Wednesday, December 31, 2008


It's the end of the year--I keep thinking I'm better, and I mostly am, but after three years it's clear I'm not going to recover completely.

We're cleaning up stuff around here. I found Mary Beth's notebook. She was fierce--just ask Dow Chemical. She was loving--just ask anyone who ever met her, including folks who worked at Dow.

So I'm throwing two essays out here I
wrote over a couple of years ago. They are only peripherally involved with teaching science.

Amygdalin shares the same root as amygdala--it means walnut, and reflects the amaretto taste you sense when you chew on apple seeds.

Chewing on apple seeds may be hazardous, but so is riding motorcycles, body surfing, and just plain living.

When I eat an apple, I eat everything but the stem. Sometimes I eat that, too. I did this even before my sister fell in love with Dave Keeney, who knows apples. Like most folks who know something well, Dave knows lots of things well. Mary Beth believed she would love him until she died, and she did.

In a few years I will chew an apple core from a tree that has a tiny bit of my sister in it. Several hundred apple trees at Keeney Orchard already do. You breathe around apple trees, some of your carbon dioxide bound to get mixed up in the apple blossoms.

Life's messy that way.

Breathe on your hand. Feel the moist air, now carrying carbon dioxide and warm water vapor. An apple tree will take both, borrow some radiant energy from the sun, and make stuff.

It's what trees do.

Oh, they need a tiny bit of calcium and other minerals. This spring, Dave will plant a sapling next to the stone that now casts an evening shadow towards the pond. He will scatter some bits of calcium from a colorful cardboard box covered with stars, hearts, and painted macaroni he glued there himself.

Mary Beth will feed the tree, and we will water the ground with tears. Our breath and her ground bones will rise from the ground. In a few years, a child not yet born will pick an apple from the tree. And eat it.

We stood by her stone, now pink form the fading light. I heard an owl.

Dave asked if cremation destroys DNA.
I didn't know, and said so.
Turns out it does.

A hint of amaretto slides through
a chewed apple core.

(A mother tells her child to spit it out. The child grins and chews anyway.)

C20H27NO11 + 2H2O => 2C6H12O6 + C6H5CHO + HCN

Amygdalin + water => glucose + benzaldehyde + cyanide

Glucose, of course, is sugar--sweetness.

Benzaldehyde gives the nutty taste--turns out it may cause cancer.
Wildness at the cellular level.

Cyanide. Death.

Cyanide blocks a cell's ability to release the energy captured by plants. The energy caught by the apple tree and by algae and by grasses and ferns and moss--the energy that feeds us--cannot be released unless oxygen steals back the electrons plants stole from water.

Cyanide blocks the electrons from getting to the oxygen, deep inside your mitochondria, in the darkest recesses of your cells.

You suffocate inside out.
Before you suffocate, you may feel giddy, even euphoric.

Burning wood releases cyanide. So does burning silk.
A lot of folks who die of smoke inhalation succumb to cyanide poisoning.
I'd like to imagine they were euphoric those last few moments.
I hope I'm euphoric my last few moments.

I keep eating apple seeds.
Benzaldehyde reacts with water; a lovely taste, nuttiness sweetened by glucose, streams through me. A tinge of euphoria lightens me, reminds me I am mortal.

I loved chewing apple seeds before I knew about the cyanide.
Now they taste even better.

Photo by André Karwath via wikimedia.

1 comment:

nashworld said...

1. i absolutely love this post for so many reasons.

2. i wish i had met your sister. several posts as of late have characterized her as someone i would love to chat with.

3. benzaldehyde. will never forget nailing my first organic "unknown" in advanced chem lab as a pre-med freshman. i uncorked my pure sample... walked it over to the instructor ten minutes and many laughs after instructions to begin... and asked the dear sir: "can i tell you what this is now?" he said: "sure- but if you're wrong, you fail."

i said: "smells like maraschino cherries, must be benzaldehyde."

he said: "is that your answer?"

me: "uh huh."

he again: "yeah... here's your inorganic sample"

that sample was not a pure sample, and took me over a week to complete. that pretty much left me course-complete a week early.

but i stayed to help my biddy who has the sample from hell. besides, i loved that lab at the time.