Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stranger Things and Pizza Pockets

Hail the size of cantaloupes dropped like ordinance from the sky in Vivian, South Dakota smashing roofs and windshields. Old men in Cat hats ordered another cup of coffee in the Sunflower Diner when they saw the storm coming knowing that, for this one, they'd better stay put. It came across RR 17 from the north west, set the traffic lights swinging and blotted out the lights in the Wal Mart parking lot. The sky was "taller than I'd ever seen it," said Ernst Hamman, 78, and "kind of sparkling" added Gunter Sibley, 70,"course, that might a been the silos". "We could see the green in it, so we knew that was hail." And hail it was. Hail stones dropped out of the sky "like it was raining rocks," said Bonnie Gardner, 83, owner of the Sunflower Diner, "so I put another pot on".

The biggest stone measured in at 8" in diameter and 18" around. It had been bigger, more like 11'' across, they said. The young man whose mailbox it wrecked, yelled for his wife and she came out of the house wrapped in his Carhartt and flip-flops, and they stood with a thoughtful hand on the exploded mailbox and looked at it like a spiky rugby ball. "That'd kill you if it hit you," she said, and they looked out over the empty land where the storm was moving south out to the Southern States silo in blinding light just before it disappeared and they could hear the clatter on the grain dryers. They looked at it flashing out there, and then at the fields full of torn-up corn across the road shiny and creaking. And they rolled the stone with their feet toward the house, clacking through all the other hail stones like a crowd, and put it in the freezer, and they called her mother. The neighbors started coming over around 2 to take a look at it in there with the blue plastic ice trays and the Pizza Pockets, and opening the door, and the power went out around 4 - transformer blew in Pierre - so little by little a record of the strange things of heaven and earth sublimed.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thyme Enough

Prim and flower-sprigged when planted in April, now the thyme is gushing out of its pot like bosoms out a bodice, like foam out of a stein, crazy like a troll head, gobbling up its basil neighbor and eying the tarragon pot next door.
"Sweet in spring, beer and boobs by summer," says B, watering the sun-trounced garden at 1 and 95 degrees, "Yeah....troll-headed gusto: the sign of a good garden."

But what to do with it all? We've eaten hanks! Hauled in dewy in the evening, chopped blossoms and all, to mound over chicken thighs baked in clay or roasted stewing with the carrots and garlicky olive oil. We're sprinkling it on melon and honey: a little hairy while chewing, but deliciously fragrant too. A mouthful of thyme and watermelon brings both the cool melon belly of the cultivated garden and wild, baked hay field together and right up your nose - and with the fork still in your mouth, you're in an old walled garden, English, I'd say, sitting in wicker in a grass-grown orchard.

But wicker sitting garnish is too coy for my supply. Careful to keep a little shower of blossoms in reserve for the bees, the exuberant plant is so densely matted, we can cut it from below without making a gouge, we nibble it absently while reading on the deck, we pinch it just to sniff it as we go by, bringing bruised leaves to each other across the garden saying, "Here. Smell." and holding a hands under a nose. The other one says, "Ah. Thyme. Yes. Nice." It seems all the better for the hedge clippers. We think it likes us to eat it.

If that's the case, we've been trying to accommodate and learn something about it, since we're eating it, writing about it, taking its picture, reading by its side, sitting with it in the evening as the robins chuckle good night.

Today, while we lunched (the thyme stood up to and then held hands with a burly tomato and cumin curry full of sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, and onion mounded in a bowl of brown rice and raw spinach doused with a sluice of soy and orange juice) we wandered, bowl in hand, around the library and Web looking for Thyme lore.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

There is a Danger of Being Uncomfortable

With my nose: running in Great Fall, Virginia
I'm going to run 10 miles now. It's 7 am and 82 degrees and the cicadas are already buzzing like electric castanets filling the tree-tops all along Virginia's W & OD Trail.

With a fistful of half-frozen cherry Powerade, SPF'd to the bone, and absolutely no plan, I set off from the last scrap of pretty Dun Loring, Virginia - a cluster of rose-gobbed, stained glass, picket-fenced Virginia surrounding a oak lined common green that had held the Dun Loring train station until as late as the 70s with its deep eaves and a big leaky wooden water tank pleasant to stand under.

The W & OD, which runs from Washington, DC, 45 miles west through Virginia suburb and gradually into countryside. Even at 7 am it's filling up with bikers - wasp-waisted and surly, runners, herds of walkers.

Setting off, it's always the same. The first step - there's always a first step - and it always seems like you're kidding. There is a second step. Ridiculous. You listen to your steps: crunch crunch crunch on the cinders: what are you thinking? You are choppy, too fast, you take little old lady steps, chop-chop-chop. A glossy beauty lopes by: gleaming brown as wood, cruel sunglasses; tidy shoes; legs all one color. What must you look like? You realize you've forgotten to inhale. That, or you are being water-boarded. You breath in - breathing all the way up into your clavicles, you think about how your lungs fill up your torso. It's good to breathe, you think, and wander away and think about how there really is no good place to get shot, even in the shoulder, because your lungs go all the way up there and....then whoosh you breathe out like a horse, and in again, and all the while crunch crunch crunch.

And your old body, having been under the impression you were merely going for a drive and possibly a stroll, is surprised and not a little indignant at being so misled, having done nothing to you all these years but work and toil and put up with abuse, and now this? - when there is a clear possibility - a danger, in fact, of becoming uncomfortable at some point.

She refuses to believe your story that you and she are a person who runs. Ten miles. Your shoulders are climbing up to your ears - your body trying to get a hold of yourself. You keep up the story. We'll just run out to five and come back. Don't think about 5 miles. Think about your left foot. That's all. And she thinks about your left foot. How perfectly serviceable it is. Even better for being, you know, so really huge. In fact, it's possible there may be some benefit in a surf-board-sized springing off ...and she begins to believe you and the story isn't a lie, it's happening, and you and she are running along crunch crunch crunch, and you've become somebody else.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

WikiLeaks, but without a Filter

Valiant Protector of Free Speech. Puller-back of The Curtain. WikiLeaks publishes leaked documents and protects whistle-blowers with virtually no money and a handful of staff. It is an "uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking" driven feverishly by an acid-pure ethic of journalistic probity.

"There should be no subjectivity," says its founder and mercurial guiding light is Julian Assange. But WikiLeaks is all over the place. It has no discernment. Like a soothsayer it throws the bones for us to see, but maybe a 15-year old soothsayer, who doesn't consider the consequences of those bones. Wikileaks posts anything: Sarah Palin's email, and shameful and vicious footage and voice-over of US helicopter pilots shooting twelve people, some of them children and journalists, on an Iraq street. That's its strength, some say.

Trading Cause and Conscience for Calm, it's nice, romantic, probably wrong to think of Assange as the earnest guy with backpacked laptop over one shoulder, boarding pass in his pocket, forever blending into the line that's taking off its shoes at security. But "everything about this is odd," said the Guardian's Stephen Moss who interviews a rather petulant, hardly romantic Assange here here.

Being an information activist does have its intrigue, I suppose. Journalists say phoning him his a multi-leg relay of murmurs passing the coded message, the phone ringing at midnight, interviews through a trans-Atlantic blur. And surely it's not an easy job. Some say huge, mindless powers: exposed corporations, peeved governments, Sarah Palin, would like to get him in the sights of their high-powered attorneys, or something more diabolical. Others say, nobody's listening.

Is Assange the first of us screaming and pointing to the grassy knoll? If we turned our heads and looked at the grassy knoll would there be a billboard that says "Your Newspapers Have Been Co-opted! Do Something!" What would we do?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Indiana Jones on the Frontiers of Science

The ho-hum title of this video is, "Dr. Ian Lipman Discusses Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Potential Promise of Personalized Medicine"

Ho-hum probably because there would be no way to glibly sum the electric, fantastic, mind-boggling description Lipman gives here of The New Biology in Action in language and tenor graspable by young biology students. He starts by describing A Day at the Bioinformatics Lab: "I'll get a phone call or an email...and they say, 'Call such and such a number, we'd like to talk to you about an outbreak'..." and they all set off to solve a respiratory, diarrheal, or neurological mystery. Then, when he's not wearing his Disease Sleuth hat, he runs the Northeast Biodefense Center keeping terrorists with a handful of soil, a synthetic genomics kit, and evil intent from wiping out our cows and corn.

What Lipman is describing, of course, is the NRC's vision of "New Biology"; it's rousing enough to be called "Indiana Jones on the Frontiers of Science", but even better because these stories are happening now.And it's action-packed! He describes multidisciplinary science moving so fast we're throwing the track down from the front of the train kind of action. But it's his description of "Personalized Medicine" that excited me most: "...genomics, metagenomics, proteomics, metabolomics...all these 'omics'," he says will predict and tweak our health, working with or against the microbes and viruses that live on and in us before we're born and throughout our lives. "No longer will we be flying blind until we're 50 and suddenly have heart disease."

Frontiers are exciting and here we are: we're building the ladder while we're climbing it, we're sewing the dress while we're wearing it. I thought you'd like this, targeting budding biologists, as it does - it's a lot of rousing text and labfuls of young people wielding pipettes and looking earnest and smart in latex gloves, protecting our cows, our microbes, our babies, and our hearts.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Toffle and Us

Getting to Morogoro: Africa

On mid-summer's night, under gobs of mosquito net, in our tree-top tent, with civet cats and a honey badger stomping and snorfling below, and the Southen Cross wheeling above, here are some things we've learned:

1. Elephnts are as beautiful as you thought they would be.

2. Giraffes run in slow motion with schools of impala and reed buck (who bounce). In sun and storm, everything seems submerged in the Uluguru hills.

3. At 2 a.m., the pied crow in the garden will call, "Baaark Baaark Baaark Baaark" until 3 a.m. when you and your husband in a towel go out and throw cashews at him, which wakes up the dogs.

4. African nights are noisy.

5. African moonlight is blue.

6. On the bus, offer your lap to people looking for a place to put their child, or rice sacks, but not the transmissions or sacks of fish.

7. If you film them, poachers will fuss and bang on the windows. "Wei-Wei" means "Hey you."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Oh, It's Just an Ant... Hey! What th'! Gaaaack!
Last week,
Purdue entomologists were, it seemed, a little unnerved to find that, in an urban environment, ants will form colonies thousands of times larger than they do when they live in a forest. They pointed out that ant colonies, made up of millions of individuals, unobtrusive by themselves, should really be thought of as one, big animal. Now this:
New research reveals the ambush strategy Azteca andreae captured here (oh I can't get the damn photo to show up completely the email. Less dramatically, here is the link which shows 8350 worker ants who, in early morning and then again in late evening, hide with their mandibles open, side-by-side on the shaggy underside of their Cecropia obtusaant host's leaf margins - the leaves' loop-shaped hair anchoring the ants' hook-shaped claws, Hanging on and "waiting for insects to alight," says the rather poetic report.

Everybody was probably made pretty introspective by what the ants did next - see video Really rather horrible what with the cicadas whirring and French Guiana dripping all over the place, a lot of tussle. It took hours they said, with the moth still struggling a little in the morning (see photo A). Bakersfield is surely next.

Well then! So! Have a happy holiday. Liz