A Visit From the Christmas Squirrel

Squirrel1He must have come in through the mail slot. I imagine him watching the mailman stride up the front steps Christmas Eve, flipping open the metal flap and thrusting the envelopes inside. The flap is propped open a smidge by the metal binder clip we use to hold outgoing mail. It is snowing — cold. To him,* this unknown land inside the mail slot must have seemed warm, inviting, perhaps full of food.

The mailman hustles down the stairs. The watcher makes his move. A quick flip of the clip, and he’s in. The mail slot’s inner door creaks closed behind him, swinging back and forth. He lands on the small table that catches the mail, sits for a minute atop the Christmas cards and grocery store ads, then looks around, stealthily. Continue reading


Do you speak English?

“The problem with France is that there’s no French word for entrepreneur.”

It’s tragic that George W. Bush didn’t actually say this, because it perfectly illuminates the stealth with which languages insinuate themselves into each other. If you speak English, you probably know that when you say sans and en vogue you’re using import words. But you might also think you’re speaking English when you refer to a blonde or a brunette.

Recently there’s been a lot of interest in untranslatable loaner words. These get passed around the internet as linguistic amuse bouches. But it might not be long before you’re throwing iktsuarpok around in your daily bants. The permeability of the English language is part of what has ensured its higgledy-piggledy rise to global dominance. This feat of linguistic and cultural assimilation becomes even more impressive when you consider that it couldn’t be repeated even when exactingly planned — and when you consider how strenuously other cultures have resisted the same fate. Continue reading

Guest Post: Isis, a Dog Out of Time

WARNING: If you are not up-to-date on the most recently aired episode of Downton Abbey on PBS, and you actually care what happens, read no more. Spoiler, though hardly a shock, within.

“I’m worried about Isis,” Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham told his daughter Mary the other night. “She’s not looking too clever.” ‘Tis true: Isis, the yellow Labrador Retriever whose ample rear end has long graced the opening credits of the show, is about to die. It’s nothing to do with the recent and awkward association of her name with Islamic terrorism, though: Isis has lived at least eight years since she appeared as an adult dog in Season Two. She has lived through the Great War, the Spanish flu, and Matthew Crawley’s histrionic car crash; she has lasted longer than some of the series’ devoted viewers. Isis has simply grown old.

Not that we aren’t sad to see her go. When Lord Grantham carried Isis into the bedroom wrapped in a blanket and settled her down on the bed next to his wife—the dog’s impending death mending the rift that had yawned between the couple for the last few episodes—I actually cried. But not much, really, and not for long. Because not only has Isis done quite well by the standard of yellow Labrador movie stars, expiring with less cloying indignity than Marley and less violence than rabid Old Yeller (actually a yellow Lab/Mastiff cross), Isis is also a perversely modern dog, and one that I never considered quite real.

Continue reading

Redux: The Scientist in the Garden

450px-A_scene_of_Tomatoes1This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared in January 2012.

I can’t remember why the seed catalogs started showing up, but once they did, I was a goner. If you haven’t ever gotten one, imagine full color photo spreads of produce, like the striped Tigger Melon and and the orange-red lusciousness of the French pumpkin Rouge Vif d’Etampes. I suppose the names don’t have quite the ring of “Miss September,” but compared to some centerfold beauty, these fruits and vegetables are much more alluring — maybe because some September, a new variety might appear in my own garden, one that I could give any name I wanted.

This is how I ended up with at least six different varieties of tomato seeds last year. I’m not quite sure what it is about tomatoes. Even before I had a real garden, I’d buy the plants every year. They always seemed so hopeful, appearing in the nursery in winter, when you can’t even imagine that by fall you’ll be saying ridiculous things like, “Caprese salad, again? I don’t think I can do it.”

Somewhere along the lines, I realized there were more options out there then the plants we could find at our local nursery.  I knew I had to grow from seed once I learned that there was a variety named after the writer Michael Pollan. I could even figure out how to crossbreed my own tomatoes (and wondered what I’d call a Black & Brown Boar crossed with a Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye–oh, the possibilities!).

So there I found myself, one morning last winter, in front of a tray of dirt with seeds and Sharpies and labels in hand. Continue reading

Is 12 Degrees Warm or Cold?

A model enjoys the snow.

The other morning when I left for work, it was 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

How you feel about that statement probably depends on where you live. Well, first, if you live outside the U.S., you might be wondering what that means, so I’ll tell you: it’s -11 Celsius. You’re impressed now, right?

If, like my relatives in Michigan, you are under several feet of snow, you might think, “pshaw, 12 is tropical.” (It was -5 F/-21 C in their town the last time I checked, Sunday at 11 pm.)

But if you live somewhere warmer, you might think something between “brrr” and “holy cow, people can live in that?” Continue reading

The Last Word

CBmtnbikdFebruary 9 – 13, 2015

Christie shares select experiences on social media and enjoys vicariously experiencing others’ exhilarating moments, but web video will never replace good-old immersive, unmediated life.

Parents considering whether to immunize their children face the Prisoner’s Dilemma, says Erik, and decision theory can help explain the appalling presence of measles in a nation that enjoys modern medicine.

Cassie tours a biosafety level 3 laboratory and explores the risks and benefits of engineering (for study) extra-virulent strains of the diseases that threaten us.

Does the Earth belong to us – to be used wisely and protected as a resource – or should that protection acknowledge that our species is a destructive parasite? Michelle finds support for both views in the annals of conservation science.

A mysterious disappearance in Northern Canada has locals prowling the woods for signs of a pink hat.

Lost in the Woods


Somewhere within walking distance of me, there is a dead human body, unburied, in the woods, and it will likely never be found.

Psychiatrist Atsumi Yoshikubo arrived in Yellowknife from Uto, Japan last October 17, one of hundreds of tourists who come to see the Northern Lights every year. She checked into our nicest hotel for one week and inquired about aurora borealis tours, only to be told that the tourist season was over for the year.

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Aldo Explains it All

2651918042_6cc45b2a99_bYou may have heard that conservation biologists are arguing with each other. Some say nature should be protected for humans; others say it should be protected from humans; others say it’s possible to do both. This may sound like an academic debate—and in many ways it is—but it has become a very nasty one, and over the past couple of years it has severely taxed an important field that has far too few resources to begin with.

I’ve written about the argument’s gory details elsewhere, but here I’d like to take a longer view. For this fight was, in its broadest sense, settled more than a half-century ago, and the referee is still relevant. His name was Aldo Leopold. Continue reading