Archive for March, 2020

“We Ain’t Such a Somebody.”

Human activity has stalled while we deal with the coronavirus. Many U.S. citizens are locked down to hinder the viral spread. 

We, the most innovative and likely most expressive species in the world, are equipped with 725,000 kilobytes of genetic code. Yet we are immobilized by a tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometers in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code.

(Perspective note: The entire human genetic code could be stored on a standard DVD, and is the equivalent to around 6,709 books containing 300 pages with 360,000 letters and punctuation characters.)

I love this exchange from the novel Big Sky by Pulitzer Prize winner A. B. Guthrie. The setting is 1830, at an evening campsite along the Missouri River. Three adventuring men sit around a campfire. The mosquitoes, called gnats, are particularly bothersome. One of the young men is frustrated by the pesky bugs and spits out, “What’s the good of a gnat, anyways?” His more thoughtful friend ponders a moment and then answers, “They don’t serve no purpose, unless to remind a man he ain’t such a somebody.”

The coronavirus is doing the same thing as the mosquitoes. The mosquito and the virus give us 

a needed dose of humility. At the end of the day our survival as a species is subjected to natural laws and dependent on healthy natural systems.   

Viruses are only taking advantage of a good thing. There are lots and lots of interacting human hosts on the globe to help with the transmission of viruses. And even when this one is subdued, others are mutating as I write this because change is the only constant. And change we must. 

Dr. Dennis Carroll is the former USAID director for pandemic influenza and emerging threats. He currently is working on the Global Virome Project. Dr. Carroll feels strongly that the outbreak of viruses is driven by the huge increase in human population and expansion into wildlife areas. As land is converted to agriculture, particularly livestock production, there is a greater chance for viruses to jump from animals to humans. 

Eventually we will come out of this viral grasp. In the meantime we can reflect on what is really important in our lives and to consider the fact that we “ain’t such a somebody.” 

The Nature of Clutter

“Dad, you should start cleaning stuff out of the garage and the basement.” 

“Ooh that hurts!!” I wailed. “So in essence, I’m being put out to pasture. You don’t want the joys of discovery after I pass on?”

For living on the West Coast, my daughter’s “No!” came too quickly.

De-cluttering is the rage. There are dozens of books, YouTube posts, and Community Education classes on how to tidy up and simplify our lives and the lives of next of kin. 

But clutter and messy diversity is part of a healthy natural ecosystem. It is the way of the divine. The more diverse a forest or wetland, the greater the species richness. My desk, workshop, bookcase and basement clutter are wonderful patches of diversity, giving me a sense of greater richness. 

Nonetheless, this self-professed packrat recently trudged down into the basement to initiate an excavation. 

With only the drone of the radio keeping me company, I pulled out some old cardboard boxes and began ruthless culling. Well “ruthless” is a bit of an exaggeration. Seated comfortably on an old maple chair I began to read. I smiled at the rediscovery of days gone by. The radio drowned out my nostalgic chuckling from down in the chilly catacombs. 

The job felt less a task than a reunion. Initially I had planned to use the “piles” approach: One pile for the thrift store, one for recycling, and another for friends and acquaintances. One last pile would remain secure with our family. It should be the smallest, but it soon turned into a heap.

 It was clear that I needed to be more brutal in my selections. How could I possibly be rid of a coffee can of century old steel cut square nails? These are the very nails I removed when I gutted this 1896 house more than 30 years ago. 

I successfully argued with myself that I might find a use for the old nails as I build my log cabin. Yes, that’s it. Save them. 

I should really keep the basement and the garage workshop coffee cans all together. It’s an admirable collection. Their cargo of screws, bolts, nails, washers, nuts, toggles, hooks, turnbuckles and more could outfit a small store.

I was sidelined by a National Museum of Canada scientific bulletin #135, The Vascular Plants of the Western Canadian Arctic Archipelago by the infamous A. E. Porsild (1955) (I’ve carried his plant book on several far north canoe trips in Canada.) And then I really wasted de-cluttering time when I uncovered a booklet by mid-20th century biologist/naturalist, Francis Harper. I had the opportunity to travel some of the same waters he explored at the edge of subarctic treeline. So you can understand how I was riveted with the discovery of his booklet, Plant and Animal Associations in the Interior of the Ungava Peninsula

I decided to let them go and two days later I mailed them to an ecologist friend who lives in northern Canada. 

I unfolded another dry cardboard box. Ahh, college notebooks. How could my kids not want these? I took a needed break with them. I headed up to the kitchen wood burning stove, sat in my little rocker, and took a stroll down memory lane. It was difficult to pull myself away from “avian respiration” in my biochemistry notes.

I found treasures tucked throughout the pages of metabolic reactions: botanical specimens. I must have collected these specimens in the field without a plant press and tucked them in the notebook pages with only their scientific name printed next to the plant.  Shame on me for not scribbling the date and location of my plant collecting. 

Where did I collect the Bebb’s willow, the speckled alder or the small white lady-slipper? Was the orchid protected in the early 1970s?

Gently I removed the fragile flattened flora and set them on the bed of wood stove coals for an honorary cremation.

That’s enough work for a morning. I raised my mug and toasted the beauty of diversity and clutter.