The Last Word

the_jack_pine_by_tom_thomsonSeptember 19 – 23, 2016

You know the charming idea of effortless art, that you get in the mood and a couple hours later, you’ve magically got an incisive and elegant story or post or podcast? That idea always has been purest nonsense but it also, Rose says, gets in the way of being paid.

You know how, when you’re holding a hammer the whole world looks like a nail? Which, fine, things need nailing.  The problem is, Christie reminds us, that research shows the same thing applies when you’re holding a gun.

You know how sad it is to lose something you like, how nice it would be if everything just had a little geotag so you could find it again?  Cameron geotagged a shark named Pablo; a ship named El Faro was geotagged; and they still got lost and it was still sad.

You know how if two towns have the same mosquitoes, you’d expect that they should have the same mosquito-borne disease?  They don’t, and my stepdaughter-the-entomologist gets out the bug spray and long cottons, heads out to the field, and finds out why.

You don’t know that you know this, and it’s an astoundment and a delight:  if you’re in a tent at night and some animal runs past in the dark, you still know its mass, velocity, volume, and weight distribution.  Jessa says this is called bioacoustics.  Who knew.

The Patter of Little Feet

the_jack_pine_by_tom_thomsonIt is the size of a child, pelting through the forest with great dexterity. Quadrupedal but galloping with synchronized fore and hind steps. My concern is not this gentle, slender creature — whose mass, velocity, volume and weight distribution are crystal clear in my mind — but rather the imagined force or creature that set it running.

In the dead of night, with no other sounds around, this unseen animal passes me just as I am lying in a tent beside my son, listening ferociously as I do for about two hours out of every night I spend camping. Usually I hear nothing but the loons and the lapping lake.  Continue reading

Scientist in the Field: The Mosquitoes of Two Towns

7921286730_c769ecfea4_cI must tell you up front that Kathleen R. Walker, second author on “Aedes aegypti (Diptera: Culicidae) Longevity and Differential Emergence of Dengue Fever in Two Cities in Sonora, Mexico,” published recently in the Journal of Medical Entomology, is my stepdaughter.  She’s an entomologist, she studies bugs; I occasionally have a bug question.  I asked her once about those little tornadoes of gnats you see in the springtime, and she said – as I remember, so don’t hold her accountable – that they were columns of bugs in love and the bugs at the top were the ones having sex the most.  I asked her another time about the translucent aphids she showed me that were being eaten from the inside out by tiny parasitic wasps, and she said, fondly, “The aphids don’t seem to mind.  They’re awfully stupid.”

For a number of years now, she’s been working on mosquitoes and for good reason:  the ones taking over these days, Aedes aegypti, carry not only yellow fever, but also Zika, chikungunya, and the disease Kathleen R. studies, dengue.

Dengue is a virus that causes high fevers and when it’s severe, the kind of hemorrhagic fever that kills people. 100 million people get it every year; since the 1950’s the incidence has gone up by a factor of 30; and it’s spreading.  Since it’s carried by mosquitoes, the places with the most dengue ought to be the places with the most mosquitoes.  But in fact, some places that have the mosquito don’t have dengue.  Continue reading

Pablo, Pablo and me

I’ve always had mixed feelings about tracking animals with satellite tags. It’s so cool that we can now see where creatures go, sometimes moment-by-moment, but I wonder about losing a bit of the mystery that surrounds some of their lives. (In the animal uprising, privacy issues may be high on their long list of injustices.)

In the meantime, I tried to catch some of the appeal of tracking by following a shark of my own. Continue reading

Redux: Guns on the Brain

This post first ran on May 21, 2013. I wish it would stop being relevant to the news. Gun_shutterstock_126668459

I recently witnessed one of the kindest, gentlest people I know fly into a momentary rage over a parking space. Such transformations used to baffle me, but after writing a Discover story about embodied cognition, I’m starting to understand why normally mild-mannered people can become uncharacteristically aggressive behind the wheel of a large automobile.

The big idea behind embodied cognition is that thoughts and perceptions are not confined to the brain, but extend to the body too. As a result, our bodily states affect how we think and our perceptions are fundamentally shaped by our ability to act.

Get behind the wheel and suddenly the world looks different. You’re protected by a big chunk of metal, and you’re navigating the world with the power of an internal combustion engine. You not only see the world differently, you may behave differently too, as my friend’s moment of road rage demonstrated.

“We think of perception as providing us with this geometrically accurate picture of the world,” says Jessica Witt, a psychologist at Colorado State University. But while we may believe that we see the world as it really is, Witt’s research suggests that our perceptions are guided by what we’re doing with our bodies.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance last year, Witt and her colleague James R. Brockmole at the University of Notre Dame performed a series of five experiments that asked college students to look at photos of people holding something and then indicate whether the object was a gun or something neutral like a ball or a shoe. When the participants held a plastic gun, they were about 30 percent more likely to deem the object a gun. Continue reading

The Financially Damaging Myth of No Effort


A few weeks ago now I went to something called XOXO, a festival for independent artists. There are lots of recaps of this conference on the internet so I won’t try to add to that pile. But I did want to tie together two things I heard that I think are intrinsically related, and that I have been thinking a lot about myself: the ways in which money and work and public persona all intersect. I don’t have a fancy name for this, but let me explain. Continue reading

The Last Word

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Photo of a drawing of a child playing on the beach
Remember this? Sometimes summer is like this.

September 12 – 16, 2016

Autumn is almost here, which may be a relief to Helen, who suffers through sultry weather in Washington, D.C. (a place which “does not do summer gracefully.”) But never fear, she’s come up with a list of recommendations to get herself through future summers. In 2017, no matter the temperature, you may see Helen outside, in a kayak, out of town, or walking home from work–and she will not be wearing pants.

Jennifer has focused her career on animals and conservation—but wrestles with what that means at the meat marketOnce, a snotty 10-year-old kid at a talk I was giving asked if I was vegetarian and, when I said no, he chided me for this conflict of interest. (Really, kid? I could just hear his mother’s voice coming out of his mouth. This was in Seattle, after all.) I was annoyed and kind of wanted to punch him in the nose. But he was kind of right that I was mixing my messages. Love and respect animals, I was saying, but steak sure is tasty.

Erik provides a short primer on how to read ancient Mayan: What is amazing is that there were rules and from one city to the next, people used roughly the same complex written language. And so can we. Though admittedly it would be infinitely easier had the Spanish missionaries not decided that Maya writing was Satanic and burned the thousands of Maya books including, I assume, one about grammar. 

People write to Craig to ask what they should do with artifacts they’ve collectedWhen the woman wrote me about her feather-like arrowheads a few days ago, I took her query more pointedly than at other times. My house had just been broken into. . . Along with river gear, crampons, a chainsaw, and artwork, the one thing that got me was the contents of a small, 1950s greeting card box. The box had held potsherds, arrowheads, clay pipes, and a couple fetching, polished Desert Archaic pendants.

Cassie tries to harvest her tomatoes and gets bitten insteadMosquitoes are the worst. They spread malaria and Zika and dengue. They suck our blood. They drive people batshit crazy. So why not wipe them out?

Photo and drawing by Helen Fields


Bomb the Bloodsuckers?

mosquitoTwo weeks ago, tomatoes began splitting on the vine. Days of hard rain had left them dangling plump and heavy, and their cellophane skin couldn’t hold together.

I wanted to harvest them. I tried on several occasions. But each foray into the backyard brought forth swarms of mosquitoes. By the time I reached the edge of the patio, they had already picked up my scent. As long as I was running, I was safe. But the moment I stopped to pluck tomatoes, they descended and slipped their hypodermic mouths into my flesh. Fact: Hands can either hold ripe tomatoes or swat mosquitoes. They can’t do both.

The dog was in her own special hell. She stood in the yard enveloped in a swirling, droning cloud of insects. Occasionally, she would whiplash her body around to confront her invisible attacker. But there was no one. All she could do was stare at her butt with haunted eyes. Eventually, it all became too much. She ran to the middle of the yard and began digging. Before we could stop her, she’d carved out a watermelon-sized hole. And who could blame her for trying to go underground? Continue reading