Monday, December 18, 2017

Biology only worth knowing if life is.....

I liked it before, so I'm posting it again.



A slug on my driveway.

I suppose it's a bit much to ask students to ponder their closeness to plants in a culture where humans barely recognize other humans. Things have broken down.

Yet this much is true:
  • Humans and plants share the same genetic code--we can make their stuff, they can make ours.
  • We both reproduce sexually in a spectacular dance of the chromosomes, mixing us up every generation, so that even the perfect among us are perfect for only a generation.
  • We both rely on ribosomes to build our proteins, microtubules and mitochondria to get us through the day, and an innate will to do whatever we need to see the next sunrise.
Humans and basil share a common ancestor. We share a quarter of the same genes. Many of our proteins do exactly the same thing, others not so much.

But we're pretty damn close at the most basic levels of life. Which is pretty cool.

We're even closer to insects--we share about 60% of our core genes with fruit flies. 

If something effectively kills plants or insects, and you see no connections between plants and insects and humans, then you likely do not contemplate the tons and tons and tons of herbicides and pesticides poured on our food in our "war" against weeds and weevils.


Basil going to seed, after a week or two of wild sex.


If you don't contemplate about food or water or folks in your neighborhood, it's unlikely you contemplate much about anything that matters.




Hey, who won the game last night?


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Teaching isn't about you....

Some stuff on my windowsill,
given freely by the world.
It's not about passion of the teacher, finding the soul of a child, or lighting a fire in a kid's brain. It never was.

 It's simply showing a child the world that's herenow beyond the human noise.

The recent rush to classroom love-fests fails to acknowledge the value of the old curmudgeon who taught a few decades ago, gruff yet beloved, because she was not the point of class.

The world was.



Why do you think books matter to children so much?

Solstice salad

Late autumn sunset on the Delaware Bay
I do not do well with the shorter days. Chances are, you feel the same.

Despite bathing in the glow of electric light, the sun still matters physiologically and psychologically (and that great gray area between). And it has been disappearing slowly for several months now.

Lettuce in the cold frame.

With less sun I grow more tired and less food.

I cannot control the sun, but turns out a lot of plants are tougher than I realized. With no help, the parsley, arugula, and Brussels sprouts are doing just fine through the dying sun. They're taking things a little slower, of course, but there's pretty good advice for all of us with the dying light.

I've got lettuce and baby kale tucked in the cold frames I made back when I had a bit more energy, and even a very determined bean plant that's plastered itself along the cold frame window.

So last night we ate from a mid-December garden.













Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Christmas story

Not Daphne--but the same desperate stare.
(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The saddest patient I ever had was dying of AIDS, before we knew what was going on. Her family was afraid of her, and much of the staff.

Truth be told, I was a little bit scared, too, but was so deep into a ward full of children dying back in the early 90s that I figured if it was that contagious, I was doomed as well.

So I spent a lot of time with her.
And I did a lot of things to her that hurt her anyway.

And now as I slowly descend the same arc she traveled too quickly, as we all are traveling, I think of her.

Her name was Daphne.

I can blather on about how I learned from her, how she was heroic, how what we learned from her helped us help other children later.

But that's all noise.

The Christmas story is a powerful one, and part of its power is the juxtaposition of a baby and a fate we know too well.

I am not sure what the point to this story is--maybe there is no point.
But I know this much--what we do not do matters as much as what we do.




Live.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunsets and the solstice

Sunset on the Delaware Bay
The earliest sunset of the year (in these parts anyway) happened a couple of sunsets ago ago. The sun is setting later today than it did yesterday.

Folks will argue the point, but I am not so interested in their arguments as their need to have the discussion at all.

We are truly trapped in an abstract of our own making. Noon once meant the time the sun is as high as its going to get on a particular day, and solar noon still means just that, but the sun peaking at noon only happens four times a year now.

And despite what my teachers told me, the sun is never directly overhead in this part of the world.

So I can point folks to the United States Naval Observatory to support my claim, and I often do.

North Cape May winter beach
Here's a better idea, though. Go outside (or at least to a window) and look. Tomorrow do the same. Do it for a week or two. Do the same for sunrise.

I guess it really doesn't matter if someone knows the sunsets are getting later. It may be trivial to most of us. But that's not the point.

If we can so easily fool ourselves about the rise and fall of the sun, imagine the nonsense we do not know that we do not know....




What we believe becomes who we are.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Anyone up for a good book burning?

The Bible of biology

"I think the Bible ought to be ceremoniously and reverently burned every Easter, in faith that we need it no more because the spirit is with us. It is a dangerous book, and to worship it is a far more dangerous idolatry than bowing down to images of wood and stone."
Alan Watts, Myth and Religion

I think we ought to do the same with our biology textbooks, except  burn them on Darwin Day instead--I'll get enough grief burning books without adding apostasy to the fire.

It's early December, way too warm for the season. I am still wandering around barefoot, murdering cabbage worms picked off the Brussels sprouts. I'll wander along the edge of the sea later today, stumbling across live critters going about their lives, and fossils of those long gone.

In biology we worship the mitochondrion and the chloroplast, require children to draw them, learn words like "cristae" and "thylakoids," and use analogies for which children have no reference.

Ask a child what a powerhouse is. Ask anyone.

Basil on my windowsill this morning

The children should be the ones murdering caterpillars, getting muddied and bloodied on ridiculously warm December days. Biology, the study of life, is a mandatory course in New Jersey public high schools.

Living life, apparently, is optional.



Fuck it, I'm going outside.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

The pleasure of feeling

A reminder for me....

Backyard basil in September

November crept in on us again, as it will. The shadows lengthen as the daylight dwindles. We talk about the cold and the rain, but we rarely dark of the darkness. Many of us don't see it, our eyes fed by the steady glow of pixels.

Those who see shadow, feel it deep in our bones, have learned not to talk of it. Among the dying it feels rude to talk about death.

Gardeners know.

Countertop sweet potatoes last week


I had a small patch of sand in back, tossed in compost and manure last June, and threw in a few slips of sweet potatoes, bought cheap because bought late, just to see what would happen.

Sweet potato leaves are lovely to look at and almost as lovely to nibble on, and sweet potatoes need about as much care a a patch of dandelions (also lovely to look at and nibble on).

Summer rolled into fall, the sweet potatoes sprawled out of their patch, even flowered at one point. I left them alone, occasionally watering them, more out of habit than out of need. 

I pulled a "test" plant out late October, found no tubers. I set the roots in a bottle, and it sits on my sill for winter now. The first hard frost was coming a weeks later, so I left the rest alone.

Windowsill sweet potato this morning

Last Friday, with the hard frost coming on in before the next sunrise, I went out to my tiny tater patch, not particularly hopeful, but I had already gotten more than I earned. The air was chilly, but the ground still warm and welcoming. 

I pulled up a plant--scraggly roots, no tubers. Oh, well.

The warmth invited my fingers to dawdle in the dirt. I was already on my knees, in no hurry to get up, and digging in dirt with the sun warming my back was what I wanted to do at that moment.

So I did.

And there it was--an inch or two deeper than I expected, the unexpected flesh. I tried to pull it out. It held its ground much as a clam does, snug in its world, not resistance its only defense.

I wiggled it out and ran to get Leslie, and a minute later two happy and excited humans rooted through the dirt, finding tuber after tuber, joyfully sharing our finds with each other.

Fresh dug sweet potatoes

I grew up hearing the Aesop's tale of the dutiful ant and the lazy grasshopper. The ant worked and worked all summer, the grasshopper played. The shadows lengthened, the days grew chilly, the grasshopper knew it was in trouble.
"Making music, were you?" the ants cried. "Very well; now dance!" And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

The moral? "There's a time for work and a time for play." It's an awful parable because of its awful message, and it took me decades to throw off its chains. 

There is no need to distinguish work from play or play from work. Turns out the things in life that bring me the most joy mingle  together, and fingers feeling the earth need no justification.




But we will enjoy feasting on the sweet potatoes just the same....