Friday, December 10, 2010

Thoughts shared after hearing Galwall Kinnell speak in his 9th decade

19° degrees outside, and the furnace decided to nap. A reminder, but not an omen. There's a difference.

I love Galway Kinnell. I am fascinated by snot. The two are not unrelated. I saw Galway speak last night, which is like saying I saw Pavarotti sing, or Frank Lloyd draft.

I last saw him over three decades ago. We're both still here. We'll both be gone a few decades from now. When I remember this, I behave differently.


Eating is part of the deal.
Defecating is part of the deal.
Chlorinating is not....

I grab my rake when the tide and the winds are low. I paddle my plastic boat out to the flats, lugging a rake older than me.

I work the mud knowing that it will give up its secrets.

Quahogs quietly eat, quietly grow, quietly drag tiny organisms into their guts. Do zooplankton ("wandering animals") drifting in light, suddenly tossed into the dark, struggle against the siphon's current?

Before the sun rises again, a few clams will be killed, and eaten, and then shat. Bacteria will feed on the remnants of molecules spliced together by plants and clams. My shit will pass under the street in ancient pipes, delivered to a wastewater treatment plant, and slaughtered as the chlorine rips through the lipids in the cell's membrane.

The clam gave its life, as I will, as you will, knowing that it will remain, in pieces, part of the whole of life.

I pray no one pumps my veins with formaldehyde when I die. I want my carcass to burst from corpulence as the bacteria, freed from the tyranny of my immune system, rip the energy from complex molecules I will no longer use.

Chlorination works. I like safe water. I am not against chlorinating our water. (Don't get me started on fluoridation, though....)

If a lot of mammals squeeze themselves into small areas, excrement and water find each other. Excrement is dangerous because it's alive. Given a chance, the critters in scat will eat, grow, and reproduce, living life with the same impunity and unawareness we all do. Holy shit.

Humans are special, true. Only humans have the ability to consciously and utterly remove ourselves and other critters from the cycle of life. Formaldehyde, mercury salts, and chlorine mark our progress.

Chlorinating water works. It was developed by the U.S. Army as a way to make a lot of water safe in a hurry for our soldiers as they wandered away from the American tap water we take for granted. 3 ampules of calcium hypochlorite are added to 36 gallons of water in a Lyster bag, releasing chlorine gas.

Proteins work because of their specific shapes. Any function in a live organism that requires a particular shape, which is just about everything, requires proteins. Change the shape ("denature"), and the protein no longer does what it's designed to do.

Chlorine changes the shape of proteins in bacteria, changes their nature, and they die. The proteins in humans are made of the same stuff as bacterial proteins.

On April 22, 1915, in Ypres, France, thousands of men, and innumerable other creatures, had their proteins denatured by a yellow-green cloud smelling of "pepper and pineapple." The gas destroyed the cells lining the airways.

Suddenly down the road from the Yser Canal came a galloping team of horses, the riders goading on their mounts in a frenzied way; then another and another, till the road became a seething mass with a pall of dust over all.

Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it? Officers, and Staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road. two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster.

One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, "What's the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?" says he. The Zouave was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer's feet.

Anthony R. Hossacks memoirs
Soldier, Queen Victoria's Rifles, 1915

Chlorine gas strips away functioning proteins, irreversibly disabling your cells. It is not an easy death.
One nurse described the death of one soldier who had been in the trenches during a chlorine gas attack. “He was sitting on the bed, fighting for breath, his lips plum coloured. He was a magnificent young Canadian past all hope in the asphyxia of chlorine. I shall never forget the look in his eyes as he turned to me and gasped: I can’t die! Is it possible that nothing can be done for me?”


Leslie and I love to paddle. We have kayaked as far up the Passaic River as you can, until the water becomes too shallow to allow even a 10" draft.

A few miles before you reach the shallows, we pass a sign facing away from the river, just above an active discharge pipe.

The pipe belches out sickeningly sweet water, pepper and pineapple. The smell reminds me of a mall, where the aroma of too perfect cookies mixes with the aroma of too perfect perfumes and too perfect people.

I beached my kayak so I could get out and read the sign.

The sign announced that the effluuent was the shit and pee and spit and snot and blood of the good citizens of Livingston, caressed with chemicals, now safe for the river.

I got back in the kayak and headed upstream, my paddles dredging through the shallow muddy bed. I dragged my fingers over the paddle blade, the mud sliding back into the water, and then held my hands to my face, the mortal mud's smell reminding me who we are.

One of my lambs ran an experiment to see if water would start to smell if left out for a week. He was startled to find that water smells right out of the tap, like, well, chlorine. In a day or two, the chlorine smell dissipated.

Decades from now, I doubt he'll remember much of anything in class, but he will remember that.

We do not talk about "shit" in class. We talk of excrement and E. coli and waste, but never of shit, sacred shit, Holy Shit.

If high biology were truly the study of life, of death, of cycles, we'd read Galway Kinnell's Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, or Mary Oliver's poem "Oxygen," or W.B. Yeats, who asks the essential question of science, of life: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

I would give up an eyetooth (or two) to have Galway Kinnell teach my students biology. I talk of ecology, Galway talks of life:

The black bear who swatted down the apples
from the lower branches began before first light
expelling foot-long cylinders of apple-chompings
—some apple nectar removed, some bear nectar added—
which could almost be served up in a restaurant
in Lyons or Paris as Compote de Pommes des Dieux.

Galway Kinnell
From "Holy Shit"
(Imperfect Thirst)

Until we teach biology as the study of life, we have no real hope of pretending we are not those young men who tossed the chlorine gas at other men, and whoever else happened to be in the way, back in 1915.

Until then, I will sink into tidal mud flats, filling the air with the molecules of the dead, a pungent smell we've been trained to fear, scratching for clams, each one reminding me of impermanence, of what matters.

In May, I will again be trekking over a hundred young humans to Sandy Hook Bay,
where many will smell tidal mud for the first time.
Biology cannot be taught indoors.

Lyster bag photo from Olive-Drab, which posted the photo
"courtesy Family of Jack Chriss, veteran of Co. B, 129th Airborne Engineer Bn., 13th Airborne Div."

Clam and tomato photo taken on my windowsill. Both were eaten soon after.


Sue VanHattum said...

Michael, Have you read Lving Downstream, by Sandra Steingraber? (She was also at U of M. She once got hit by a cop during a protest, and then charged for assaulting a police officer. I worked on the Michigan Daily editorial staff at the same time she did.)

Susan Eckert said...

Hello Michael -

Funny, as I was contemplating G3P this week, I told some other great science teacher that when I die, I don't want to be pumped through with chemicals, rather, I want my C atoms to return naturally to the earth to be used again and again. Hard not to love a cycle, such a beautiful thing.

Nice post.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

I have read Sandra's words, but not specifically Living Downstream." She was a colleague of my sister Mary Beth Doyle. Thanks for the recommendation.

Dear Susan,

Hopefully there will be a few more places for human carcasses to rot by the time I kick, but if not, I guess I'll settle for cremation.

Thanks for the compliment. I've since broken down and rebuilt the post, and may yet again. I am haunted by Fred's words yesterday about focusing on a particular point. He's right, of course.

(Thank you so much for making it happen--he brought such a joyful intelligence to the classroom.I'll post about that as well, but I'll run it by both of you before it goes up.)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I'm currently reading The Humanure Handbook, Joseph Jenkins. I wonder if we are at the beginning of a biological revolution on the heals of the technological revolution.

doyle said...

Dear CJ,

Thank you for the warm words.

I trust that we'll get it right, once we recover from the reductionism of the last two centuries.

If we don't, we won't matter anymore.