harmonic series means that all music always consists of parts and wholes sounding together, as each tone contains all pitch, and this deeply holonic structuring of music parallels many inspiring and mysterious aspects of the natural world around us. For example, the Neo-Darwinists have often liked to make it seem as though life’s amazing evolution on Earth = genes + random mutations + natural selection, given enough time. But this view has begun to seem like something of a joke. We have recently learned that huge amounts of genetic material – perhaps as much as 50% of our own human genomes – have been horizontally transferred; a single unit of selection seems almost silly among the multi-leveled holonic processes of life; and, at the highest level of such processes, the Neo-Darwinists themselves strenuously maintained for decades that our Natural selection-run world could never lead to global scale self-regulation, yet the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change (signed by more than 1,000 scientists in 2001 under the aegis of the United Nations) begins by stating just that – that our planet acts as a single self-regulating system. Going back to the Pythagorians, music was always seen as somehow depicting fundamental laws of the universe, and I am essentially saying that this still holds true. But this current form of the old metaphor is little known, however, because Earth System science is not yet widely known.

For holonic structuring, I’m suggesting above that this doesn’t need musical interpretation – that it is always there. But of course, one could also add in conscious interpretation. My Dorothy’s Dinner is all about the work of Lynn Margulis, who was the great modern master of the workings of symbiosis, and one might say that the holonic structure of all life – the cellular organelles like the mitochondria inside our cells; the variegated cells in multicellular organisms like ourselves; organisms inside ecosystems; and the range of these nested inside the biosphere – ultimately stems from the symbiotic behaviors forced upon all organisms, and which was shown to be the source of the complex cells we are made of (Eukaryotic cells), where a process of engulfment (i.e., phagocytosis) creates this multi-tiered holonic quality at the level of single cells. It was in Margolis’ lab that I first saw footage of D. Discoidium, one of the marvels of nature, where 100,000, sometimes even a million, individual, single-celled organisms (they are Eukaryotes, and Protista) can, under the environmental stress of starvation or drought, come together and form a single organism with fully differentiated cells, making a slug that can walk off and find a better environment. Dorothy’s Dinner is for four actors and string quartet, and melds theatrical and musical elements to such a degree that I hope they become fully entangled into a single narrative, where the music employs all kinds of techniques that I see as reflections of holonic structure (again, keep in mind, harmony is inherently holonic), and the narrative concerns four old friends getting together for the first time in decades, entraining issues of group behavior, and climaxing when Dorothy, a retired biologist, shows her old friends this same footage I had seen – the coalescing of the ‘fruiting body’ out of an army of individuals, and the slug then moving off as one single organism.

To deal more generally with environmental themes in music, I think it’s vital first to correctly characterize “environmentalism,” and then to get meaningfully inside music history. I think this is the problem with current ecomusicology – it doesn’t, to my mind, work hard enough yet on either of these things, and so one quickly ends up with breezy talk of John Cage, R. Murray Schaefer and acoustic ecology, things which I confess I don’t personally see as central to music, ecology, or the environment. My essay Classical Music in the Anthropocene begins by trying to show that the largest late works of common practice period music were far more ecologically significant and timely than any such material, since Mahler’s two largest scores (the Third and Eighth symphonies) were entirely wrapped up with Haeckel, who coined the term ecology and adumbrated aspects of Earth System science. And consider that the passage just before Mahler starts his Faust setting in the Eighth gyrates eerily around the subject of geoengineering, a topic likely to be one of the most significant and contentious of the 21st century, although this passage was written by Goethe 150 years before the term geoengineering was first used. What does it mean, then, when composers tack on their conscious thoughts and feelings about something like environmental destruction, to a language that has always been speaking to us, albeit mostly unawares, about Nature’s operations? It depends on how it is done. I have read articles about works in which, say, someone records their footsteps walking on a glacier, and then manipulates this sound to create a “statement” about climate change. A cellist’s video of himself “playing” a graph of global climate change was passed around online a couple of years ago, with the cellist going up in pitch whenever the temperature graph went up – a link to this video was even sent to me by the Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra, as though there would somehow be interest in it for me because I am educated in climatology. If one could create interesting sounding pieces this way, it should still go without saying that such things have nothing much to do with their subject. The squiggles in the climate graph represent the chaos of any complex system, and are relatively uninteresting in themselves, but there is fascinating order in the climate system behind its noisy chaos, just as there is behind your own body’s chaos (your body also exhibits randomness in its diurnal temperature shifts, for example, despite its extreme thermoregulation).

Such talk about geoengineering brings one to the need of correctly characterizing ‘environmentalism’, since the environmental community has taken great pains to portray all geoengineering as evil or even crazy (leading up to the Copenhagen COP, hundreds of environmental groups even signed a declaration against the use of biochar, which is quite benign). At the time of Mahler, our current notion of the environment barely existed. One spoke of Nature. Environmentalism has been hugely positive for society as a whole, but its weaknesses are sitting right there in the reductive word itself: by definition, you aren’t the environment that surrounds you, and this lack of inclusion breeds a lack of agency. Agency is lacking not just for humanity, but for life itself, in this mindset. Consider the opening sentences (after the initial fable) of Carson’s Silent Spring (my italics added):

The history of life on Earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the Earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight.

Only three years after that was written, just one year after Carson’s own untimely death (in 1964), James Lovelock had the first intuition of what would become Gaia theory (commonly referred to as Earth System science today). Now we know that virtually everything present in our atmosphere is a direct product or strongly modulated by life. Lynn Margulis, who developed Gaia theory with Lovelock, would say that all organisms ineluctably alter their environments (through waste, respiration, etc.), and that the sum of those alterations is Gaia.

Gaia might have been able to provide the missing link between our actual current understanding of the planet, and our expressions concerning it through culture and the arts. Earth System science is a term that began to be used at NASA in the early 1980s (a NASA committee called ESSC, the Earth System Science Committee, was formed in 1983 and put out a couple of large reports) which takes the concepts of global scale self-regulation that Lovelock and Margulis had initiated a decade earlier (and which they had called the Gaia hypothesis), but using a more neutral language without any baggage of culture or metaphor. In a way, it has been a tragedy of public relations: the name Gaia was only too loved by New Age enthusiasts, as it still is, while being despised by the Neo-Darwinists, Richard Dawkins labeling it “bad poetic science.” Unsurprisingly, the language of Earth System science has not communicated itself to the broader public or impacted our culture at all. But the oldest musical instrument known was found a few feet from the earliest Goddess figurine, and perhaps there really is something deep about allowing those layers of metaphor to sit on top of the recent revolutions in the geo- and life sciences.

If Gaia theory had not been so disparaged, I suspect that environmentalism, the broader culture, and consequently the planet itself, would all be in a better state today. Of course, I was trying to counter these problems with my largest work, an oratorio called Gaian Variations, which aimed both to introduce people to Gaia theory and also to contextualize it, depicting it as a natural historical outgrowth of Darwinism and the Earth sciences. (CO: Currier’s Gaian Variations premiered in 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but was interrupted midway when the orchestra members walked out, claiming they were headed into overtime. The oratorio has yet to be performed in full.)

Heralding the Anthropocene by Nathan Currier

CO: How do you think about the structural framework of your craft? Do you think that a comparison might be made to the work you do as a composer to the conceptual work done by an architect? For both, it seems, rely on wordless language, deep understanding of structure (or, as it might be, theory) that goes beyond the individual “piece”…

NC: In musical structure, I feel as though much of what happens is far too sensitive to be likened to architectural structure, and such musical structure therefore needs to coalesce through iterative process, rather than come about through design and forethought. I am speaking from my own personal experience as a composer, but I also mean this as a general rule, both for the final form of a given composition, say Wagner’s Tristan, and for the slow evolution of musical structures themselves – take something like the gradual coalescing in classical music of what eventually became “sonata form”. So, it’s more like the emerging structure of a city, the result of iterative processes of daily life being lived, than like the planned architecture of a building.

Someone who was always very important to me from the standard repertory as concerns musical structure, right from the time that I started composing seriously, was Schumann, who I felt left many hanging threads for future composers. He was able to increase the narrative quality of musical language in his larger piano cycles, and a key part of his toolbox was, I believe, disunity. Charles Rosen wrote, that the return near the end of Davidsbundlertanze was, “a genuine return of the past – not a formal return, or a recapitulation, but a memory.” I would agree, but to me the most interesting thing is the means by which he achieved this new kind of return, which was a high degree of disunity in the variegated material between the first version of the b minor material its return. Growing up, I noticed how Schumann’s works were often considered structurally weak in the critical community, which I considered to show a lack of understanding. Needless to say, all this fit in neatly with my later scientific interests. Consider how in Lynn Margulis’ work symbiosis is elevated to a primary driving force of biological evolution. Remember that symbiosis means “living together”, in all its infinite shades of meaning, from the casual acquaintances of organisms that randomly hit up against each other, to the coalescing of the key elements of cellular structure through endosymbiosis, such that every cell with “your DNA” is itself a chimera made up of elements of what were various free-living bacteria billions of years ago. In any case, even in my teens many of my works were designed after Schumann’s, with series of interlinked short movements, perhaps in a way analogous to (Gyorgy) Kurtag, another living composer who also has written about Schumann as an inspiration for his many series of short interrelated movements.

CO: You grew up within a musical family (Currier is the son of Robert Currier, a violist and Marilyn Kind Currier, a composer; his brother is Sebastian Currier, also an acclaimed composer). What was that like, and how do you think it’s shaped your own work?

NC: There is no question but that it was vastly important to me to have grown up in a family full of composers, which I think has shaped me in all kinds of ways I am only partly aware of. One way in which I am different from many composers I know is that I am less interested in what I would call ‘productivity maximization’. Perhaps it is an outgrowth of having lived among other composers, that I see a moral responsibility to not over produce, a kind of compositional ‘Planned Parenthood.” Almost every “professional” composer I know has written far more than Mahler, although Mahler towers over the late common practice repertory…. That said, I confess that right now I would really like to be composing far more than I have for a while!


CO: I know you’ve been excited about the upcoming launch of the Orchard Circle concert series, a kind of “midtown revival,” of the aesthetic middle. Can you talk to me more about that?

NC: I am currently involved in starting up a series of new music concerts in New York City (and Philadelphia) to be called Orchard Circle, starting this coming November. It has gotten me listening to a lot of my colleagues’ works again, and there is certainly no shortage of creativity of all kinds going on today. Yet the series represents only one slice of the whole aesthetic pie, focused on the middle of things, and we are particularly interested in eschewing predominant trends, things like so-called “post-classical” music, the current Brooklyn-based emphasis on pop culture, and other features that typify the current scene.

CO: How much do you think of how your work will be heard as you write? Do you actively seek to either to reflect existing perceptions, or to disrupt them, perhaps to disturb something fundamentally unquestioned in the listener? Or, do you think of it in some other way entirely?

NC: I don’t personally try to either reflect or defy common perceptions, and have to admit that I am not very good about keeping the listener in mind once I am involved in composing something, unless I could be considered “the listener”. But I am sure that time changes everything, including our perceptions, so I don’t see what the value is of thinking of current listeners as opposed to difficult-to-predict future ones. And I think that we need to be very future-oriented right now, about our planet, our society, and our aesthetics. When I ask other composers about the future, I realize that most have rather little concern for it, and for some that is even a matter of pride, after a century of modernists claiming that someday, “the milkman would whistle Webern’s tunes.” Personally, regardless of the errors of the modernists, I see it as a matter of morality to work and live as though still believing in some future, perhaps akin to Mahler’s “my time will come!” attitude. This despite the fact that I know far more climatology than colleagues, and so know with certainty that New York City, where I am now living, is already doomed (the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun its slow collapse, the grounding line around the chief Amundsen Sea outlet glaciers have reached the so-called ‘retrograde bed’, and this will be an unstoppable process) along with all the world’s other vulnerable coastal cities.

It is hard to fathom what perceptions of us and our creations will be, given the utterly unprecedented nature of what is underway, and at times it all feels so overwhelming that I wonder if I will be able to continue, and at such moments I often feel an immense envy of those happy colleagues who are able to ignorantly concentrate on their personal “careers”.

The Simon Bolivar Orchestra playing Mvt. 1, Of Moisture and Greenness, from Hildegard’s Symphony by Nathan Currier, with Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp solo, and Cesar Ivan Lara conducting. Premiered in Caracas, Venezuela, June 1, 2012.

CO: Earlier, you were talking about the misunderstandings of environmentalism. Can you say more about how this interacts with how you see classical music as a medium for thinking about our climate, um, challenges?

NC: Classical music is unique in the degree to which it injects a non-repetitive, one-way arrow of narrative time, and this is of supreme value if people are to contemplate time and the future. Further, counterpoint is an invention of classical music, and its complex multi-temporality is exactly what one needs to consider something like the climate system, so I do see classical music as a perfect cultural object through which to consider the irreversible large-scale climate changes underway.

Unfortunately, traditional environmentalism is still stuck in its old pre-Gaian mode, with real consequences, and anything that could shake up this situation through music would probably be good for music, and would certainly be good for the planet. Think of how today an issue like nuclear energy plays an important role in peoples’ voting – take the German election of 2011, or Bernie Sanders’ call for a U.S. moratorium on nuclear plants – but people have no adequate way of making intelligent energy choices until they begin to understand the Earth System in time. For example, wind energy manipulates a vitally active part of the Earth System – atmospheric circulation – and leaves an imprint upon it, changing the vertical mixing of the lower atmosphere, and warming the surface downwind of turbines. That does not mean we should disparage wind energy. I suspect that wind farming, however, will end up like fishing: there is a huge amount of protein in the sea, but you just can’t sustainably harvest much of it, and we have begun to learn this the hard way, with the global oceans already in a dire state. We can greatly expand our use of wind energy over the present, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it can or should supply a very large part of global energy, and the issue with wind probably won’t be whether you can get 10TW, 60TW or even 200TW out of it, as some argue: rather, I suspect it will be whether the overharvesting of wind resources offshore of California will further stress the storm tracks coming to the Sierra Nevada, imperiling U.S. agriculture, or whether lots of turbines around the UK and Scotland could actually start to impact the “tip jets” around southern Greenland, probably vital for the descending plumes of dense saline water needed for Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, which will already be under increasing stress from Greenland freshwater input and warming generally. Indeed, in the end, large scale wind harvesting will be akin to geoengineering, and indeed is a form of it, one which counteracts changes in atmospheric chemistry wrought by prior forms of energy, substituting them with a different form of energy that alters atmospheric dynamics instead. I think that wind power (along with other mild forms of geoengineering) needs to be part of the mix, but my guess is that it won’t reach much beyond 10% of total global energy before economic/environmental considerations halt its growth. That implies, of course, vast hypocrisy on the part of the environmental movement, which scorns both geoengineering and nuclear energy while advocating for wind. And today more and more ‘Big Green’ groups embrace Mark Jacobson’s plans for powering the world with >50% of all energy coming from wind turbines, which could well prove highly problematic (some peer reviewed material from Harvard and the Max Plank Institute, published by PNAS, suggests Jacobson’s way of calculating wake turbulence produce wind density figures that might be 400% of practically achievable levels), and in the end will just prolong dependence on fossil fuels for decades more than necessary, with terrible consequences.

Thus, when one considers the Earth System viewpoint and the huge price we will pay for not following it, in part because of erroneously framed “environmentalist” perceptions, and when one also considers how a brilliant model and lesson for the human mind to better contemplate complex system dynamics is classical music – which evolved almost as a continuous narrative expression of the inherent properties of the holonic harmonic series itself – it brings one to a surprising conclusion: never before has classical music been so needed by humanity, and never before has it been deemed so superfluous, with many claiming it already dead amid today’s pop culture triumphalism.

But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. So I think there primarily needs to be a vast increase in education about what the “environment” really is and how it really works, and then both conscious and unconscious applications of all that to the art of music in its totality.

—Nathan Currier & Carolyn Ogburn


Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.


Sep 122012

Poetry here from Irish author Gerard Beirne who attacks the notional divide between science and art head on and makes rhymes out of sines and cosines and the nature of colloidal suspensions. In ancient times Pythagoras theorized upon the nature of music and mathematics without making a distinction between the two. It is only in our day (and mostly in the popular imagination) that science, mathematics and art have drifted into a strange opposition. Perhaps it is only an ill-educated assumption that science is not beautiful. In any case, Gerard Beirne, in his new book Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual (Oberon Press) from which these poems are taken, makes poetry out of science and science out of poetry. And sometimes he uses science as a luminous metaphor for the spirit. Of circles and squares, he writes:

The relation of X’s to Y’s
the hows and whys
of the pleasure derived
from being true to themselves
or from pushing
………………… their boundaries




Properties of Solutions: The Colloidal State

Take atoms, molecules
assume their use theoretically
if not practically
believe in them (or not)
if you will.

Accept (for now) that this
is elementary theory
to avoid a state of confusion.

Focus on colloidal dispersion
the scattering of light (for instance)
by particles of dust
in the path of a sunbeam
through a partly opened door
(call this the Tyndell effect).

Take these small sparkling specks
(these giant steps)
and follow these points of reflected light
observe the constant random motion
(name it Brownian movement).

Publish if you must
a mathematical analysis
of nonuniform random collisions
caused by the unequal number of molecules
colliding on either side.

(Answer if you dare
to the name of Einstein

or Perrin if you prefer
a Nobel Prize.)

Verify experimentally
remove the last doubts surrounding
atoms and molecules, offer
the proof of your own existence

(act surprised)

the notion of its constant
random motion
the human condition.

Believe in it (or not)
if you will

(but accept for now
that this is still



The Pressure of Gases – kinetic molecular theory

Torricelli immersed
at the bottom of a sea
of elemental air
considers the existence of a vacuum

(a space repugnant to nature
and philosophers
who advocate resistance)

but Torricelli bearing up
under the oppressing weight of hot air
fills a tube of glass
a dish with mercury
inverts the tube within
observes the empty space which forms

a place where nothing
(natural) he believes
can be contained

(unawares of molecules
of mercury vapour
ascending upwards)

a vacuous state of being
devoid of God or life

(at least on paper)

light-headed (and swimming
beneath the surface)
Torricelli endeavours
(and succeeds) to measure
the pressure of the atmosphere

like some exotic fish
he gauges the rise and fall
within the tube
floats easily amongst it all

the internal and external forces
rarefaction and density

(Torricelli breathing
at the bottom of the sea)

where all and nothing happens
an emptiness filled
with relentless intensity

Torricelli (like others
before him) sees mankind
struggling to its knees
in the lower regions
of the atmosphere

(quicksilver rising in a tube of glass)

a place cohabited with animals
meek and wild

while on the peaks of mountains high
closer to the heavens and the sky
(where prayers come to pass)
the air is pure and light
and finally measurable

the next step (unimaginable)
surely flight?



After this
………….I lead you into form

triangle, rhombus, square, helix
circle, rectangle, ellipse

and from there
………………….to their equations

their defining features.

The relation of X’s to Y’s
the hows and whys
of the pleasure derived
from being true to themselves
or from pushing
………………… their boundaries

a circle stretched into an ellipse
a rhombus pressed into a square

but erstwhile
……………….there is the line

(like light concise
taking the least journey
…………………………….between points
adhering to Fermat’s Principle of Least Time
“nature always acts by the shortest course”).

Archimedes, Appolonius of Perga,
Euclid, Pappus of Alexandria

awaiting fourteen centuries more
to extend the shape of their knowledge

Gerard D. Desargues,
Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes

mathematicians defining concepts
………………………………… words
simple sounds
intricate with meaning

tangent, locus, vertex,
asymptote, focus, directrix,

the complexity
of geometrical theory.

Beyond this
………………..images and symbols

points aligned in space
specified by their coordinates
outlining inordinate quantities
of thought

and out of all of this a purpose
beyond the rapture of near perfection
an application?

The parabolic surfaces
of reflector lights, say
showing the way
or antenna in radio astronomy
solar furnaces
ballistic calculations

shots fired in the dark

satellites orbiting the earth
above the critical speed
needed to remain aloft
and hark
…………….transmitters locating ships.

But which from which

the bullet or the ellipse
the form or its intent?

Or by necessity
………………….both together
creating their own trajectory

forces never spent.


— Gerard Beirne


Gerard Beirne is an Irish writer who moved to Norway House, a Cree community in Northern Manitoba, in 1999 where he lived for three years. While living there, he interviewed Elders in the community and edited for publication an anthology of those interviews. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead.

His novel The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express. His most recent novel Turtle was published by Oberon Press, 2009.

His short story “Sightings of Bono” was adapted into a short film featuring Bono (U2) by Parallel Productions, Ireland in 2001 and released on DVD in 2004.

His poetry collection Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual has just been published by Oberon Press- Fall 2011. His collection of poetry Digging My Own Grave was published by Dedalus Press, Dublin. An earlier version won second place in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.

Jan 262012


Adam Regn Arvidson has completed his epic (nearly a year) exploration of nature writing in America, including essays on Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Edward Hoagland, Joseph Wood Krutch and Loren Eiseley plus a special craft essay/digression on imagery and invective (in the work of Edward Hoagland). Adam also explores the profound political and cultural effect this particular kind of nonfiction prose has had—these nature writers have altered the way with think about the land we live in (we are talking about the invention of Green). In the last year, Adam also had a new son and completed a nonfiction book on landscaping and the environment that will be published by W. W. Norton this fall. —dg




Loren Eiseley’s Two Cultures

Edward Abbey’s Access to Wildness

The Enigmatic Edward Hoagland

Criticism Through Imagery

The Power of Rachel Carson

Joseph Wood Krutch’s Natural Personality

The Place of Wendell Berry


Adam Regn Arvidson

is a landscape architect and writer in Minneapolis. He has published numerous articles on design, planning, and landscape in a variety of magazines, including Landscape Architecture, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Planning, and Metropolis. He is founder of Treeline, a design/writing consultancy that assists public and private clients in telling the story of their land through landscape architecture and writing deeply rooted in place. In 2009 Adam won the Bradford Williams Medal, the nation’s highest award for landscape architectural writing, and he has a book forthcoming on environmental practices in the nursery and landscaping industry (W.W. Norton, 2012). This fall, Adam will be inducted as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Jan 242012



In the fall of 1993, I went to Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky on a college class trip. We barely knew each other: young design students immersing ourselves in the nuance of the landscape for a week or so. This was the first of what would be four years of design studios together; the first overnights of a fall tradition that continues to this day. Yes, we still reconvene, now with families in tow, every year in the fall, to reminisce about college and time since, to talk about our careers, some of which have remained firmly anchored in design, some of which have transformed over the years.

The trip included a single overnight expedition (that’s perhaps too grand a term for it) down into one of the deep river-cut valleys that lace that part of Kentucky. We set off in the morning mist on a flat trail, which soon began to descend beneath the plateau. It got cooler as we dropped into the valley and soon we could hear the limpid trickle of the fall-docile creek.

You know what this essay is about, since you’ve presumably read the title, and if you know anything about Wendell Berry, you know where this is going. These wooded cuts are his place.

Finally from the crease of the ravine I am following there begins to come the trickling and splashing of water.  There is a great restfulness in the sounds these small streams make; they are going down as fast as they can, but their sounds seem leisurely and idle, as if produced like gemstones with the greatest patience and care.

Continue reading »

Dec 052011




 ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— John Keats

Chlamydomonas is my favorite “model organism.” It is a small green alga that is one of a handful of unlikely organisms that serve science by acting as proxies for the human body. Scientists don’t pick so-called model organisms for exceptional evolutionary achievement and there is no scientific catwalk of gorgeous creatures. Some scientists do exclaim over the beauty of these creatures, but really. Pond scum? Writhing white round worms? Slime mold? The truth is, model organisms are a haphazard lot that scientists select from the teeming crowds because of quirks that make them useful for laboratory research. They are useful and as we work with them we come to know them.


Thank Evolution

Life on Earth emerged relatively soon (0.7 billion years) after our Solar System formed and it has been evolving ever since (i.e. for 3.8 billion years). Because all of life on Earth shares fundamental biochemical pathways, it is likely that we are all descended from a common ancestor – presumably the most robust of the emergent life forms.  This commonality means that studies of almost any organism can shed light on the others.

In this Tree of Life diagram the centre represents the last common ancestor of all life on earth. Pink are the eukaryotes (plants, animals and fungi); blue are the bacteria and green are the archea. Humans are second from the rightmost edge of the pink segment. The species included in this illustration are those whose genomes have been sequenced. (Courtesy of FD Ciccarelli).


When word gets out that an organism is well suited to a particular type of experiment other scientists interested in related problems begin using this species for their work. Over time, we learn a great deal about the organism and along the way we develop an array of experimental tools to study it. With the application of these tools, the organism expands its repertoire of usefulness to science. In other words, a few assets and a great deal of happenstance get the ball rolling. As our knowledge of an organism and our skill in working with it increase, the organism becomes established as a model.


Microscopic Models

E. coli, the infamous gut microbe variants of which can wreak havoc with human health, grows rapidly and is one of the easiest beasts to study in the lab. It and a few other bacteria serve as models for understanding microbial-based pathogenesis. They also serve as tools for the experimental dissection of fundamental biochemical processes. From these studies we have learned that although bacteria are small, they are surprisingly sophisticated and are by no means simpler versions of us. They branched off early and have taken a different evolutionary path than us. Because of this divergence, E. coli is of limited use as a model organism for understanding how human cells work.


Electron microscopic image of E. coli  courtesy of MediaWiki

We tend to think of ourselves as more highly evolved than, well, everything else. This is a strange idea given that every living thing has an evolutionary history as long as ours. We confuse evolutionary longevity with complexity. While we are no more highly evolved than any other being on Earth, we are arguably the most complex beings in an evolutionary lineage that specializes in complexity, a lineage we call the eukaryotes.

Around two billion years ago, by a process that seems to have involved some early cells engulfing other early cells and them all coming to live in peaceful co-existence, the eukaryotic lineage was born. These larger and considerably more complex cells, containing what have since become nuclei and mitochondria, allowed a blossoming of innovation, including complex multicellularity.

Under conditions of starvation, free living single cells of the slime mold Dictyostelium crawl towards one another. Eventually they aggregate into a slug-like creature that crawls around for a bit. Cells that find themselves in different parts of the slug differentiate into specialized types and together the community of cells (organism?) forms a base, a stalk and a fruiting body to launch spores (towards the end of this clip you can see the base and stalk on the left, the fruiting body filled with hopeful spores is just off screen to the left)..


Fungi, plants, and animals, we are all eukaryotes.  We are certainly different from one another, yet we are related closely enough that our genes are sometimes interchangeable. In a dramatic demonstration of this fact, Paul Nurse and Melanie Lee used a human gene to replace an essential gene in a single-celled fungus, a variety of yeast that is used in Africa to brew beer. [1]

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the budding yeast, is another microscopic fungus, the predominant yeast that we have been using for brewing and baking for something like 10,000 years. Like the fission yeast used by Nurse, the budding yeast grows rapidly and we are adept at manipulating its growth and life cycle in the lab. Yeast is a strikingly good model organism for a growing array of cellular processes, including cell division.

Dividing yeast cells courtsey of the Salmon Lab, University of North Carolina


Yeast has proven itself so useful that hundreds of independent laboratories from around the world use it as a model organism. These scientists have developed sophisticated technologies that allow them to probe deep into the workings of cellular processes such as cell growth and division.

Cell growth and division may look simple, but consider what is being accomplished:  cells grow and divide in just the right balance to maintain cell size within a limited range – too much division with not enough growth produces wee cells and vice versa. Cells must be able to assess their own size and then divide with exquisite precision.  Cell division is not initiated until each strand of DNA is completely copied once and only once. Each daughter cell receives precisely one copy of each chromosome along with a share of mitochondria and other essential organelles. The more we learn about the molecular machines that control and execute these feats, the more stunning it all becomes. The mysteries are deeper with every layer that is pulled back.   And the relevance to humans is unambiguous: cancer is cell division control gone awry.

Dance of the chromosomes: vertebrate cell division

As useful as yeast continues to be, there are some questions for which yeast is of no use at all. We tend to think of evolution as a process of acquiring ever more fancy ways of doing more and doing it better, but often it goes the other way. When conditions change, structures that previously served a purpose may no longer be of any use. Because it costs energy to build structures, individuals with a mutation that prevent the structures from being built can put the saved energy into other things – breeding being an eternal favorite. Such was the case in the deep caves of Mexico where light does not penetrate. After generations in complete darkness, a fish known as the Mexican cave Tetra no longer has eyes.

Like the eyeless Mexican Tetra, yeast is a bit weird in that it is a stripped down little creature. Over evolutionary time, yeast has lost some features, presumably because the cells have adapted to environmental niches where these features are of no use.  Among the attributes that yeast lost are cilia, small hair-like structures that protrude from the surface of the cell.

How do we know that one lineage (e.g. yeast) lost something (cilia) as opposed to the possibility that the thing never developed in that lineage to begin with? We know because cilia appear in all major branches of the eukaryotes and in each case they are fundamentally the same, built from the same complex array of molecules assembled in the same way by the same molecular machinery.  The last common ancestor of plants, animals and fungi was a single-celled organism with cilia.


How I Met Chlamydomonas

Chlamydomonas is a unicellular organism that has some of the attributes that recommend yeast, with the bonus that it has retained its cilia. This microscopic green alga is found worldwide living in soils, ponds and even on snow. All they need is light, water and a few minerals – they grow well in a flask of fertilized water on a windowsill. Specific cellular traits have made Chlamydomonas a valuable model for energy capture (photosynthesis of crop plants, biofuels and artificial leaves), cellular stress responses, mechanisms of evolution, and an array of human genetic diseases. Although I now use Chlamydomonas as a model organism to study the biology of cilia, that is not where my relationship with this cell began.

I first met Chlamydomonas in 1988 when I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation research in genetics and biochemistry at the University of Connecticut. I was part of a team trying to understand how the leaves of the majestic Rain Tree fold up at night (to conserve water) and unfurl in the morning (to capture sunlight).[2]

At night the cells on the inside of each tiny elbow of the leaf shrivel while those on the outside expand, causing the elbow to bend and the leaves to fold. Each morning the process reverses, the elbows straighten and the leaves unfold. We were interested in how these cellular shape changes were controlled by a circadian clock.  Sapling trees kept in the dark for days at a time continue to fold and unfold their leaves in time with the changing light outside.

We were testing the hypothesis that a particular biochemical pathway was involved in coupling the cellular shape changes to the circadian clock. The work involved growing sapling trees in large light-controlled growth chambers, harvesting the tiny elbows and incubating them in small vials of radioactive fertilizer, where they would continue to bend and stretch even while detached from the plant. After the elbows had taken up and incorporated the radioactivity into their cells, we would carefully dissect the inside of the elbow away from the outside of the elbow, freezing each section of tissue on dry ice, grinding with a mortar and pedestal, and then conducting biochemical analysis of the material. It was slow, painstaking work and we were not getting clear answers.

At the time we didn’t even know whether the biochemical pathway of interest was used to regulate activity in cells in the plant lineage. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of model organisms, but as an oceanography student I had worked with single-celled algae.

I soon started growing my first Chlamydomonas cells and it was love at first sight – they are green, they are beautiful and using them for this project was a way of bringing together my long-time fascination with algae and my new interest in biochemistry.


Getting To Know My Organism

Eventually I got the experiments working and determined that the biochemical pathway we were looking for was present in Chlamydomonas. I was getting to know my organism. After learning how to grow it and how to manipulate it for experiments, the next step was to see if our pathway controlled any of the behaviours of this tiny alga.

I surveyed three behaviours: phototaxis, mating and deflagellation. Phototaxis is directed movement in response to light:  Chlamydomonas cells swim towards dim light and away from bright light. Mating is, yes, sex. Chlamydomonas comes in two mating types, plus and minus – male and female, just like us (as it were). Flagella[3] on cells of opposite mating type stick to one another, bringing the cells together for fusion. The third behaviour, deflagellation, is a stress response wherein Chlamydomonas jettisons its flagella, to grow new ones later when the stress has passed.

Phototaxis and mating are both complex behaviours. I didn’t find any evidence that our biochemical pathway was involved in either, but then, I didn’t know the organism well enough to finesse the experiments. Thankfully, deflagellation was simple: shock the cells with a chemical treatment and the flagella would pop off.  I was lucky and discovered that our biochemical pathway kicked into high gear during deflagellation.

Excited by the biochemistry, I detoured into postdoctoral research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where I studied the molecular pathways by which mammalian cells respond to hormones. But I pined for Chlamydomonas. Eventually I established my own lab at Emory University specifically focused on the problem of how and why Chlamydomonas cells deflagellate.



One particular memory stands out from those early years in my own lab when I was getting to know my organism more intimately. It was late in the evening and no one else was around. While waiting for an experiment, I was occupying myself by sitting at the microscope watching Chlamydomonas.

Under the microscope you can see the cell wall for which Chlamydomonas is named. “Chlamys” is Greek for “a shoulder draped cloak.” That night I happened upon a mother cell wall containing the daughters from a recent cell division. I saw the evidence of three divisions in rapid succession: eight Chlamydomonas daughter cells still encased in their mother’s cell wall. Over the next hour and a half I watched as the daughters grew flagella and started waving them about within the confined womb. Eventually, they managed to rip a hole in the wall and one by one I watched the cells emerge and swim away.

The cilia that protrude from almost all of the cells in the human body are essentially the same as those of Chlamydomonas. Some of our cells, such as those lining our respiratory tracts and the ventricles of our brains, are topped with a cluster of motile cilia that serve to move fluids – mucus and cerebral-spinal fluid, respectively. Primarily because of experiments on Chlamydomonas scientists are beginning to understand the molecular machines that generate this beautiful form of motility.

Cilia of mouse brain ependymal cells maintaining flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Movie courtesy of Karl Lechtreck, University of Georgia.

The cells that make up most of our tissues – brain, liver, kidney, muscles, skin – have only one, very small and non-motile, cilium.  Until recently, scientists ignored these relatively pathetic looking little structures with no assigned function, considering them to be vestiges of our evolutionary past. A little over a decade ago, Chlamydomonas researchers seeking to understand how cilia are built made discoveries that have lead to a revolution in our thinking about ‘vestigial’ cilia.

Over the past dozen years we have learned that these tiny immotile cilia serve critical roles as cellular antennae, processing centres for the myriad signals that cells are tuned to detect. Signals from the environment and from other cells dictate differentiation into the various cell types that make up the organs of our body. Similar signals that maintain the physiological functioning of the adult. Both developmental and physiological signals are detected and integrated by cilia. Commensurate with the varied and important signals that cilia process, we are now discovering that defects in cilia cause a long list of diseases ranging from too many fingers and toes to obesity to Polycystic Kidney Disease and retinal degeneration.


Flies and Worms

Research in both Chlamydomonas and yeast depends upon the study of heredity, or genetics, a tool that is available because of research on another model organism, the fruit fly. Thomas Hunt Morgan followed visible traits of Drosophila melanogaster to discover that genes carried on chromosomes are the basis of heredity. [4]

As with other model organisms, Drosophila became ever more useful to scientists the better they came to know it. Experiments in Drosophila revealed master control genes in charge of establishing whether a leg or an eye would develop and fly researchers were among the first to decipher the language used by cells in a multicellular organism to establish their division of labor.  Drosophila continues to be an important model organism for studies of developmental biology. Because Drosophila exhibits complex behaviours that are controlled by a nervous system and can be dissected genetically, it has also become an important model for behavioural neuroscience.

In his acceptance speech for the shared 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Sydney Brenner said, “Without doubt the fourth winner of the Nobel Prize this year is Caenohabditis elegans; it deserves all of the honor but, of course, it will not be able to share the monetary award.”[5] . Selected for the transparency of its embryo and the limited number of cells in the adult worm (fewer than 1,000) C. elegans is a premier organism for studying the how cells distinguish themselves from one another and live or die to serve the development of complex organ systems.

Crawling C. elegans courtesy of Bob Goldstein, University of North Carolina.
These are brief introductions to a few of my favorite model organisms, there are many more. Experiments with model organisms continue to help us understand the molecular interactions that underlie cell growth, division and differentiation, the development and physiology of organisms. Can life be distilled into molecular interactions whose chemical properties we can measure and ultimately predict?


A Feeling For The Organism

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) was a botanist and geneticist who studied corn. McClintock discovered genetic recombination, mobile genetic elements, centromeres, telomeres and genetic regulation decades in advance of our molecular understanding of these things. She was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. Recognized with many awards, including the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, this woman of uncontested scientific acumen had something of a spiritual relationship with her organism.

“I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it. I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a real pleasure to know them.”[6]

The mysteries of life remain so numerous and profound that researchers pushing the edges of our understanding are prone to witness strange happenings. Perplexing new observations become new discoveries – after you make sense of them. On the report of some new cellular activity it is not uncommon to hear scientists say, “I saw that too. I just didn’t know what to make of it.” Those with an intimate knowledge of their organism are better equipped to discern important changes and to make the intuitive leaps that turn perplexing observations into new knowledge.

The intuitive knowing that arises from familiarity is entwined with an awareness of kinship, of common origin. We may lose ourselves in pursuit of the specific mysteries of our creature, yet always what we are doing is revealing who we are. From small and specific questions arise big answers.

We grow fond of these quirky distant cousins who at times can be quite disagreeable (ask any cell biology graduate student). And on those rare occasions when our model organisms reveal their secrets and provide us with discoveries, the fondness feels like love.

— Lynne Quarmby

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Lee, M. G. & Nurse, P. Complementation used to clone a human homologue of the fission yeast cell cycle control gene cdc2. Nature 327, 31-35 (1987). For this and other discoveries Nurse shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. The Rain Tree, native from the Yucatan Pennisula to Brazil, and naturalized around the tropical world, is known by many names: Monkey Pod; Mimosa; Saman; Coco, French, or Cow Tamarind.  To scientists it is Samanea saman.
  3. In Chlamydomonas the cilia are called flagella simply because way-back-when scientists did not appreciate that they were the same structure. Bacterial flagella are something entirely different.
  4. This discovery won Morgan the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
  5. Sydney Brenner, Robert Horvitz, and John Sulston shared the prize “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.”
  6. From A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller, 1983. (p. 198)
Nov 162011

Hiking to the Commonwealth Glacier

Here’s another, even more amazing, text & photo essay from the intrepid painter/writer/naturalist Laura Von Rosk (see her first report from Antarctica here) who flew to Antarctica (it’s spring there) early in Septembet as part of a scientific team headed by Albany, NY, cell biologist Dr. Samuel Bowser (friend them on Facebook at Bravo! 043 or visit his blog). In this report, the team continues its training at McMurdo Station’s “Happy Camper” school before heading to their own research site. The team’s mission is to dive (under the ice) and conduct studies on the the single-celled organisms known as Foraminifera from a field camp at Explorers Cove, situated at the base of the Taylor Valley, in the Dry Valleys, west of McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Laura Von Rosk (normally) lives with her dog Molly on a lagoon just outside Schroon Lake, New York. She curates the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project, a gallery dedicated to the experimental and the avant garde. She’s an old friend and a wonderful landscape painter. See Laura’s paintings on Numéro Cinq here.

Antarctica map 1, map 2, map 3, map of Ross Sea area, map 5. Virtual tour of McMurdo. Map showing McMurdo Station and Taylor Valley.


More Adventures at the Bottom of the World

Laura Von Rosk Reports from Antarctica

 View from the Observation Tube: Henry, Cecil, and Dannie

Over the last three weeks I’ve had some unusual experiences which included camping out on the Ross Ice Shelf with about 20 other Happy Campers, as we are called, observing tiny sea creatures 20 feet below the sea ice in the Observation Tube at McMurdo Station, taking my 1st Helicopter ride over McMurdo Sound, Assisting the divers at Explorers Cove, hiking to the massive Commonwealth Glacier, and seeing Weddell Seals up close as they popped up through two of our dive holes.

Continue reading »

Nov 042011

The  intrepid painter/writer/naturalist Laura Von Rosk (see her paintings here on NC) has flown to Antarctica (it’s spring there) as part of a scientific team headed by Albany, NY, cell biologist Dr. Samuel Bowser (friend them on Facebook at Bravo! 043 or visit his blog). The team’s mission is to dive (under the ice) and conduct studies on the the single-celled organisms known as Foraminifera from a field camp at Explorers Cove, situated at the base of the Taylor Valley, in the Dry Valleys, west of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It’s a great pleasure to be able to publish Laura’s early report (dated October 9) and some of her photos. There will be more.

Laura Von Rosk (normally) lives with her dog Molly on a lagoon just outside Schroon Lake, New York. She curates the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project, a gallery dedicated to the experimental and the avant garde. She’s an old friend and a wonderful landscape painter.


What it’s like living in Antarctica

From Laura Von Rosk


We arrived at McMurdo on Tuesday late afternoon. We have been very busy since, with training, reviewing plans for the season, etc., and just getting adjusted to the new environment. Each night I think I’ll get to email – but end up exhausted. Usually in bed by 11 PM, and up around 6 AM.

We weren’t sure we would get here on Tuesday because the night before we left Christchurch it was “Condition 1” [1] at McMurdo.

Today, Sunday, Oct 9th, is Condition 3 – beautiful sunny day, 0 degrees F, -18F wind-chill.

Continue reading »

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I pasted the 3 main definitions for weather here:

    Condition 3 (nice weather): Winds up to 48 knots, wind chill down to -75 degrees F, and visibility over 1/4th mile. Unrestricted travel and activity are allowed.
    Condition 2 (not so nice): Winds 48 to 55 knots, wind chill -75 to -100 degrees F, or visibility 100 feet to 1/4th  mile. Restricted pedestrian traffic only between buildings is allowed. Vehicular travel is allowed in radio equipped, enclosed vehicles only, and check out is required.
    Condition 1 (crazy…) Winds over 55 knots, wind chill lower than -100 degrees F, or visibility less than 100 feet. Severe weather is in progress. All personnel must remain in buildings or the nearest shelter.

    For a sample of Condition 1 visit this link:

Oct 242011


Rational thought. Calm, reasonable, gentle persuasion.  It was this quality of moderation in his writing that most impressed me, for my own inclinations tended toward the opposite, the impatient, the radical, the violent.

That’s how Edward Abbey described Joseph Wood Krutch in an essay that appeared initially in the journal Sage and then featured in Abbey’s 1988 collection One Life at a Time, Please. The piece, called simply “Mr. Krutch” (that’s “krootch” if you’re reading aloud), recounts Abbey’s 1967 interview of Krutch—the last formal interview the latter granted before his death in 1970. The circumstances and content of the interview say much about both men: it took place in the desert burg of Tucson, it resulted from Krutch’s acceptance of Abbey’s simple cold call (Abbey admits to having simply looked up the well-known Krutch in the phone book), and it features a palpable tension as then-debutant Abbey tries to direct the conversation but is instead led along by Krutch.  It’s an excellent read.

Abbey, of course (as described in an earlier installment of this series), is known for his passionate defense of and writing about the desert.  Krutch, perhaps exactly because of that more “reasonable” voice, is far less well known—he is probably the least recognized name among those profiled here—but he also comes to mind mostly because of his desert writings.  That late 60’s interview brought together two men with similar loves at the very moment the environmental movement was in the midst of legislatively changing the world. It is a pivot point on the environmental timeline.

Moving forward, Abbey would publish Desert Solitaire less than a year later in 1968. Within two years, Edward Hoagland and Wendell Berry would be on the scene, the Clean Air and Environmental Policy Acts would become law, the elder desert sage would publish his life compendium, The Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch, and Krutch would die, just two months after the first Earth Day. Moving backward, Krutch published books contemporaneously with Loren Eiseley (whom Krutch admires specifically in the Abbey interview), Rachel Carson, and Peter Mathiessen. Krutch was born in 1893 (the only major mid-century writer to see the turn of the last century), and in fact his writing should have been contemporary to Aldo Leopold (born in 1887), except that Krutch came to nature writing quite late.

Krutch began his writing career as a theater critic and professor at Columbia University.  He wrote biographies of Edgar Allen Poe (1926), Samuel Johnson (1944), and–who else–Thoreau (1948), as well as a book-length thesis critical of science and technology (The Modern Temper, 1929).  The Thoreau book, initially just another biography project, made Krutch take a closer look at environmental topics.  This is from his 1962 autobiography More Lives Than One:

One winter night shortly after I had finished Thoreau I was reading a “nature essay” which pleased me greatly and it suddenly occurred to me for the first time to wonder if I could do something of the sort. I cast about for a subject and decided upon the most conventional of all, namely Spring.

That first essay, “The Day of the Peepers,” led quickly to Krutch’s first nature-focused book, The Twelve Seasons (1949). He was 56 (by contrast Abbey published Desert Solitaire at 41 and had by then already written three novels). Krutch’s most famed volume The Desert Year came out in 1951 (the same year as Rachel Carson’s best-seller The Sea Around Us). The Voice of the Desert expanded on the earlier book in 1954, and travelogues on the Grand Canyon and the Baja Peninsula followed in 1957 and 1961, respectively. Other books, more philosophical in nature, alternated with these environmental tomes, making this an extremely prolific time for Krutch: including the Thoreau biography and his autobiography, 11 books in 14 years.  It was almost as if he was making up for lost time.

Abbey describes Krutch’s style exactly right. The quote above from More Lives Than One is a perfect example of the lilting, matter-of-fact, discover-as-you-go tone of Krutch’s nature writing. (How ironic it is, by the way, that Krutch’s autobiography is called More Lives Than One and Abbey’s last essay collection is called One Life At a Time, Please.) Though I think Krutch’s language matures a bit through his career, that by-golly sense of wonder is always present—tempered, though, by hints of the intelligentsia of which Krutch can easily be considered a member.

Some examples: first from “Don’t Expect Too Much from a Frog” (1953):

The whole philosophy of frogs, all the wisdom they have accumulated in millions of years of experience, is expressed in that urrr-unk uttered with an air which seems to suggest that the speaker feels it to be completely adequate. The comment does not seem very passionate or very aspiring, but it is contented and not cynical. Frogs have considered life and found it, if not exactly ecstatic, at least quite pleasant and satisfactory.

“Urrr-unk” and “feels it to be completely adequate” are delightfully opposing semantic poles.

And from “Journey in Time,” part of the 1958 Grand Canyon book:

As soon as nature has made a mountain, she seems to regret it and she begins to tear it down.  Then, once she has torn it down, she makes another—perhaps, as here, precisely where the former mountain had once towered.  Speed the action up as in those movies of an opening flower, and the landscape of the earth would seem as insubstantial and as phantasmagorical as the cloudscape of a thundery afternoon.

The first sentence here is decidedly low-brow, but then comes “phantasmagorical” and “cloudscape.” Even Krutch’s essay and book chapter titles are a little aw-shucks. The first four chapters of The Desert Year are “Why I Came,” “What It Looks Like, “How to See It,” and “How Some Others Live Here.”

To use a thrice removed quote, Mark Tredinnick, in his unique exploration of writers’ home landscapes, The Land’s Wild Music (Trinity University Press, 2005), pulls this Krutch gem from Frank Stewart’s A Natural History of Nature Writing (Island, 1995): “[Nature writing is] experience with the natural world, as opposed, for example, to science writing, which is knowledge about the natural world.” Krutch happily admits to being a novice. In the essay called “On Being an Amateur Naturalist” he says, tongue-in-cheek, “I think I know more about plant life than any other drama critic, and more about the theater than any botanist.” That humility is a refreshing departure, and one that lets the reader feel ignorant without shame. A recurring story in The Desert Year sees Krutch trying to discover why bats always spiral a certain direction when exiting a cave. He writes to scientists and even imagines himself gaining some recognition in scientific circles for raising this apparently never-before-asked question. He wonders if they go the other way in Australia. He envisions some non-verbal compact among the bats, to eliminate traffic accidents.

For to Krutch, the bats are sentient and are possessed of personalities. So are the spiders and the birds and even the saguaro cactus. This belief sets Krutch apart from the other writers of his time, hearkening back to a more romantic notion of nature found often in the writings of John James Audubon and, at times, John Muir.  Tredinnick in The Land’s Wild Music goes so far as to put Krutch in a box with Leopold, Henry Beston, and Carson, while the opposite box has Abbey, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and “all the other Thoreaus of the baby boom” (ugh! a group Thoreau reference–see my rant about Hoagland, here).  This belief also set him against the prevailing science of his day, which relied on dissection to study living things and considered all plants and animals mere machines governed by instinct and natural selection.  Krutch’s writing believes in the real lives being lived in the natural world: the joy, the sorrow, the patience, the humor.

For instance, in The Desert Year, he watches courting lizards:

When I first noticed this pair the male had just made a direct, crude approach toward the female and she, quite properly resenting this matter-of-factness, scurried away as from an enemy about to devour her. The male stopped disappointed; shrugged his lizard shoulders; started off in the opposite direction; and was then obviously surprised to discover he was being followed at a discreet distance….

Besides the advances and retreats which are the essential features of all courtships, this one consisted principally of poetical speeches or amorous arias, though I could not be sure which since the sounds were completely inaudible to me, at least through the window…. [The] lady would listen intently, move a little closer, and then edge away again when her suitor approached to ask what effect his eloquence had produced.

Ahh, the rigors of flirtation, and life, for all creatures, not just we humans.

The other day I hiked with my youngest son Mason for the first time in a state park. He is six months old and was strapped to my chest, contentedly looking up at the silver maples.  A small woodpecker exploring along the trunks caught my eye. Soon the bird flew to different branch where another woodpecker was already tapping. As the first bird arrived, the resident woodpecker pecked aggressively in his direction, spread his own wings wide, and called out a series of shrill staccato tones. The interloper followed suit and the two danced on the branch, arms outstretched, beaks threatening.

I imagined what they might be saying to each other—or, rather, what Joseph Wood Krutch might imagine them saying to each other. I am sure he would have exactly the right dialog.

Proceed to the next essay, on Wendell Berry; or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Sep 262011

I was almost finished reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when I authorized the application of Garlon to 3300 square feet of vegetation surrounding a new commercial building. Garlon is an herbicide: a chemical officially called triclopyr—a cocktail of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and chlorine arranged in a particular structure that makes it fatal to broad-leaved plants.

I visited the application site after a few days and the plants had already started to wither. Garlon takes a little while to act, but over the course of a week or two, the lambs-quarters and creeping charlie browned and fell to the earth. The company I hired later arrived to mow the whole thing down.

Silent Spring spends an entire chapter (ominously called “Elixirs of Death”) on how exactly the various pesticides and herbicides work. Garlon is more recent, so it doesn’t appear, but it shares many of the chemical properties of the chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates Carson describes. “Elixirs of Death” occurs early in this seminal (some would say THE seminal) environmental work. Carson, an otherwise soft-spoken science writer, sets the book’s tone with the chapter’s title, and with stories like this:

On another occasion two small boys in Wisconsin, cousins, died on the same night. One had been playing in his yard when spray drifted in from an adjoining field where his father was spraying potatoes with parathion; the other had run playfully into the barn after his father and put his hand on the nozzle of the spray equipment.

Dwell on those words for a minute: “had run playfully into the barn after his father.”

Chemical diagram of triclopyr (Garlon)

I am a landscape architect, which means I typically come up with designs for parks, homes, and commercial properties, then leave the maintenance to others. At some level I suppose I understand that a broad array of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are being sprayed on my idealistically created landscapes. But what they do is their business—out of sight, out of mind. On the particular commercial project I mention above, though, I was thrust into a management role due to some contract discrepancies. The responsibility of maintaining the native prairie grasses I had seeded along the building’s main walkway fell to me. I called a prairie expert who told me herbicide would be the best way to get the weeds under control and allow the little bluestem room to grow. I wavered. Then agreed.

Hanging up the phone I was wracked with guilt. Carson’s book has a way of making one feel that way, if one is in any way complicit in the use of pesticides or herbicides. Silent Spring is both fact-packed and heart-wrenching. It leaves a reader feeling emotionally spent, yet unable to find relief in the possibility that the stories are either exaggerated or untrue. And that, of course, was its intended effect.

It’s hard to know exactly where to start a new essay about Carson, since of all the environmental writers in American history, she has been more researched, praised, referenced, essayed, and reprinted than anyone but perhaps Thoreau and John Muir. Certainly of all the writers covered in this series, no one sold more books and no one had a more direct effect on legislation than she did—even though she only wrote four books and succumbed to cancer a mere 18 months after Silent Spring was published, at age 56. If you want biography, read Linda Lear’s excellent and honest Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. If you want homage, go for Courage for the Earth, edited by the venerable Peter Matthiessen. You can find Rachel Carson children’s books and Rachel Carson school curricula. (I’m thinking of starting a line of “what would Rachel do?” bumper stickers and coffee mugs.)

It’s hard to know where to start with Carson because so much has been said already. What I will add is this: Silent Spring struck me in two ways. Foremost, I felt like a direct subject of criticism, because of the Garlon, and the book has made me rethink some of my professional practices, even though it is near 50 years old and wildly out of date factually. I also felt a deep admiration for Carson because she, I believe, deliberately altered her writing style in order to have the desired impact. Silent Spring, in tone, subject, and language choice, is markedly different from her earlier works about the ocean:  Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (a 1951 bestseller), and The Edge of the Sea (1955). Though this earlier trilogy—completed a full seven years before Silent Spring—has notes of warning, it is above all a paean to the sea, in all its glory and poetry. I read The Sea Around Us immediately before delving into Silent Spring, and the contrast was stark.

Indulge me in a side-by-side comparison. To make it a little more apples-to-apples, I’ll look at the same subject: water. Here is Silent Spring:

Here and there we have dramatic evidence of the presence of these chemicals in our streams and even in public water supplies. For example, a sample of drinking water from an orchard area in Pennsylvania, when tested on fish in a laboratory, contained enough insecticide to kill all of the test fish in only four hours….

For the most part this pollution is unseen and invisible, making its presence known when hundreds of thousands of fish die, but more often never detected at all. The chemist who guards water purity has no routine tests for these organic pollutants and no way to remove them.

And The Sea Around Us:

Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulation system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.

You will of course have to give me the benefit of the doubt that I have selected representative samples. Yes, there are glimpses of the critical Carson in the sea trilogy and of the enraptured Carson in Silent Spring (“those woodland sprites the kinglets…the warblers, whose migrating hordes flow through the trees in spring in a multicolored tide of life”). But it’s not a stretch to say that the sea trilogy is poetic while Silent Spring is analytical.

I believe that difference is not just because of the passage of time between the works, nor is it because of the inherently negative subject matter of the later book. As Ann Zwinger writes in her introduction to the 2002 reprint of Silent Spring, after World War II “The public endowed chemists, at work in their starched white coats…with almost divine wisdom. The results of their labors were gilded with the presumption of beneficence. In postwar America, science was god, and science was male.”  Science also stood alone, in philosophical opposition to art and poetry. That dichotomy, which Loren Eiseley and others began to expose in the early 1960s, led to the intense social upheval that pitted “9-to-5-ers” and “hippies” against each other in the decades to come.

In order to have an affect on the science of the day, and on the general population, Carson needed to adopt an empirical rhetoric, mostly free of the soul-stirring prose that populates her earlier work but would be rapidly discredited in the context of her new subject. In fact, the chemical industry tried to do exactly that, launching a smear campaign that, among other things, labeled Carson a spinster and a madwoman—powerful and damning language in the late 50s. Carson buttoned Silent Spring up tight, leaving no space for the chemical establishment to set a hook and tear it apart.

However, if that had been Carson’s only trick, Silent Spring would stand as an excellent report to Congress, rather than as the “cornerstone of the new environmentalism,” as Peter Matthiessen calls it. Carson’s final book was embraced by an entire generation and many believe it led to not just the domestic ban on DDT application (for which it is best known), but also the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972—all of which directly address environmental pollutants like herbicides and pesticides.

The reason for Silent Spring’s longevity is that laced within the analysis are passages like this:

I know well a stretch of road where nature’s own landscaping has provided a border of alder, viburnum, sweet fern, and juniper with seasonally changing accents of bright flowers, or of fruits hanging in jeweled clusters in the fall…. But the sprayers took over and the miles along that road became something to be traversed quickly, a sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make. But here and there authority had somehow faltered and…there were oases of beauty in the midst of austere and regimented control…. In such places my spirit lifted to the sight of the drifts of white clover or the clouds of purple vetch with here and there the flaming cup of a wood lily.

Or this, in reference to the “explosive power” of nature to reproduce and fill a void:

I think of shore rocks white with barnacles as far as the eye can see, or of the spectacle of passing through an immense school of jellyfish, mile after mile, with seemingly no end to the pulsing, ghostly forms scarcely more substantial than the water itself.

It has been more than a month now since I was complicit in the application of an herbicide. Today the site is a green swath of baby prairie grasses pushing their roots deep into the earth and covering the soil with their stems. Next spring there will be fewer broad-leaved plants and after another year this landscape will not need to be mowed, fertilized, watered, or treated with chemicals of any kind—ever.

My 3300 square feet is infinitesimal compared to the millions of square miles of neighborhoods, forests, and farms that used to be sprayed from airplanes with a mixture of DDT powder and fuel oil (can you imagine?!). And Carson’s last chapter gives me an out: perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t call for outright bans, but rather a careful combination of biological control and chemical use applied where needed and for the right reasons.

She also calls for effective regulation and decision-making through sound science, and that sentiment became the foundation for the EPA and all the environmental legislation passed in the early 1970s.

So if you will indulge me in one more paragraph, I would be remiss in not mentioning current events.

I opened this series by referencing a January 25, 2012, speech by Newt Gingrich in which he proposed elimination of the EPA. He, the few remaining presidential hopefuls, and conservative members of the U.S. Congress have held that line for the past year. The standard phrase, crowed ad nauseum in debates and stump speeches, is that the EPA and the Clean Air and Water Acts are “job-killing” regulations. Gingrich and the other so-called advocates for business and jobs should take a moment to remember life before 1970: fuel oil dropped from airplanes on suburban neighborhoods, chemicals in general use so dangerous that children could die from touching a spray nozzle, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River so polluted it actually caught fire (that was 1969), cities across the nation dumping untreated sewage into local waters (yes, the Clean Water Act regulates government in addition to private business). Conservatives are holding a ridiculous and untenable position that essentially suggests businesses would pay more taxes and hire more people–if only they could pollute.

Carson described the 1950s as “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests…it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half-truth.”

Silent Spring is 50 years old in 2012—election year. As I wrote in the introduction, it’s time for another reading.

Proceed to the next essay, on Joseph Wood Krutch; or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Jul 182011

Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (© Jarek Tuszynski / Wikimedia Commons)


  Chatting with ET: Dialogue between The Actual and The Possible

By Lynne Quarmby


Yet, while science attempts to describe nature and to distinguish between dream and reality, it should not be forgotten that human beings probably call as much for dream as for reality.

— François Jacob, The Possible and The Actual, 1982


Ancient Greeks knew that unicorns were exotic animals observed in India. Even by 1600 it is unclear whether translators of the King James Version of the Bible were thinking of creatures real or allegorical when they wrote “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn” (Numbers 23:22).  Either way, while the translators were writing about unicorns, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, among other transgressions, his belief in extraterrestrials.

In 1967, Roger Patterson filmed a female Sasquatch walking across a clearing in a northern California forest. The 16 mm footage remains the only evidence we have of this presumed intelligent and elusive ape, all other reports of sightings have proved to be hoaxes. Patterson toured Sasquatch country, from northern California to British Columbia, showing the film and telling his story. I was ten years old when my father and I sat in those folding chairs, believers.



The other day I called my father to ask him if he still believed in Sasquatch. “No,” he said. “I think if they were real we would have more evidence by now.” That is pretty much how I feel too, but we could be wrong.

The B.C. Scientific Cryptozoology Club lists 212 “cryptid” mammals – the Sasquatch is one of 36 putative primates. Club founder Paul LeBlond is a respected scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada – he was also one of my professors when I was an Oceanography student. Paul’s avocation is the search for scientific evidence of cryptids and when it comes to Sasquatch, he remains open to the possibility of their existence.

What of extraterrestrials? The soul-stirring wonder and awe of a clear, dark star-filled sky has fuelled the creation of a fantastic diversity of fictional extraterrestrials. Might there actually be something out there?  In the race to be real, one thing ET has over Sasquatch is more room to hide.

Beyond the vastness of space and the depth of our desire for company, there are growing scientific reasons to be optimistic about finding extraterrestrial life. Ongoing work on the emergence of life on Earth indicates that life may be a common phenomenon in our universe. Last month NASA announced unexpected observations of a potential new cradle of life in our solar system. Data from the Kepler space telescope has begun to arrive and as summer progresses we are discovering that our universe is littered with planets.  These are exciting times. Living generations may witness the discovery of extraterrestrial life – are we ready for that?

Continue reading »

Jul 152011


The rant comes easily to nonfiction writers—especially environmental and nature writers.  Most feel the need to write about nature either out of pure love for the natural world or out of concern for its well-being.  Inherently, the writer will offer opinions on who is at fault for perceived ills and what we should be doing about it.

Earlier in this series of essays on nature writing in America, I have noted that Edward Abbey rants plentifully (I even admit that I often feel he’s kicking me in the butt).  The targets of Abbey’s criticism are very specific, beginning with the National Park Service and certain corporations and extending in some cases to specific individuals associated with projects he hates.

Not so with Edward Hoagland.  In my previous piece on Hoagland, I mentioned how this author’s early works hooked me hard and how I wasn’t entirely sure why.  Curious, I looked more closely, comparing his early work to the most recent collection, Sex and the River Styx.  Beginning in The Courage of Turtles and on up through the big compendium Hoagland on Nature, the writing is nearly devoid of finger-pointing.  I didn’t notice it at first because I clearly understood Hoagland’s message about caring for the natural world without throwing humanity out with the pond-water, as it were.  But a careful reading brings no villains—characters, yes, even characters acting in ways Hoagland seems to want us all to avoid, but there is never any specific criticism, like Abbey lofts at the Corps of Engineers or Loren Eiseley levels (more softly) at academia.

How does he do this?  In this installment, I’m taking a short break from the regular personal-reflections-on-a-mid-century-environmental-writer format to provide a craft essay.  And like any good craft essay (especially one to be read on-line), I will narrow my scope—to one work.

  Continue reading »

Jun 132011


If one more reviewer or foreword writer refers to an author as some latter-day Thoreau, I’m going to throw that book in the nearest pond.

This knee-jerk reference is everywhere—each of the previous two authors in this series, Loren Eiseley and Edward Abbey, have been referred to as Thoreaus (a remarkable fact considering how unalike Eiseley and Abbey were). And there it was again, in the foreword of Edward Hoagland’s most recent essay collection, Sex and the River Styx (2011): “Edward Hoagland,” crows the title, “The Thoreau of Our Times.”

My beef with the comparison is that it sets up false expectations. I initially began reading Hoagland because quite a few people I was meeting told me that I should. During my first two trips to Vermont for my MFA studies, whenever I would say that my writing focused on science and nature, there was a good chance I would be asked if I had read either Annie Dillard or Hoagland. No? the incredulous inquisitor would gasp, You must read The Courage of Turtles. To me that sounded like a good bit of nature writing: the courage of turtles—a dose of ironic personification coupled with a straightforward description of subject matter. When I finally got to Hoagland, it was Sex and the River Styx first (start with the current stuff, right?). As I opened the book, the combination of writer friends’ swoons, a golden embossed tree on the cover, and that Thoreauvian header had me primed for something truly naturalistic.

But I was disappointed.

Let’s be clear: this is a complex and wide-ranging collection, which certainly touches on nature (its beauties, its dangers, and how we’re pretty much ruining it), but it remains more immersed in Hoagland’s mind than in the world around him—natural or not. So I went back to the source: the man’s seminal work, the now (unfortunately) out-of-print 1971 essay collection everyone had been recommending. I was surprised to find a dearth of nature even here. Tugboats, circuses, county fairs, and sex? Sure. Paeans to trees and reptiles and charismatic megafauna? Not really. Yes, the titular essay is about turtles, but those turtles are found in a bowl in an aquarium shop, painted up as curios at a boardwalk arcade, and in Hoagland’s own aquarium, kept as pets. Even the essays that do focus on the wild world, namely “The Moose on the Wall” and “The War in the Woods,” are about, respectively, taxidermy and bear hunting.

Strangely, though, I couldn’t stop reading. I sampled Notes from the Century Before (1968), about a summer in British Columbia; have begun Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973), a collection examining the nature/city dichotomy, and am part-way through the 2003 collection Hoagland on Nature. I can’t put him down.

In “A Last Look Around,” one of the swan-songily named essays in Sex and the River Styx, Hoagland says:

I’ve been publishing books for forty years, and I don’t have a fastball any more, just a knuckleball, spitball, and other Satchel Paigey stuff.

That stuff’s hard to hit, but a lot of fun to take a swing at (or watch from the stands). Hoagland’s writing is about nature, but it comes at you sideways, through the tugboats plying the East River, through commercial coyote trappers, through the tame big cats and sad elephants traveling the country with the Barnums, through references to pharmaceuticals and lawn maintenance. Which means Hoagland gets our human situation (and always got it—I think his earlier work is Satchel Paigey, too, which is a compliment). We don’t live in nature. We live somewhere in between.

I loved metropolises and saw no conflict between exulting in their magnetism and in wild places.

That’s from another Sex and the River Styx essay, “Small Silences,” and it suggests we can live in both worlds. But there are hazards:

Yet a more authentic affinity with what we call nature is being lost even faster than nature itself. Into the void slips obsessional pornography, fundamentalist religion, stobe-light showbiz…and squirmy corporate flacks…. If gyms don’t substitute for walking, it’s hard to find a place to walk, as houses line every beachfront and scissor every patch of woods with cul-de-sacs for real estate.


If you wait until your mature years to get to know a patch of countryside thoroughly or intimately, your responses may be generic, not specific—just curiosity and good intentions—and you will wind up going in for golf and tennis and power mowers, bypassing nature, instead.

These little rants in the latest collection are a departure from Hoagland’s earlier work, the hallmark of which is a blameless observation, crafted in a way that leads the reader to a conclusion without seeming to do the leading (more on that later, see the upcoming “bonus post” at the end). Sex and the River Styx, the essays in which were originally published between 2003 and 2010 in a variety of magazines ranging from Harper’s to American Scholar to Outside, feels, well, final. Start with the titles: “A Last Look Around,” “Last Call,” “Endgame,” “A Country for Old Men.” Hoagland is approaching 80. He has written hundreds of essays since “The Big Cats” appeared in Esquire in 1961. Sex and the River Styx has a tone of exasperation to it, as if he were saying, World, I’ve been trying to save you from yourselves for 40 years and this is the last time I’m going to tell you.

Perhaps that explains my initial disappointment. I read Hoagland the wrong way ‘round. I’m not there yet. I’m just short of 37 and have the strange notion I can still make a difference. There is a long arc to Hoagland’s work, which, taken as an oeuvre, is emphatically about how to take care of the world—without shaming anyone specifically (like Abbey does).

Also without sequestering oneself into a certain pigeon-hole. As a case in point, to find Hoagland’s work, I bounded up and down the steps of the Minneapolis Central Library, visiting the travel, literature, and science and business sections. He is anthologized in the 1989 nature writing collection This Incomparable Lande, but is omitted from Bill McKibben’s landmark American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (2008), which features about 100 works by authors including the well-recognized (hmm) nature-writers Woody Guthrie, Lyndon Johnson, and P.T. Barnum. Apparently, neither academia nor library science know exactly where to put Hoagland. (Considering McKibben’s pro-nature sensibilities, the omission of Hoagland’s “Endgame,” an extraordinary and wide ranging essay on threats to the environment, is an unfortunate oversight.)

If Hoagland had a pet subject matter, it was big mammals, especially wild predators. Yes, he is best known for a ditty about turtles, but it’s bears and mountain lions and wolves and coyotes that obviously capture his fancy. Hoagland began his adulthood traveling with the circus and working with lions and tigers, and that passion never seems to have left him. He broke into The New Yorker in 1971 with “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” has essay collections called Red Wolves and Black Bears and Tigers and Ice, and has traveled to Africa to document both the human and animal tragedies happening there.

Several of the animals he illuminates are on the federal endangered species list. The wolf, in fact, was one of the poster-fauna for the Endangered Species Act, which became law in 1973. A number of Hoagland’s essays predate that law, including those collected in The Courage of Turtles. Earlier, he contributed his wilderness memoir Notes from the Century Before (about the wild, grizzly-populated Pacific coast) to one of the greatest years for nature writing in the last century, 1969, in which Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, and John Hay all published important works.

I expect Hoagland would be horrified to learn that Congress recently stripped protection of western wolves by de-listing them in a rider to the budget bill signed recently by President Obama. No plant or animal has ever been removed from the Endangered Species Act by an act of Congress–politics trumps science.

For my part, I am still trying to figure out exactly why I have become so enamored with this writer, especially after my initial disappointment. Neither Eiseley nor Abbey affected me quite this way.

I am beginning to think it has to do with the reality of the writing. Hoagland is neither agitator, activist, nor rebel, but rather observer: of mountain lions, of bears, of kids spending more time in front of video games than outdoors, of red wolf trappers on Texas bayou plantations, of endangered animals in circus cages, of Viagra and pornography and overpopulation, of turtles. Of nature and human nature.

I don’t want to compare Hoagland to Thoreau just because both talked from time to time about plants and animals and human impacts on the environment (incidentally, Hoagland’s 1991 essay “About H.D. Thoreau” focuses on the 19th Century writer’s humanism and activism, which makes the Hoagland-Thoreau comparison a bit more apt).  Hoagland seems more rooted in civilization, even as he dreams of an afterlife “thocketing among the boulders” of some creek as he washes out to sea to be gently rocked for eternity.  Hoagland hits me a lot harder than Thoreau does.

For instance, at the moment of this writing, I am sitting in a campground at Wild River State Park in Minnesota. In front of me on the left is a two-person tent, where my three-year-old son is sleeping off the morning’s hike. In front of me on the right is a 32-foot motorhome, in which my father and his long-time girlfriend are doing the same. My laptop is on the picnic table on a plastic checked tablecloth purchased on the way up here at a Wal-Mart. This weekend get-away in the motorhome is Ethan’s 3rd birthday present from my dad. This is not the way I normally camp.

But this morning we were enveloped in a flock of yellow swallowtail butterflies on the banks of the St. Croix River (designated in 1968 as one of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers). We spied blooming wild geranium and trillium and false Solomon’s seal in the woods. We watched two giant russet and crimson cecropia moths mate on a tree near the visitor center. A tiny spider I cannot identify just jumped from the tablecloth to my arm, thought better of that decision, and jumped back to the tablecloth. There’s a light breeze in the oaks and the sky is blue.

I could get wrapped up in so many philosophical battles with myself (what’s the gas mileage of that motorhome? where was this tablecloth made? why have we let our rivers get so polluted that the federal government is likely to name three more Minnesota mussels to the endangered species list next year?). But I am too judgmental; I should observe more. And the most important observation? My dad took my son camping.

Which makes me think of this, from the title essay in Hoagland’s most recent collection:

And that’s not an inconsiderable recipe for life—to do no harm and to bear witness. The second is often harder than the first.

(My son, incidentally, seized my Hoagland on Nature, handing me Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go in return. A budding nature writer? Maybe Hoagland needs to grow on him a little, too….)

Proceed to the next essay, a closer examination of “The Courage of Turtles” with an eye to how Hoagland shares his (sometimes scathing) observations without placing much actual blame (a  craft essay), or return to Nature Writing in America Table of Contents.

— Adam Regn Arvidson

May 192011

Volvox, first described by van Leeuwenhoek in 1700, is a close relative of Chlamydomonas.


Reasons to Rejoice in Green Algae
By Lynne Quarmby


Every once in awhile you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right
– The Grateful Dead


We’ve had three hundred years of microscopy and some of us are still fascinated with the beautiful creatures that swim in pond water. To the naked eye, to the unpracticed observer, they look like cloudy, icky scum and we don’t want to swim with them. But they are also delightfully alive, they congregate, they swim (and wouldn’t care if we swam with them), they even “see” or at least sense light. And under the microscope, in the lab, in experiment after experiment, these tiny green algae are yielding discoveries that are important to you and me, in terms of health and the environment and, yes, in the revelations they bring of the wondrous reality of the molecular world.

Continue reading »

Apr 122011

Here’s the first in a series of science essays from NC’s resident scientist (also painter, author, musician, mountain woman), Simon Fraser University gene biologist Lynne Quarmby, who promises to lead us into that fierce nexus of mystery, art, literature, beauty and science. Lynne has already contributed aphorisms, a “What it’s like living here” piece and paintings to the pages of NC. It seems only fitting that she now extend our reach into the laboratory, into the cell and atom. Lynne wrote her own short intro to the series. DG could do no better.


It’s amazing all
this motion going
on and
water can lie still
in glasses and the gas
can in the
garage doesn’t rattle.

—AR Ammons

Have you ever watched a sunset and reminded yourself that you are standing on a ball that is spinning and that you are flying backwards away from the sun? It totally changes the experience. Try flying into a “sunrise”-– that’s really wild. On the evolutionary timescale, it has been the blink of an eye since Copernicus realized — and Galileo observed — that we have day and night because we live on a spinning world that orbits the Sun. We’re still trying to get used to the idea.

Our direct sensory experience of the world evolved with us; in our hearts the world is what our sensory organs tell us it is. Our senses are superbly effective for helping us function in the everyday world—that’s why we’re still here—so it’s understandable that when science reveals something counter-intuitive or paradoxical, we have difficulty integrating the new ideas into our worldview. But if we can recognize and acknowledge that our direct biological senses, as wonderful as they are, give us only a tightly pinched and cloudy view of the world, then we open ourselves to unimagined beauty.

From where I view the spinning world—as a cell biologist—I see our experience of the world expanding so much that what it means to be human is changing as profoundly as it did when Copernicus and Galileo bumped Earth out of the centre of the Universe. Our intellectual peripheral vision has picked up on the shift, but as usual, our spirits and souls are lagging behind, as though they fear that there isn’t a place for them. —LQ

Stem Cells and the Fountain of Youth

By Lynne Quarmby


I hope I die before I get old
—Pete Townshend (from “My Generation”)

In some societies the aged are venerated, in none are they envied. The inevitable decay of our bodies and minds is something we prefer not to contemplate. There is nothing appealing about decreased mobility, loss of muscle and bone mass, reduced immune function, decreasing liver, kidney and brain function, decline in ability to respond to stress and an increasing susceptibility to stroke, heart attack, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders. A dollop of increased wisdom seems meager compensation.

Everyday we are witness to the inevitability of decay; our buildings and roads crumble, landscapes erode and holes appear in our socks. It is something we know more deeply as we grow older: if we manage to dodge the proverbial bus, our bodies will decay until one day we die. The idea of reversing this decay goes entirely against our experiential knowledge of the world. Yet time and again the tools of science reveal that the world is not as it seems. We are learning that ageing is not simply the inevitable decay we’ve assumed it to be.

Our bodies are not static structures. The cells lining our intestine turn over approximately every five days. Similarly, our skin cells last on average two weeks, our blood cells a few months and the cells in our liver turn over approximately once/year. The average age of our muscles is estimated at 15 years. Cells of the heart are longer lived, but they too turn over. There is a large variation in the lifetime of our brain cells: Olfactory neurons are short-lived, but the neurons of our visual and cerebral cortices may be the ones we were born with. The average age of the cells in an adult has been estimated to be something like 10 years.

Old cells die and new ones are born. The dying cells are those that have done specialized service (filtering urine, absorbing glucose, detoxifying drugs, secreting milk, engulfing bacteria, detecting odors, and so on). At the end of their life span cells undergo a process known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and housekeeping cells clear the debris away. New cells go through a program of specialization (known as differentiation) and assume the duties of the old cells.

The new cells are born from adult stem cells that reside in special niches in every tissue. Stem cells can divide indefinitely and with each division one of the daughters replaces the stem cell and the other becomes a progenitor for the differentiated cells of the tissue. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to produce any cell in the body – that is how we develop from sacs of cells – but so far as we know, adult stem cells are restricted in the variety of cells they can produce.

About five years ago scientists discovered that adding extra copies of a specific set of genes could convert differentiated adult cells (from your skin, for example) back into pluripotent stem cells – called iPSCs for induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. These cells earned the name “pluripotent” because their daughters can be enticed (by various combinations of hormones) to become any of a wide variety of differentiated cell types. iPSCs were big news medically because they suggested the possibility of grow-your-own replacements for diseased or damaged tissues. The original iPSCs caused cancer (in mice) and while it isn’t clear yet whether we will be able to overcome all of the problems that are hindering the use of iPSCs in tissue regeneration, these cells have already become hugely valuable for research. Ageing is one of the research areas that is benefitting from iPSCs.

Continue reading »

Apr 012011


Sometimes I imagine getting a verbal ass-whoopin’ from Edward Abbey.  I find it best to picture him half-naked and sunburned, next to some beat-up pick-up truck parked precariously halfway off the side of a gravel road.  There’s not a single tree in sight.  His beard is dusty and his thick hair snarled from a days-long sojourn down by some unnamed creek in a copse of cottonwoods.  I detect the faint smells of bacon and tobacco, with a touch of permeating campfire smokiness.

As I sit there in my shiny black Jetta, prescription sunglasses on my face and REI gear in the trunk and backseat, I listen attentively to the tirade.  Maybe I get one like this, from near the end of Abbey’s most famous work, Desert Solitaire (1968):

Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood!  Why not?  Jesus Christ… roll that window down!  You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it….  Turn that motor off.  Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs!

Despite the fact that I don’t have “dugs” or varicose veins (yet), and even though I like to consider myself just a smidge closer to nature than most of the folks Abbey rails about in Desert Solitaire, I need this kind of dressing down from time to time.  I may not agree completely with everything Abbey wrote, but he was mostly right—abrasive, but mostly right.  That delicate, tenuous, and sometimes counterproductive balance is the hallmark of Abbey’s life and writings.

Desert Solitaire centers on Abbey’s several summers as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument.  When it was published in 1968, Abbey had already written three novels, but this was his first foray into nonfiction.  It firmly established him as a cult figure among environmentalists with a radical streak, and was followed by more than fifteen other works, including, most notably, the 1975 novel The Monkeywrench Gang.  His writing is often credited with inspiring a new wave of 1980s environmental groups that took the battle for nature from the courtroom and hearing room (a la the Sierra Club) to the treetops and logging roads and dams (a la Earth First!).

Desert Solitaire is an early hint at this kind of activism.  One evening, after being visited at his dilapidated ranger’s trailer by a survey crew marking a new paved road into Arches, Abbey walks out into the desert and removes all the surveying stakes and flags.  But that is the single act of civil disobedience he performs in the book.  Of course he dreams of blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam when he reaches the end of his rafting trip down the then-unimpounded Colorado River, but most often Abbey focuses on the simple pleasures of being outside.

In many passages his rants become paeans.  Pieces of petrified wood are “agatized rainbows in rock.” Rainstorms come down “not softly not gently, with no quality of mercy but like heavy water in buckets…drumming on my hat like hailstones and running in a waterfall off the brim.” Ample praise is reserved for the humble campfire:

One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West.

And the noontime sun is:

like a drug.  The light is psychadelic, the dry electric air narcotic.

The book as a whole dances in a point-counterpoint between the beauty of nature and the threats brought by humans, specifically by the United States Government and the National Park Service.  In the chapter entitled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” Abbey rails against improvements—roads, visitor centers, etc.—being made in what he feels should be mostly inaccessible, immersion-in-nature sanctuaries.

Why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate…the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?

These improvements, underway during Abbey’s Arches summers in the late 1950s, were collectively known as Mission 66, a massive National Parks infrastructure program spearheaded by landscape architect and Park Service Director Conrad Wirth.  The goal was to improve visitor knowledge of and access to the parks in time for the 50th anniversary of the service, in 1966.  Mission 66 did change the face of the parks, from the mostly rustic, dirt-road, wood-and-stone character which Abbey experienced at Arches to the full-service, restrooms-and-vending machines vibe at the main visitor centers today.  The Park Service’s chief landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint pushed for contemporary design in the parks—a legacy that includes the spiraling, concrete, seemingly Jetsons-inspired Clingman’s Dome observation tower in Smoky Mountain National Park and the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Studio and sporting an abstract bas-relief metal skin.

Abbey was dead-on prophetic with some of his specific fears, as listed in Desert Solitaire.  The geological formation called the Waterpocket Fold was incorporated into Capitol Reef National Park in 1970 (though it remains roadless, so whether its incorporation is a bad thing can be debated). Glen Canyon Dam did flood Cataract Canyon, create the rapidly silting Lake Powell, and make Rainbow Arch easily accessible to the motorboating masses.  And yes, the surveyors did reset their stakes and pave the road into Arches National Monument (which became a full-fledged National Park in 1971).

I once took an Abbey-lite but still slightly ill-advised hike off the end of that paved Arches road, in the heat of midday with very little water.  I was there from Indiana with college landscape architecture classmates.  We parked at the Devils Garden Trailhead and hiked out to Landscape Arch.  Stunned by the impossibility of the rock vaulting through the hot air, my friend Mark and I decided to head farther out along the trail.  Our colleagues returned to the vans to relax.  It was about 3 miles one way to Double O Arch and we had a few hours. On that quick hike we experienced the complete isolation and stillness and thirst and sun-scorch that Abbey describes throughout Desert Solitaire.

And here we come back to the almost-right-ness—for me—of Edward Abbey.  The Mission 66 version of the National Parks is the one I grew up with.  For five summers in high school and college, I would arrive with my church youth group at the Wrightian Beaver Creek Visitor Center to plan our hikes for the week.  In college, I climbed the Clingman’s Dome tower with a few close friends escaping the flatness of Indiana.  In every case (including my Arches hike), I watched people sort themselves by desire and ability.  Some, yes, would stay in their cars, as Abbey says, “like sardines in a can,” while others would venture a few miles on the well-trodden paths, while still others would heft their packs and disappear for a week, or more.

In fact, I studied landscape architecture, initially, because I wanted to design National Parks.  Though now I design different things, I still feel strongly that everyone should be able to access nature.  So, though I agree with Abbey that we shouldn’t pave over the parks and wilderness areas, I also believe that giving people encounters with nature is important to the eventual preservation of wilderness.  If Thoreau said, famously, and if Abbey echoes that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” then I say: in education and experience is the preservation of wildness.

And Abbey would be happy to know that the Park Service has begun managing even larger crowds by (gasp!) restricting automobile access.  Most of the Grand Canyon’s south rim road is closed to private vehicles, and portions of Yosemite Valley are also bike and bus only.  Abbey suggests these specific ideas in his “Polemic” chapter.

As to Abbey’s context in the mid-century environmental movement (and the other writers profiled in this series of essays), Desert Solitaire came out the same year the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed, and four years after the Wilderness Act.  Both of these laws preserve, as roadless and undeveloped, certain American land- and water-scapes, including many of the rivers Abbey lists in his book as under threat.  Abbey arrived on the heels of Loren Eiseley (from whom he could not be more different—in demeanor and prose style), Rachel Carson, and Joseph Wood Krutch (whom Abbey admired greatly and was the last person to formally interview). Abbey is regularly referred to as the “desert Thoreau,” but comparisons to John Muir are more apt.  Both men are associated closely with the National Parks (Muir with their inception in the late 1800s and Abbey with their ongoing preservation in the face of development in the 1950s and 1960s) and both were profoundly affected by their failures to stave off dam construction (Muir with Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Abbey with Glen Canyon). This latter similarity is brought to light in the recent essay collection Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, a slightly later, along with Wendell Berry, contemporary of Abbey’s.

Perhaps most notable in this context is Abbey’s activism, or rather his tacit support of extreme environmentalism.  He associated with Earth First!, the group that pioneered the tree-sit and once unrolled a massive image of a crack down the face of the Glen Canyon Dam. This direct-action aspect of the environmental movement still makes occasional headlines today, as activists harass whaling boats and blockade logging roads.  In fact, Abbey’s very prose reinforces this in-your-face stance.  Desert Solitaire, like Muir’s writings but unlike Thoreau’s and Eiseley’s, speaks directly to the reader (see the example at the top of this essay), often with provocative language deliberately designed to incite feelings of some kind.

As I write this, a long Minnesota winter—the longest winter I can remember—is (hopefully) melting into the rivers.  In addition to reading Desert Solitaire, I recently watched, thanks to Oscar buzz, the movie 127 Hours, which traces Aron Ralston’s famous desert ordeal (days spent trapped in a canyon; amputation of his arm with a pocketknife), a story more intense but remarkably similar to Abbey’s experience in the chapter called “Havasu.”  I also watched, thanks to my toddler son’s tastes, the animated movie Cars, about a sleek modern racecar stuck in a small Route 66 desert town bypassed by Interstate 40 (“see how the old road moves with the land,” says Sally Carrera, the lady Porsche soured on big-city life, “while the interstate cuts right through”).  These three stories juxtaposed evocatively with each other and contrasted with the horrid weather outside.

I realized I was in a rut.  Previously so diligent about getting my son Ethan outside no matter the weather, I had begun hustling him to the car in the morning for the drive to day care, then into the house at the end of the day.  I had initiated Friday night movie night instead of moonlight walks around the lake.  I was moving into my “sardine can” and taking my son with me.

On the whole, Abbey is farther into the wilderness world (and the extremist world) than I am.  Nevertheless, I like to be lectured by him, from time to time, in my mind’s-eye, as it is always beneficial to be ranted at by someone who doesn’t exactly share your beliefs—someone who can catch your interest with some common feeling, then challenge you.

Desert Solitaire is entertaining and beautiful front to back, both during the natural history descriptions and during the rants.  It gives me the inspiration to get outside, right along with the requisite kick in the pants.  From now on, when I find myself driving too much, sitting inside too much, or standing by while commercial interests encroach on the limited wilderness we have left, I’ll conjure Desert Ed.  I’ll picture myself at the side of some nowhere road, with Ethan strapped into his expensive car seat and Edward Abbey boring his eyes into mine, saying something like:

How dare you imprison your little children in your goddamned upholstered horseless hearse?  Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk—walk—WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!

Proceed to the next essay, Edward Hoagland, who, 40 years after his seminal The Courage of Turtles, has just published his 21st book: a melancholy essay collection called Sex and the River Styx), or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Mar 032011


Science is in a strange predicament these days.  Political rhetoric for math and science funding abounds, but creationism, in some corners, has equal footing with evolution.  Science is set forth as the savior of the nation: we will innovate our way out of this recession, our ingenuity is our greatest asset.  But from the same mouths come cuts in funding for basic research, or else strings attached.  Such fact-centrism unfortunately sets science at odds with the arts, which are being cut even more deeply.

In 1959 British novelist-scientist C.P. Snow called this dichotomy “The Two Cultures,” a phrase Loren Eiseley references in “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” which appeared in The American Scholar in 1964.  In his essay Eiseley, himself an anthropologist, distills his core belief:

It is because these two types of creation—the artistic and the scientific—have sprung from the same being and have their points of contact even in division, that I have the temerity to assert that, in a sense, the “two cultures” are an illusion, that they are a product of unreasoning fear, professionalism, and misunderstanding.

That theme—that science and art are born of the same mind and are therefore inseparable—permeates Eiseley’s writing and reverberates today.  Eiseley was one of the earliest practitioners of, shall we say, philosophical science writing.  He didn’t just examine the natural world and illuminate it in layperson’s terms, he considered the symbolism in scientific happenstance, and he ruminated on our true human place in the galactic flotsam.

The culmination of his career is The Star Thrower, a compendium published a year after his death in 1977.  Eiseley organized much of the book himself, drawing from magazine articles; unpublished essays and lectures; and his previous books, including The Immense Journey (1957), The Firmament of Time (1960), and The Unexpected Universe (1969).  The publication timeframe of those three major books puts Eiseley at the heart of the mid-century environmental discussion, right alongside Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and the other writers to be profiled in this series.  What makes Eiseley’s work unique among this group is his struggle with science.  He asks continuously whether is it all right for him, as a distinguished anthropological scientist, to feel.

The titular essay in Eiseley’s posthumous collection was originally published in The Unexpected Universe.  In it, he walks along a beach and comes upon a man throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean, an act Eiseley first sees as futile.  In the essay, he recalls the writings of G.K. Chesterton and Goethe; considers Darwin; and remembers the Biblical injunction “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”  But, he writes:

I do love the world…. I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again…. I love the lost ones, the failures of the world. [This is] like the renunciation of my scientific heritage.

The next day he joins the man on the beach in lofting starfish to the waves.  If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of “The Parable of the Starfish,” which took off in the 1980s and likely originated with Eiseley’s essay.  But while the parable’s moral is about making a difference in the world, Eiseley’s story is more complex.  As a scientist, he knows he should have no compassion for those starfish, he should not anthropomorphize them into beings that care whether they live or die. But he does.  “It was as though,” he writes, “at some point the supernatural had touched hesitantly, for an instant, upon the natural.”

That self-given permission to feel, in the context of scientific observation, allows Eiseley’s work to glide through long pages of evolutionary theory and the history of philosophy, then return to personal moments in nature: Eiseley rescuing, somewhat humorously, a snake and a desert hen, which had entangled themselves in an inadvertent death-struggle; Eiseley being joined for lunch beneath a dock by a muskrat; Eiseley wrestling playfully with a young fox, as if it were a puppy. And he lets himself edge toward fiction.  The previously (until The Star Thrower) unpublished “Dance of the Frogs” and “The Fifth Planet” have a touch of the mystical. The former features a scientist skipping along a road in the presence of barely seen giant frogs; the latter tells of an amateur meteorite hunter obsessively seeking fossils of extraterrestrial life.  These remind me a lot of Barry Lopez’s fiction: in particular Desert Notes (1976, one year before The Star Thrower) and Winter Count (1981)

This mixture of science and art also gives birth to an exciting and varied language.  In one place (noticing a resemblance between eroded rock and the human brain) Eiseley trots out this tortured staccato:

The human brain contains the fossil memories of the past—buried but not extinguished moments—just as this more formidable replica contained, deep in its inner stratigraphic convolutions, earth’s past in the shape of horned titanotheres and stalking dirk-toothed cats.

And elsewhere, on the same general topic of human-nature correspondence, he keeps it simple:

For example, I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider.

So where does Eiseley sit in the pantheon of Eco-Lit?  He’s an outlier, his name not often said in the same breath as Edward Hoagland’s or Carson’s.  But The Immense Journey sold a million copies, making it an early anchor, just after Carson’s and Joseph Wood Krutch’s initial works and before Abbey and Wendell Berry.  His work is perhaps less accessible than the others, prone to long probing philosophical passages that smack more of Ivory Tower than beachcomber.  But always, just when he’s gone almost too deep into the mind, Eiseley, with the subtlest of transitions, lifts from his own experience an unforgettable tangible moment, rich with sensory detail.

Eiseley could be considered an unwitting instigator of what John Brockman calls “The Third Culture:” scientists that are also literary giants.  This is a hot subject today.  The Best American Science and Nature Writing is in its 11th installment. Brian Greene (Mr. String Theory) regularly publishes physics books for the masses (he’s got one on the NY Times Bestseller list right now).  Neil deGrasse Tyson has brought the stars down to earth with provocative titles like Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries.  Mike Brown’s recent How I Killed Pluto interweaves the story of the ninth planet’s demotion with Brown’s own infant daughter’s first years.

I read The Immense Journey in college, while studying landscape architecture and also, for fun, taking courses in anthropology, cooking, raquetball, and nature writing.  Back then Eiseley went over my head, but I picked up The Star Thrower this winter.  I was reminded of an experience from a year ago.

Last March, during yet another cold weekend when I wished the long northwoods winter would just be over already, I took my toddler son to the zoo and lifted him up so he could reach into the tidepool exhibit and touch starfish and anemones.  Ethan was utterly gleeful, maybe about the strange salty water, maybe about the leathery skin of the starfish, maybe about the way the anemone tentacles stuck to his fingers like tape, but certainly about nature.  There was no scientific inquiry there, only feel. That’s what we are born with.

Science can either make us forget how to feel, or can augment our ability to feel by adding in the details, broadening connections to other things, creating excitement at the unusual.  Art and knowledge, science and literature: Eiseley’s message is to keep both vital.

Proceed to the next essay,  on Edward Abbey—the provocateur, or return to the Table of Contents.

— Adam Regn Arvidson

Feb 212011

Have you heard of the “Environmental Solutions Agency?” Newt Gingrich introduced this idea in a speech back on January 25, 2011, as something that would replace the Environmental Protection Agency and be “first of all, limited.”  Then, about a month later, a couple of U.S. House committees set hearings on the “Energy Tax Prevention Act,” which would strip the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.   Also in January, western Congressmen introduced a bill to remove the wolf from the endangered species list.  It passed: the first time that legislation, rather than science, has determined a species’ inclusion or exclusion.

In all this, there are two items of literary merit. First, look at the words they use: “Environmental Solutions Agency” and “Energy Tax Prevention Act.”  Verbal backflips, if you ask me.  And the wolf bill, in a way, proves the power of the sentence: the bill has only one sentence, which puts an entire species at risk.  When the Endangered Species Act (ESA) came into effect in 1973, it was partly because of the wolf.  At that time, there were only 300 left in the entire nation.

The ESA can also be credited, in large part, to writers (there’s the second literary reason, if you’re keeping track—and the more important one).  In 1959, Peter Matthiessen published Wildlife in America, essentially a call for protection of endangered species.  Three years later, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became a best seller.  Concurrent to these works, Joseph Wood Krutch, Loren Eiseley, and Aldo Leopold were putting out nature writing that pushed a nascent environmental movement forward.

These writers were different than their predecessors, like Thoreau and Muir, who wrote in many ways as conqueror naturalists.  This earlier wave of writers wanted to understand nature on a technical level, strove to set certain bits of it aside for posterity, and always looked at it from a place slightly above and to the side.  Humans, they said, should protect and love nature, but not probably become a part of it (remember, Thoreau regularly went into town to dine with friends while living hermit-style at Walden, and ultimately gave up early on the experiment).

The mid-century writers, on the other hand, saw humans as part of nature.  They sought the passion and emotion that nature brings through personal immersion in it.  They spurred another round of legislation and regulation, this time not centered on large chunks of land set aside as preserves (like the National Parks), but on everyday nature: the air, the water, the plants and animals around us.

The late 60s were a time of upheaval in many arenas, and the environment was no different.  Between 1968 and 1971, the world saw seminal works produced by Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, John Hay, and two by Edward Hoagland.  Between 1970 and 1973, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Policy Act (which created the EPA), the Clean Water Act, and the ESA.  Coincidence?

So, because so many of these environmental advances are under attack right now (and because the perhaps ironically named Newt is trying to redefine the EPA), I thought it might be interesting to look back on that mid-century eco-literary boom.

Included here are life and work profiles of six of these masters: Carson, Krutch, Eiseley, Abbey, Berry, and Hoagland.  I am sure there are other favorites (Peter Matthiessen? Gary Snyder? John Hay?), but let me rule out a few that might be assumed to be part of this group.  Everyone on this list was born between 1893 and 1934 and reached the peak of their writing between the 50s and 70s.  They all experienced the Great Depression in some form, and all saw most of this environmental legislation passed (except Carson, who died rather prematurely in 1964).  Aldo Leopold was too early, Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard too late.  The last two are omitted simply because they probably didn’t affect this particular wave of environmentalism; they were affected BY it.

This group of writers took a diverse approach to the environment. From Eiseley’s mysticism and anthropology to Abbey’s radicalism to Krutch’s childlike curiosity, they manage to touch nearly every taste and temperament. They have certainly touched me, so on the following pages you will see both an analytical as well as a personal journey. This is the origin of today’s “green” thinking, and we are about 50 years farther along (Silent Spring, in fact, turns 50 in 2012). I think its time for another reading.

Proceed to the first essay,  on Loren Eiseley, or return to the Table of Contents.

–Adam Regn Arvidson