Can We Defend Ourselves Against Brain Tumors?


Eleven years ago this week, my 67-year-old mother died from a brain tumor. It was Glioblastoma multiforme, an insidious fourth-stage cancer that, without treatment, usually kills within three months. Treatment options are miserable for the patient and not terribly effective; for those who opt for surgery and radiation/chemo, the cancer almost always returns within a year or so. We chose hospice care, and my mom died at home two months and 13 days after her diagnosis, voiceless and shrunken, a husk of the woman she’d been. (I’ve posted about her on LWON before.)

The same cancer killed a 49-year-old friend of my husband’s and mine in 2014. This gentle and much beloved man spent his final months beaten down by two surgeries and hopped up on steroids, fighting for access to an experimental drug under the FDA’s compassionate use policy. (He had “flunked out” of the clinical trail for various reasons, but the drug had by that time been formulated for him.) With an inept doctor as his advocate, approval was slow and, by the time permission came to begin the infusions, our friend was already dying. We can’t help but wonder whether the drug might have saved him if administered months earlier.

With all that behind me, whenever I see “brain cancer” or “glioblastoma” in a headline, I can’t help but read on, skimming ahead in search of good news. Sometimes I think maybe, just maybe, researchers are actually going to find a way to wrestle this life-sucking monster to the ground. Continue reading

Urban Lichens, Part 3 of 2: Lichen Beauty Everywhere

Still life: Bright green lichen on dark brown bark.

Ever since I learned that lichen lives in the city, I can’t stop seeing it.

I wrote about lichen two weeks ago in this space—about learning that some lichen thrives in the city and that there are many, many more types of lichen than I’d realized. Since my first phone call with a guy who knew things about lichens, I can’t stop seeing them.

One day in December, as I wrote, I spent more than an hour on the street with my nose to the bark of various trees in the company of lichenologist Manuela Dal Forno. At one point, a teenage girl stopped to ask us what we were doing. Dal Forno explained about lichens, and challenged her to find a tree without lichens.

I’ve been watching the trees ever since. I do sometimes fail to find any lichens, but I think there’s a good chance that I’m just not seeing them. After all, Dal Forno told me that what I thought was bark color on some of the trees was actually just dark brown lichen. The bark was underneath.

Continue reading

Antevernals in the Anthropocene

13877079975_42f67b5671_zOver the past twenty years, naturalist David Lukas has hiked thousands of miles of trails in the Sierra Nevada, most of them accompanied by a slim, sturdy little book called Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms. Lukas likes nature and he likes words, and he especially likes to know the history and meaning of our words about nature, from Abies magnifica to Zzyzx Springs. As he learned Latin and Greek roots on the hoof, he began to wonder how new words, especially new nature words, enter the language. Scientific binomials are approved by international committees, but what about common words? How do they form, and why do they survive?

So began a four-year, mostly self-directed study of the processes of word-making in the English language, resulting in an unusual and delightful book called Language Making Nature: A Handbook for Artists, Writers, and Thinkers. It’s part etymological field guide, part potted history of English, and part how-to manual for creating new words to describe natural places and phenomena. “If the language we use to speak of the natural world is not innovative and engaging,” Lukas asks, “then is it any wonder that few young people get excited about nature?”

Continue reading

Debunking Hollywood: The Gordian Knot


I’ve often wondered who was the first person to tie a knot. Who was that ancient ancestor 10, 20, 100 thousand years ago who first wrapped a strip of animal skin – or maybe some fibrous vine – around itself and realized that it could hold itself together, even hold a person’s weight.

Or hell, after seeing the incredible skill Nemo the orangutan demonstrated building her own hammock, maybe it was a lot earlier than that. But whoever or whatever it was, they struck on one of the great unsung innovations of our species.  Continue reading

The Last Word

A patch of ground around a tree in the snow.

February 1-5, 2016

After digging out from Snowzilla, Ann recalled the last time her Baltimore neighborhood was buried under unreasonable quantities of snow, and how outraged she was at her poorly behaved neighbors.

What are the chances of a giant supernova happened nearby? Slim. Or the chances of a Voyager-like probe from somewhere else coming to our galaxy? Also very slim. Rose wondered why people particularly enjoyed these episodes of her podcast.

Cassie’s dog eats everything. Like, everything. Diapers and garbage and poisonous-to-dogs quantities of vitamin D. She discovered that everyone’s dog does this…and the comments section backs her up. Don’t miss it.

Craig wrote something beautiful about the passage of time, and how archaeology provides a real, emotional connection to the past, and my summary can’t do it justice. It’s really lovely.

Have you thought about where animals go in the snow? Cameron has. For at least some, it’s a cozy, sheltered place called the subnivium.

Photo: Helen Fields, in Kiruna, Sweden

Redux: Snowbound and Murderous

20160124_093531The Great East Coast Snowstorm of January 2016 That Singled Out Baltimore left around 30 inches of snow, turning cars into snowhills and pausing civilized life as we know it.  In the last big snowstorm, the the worst incivility was perpetrated by the neighbors themselves, this time it was by outsiders: two different jackasses parked for over 24 hours in two different parking places that they did not themselves shovel out.  Jackass outsiders are easier to hate than jackass neighbors, but somehow the hatred is less intense.  I don’t know what I’m going to do about this; I’m no further in my thinking or moral judgment or revenge plots against breakers of social contracts than I was two years ago, the last time this happened.


That’s an honest-to-God, non-stock photo of the view out my window.

Nobody Likes Sad Futures


On Tuesday, the podcast that I host and produce started its second season. The show is called Flash Forward, and it’s weird and fun and surprising. Every episode takes on a possible future, from the terrifying likely (antibiotic resistance) to the completely absurd (space pirates drag a second moon to earth). Every episode starts with a little radio drama, a trip to the future we’re looking at. These range from future commercials, documentaries from the future, scenes from labs, conversations between space pirates, voicemails and more. (Many of these voices are actually recorded by fans who volunteer to act out parts each week). Then we talk to experts about how that future might really go down. Those experts include historians, engineers, scientists, futurists, anthropologists, science fiction authors and more.

The second season is going to be fun, but I wanted to take this chance to reflect on the first season. Together, we traveled to twenty three different futures, everything from artificial wombs, to drones, to robot UN secretaries banning weapons, to an evil mega company building so many wind turbines that they actually alter the climate, to the discovery of an alien probe that is almost exactly like the Voyager probe humans sent out in the 1970’s.

Some people really like our dark and scary episodes: we talked about an end of antibiotic effectiveness, and about what it would be like if we applied life-extension technology to prisoners. Other people preferred the sillier ones, like what might happen if we had a second moon, or if the Earth stopped rotating around the sun, or a supernova consumed us.

But here I want to talk about the four most popular episodes, and what I think made them work. Yes, this is shameless self promotion, get over it. Continue reading

The Misadventures of Garbage Dog

11703581_10153494374632095_8252310565867126931_oPerhaps there was a time when our dog, Bea, didn’t eat everything. If so, I don’t remember it. At first, we thought it might be a puppy thing. But this month she turned two, and it seems clear that her insatiable appetite is a permanent part of her personality. Dogs aren’t known for their discriminating taste, but most dogs will balk at . . . well . . . something. Not my garbage dog. She is happiest when her mouth is full. Continue reading