Holding forth

Nature may appear as an external object with a history; indeed, for true aesthetic appreciation to take place, nature must be captured, recontextualized, preserved as a discrete moment or series of moments: mental snapshots at the very least. One does a kind of double take, both focusing and also – more critically – framing, editing out. I am always coming across places in the woods that strike me as garden-like (usually a rock garden or moss garden, since I live on a dry mountaintop). I find myself squinting, circling the imaginary garden, perhaps stepping into it gingerly to remove a fallen branch, or nudging a mossy stone into a slightly more pleasing position. Then the mental shutter clicks and I can move on.

I almost never attempt to write poems based on these experiences; the few I’ve ventured have been lifeless failures. It is as if my minimal arranging and circling satisfies the compulsion to capture or collect. I do not need to return in my imagination as I otherwise would, because ordinarily an experience only becomes fully aesthetic for me in retrospect. The same applies for an auditory as for a visual experience, and I imagine those who have honed their taste buds or olfactory nerves could expand the scope of this observation even further: too much immediacy obviates the need for re-creation, which is what artistic creation largely consists of. Or it may be that I just haven’t found the adequate language yet for such poems. It would take a very light touch, the most circumspect kind of conjuring – closer to romance than to necromancy.

I once was friendly in a coffee-shop kind of way with an artist whose primary material was natural, and whose main artifact was the notebook in which she recorded her impressions. She had a PhD in Art Education – this was serious stuff. As she explained it to me, the process consisted of going out into the woods (or wherever), finding something that interested her, observing it, changing it in some way, observing some more, then writing it all down. This was apparently part of a movement called ecological art, which differed from landscape art mainly in being far less obtrusive and disruptive. I remained unclear on how much didactic content these “works” would typically possess – she indicated that a fair degree of ecological awareness was required to create and appreciate ecological art. How then does ecological art differ from creative writing? I wish I could remember her answer exactly. As I recall, she felt that the writer tends to be more removed from her material, less willing to go outside herself – or, we might say, to assume an active role within Nature and regard that (im)positioning as primary and the writing as secondary. How does this differ from drama, from dance? “You could make a serious case for ecological art being a form of theatre,” she told me.

Writers could do worse than adopt this kind of path. “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together,” said Miguel Hernandez. This is not a prescription for any one style or subject matter. But cultivating a heightened awareness of our relationship with wild Nature through a willingness to participate in its own creation ought to point the way toward more authentic forms of re-membering. All of us, whether artists, scientists or mystics, should be constantly striving to improve the quality of our attention.

Looked at in one way, immersion in the object of attention leads to self-transcendence. But what is actually being transcended? It seems more accurate to talk about emergence: the self merging with the Self, an I-It relation giving way to mutual co-creation. Because, as artist John Fowles points out (The Tree, Norton, 1983), wild Nature is more than external object. It is “creating in the present, as we experience it. As we watch, it is so to speak rewriting, reformulating, repainting, rephotographing itself.” When we step “outside,” when our mental shutters click, we are charming, no? We are being game, we are acting innocent in order to attract and entrance the quarry. (But there is no such thing as just a game!)

One can catch glimmers of this perspective in the Bible, remnants probably of an animist heritage. The 18th century hasidic Rabbi Simha Bunam of Pzhysha stressed the literal translation of Genesis I:1, “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and earth.” “For even now the world is still in a state of creation,” Rabbi Bunham said. “When a craftsman makes a tool and is finished, it does not require him any longer. Not so with the world! Day after day, instant after instant, the world requires the renewal of the powers of the primordial word through which it was created, and if the power of those powers were withdrawn from it for a single moment, it would lapse into tohu bohu [‘chaos’].” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, Schocken, 1948.)

The theistic hypothesis will no doubt strike many readers as a needless distraction here. The most important thing, I believe, is to see other beings as self-completing and beautiful with or without the aid of a creator, human or divine. God is a superfluity, I agree. But for me, life exceeds itself at every turn. The fundamental religious gestures of awe, hospitality and respect all derive from a willingness to see things as being somehow more and better than they appear to the eye (I) of calculation and discrimination. This self-regarding eye forms a positive feedback loop with the idol or object of lust (“fetish” in the Freudian sense). But the self-exceeding eye is at home in the alterity (otherness + changeability) of the world:

Wilderness was never accepted as our home, but now it has to be. Uncompromising but protective, it holds to the principles of renewal and diversity in all the facets of its nature. It keeps the law, for which we have no substitute. As original creation, it reconciles extremes in a way that is impossible for mankind to imitate. We know this . . . in our unfinished selves, where stability and instability keep company with the eternal weather.
John Hay, The Immortal Wilderness (Norton, 1987).

The truth about conjoined twins

The comedian grabs his mike, leans forward like a preacher or a cheerleader. “Repeat after me: ‘I am unique.'”

“I am unique!”

“‘I am an individual.'”

“I AM AN INDIVIDUAL!” roars the audience.

“‘I do not repeat phrases just because someone tells me to.'”

“I DO NOT REPEAT phrases just because . . . ” (Confusion. Laughter. Shame-faced applause.)

This routine forever endeared me to Steve Martin – my second-favorite living American philosopher (right after Yogi Berra, who gets top billing because he is only inadvertently wise). Face it, our naive mythos of rugged individualism just makes us all the more susceptible to group-think. The genius of the American system is that we conspire in our own hoodwinking. We are at once the most faithful and the least God-fearing of nations: we want to believe, but not to be confined by the dictates of the conscience.

But for all that, I love our culture of extreme individualism . . .

****

Spurred by my attempt to conjure up a two-headed woman, a couple readers searched the online database ProQuest and came up with an article from Life magazine, July 1996: “Together Forever,” by Kenneth Miller. My father remembers an earlier article, also from Life, describing the English conjoined twins of whom I was thinking the other day. (That article appeared too long ago for Proquest to pick up.)

The Miller article, which The Sylph was kind enough to forward, is touching and thought-provoking. The “Hensen” twins are somewhat more separated: their extra-wide torso contains two hearts, two stomachs, three lungs, and two spinal cords as far as the waist. At the time of the article they were in Kindergarten, and appeared happy, healthy, had loving parents and a supportive community (a small town somewhere in the Midwest). I’d love to reproduce the entire article, but I’ll content myself with a few paragraphs.

Each controls the limbs and trunk, and feels sensations, on her own side exclusively: If you tickle the ribs on the right, only Abby giggles. Yet the girls manage–no one knows exactly how–to move as one being. The paradoxes of the twins’ lives are metaphysical as well as medical. They raise far-reaching questions about human nature: What is individuality? How sharp are the boundaries of the self? How essential is privacy to happiness? Is there such a thing as mental telepathy? Bound to each other but defiantly independent, these little girls are a living textbook on camaraderie and compromise, on dignity and flexibility, on the subtler varieties of freedom. . . .

Abby and Britty are lucky to live in such a [rural] setting, and they’re lucky to have a set of parents intrepid enough to help them navigate a difficult path. If the Hensel adults ever feel overwhelmed, they don’t show it. “I don’t think we’ve ever said, ‘Why us?'” says Mike. Instead, they seem to relish the challenges posed by their two eldest daughters. They have taught Abby and Britty to swim, to ride a bike and to explain that they came from a single egg–and are therefore special–when other kids ask questions. They buy the twins snazzy outfits, then have a seamstress modify the upper portions. “It’s important to create two separate necklines,” says Patty. “Otherwise it would make them look like they’re one person.” They encourage the girls to express their individual tastes in everything from leggings (Abby likes blue; Britty prefers pink) to hobbies (Britty is into animals; Abby loves to draw). While the Hensels are not particularly religious–“We go to church, but we don’t sit in the front pew,” says Mike–they draw on reserves of strength that can only be called spiritual. They also draw on a circle of helpers: Patty’s sister, Mike’s parents, the family doctor, the day-care provider who helped the twins learn to walk. . . .

When Abby and Britty go among strangers, the stir is not entirely the product of ignorance or insensitivity. As Freud noted, any event evoking ancient images of the supernatural makes us shiver–and gods and sorcerers have long been adept at generating doubles of themselves. Twins have symbolized good or evil in many cultures. The Yoruba worshiped them; the Algonquin killed them at birth. No wonder conjoined twins, who throw our definitions of doubleness and singleness into disarray, elicit such awe.

One uncanny phenomenon regularly associated with identical twins, conjoined or not, is paranormal communication: the man who dreams of a plane cash just as his twin’s F-14 is going down in flames; the woman who dreams of a litter of puppies the moment her twin, thousands of miles away, gives birth. Scientists have failed to find a higher incidence of telepathy between twins, but as Eileen Pearlman, a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in twins, puts it, “Is that because it doesn’t exist or because there isn’t a way to test it? The jury is still out.” It is certainly tempting to chalk up some of Abby and Britty’s behavior to mind-reading. Like many twins, they often speak and act in unison. Playing cards with their day-care pals, they shuffle the deck without even looking down. When Britty coughs, Abby’s hand–the right–shoots up reflexively to cover her sister’s mouth. “The other day,” says Mike “they were sitting watching TV. Abby says to Britty; ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ Britty says, ‘Yup.’ And without another word, off they went to the bedroom. They both wanted to read the same book!”

Pearlman, who says she often senses when her own twin is about to call, believes identical twins may simply know each other so well, and have sufficiently similar brain wiring, that they can anticipate each other’s actions. Dr. Carson of Johns Hopkins speculates that something else may be at work with Abby and Britty: “Given the fact that they have shared organs, it’s almost impossible for there not to be some overlapping in their autonomic nervous systems.” . . .

The Hensel girls are stars here. Today the kindergarten teacher, Connie Stahlke, is having her 11 charges cut out paper snowmen. As always, she gives the twins an option: Create two separate projects or team up. Although they often work independently and never copy each other’s answers on tests, they decide to collaborate this time. Since it is impossible to use scissors without a spare hand to hold the paper, it would take them twice as long to finish if each made her own cutout. In the end, the twins’ snowman is the most elaborate of all.

Teamwork is a concept Abby and Britty have grasped more quickly than their peers. Once, after several students got into an argument, the twins led a class discussion on how to get along. “They’ve definitely had to do that their entire lives,” says Stahlke. . . .

It can’t have been easy. Their different temperaments have been apparent since infancy. Abby has a voracious appetite; Britty finds food boring. Abby tends to be the leader (“She wants more things and is more diplomatic in getting them,” says Mike’s mother, Dorothy); Britty is more reflective and academically quicker. Sometimes they argue. Once, Britty hit Abby in the head with a rock. But they have obvious inceptives to arrive at a consensus. When they can’t agree on where to go–a rare occurrence–they literally cannot move. When one misbehaves, both are sent to their room. “They watch out for each other like you wouldn’t believe,” says their father.

To J. David Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has written on conjoined-twin psychology, the individualism of siblings born of a semidivided egg sheds light on the nature-nurture debate–the question of whether we are shaped mainly by heredity or environment. Unconjoined twins have identical genes (nature) and grow up only inches apart (nurture), what can explain their dissimilarities? Some scientists theorize that the position of each fetus in the womb affects development. Some suspect one twin is dominated by the right brain hemisphere, the other by the left. Smith’s answer is less mechanistic: “It isn’t just genes or the environment. People are acutely involved in creating their personalities. They make different choices, choose different directions.” The development of conjoined twins, he says, “is a compelling study in human freedom.” . . .

In the hallway, the girls are putting on their sneakers. Abby consults her sister: “I think I should make a double knot, don’t you?” Britty nods and lends a hand. [Their mother] Patty, watching from the kitchen, gives one of her enormous smiles. “If they had to be put together,” she says, “I think they were put together perfectly.”

This makes me want to weep and cheer at the same time. I left out the central episode of the story, where they go to visit the Mall of America with their parents and siblings and are treated with an amazing mixture of respect and friendly curiosity. A few people stare, then apologize. Folks are friendly and welcoming as only Midwesterners can be. Sometimes I hate this country, but then I read something like this and it makes me realize I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Reassembling Simic

And now for something relatively different: an appreciation of the well-known Serbian-American surrealist poet, Charles Simic.

Over the years I’ve collected nine of Simic’s books almost without trying – the better part of his oeuvre. I have to say I like the earlier books better – they have more of the breath of authentic discovery in them. In the later ones he seems a bit tame, a parlor magician still given to occasional flashes of wizardry among all the prestidigitation. But the two most recent books of his that I have, Walking the Black Cat and Jackstraws, contain almost as many startling images as the first three.

Even at his best Simic has always been the master of the inspired couplet or stanza; individual poems are sometimes a little less than the sum of their parts. Perhaps this is an Eastern European thing, but the world his poems inhabit does appear irredeemably fragmented. The shards, however, suggest figured urns that would’ve blown Keats’ mind. Sometimes the antiquarian’s labored reconstruction is successful, and sometimes there simply isn’t enough that’s salvageable.

But as Milosz says, over-analysis of poetry is reprehensible! All this is simply by way of excusing what I am about to do here this morning: liberate a bunch of Simician fragments from their original matrices and reassemble them into a short sequence of linked verses. Pretend that it’s 2500 years in the future and we’re puzzling over the only leavings of another Sappho.

Actually, there is already something of that lost quality in Simic’s work, with its inescapable mid-20th century milieu. Men wear hats, gypsies tell fortunes, and the corpses of abstract truths still seem relatively fresh. Could anyone else get away with such rank idealism? But in the mouth of a non-native speaker like Simic a language can sometimes ring more true, freed from the worst excrescencies of literary precedent and quotidian use.

Sources: FOREST (Dismantling the Silence, 1971), HUNGER (Ibid), FOR THE VICTIMS (Ibid.), THE CURE (Charon’s Cosmology, 1977), AN EVENING WITH THE MASTER (Austerities, 1982), EARLY EVENING ALGEBRA (Unending Blues, 1986), THE FLY (Ibid ), untitled (complete poem, The World Doesn’t End, 1989), THE VARIANT (Charon’s Cosmology), CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE (The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990), INSOMNIAC’S DEBATING SOCIETY (Jackstraws, 1999), DARK TV SCREEN (A Wedding in Hell, 1994), WINTER EVENING (Walking the Black Cat, 1996), BED MUSIC (Ibid.), THE WIND (complete poem, from Dismantling the Silence), MYSTIC LIFE (Jackstraws).

A cluster of roots
Pulling in every direction.
. . . .

Take it as medicine,
A teaspoon at a time, and remember:
You are a saint turned over on a spit,
You are a roach caught by the convicts.
. . . .

Then, at last, we’ll get a true taste of ourselves.
The ear will crawl back into the eye
Like Jonah into his whale.
. . . .

Mating season
Of the hand and the glass,
Respectful homage
Of the wine to the light,
Clarity
That I talk to, that I quarrel with . . .
. . . .

A soul with a falcon’s hood
Bent over a nursery school slate
Which screeches and bleeds darkly
As it lets itself be written
. . . .

The chalk must have been given her by a child.
One kept looking for him in the crowd . . .
. . . .

He was writing the History of Optimism
In Time of Madness. It was raining.
. . . .

“Tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul,” writes Nietzsche. I always felt that too, Friedrich! The Amazon jungle with its brightly colored birds squawking, squawking, but its depths dark and hushed. The beautiful lost girl is giving suck to a monkey. The lizards in attendance wear ecclesiastical robes and speak French to her: “La Reine des Reines,” they intone. Not the least charm of this tableau is that it can be so easily dismissed as preposterous.
. . . .

The proverbial dry blades
Sticking in the throat.
. . . .

All of a sudden, a clear sense of a memorable occasion . . .
The joy of it, the delicious melancholy . . .
This very strange man bent over the piano shaking his head, humming . . .

Misterioso.

Then it was all over, thank you!
Chairs being stacked up on tables, their legs up.
. . . .

The cueball Buddhist
Among us
Pooh-poohing all foregoing,
Claiming,
It’s just our imagination.
Imagine that?
. . . .

O Cordelia, my name is Lear. My name is
Primo Levi. I sit naked between
The open window and the dark TV screen,
My hands and sex bathed in the fire of evening.
. . . .

My love’s window was on fire
With the sunset.
Her hair was red.
The pillow she carried in her arms
Was like a baby.

Quiet as a bread crumb,
I stood and watched.
. . . .

Our love was new,
But your bedsprings were old.
. . . .

Touching me, you touch
the country that has exiled you.
. . . .

It takes a tiny nibble
From time to time.

Don’t you believe it.

It sends a shiver down our spines
In response.

Like hell it does.

There’s a door you’ve never noticed before
Left ajar in your room.

Don’t kid yourself.

The narrators discuss their task

–What is my name?
–You are Melissa. I am Absynthia.
–We are two?
–No. You are one, I am one. Together we are still one. We cannot be divided.
–What do they call us, then?
–They call us the Twin. But our real name is Errata.

Two heads, two halves of the body. Two necks, two shoulders, two arms, two legs, two lungs. Four eyes, four ears, two brains, a single heart. Two tongues, two hands, two breasts, a single sex. Two mouths to feed one stomach.

–How did this happen?
–It could have been anything. We should have been anything but this.
–What could be better? It’s every wit’s first thought about two heads . . .
–But on second thought . . .
–Yes . . .
–One of us had a second body and lost it to the first. We were like Jacob and Esau, struggling in the womb.
–It might have been better for history had those two been like us.
–History? One scroll out of many. We could give birth to something else, I feel it in our bones.
–Before we rejoined we were little more than clusters of potential.
–Little Gordian knots. Little clumps of this and that, bundled with yarn, fastened with a charm, stuck in a little skin sack.
–We dwelt in possibility?
–Are dwelling there still. They could have refused us at birth . . .

On a bicycle flying through the intersections, the lights turning green at their approach. One looks right, one left. Peddling, braking, shifting gears without a thought.

–It was a last-minute decision.
–The angels were asleep at the switch.
–Or God?
–Not if we know what’s good for us. God puts an end to questioning.
–What is the end of questioning, then?
–You laugh and I’ll weep. We’ll both menstruate. That way we’ll cover all the bases.
–Before we had words, could we hear each other’s thoughts?
–The pattern was there, unrecognized. We knew, but we didn’t know that we knew.
–Nothing’s really changed then, except now
–we are one step farther from the back door
–we came in by. But
–the sun’s gonna shine. The wind’s
–gonna rise.
–Mmm-hmm.

To him or her of adequate desire

Everyone knows the first line; here’s the whole poem. This is #466 in R.W. Franklin (The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, Harvard/Belknap Press, 1999).

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

1862 was a banner year for St. Emily. She wrote the magnificent “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” and immediately afterwards a poem whose last couple of lines deserve equal renown (#373):

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

#413 is probably too abstract and explicit to rise to the level of these others, but is valuable precisely because it lays bare one of her central themes:

Heaven is so far of the mind
That were the Mind dissolved –
The Site – of it – by Architect
Could not again be proved –

‘Tis Vast – as our Capacity –
As fair – as our idea –
To Him of adequate desire
No further ’tis, than Here –
__________

Cross-reference: Poem # 910

Some quotes on the art of seeing

“Magnified tenfold, the complexity and detail of a single snowflake took me completely by surprise. How could something as small and ordinary as snow be so perfectly beautiful? I couldn’t stop looking. Even now, I remember the sense of possibility, of mystery that accompanied that first glimpse. For the first time, but not the last, I had the sense that there was more to the world than immediately meets the eye. I looked out at the snow falling softly on the branches and rooftops with a new understanding, that every drift was made up of a universe of starry crystals. I was dazzled by what seemed a secret knowledge of snow. The lens and the snowflake were an awakening, the beginning of seeing.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Oregon State U.P., 2003)

****

“A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful.

“The sensation of sudden visual awareness is produced in part by the formation of a ‘search image’ in the brain. In a complex visual landscape, the brain initially registers all the incoming data, without critical evaluation . . . Not until [a] pattern is repeated, with feedback from the conscious mind, do we know what we are seeing. It is in this way that animals become skilled detectors of their prey, by differentiating complex visual patterns into the particular configuration that means food.”

Ibid.

****

“For most travelers the face of the tropical rain forest appears surprisingly monotonous, especially when experienced in the flat light of mid-day. . . Even the most highly trained botanists are humbled by the immense diversity of the Amazonian forests. Confronted with the unknown, they collect specimens and do their best to identify a plant to family or genus. Only later, in the comfort of the herbarium and invariably with the assistance of a colleague specializing in that particular group of plants, will they figure out the species and obtain a complete determination.

“In other words, most botanists working in the Amazon must come to peace with their ignorance. When they look at the forest, their eyes fall first on what is known and then seek what is unknown. [Richard Evans] Schultes was the opposite. He possessed what scientists call the taxonomic eye, an inherent capacity to detect variation at a glance. When he looked at the forest, his eye fell reflexively on what was novel or unusual. And since he was so familiar with the flora, he could be confident that if a plant was new to him, it was new to science. For Schultes such moments of discovery were transcendent. He was once in a small plane that took off from a dirt runway, brushed against the canopy of the forest, and very nearly crashed. A colleague who was with him recalled years later that throughout the entire episode Schultes had sat calmly by a window, oblivious to the screams of terrified passengers. It turned out that he had spotted a tree, a new species of Cecropia, and had scarcely noticed the crisis.”

Wade Davis, One River (Simon and Schuster, 1996)

****

“To those whose sole need is to get from here to there, superhighways are a boon. In truth, without their aid it is doubtful we could have seen, in a single season, all the varied aspects of winter across the continent. Yet they are part of a present paradox: the more the land is traversed, the less it is seen. Year by year, the jet airlines fly higher, passenger cars on superhighways go faster. One shows the land as a distant map unrolling, the other as a landscape blurring by. Both remove us from contact. I remember Wilbur Shaw, three times winner of the Indianapolis 500-mile race, once saying to me: ‘The faster you go, the farther you have to look ahead.’ I remembered John Muir, in the California mountains, protesting that nothing could be seen at the rate of forty miles a day.

Edwin Way Teale, Wandering Through Winter (Dodd Mead, 1957)

****

“Knowing the wildflowers, naming all the birds without a gun, these are admirable attainments. But there is always a residue of sadness when we learn the name and lose the wonder of the living thing itself.

“We become specialists and our interests shrink. . . . In all times, the appreciator has had to have his excuses ready. Different times, different excuses. A century ago, it was looking for a moral lesson. Today, it may be a hunt for ecological significance. But, in this speeding modern world, an increasing number of people are realizing that just to stop, just to enjoy nature, has its own significance.”

Ibid.

****

“Inspired by the writings of such naturalists, I began college with a biology major. But I eventually realized I had little affinity for the kind of science I encountered there, with its emphasis on quantified data, controlled experiments, technological monitoring devices, and theoretical analysis. Because I was unable to comprehend and appreciate this work, I felt incapable of understanding what really mattered about nature. But I found a refuge in anthropology, where the descriptive method had persisted like an orphan child, and where the study of Native cultures revealed traditions of natural history that seemed richer than anything accessible in Western science . . .

“Among the Koyukon people . . . elders like Sarah Stevens and Grandpa William carried their vast and insightful knowledge of the natural world with great humility. I never heard them speak of how much they knew, but of how little, and of how much there was to learn, how difficult it was to understand even the smallest mysteries around them. Anthropologists working among traditional peoples are often told they have learned very little about the culture they’ve come to study, even after their research has gone on for many years. Unfortunately, the rocks, plants, and animals are unable to give the same appraisal to those who study them, although its humbling influence might be of great benefit.”

Richard Nelson, The Island Within (Random House, 1989)

****
[A] rapidly evolving science recently labeled ‘biomimicry’ studies nature as a source of wisdom that can teach us everything from how to clean up industrial messes to how to create adhesives that hold their grip underwater. Harvard geneticist Dr. Richard Lewontin notes, ‘The one point I think all evolutionary biologists are agreed upon [is that] it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an organism is [already] doing in its own environment.’ . . .

“The unique lens structure of lobster eyes, for example, has inspired the design of a new type of telescope . . . Termite nests in arid regions are being studied because of an ingenious design that allows maximum circulation of air entering from the outside, keeping the nest cool. These nests could conceivably lead us to more efficient air conditioning . . . And the incredibly lightweight yet strong and efficient limbs of insects and other arthropods are helping us improve the designs of everything from industrial cranes to artificial limbs.”

Mark J. Plotkin, Medicine Quest (Viking, 2000)

****
“Now the umialiks [= skin boat owners] were in taboo. They moved slowly. They were grave. The village was silent. No one talked to the umialiks. No one sang or worked on equipment.

“Four days the umialiks sat. They thought about the whales they would catch. They thought, and they saw them. It was frightening and sacred.

“And now the umialiks told their families to open their caches. ‘Feed the old people, poor people and orphans!’ The umialiks were generous. Their meat stores were opened. The more they gave, the more whales would come and lend their bodies.”

Tom Lowenstein, Ancient Land, Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and its Rituals (FSG, 1993)

Errata "R" Us

The alert reader of yesterday’s post may have noticed a logical inconsistency big enough to drive a freight train through. The opening scenario dealt primarily with HIV-1, yet in the second scenario, the evil dude is clearly concerned about either another, more virulent virus or perhaps a number of diseases acting in concert, analogous to the introduction of Old World diseases to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. O.K., so perhaps he alters his genes so that his descendents would be immune to all these diseases. But that deprives us of the neat, binary opposition of a single savior vs. anti-savior. And it isn’t at all clear to me that a retrovirus could be transmitted in any way other than through sex or the mixing of blood. The really virulent ones are lytic viruses like Ebola, for which vaccinations could probably be developed.

So the concept would need a lot of work before it could be shaped up well enough for a novel. (Probably could still form the basis of a workable movie script at this point – Hollywood producers have never let glaring inconsistencies and implausibilities get in the way of high drama and pathos!) Additional complexity would actually help in the layering of meaning, I think.

As I pondered the novelistic possibilities in the shower this morning, I realized I would want it to be narrated in the twin voice of a woman with two heads. There actually is such a young woman somewhere in Britain, I believe. Both heads are fully functional, and are treated by everyone as two separate persons. Each has her own ambitions. The way I understand it, the town conspires to keep her identity secret (along with its own identity). This was something I read in a legitimate news source, not a tabloid.

In any case, the legal, theological and romantic implications of a human being with two, fully functional heads are interesting. It would be fun to place her in a culture where twins are revered. As a narrator, she would speak ordinarily as two sisters, sometimes bickering, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. We could have each head studying different languages, or one head performing simultaneous translations for the other, etc. During moments of heightened awareness, she/they would speak as one in a distinctly hair-raising manner, like the plural voice of God in Shoenberg’s Moses and Aaron.

Mind you, I don’t see myself writing this novel. No, I envision a co-authorship between Barbara Kingsolver and Orson Scott Card. That’s the kind of artistic partnership that could lead either to prophetic vision or to mutually assured destruction. Maybe both!

Half-assed prophecy

The Savior will be born somewhere in East Africa, most likely. He may already have been born; we have no way of knowing. In fact, chances are he will live and die unknown to the outside world – which is to say, the world of scientists, far-away governments, pharmaceutical companies and the international press. Within a wide circle of towns and villages, however, he may be fairly well known, though unrecognized as anything special. Most people will profess to hate him, but enough will love him to spread his unique and invaluable form of resistance throughout the region – and eventually around the world.

A few things we can know for certain. His sex and sexual orientation: a male heterosexual. His character: to be an effective savior, he will have to be at least moderately promiscuous. The more sex partners he has, the better it will be for the survival of humankind. So we know the type, yes? Or we think we do. Amoral and narcissistic, possibly even to the extent of being what psychologists call a psychopath or sociopath: an individual who is apparently constitutionally incapable of experiencing true empathy. Far from the anti-social ax murderers of the popular imagination, true psychopaths are much more likely to be extremely charismatic. They seem friendly and likeable – and why not? They are not burdened by the kinds of doubts and insecurities that haunt the rest of us, the 95% of people who worry about how they are perceived and actively imagine what others around them might be feeling. Many successful leaders are psychopaths: positions of power in most societies select for the very traits they possess in spades. Some psychologists speculate that power is the only real compensation for the emptiness that psychopaths say they habitually experience.

Of course, the Savior could turn out to be a relatively ordinary guy who likes having sex with a lot of different women. I am simply discussing probabilities. I should mention that there will need to be more than one of him. In fact, humanity will need a different savior for every deadly viral infection in the coming shit-storm of plagues that will likely kill between 80 and 90 percent of the human population: around 80 percent from outright infection, the remainder from circumstances related to the breakdown in social and political infrastructure. Mortality will be highest in the so-called developed world, where populations are densest and where citizens are most highly dependent on complex food, water and energy transport systems.

How does a species evolve resistance against a retrovirus like HIV-1? First, let’s recall how a retrovirus works. Basically, it tricks a cell into fusing with it, then, once inside, adds its own DNA to that of its host. Ordinary viruses employ the more direct method of conquer, pillage, destroy. Vaccines work on them because – unlike retroviruses – they don’t corrupt and disable the T cells needed for successful counterinsurgency by the host’s immune system. Vaccination – simply injecting a weakened form of the HIV-1 virus in hopes of strengthening the body’s defenses – is unlikely to work against AIDS. Retroviruses are simply too devious in their subversion of the immune system.

Some 30 million years ago, our primate ancestors survived a similar retroviral Armageddon. The details are unclear, but a record of sorts has been preserved right in our DNA. Roughly eight percent of the human genome, it seems, is of viral origin. The computer analogy is helpful: these are strands of code that have long ago been disabled by the removal of key parts that enabled their reproduction. They exist harmlessly in every cell in our bodies, including the hard drive – our germ cells. Right in the DNA of the sperm and the egg.

Actually, it is possible that these lines of code still perform some useful function, in blocking similar codes from re-infecting us. But 30 million years is a long time, and the new retroviruses are too different for this legacy to be of much use. Its presence does serve as a reminder of what the body is capable of, however.

Studies of a colony of mice in a barn in California back in the late 1980s provide clues about what may have happened, and what will need to happen again. When a team of pathologists from UC-Davis discovered the colony, it was in the throes of an especially virulent retrovirus that was being transmitted to infants as they nursed. But a small segment of the population had developed immunity, and the researchers quickly identified the genetic fix this group possessed. A single mutation in a single mouse had passed into the germ cells; the small group of survivors were its offspring.

Organisms, fortunately, are not very much like computers. We are not really “programmed” – much less “hard-wired” – by our DNA, because much of what happens in our development from one moment to the next, from fertilization onward, is guided by what the scientist can only describe as random chance. (Religious people may conceptualize it differently, of course. In fact, their conceptualizations are not only not “wrong,” but possibly highly useful in helping the mind/body fight off infections – at least from garden-variety viruses or fungal and bacterial infections. Sometimes even cancers. But probably not the most powerful retro- and lytic viruses.)

Mutations are one particularly important form of change introduced through random chance. Although the vast majority of mutations have negligible effects within a population, and some are highly disadvantageous (sickle-cell anemia, babies born with two heads), a low level of mutation is essential to the preservation of life on earth. A damaged or incomplete HIV-1 provirus (the DNA version of retroviral RNA) should eventually arise. It may arise more than once, but chances are it will arise soonest and spread most quickly in that part of the world currently most devastated by AIDS: East Africa. It will work, pathologists feel, by reproducing just the viral proteins that form receptor sites on the surfaces of host cells, without making copies of the RNA for intercellular travel and infection.

Viruses are a lot like multinational corporations: they aren’t really living organisms, but they act like they are. They are obligate parasites that possess merely a set of detailed instructions, a template for their replication. Unlike true life forms, all the energy and material necessary for their reproduction must come from elsewhere – from their unwilling hosts. Unlike a predator, they cannot be said either to love or to hate their prey. One doubts, in fact, that they possess any form of sentience whatsoever. They seem deathless, machine-like – immortal.

But just like corporations, they are fiercely competitive. Retroviruses, once established in a host cell, engineer it to make enough receptor-binding proteins to completely fill the receptors on the surface. Thus, new invaders will have nowhere to dock, no port of entry. If a mutation produces a defective copy of the retroviral DNA capable of locking out the original and all others like it, the host cells will be saved. If those cells include sperm or egg cells, the offspring of the parent organism will inherit an immunity to infection by the retrovirus. This is what happened among the mice in California and presumably among our primate ancestors as well.

Could such a mutation be manufactured in the laboratory and simply injected into AIDS patients? Perhaps. An article in the February 2004 issue of Natural History, “Fighting HIV with HIV,” by T. V. Rajan – my source for of most of this information – explores the possibility in detail. As Rajan envisions it, though, the procedure would be complex, high-risk, and hellishly expensive. Given the political and economic near-impossibility of providing the currently effective drug treatment to sufferers in the impoverished regions of the world where AIDS has the most impact, it is difficult to share the author’s enthusiasm for this treatment. And even if “present technical limitations” can be overcome, the treatment would rely on bone marrow stem cell inoculation. Only regular body cells, not germ cells, would be involved. Intentionally altering the human genome is considered beyond the pale – which is not to say, I suppose, that it couldn’t or won’t be done.

One can imagine a scenario quite different from our opening one in which “saviors” unwittingly originate successful mutant competitors with HIV-1, HIV-2 and other retroviruses soon to spread, through various means, among the grievously over-concentrated and over-consuming human population. In this alternate scenario, a fabulously rich individual – perhaps a psychopath also – himself becomes infected. He decides to break the unwritten rule and employs teams of molecular biologists and genetic engineers not merely to administer the stem-cell inoculation therapy on himself, but to insert a defective copy of the retrovirus into his own sperm cells. Much of humanity will die, he calculates, but everyone with my genetic material will survive. My genes, he thinks: mini me. The Master Race!

But he must be careful. Other powerful people, other amoral heirs to ill-gotten corporate wealth may be plotting something similar. Therefore he must also finance a world-wide network of agents to hunt down and eliminate the competition. He studies the history of past epidemics, like the Black Death of 14th-century Europe, and realizes that the retroviral Armageddon will only provide a brief breathing space, maybe a century or two. A narrow window of opportunity for his descendents to cement their control over increasingly scarce fossil fuels and other non-renewables. They will have the will to such power, of course, because they will be – many of them – just like him. But for those who might be a little soft, who might be tempted to share, he will have to create some social mechanism capable of inculcating his values and outlasting the centuries. A new religion . . .

Call it a fable, call it science fiction. I am only playing with possibilities, based on very limited knowledge. But if a hundred years of occasionally prescient futuristic stories and novels have taught us anything, it is that humans are not very good at anticipating the unforeseen. Most “realistic” scenarios are simply extrapolations from current technology, and become prescient in hindsight through a combination of blind luck – random chance – and strong insights into human nature. I’ll have to leave it up to the reader, then, to decide how well my guesses might approximate real human outcomes.

That there exist individuals sufficiently amoral for all of this we should not doubt. That neither one of my hypothesized characters would know of the other is also likely: they move, after all, in parallel worlds with little meaningful contact by virtue of the very bonds of extreme dominance and servitude that unite them. Being a mushy headed, religious-when-it-isn’t-too-demanding kind of guy, I like to imagine the Savior not in fact as a psychopath but as a good guy, deep down. Someone who actually, really likes women – a lot. And who is attractive to them not through an air of dangerous power but due to his fundamentally empathetic nature. It seems as least as likely as the alternative.

The second guy – he’s evil. He probably does sinister things, like have all his offspring marked at birth in some special, secret way that will allow them to recognize each other in later life as the Chosen. He will have an Achilles’ heel: his own arrogance will make him blind to the possibility that Nature is bigger, wiser and more powerful than all humanity put together. The priesthood he spawns won’t realize until it is way too late that their semi-mythical progenitor had competition, and that this competitor, by spreading copies of his superior resistance all over the place – for free! – has won the day.

But that’s why he, and not the evil rich guy, is the Savior. He will not, of course, benefit personally from the innovation in his genes. In fact, his body will likely be so riddled with the disease that his own life – and the lives of most if not all of his partners – will be incandescently brief. That’s why he needs to be so promiscuous in order to succeed at the unknown task that Fate has marked out for him.

As an afterthought, it seems to me that in the long run, for a social animal, selfishness and power-lust are just not advantageous traits. That’s why they’re relatively scarce in their pure form. Love, empathy, and the capacity to truly enjoy lots and lots of sex: these are advantageous traits. You can deride the bearers of such traits all you want: call them arty-fartsy, call them yellow, call them meek. But in the end it is they, and not you, who will inherit the earth.

Interview with a fungus

“The modern history of the fungi, which I date from about 400m years ago, has been a remarkable success story. The fungi occupy two vital niches in nature whose importance has never been challenged. In one niche, we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of detritivores whose mission is to digest organic matter and return the component parts to the ecological system. Without our work, life on earth would long since have ground to a halt for lack of raw materials. In another niche, we act in partnership with the roots of plants to extend their reach into the soil environment and enhance their uptake of water and nutrients. These partnerships are called mycorrhizas — myco for the fungus, rhiza for the root. Animals in turn feed on plants and benefit from this arrangement. So the fungi play two very distinct roles worldwide, and both roles are critical to maintaining the biosphere in good working order.’
‘Where does mankind come into your history?’
‘Mankind comes into our history about 20,000 years ago, at the time they discovered the uses of alcoholic fermentation. We credit the genus Saccharomyces with this development. Ancestral spores of that yeast settled in a pot of gruel prepared by a group of hominids whose existence up to that point was best described as nasty, brutish and short. This began what we call the honeymoon period in the relationship of man and fungus. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last very long.'”

Read the complete essay, “Interview with a Fungus,” by Diane Brooks Pleninger, here. This was the winner of 2003 writing contest, with the theme, “Do We Need Nature?” sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell and The Economist. A good read.

Monsters ink

I decided to post the entire essay below, under yesterday’s entry, rather than split it and put the second half here. For those who first read it yesterday afternoon, that portion has now been significantly rearranged. (There may be a few more minor corrections, but I don’t anticipate substantial changes – this is, after all, just a blog!) I apologize for the confusion.

I’m wondering if I have invented a new genre here? It’s clearly not a book review of Quammen’s Monsters of God, since I haven’t read it yet. Nor could you call it a book preview, since I have little idea of what’s in it – I was merely riffing on what I take to be a few of the major themes. A “book anticipation,” perhaps?

UPDATE: repeat of conclusion removed as a pointless exercise. I will not pander to the attention span-deprived!