My Garden of Evil (Plus, Planting Tips!)


So, here’s a weird thing that happened.

It began when I bought some new plants for my “garden” in Virginia. (I put “garden” in quotes because most of what grows in this spot are weeds, which I’ve taken to calling “native plants” to make myself feel less inept.)

These were the kinds of plants you pay good money for (and by good I mean A LOT), and I’d decided prices be damned, go for three of everything because sets of three look best.

I got them at the nursery part of the gift shop at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s old digs. Most of the plants sold there are species that have been thriving on the property since Jeffersonian times, so there’s a sort of botanical history that comes with them—and, as they’re tried and true in his yard, theoretically they should survive less than 10 miles down the road in mine.

The plants, the day, both so filled with promise.

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The Placebo Test

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to a number of groups about the power of belief in medicine as a part of promoting my book, Suggestible You. It’s been a fascinating process and I’ve loved hearing about people’s individual experience with placebos, self-healing and alternative medicine.

But I often asked a simple question: what does all of this offer us? The mind is a powerful thing. Great, what do we do with that?

If you are not into mind/body medicine, it’s a pretty good question. Why should we care? Whenever I get this question, I find myself telling a story about an accomplished placebo expert by the name of Karin Jensen. It seems that when she first started studying placebos, she quickly ran into a rather serious problem: She could not elicit them.

Try as she might, when she gave little inert pills to unsuspecting subjects, they never reported feeling better. Which might not seem strange except studies have regularly shown that whenever you give placebos to subjects, some percentage do end up feeling better. Sometimes as many as 60 percent of them.

And to make matters worse, her assistant wasn’t having this problem. She could give out pills left and right and, Bam!, people felt better. For Jensen, who was dedicating her life to placebo research, this was kind of an existential crisis.

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Doom and the dogmometer

One way to understand a really big problem is to break it down into more manageable parts. That’s why scientists use specific, smaller systems to help them grasp the overall health of the planet. The Arctic, for example, is regarded as a bellwether for the catastrophes of climate change that will soon afflict us all, thanks to its temperatures that are rising faster than those in any other region on Earth. There’s also the escalating loss of glacier ice around the world. Or this week’s “heat attack,” which will basically force residents of the American Southwest to go hide deep underground in caves or risk perishing in temperatures predicted to climb past 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

But since long before the famous hockey stick graph, scientists have also secretly relied on another, much more ancient analog to skry the hot ’n’ doomy future: The dogmometer. Continue reading

Redux: The Unknown Grizzly

This post originally appeared March 7, 2013.

Grizzly skull bullet-side

In the mail yesterday I received a grizzly bear skull from an acquaintance and taxidermist in Soldotna, Alaska. Expertly cleaned down to chalk-white bone and glistening, thumb-sized canines, it was the size and general shape of a football, and as smooth as sanded wood. My friend had apologized ahead of time for there being a bullet hole.

Lifting the skull from its packaging, I expected to see a neat-dime-sized hole, a clean kill straight to the brain. Instead, there was a ragged gap as big as a fist through the left eye, pieces of jaw and skull exploded around it. Little flecks of bone salted out as I turned it for a closer look.

The angle of the shot looked like it could have been head-on, the bullet fired from only slightly to the side. But this wasn’t the shot that dropped the bear. This bullet had not actually penetrated the brain case. It had been stopped by exploded muscle and bone.

I wondered, had this been a charge, all slobber and paws? Or a curious 350-pound grizzly turning to study an intruder with a gun, then taking it right in the eye. I knew nothing about this bear. The only identification was a plastic tag looped through its one remaining zygomatic arch, which read, AK BGR 0202873.

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Friend Me

At dinner for my 18th birthday, one of my friends gave me one of those long, narrow posters filled with advice and inspiration that were popular at the time. I don’t have the poster in front of me, but there were things like this: Never wash a car, mow a lawn, or buy a Christmas tree after dark. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson. Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.

And then there was this gem: Plant zucchini only if you have lots of friends. Continue reading

The Last Word

LWON happens. There’s no stopping us! Here’s what we gave our dear readers last week:

Women speaking to groups get interrupted. A lot. Rose wrote up some advice on how to make sure, in a radio interview, that your girly voice is heard.

Helen has seen U2 in concert 12 times, though she’s never marked her appreciation with a tattoo. Others have, though, and in Helen’s redux some researchers took a look at these varied stamps of fandom.

Sarah gave us the song of the hermit thrush, which it turns out is more than just a pretty melody. It is packed with geographic information if you know how to listen closely.

Ann looked back (and invites us to do the same) at what appear to be ‘snapshots’ by guest poster Steve Smith but that aren’t so simple after all. Each one is filled with stories—kind of like the hermit thrush’s song (see above).

And Michelle rounded out the week with a redux that Ann perfectly described this way: Mary Shelley, a cold summer, Frankenstein, famine, innovations, the creation of the state, and Mt. Tamboro: all aspects of the same things, says Michelle.


Image by Star Mama.

Redux: Dr. Frankenstein’s Climate


Two hundred and one years ago today, a young writer began a very famous story. Every year, it gets a little more relevant.

Between two and three o’clock in the morning on June 16, 1816, during a restless night in a villa on Lake Geneva, eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had a waking dream. As the moon shone through the shutters of her room, she remembered, “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life …”

Over the next fourteen months, Godwin—later Mary Shelley—wrote her vision into life. The pale student became Victor Frankenstein, the hideous phantasm became his tortured creature, and Godwin became the author of the novel Frankenstein, published in 1818 and in print ever since.

Famously, Godwin’s inspiration arrived after she and her companions, who had spent most of their Swiss holiday trapped inside by extraordinarily cold, rainy weather, decided to entertain themselves with a ghost-story-writing contest. Lord Byron—already a noted poet and notorious cad—wrote a fragment about a dying explorer. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Godwin’s lover and future husband, wrote a poem about atheism. Byron’s physician, William Polidori, wrote a poem about a vampire, which he later published under Byron’s name (and which, some argue, birthed the modern sexy-vampire story). The teenaged Mary Godwin outdid them all, creating both the first major work of science fiction and a story that disturbs us still.

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Redux Because This Is Better Than What I Was Going to Write

I had dinner the other night with, among others, a graphic designer.  He said he liked looking at contemporary photographs but to be honest, he didn’t know why he liked looking at them.  He knew they were better than snapshots, he said, but he didn’t know why they were.

I’m certainly the last person to have an answer to that.  But I remembered this guest post by Steve Smith, one of those contemporary photographers whose pictures look like somebody just sort of took them — no moody lighting, no startling contrasts, no obvious lines, just black and white pictures of people doing stuff.  When I ran Smith’s post, I was most interested in the stories behind the pictures because that’s the kind of person I am, a story-person.  And Smith graciously complied with a story that is sweet and surprising, and writing that’s direct and clean and personal. But after my friend the graphic designer asked his question, I went back and looked at Smith’s photos again.

I recommend you do this too.  I hadn’t seen how much was going on in them, how they seem mundane and still, but how full of movement they are.  Every single person in every single photo is intent on being his or her very own self, going on his or her own private trajectory. You know what every single one of them is thinking. You could write thought-balloons over their heads.  You know these people.

But also you don’t understand them.  And you have a million questions.  Why are the two listening women dressed alike, with their satchels uncomfortably across their fronts? How did the guy hurt his hand? And what’s under his other arm?  He’s talking friendly but the listening woman looks skeptical. Why are guys in the back having such fun?  Why, in what is clearly a white-peoples’ world, is one of those guys darkish? let alone the black woman sitting by herself? Where are they? Is it an airport? What in heaven’s name is that hot air balloon doing bobbing around up there?

And how does he DO that?  Have fun.  But it’s a little unsettling.


Photo by Steven Smith, not included in the original post.