The Last Word

A humpback whale spy-hopping.January 2-6, 2017

To assert one’s humanity is to make choices, even when that choice is to die, says Jenny. “When the time was right, the woman nodded to her doctor, who deactivated the pacemaker that was pumping blood to her heart. The woman died quietly with friends close, exactly the way she’d intended.”

Ann finds the connection between history and storytelling in the Native American accounts of tsunamis, passed down the generations. Then she consults historians about the narrative enterprise. “The proper arraying up of evidence, with narrative devices, in stories about the past—this is how we make meaning.”

Helen feels that Moby Dick is misunderstood. It’s a book about whales, not about manly feelings. “The narrator comes down confidently on the fish side of the fish-or-not debate, which is not how we divide up animals these days, but hey, categories are fuzzy.”

Craig makes films about the rare remaining wilderness regions that remind us humans are not all there is. “Billions of butterfly wings flapping at once changes the way air moves, the way clouds gather and part. Countless voices can move this human machine, can give it a heart.”

Panama’s Gatun Lake plays host to an invasive fish. Ecologists have returned to replicate a 50-year-old study of the species’ introduction. Turns out it’s permanent. “As a voracious hunter, the peacock bass had easy access to all the prey species that never co-evolved with something that would chase them.”

Photo: Helen Fields

The Freshwater Bullies of Gatun Lake

The crocodiles should not be a problem. Yes, the population has spiked after being placed under protection, and there have been some attacks recently. But those attacks tend to happen when somebody steps right into the water. The crocs all hang out in the shallows. Stay out of the water and you should be fine. So said the team of forest rangers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Diana Sharpe looked down at her mesh beach seine—the big, soft net she would use to drag across the water just off the beach and catch the little shallow-water fish for sampling. She looked over at her little tin boat with its outboard engine.

“We just tried to basically be very vigilant. We saw lots of crocodiles, but if we came to a spot where we were planning to sample and we saw footprints or evidence of crocodiles we would leave and try another spot,” says Sharpe.

Gatun Lake, which comprises 33 of the 77 kilometres of the Panama Canal, has a peacock bass problem. The locals don’t see it as a problem—even if they happen to know it’s not native they defend its value as a great sport fish—but it’s the kind of apex predator the Panama Canal region had never seen. That is, until 1967, when a business man’s pond, stocked with a hundred of the South American fish for his employees’ enjoyment on weekends, overflowed during a heavy rain. Little juvenile peacock bass escaped into the Chagres River and from there into Lake Gatun. Continue reading

Reason for Hope

I joined a film crew several years ago in Chilean Patagonia where we put together a  flick opposing dams along the turquoise rivers of the Aysén region. At the time, stopping the advance of some of the biggest investors in the world seemed impossible. But soon more films were made, protests ignited across the country to save its wildest rivers, and a $10 billion mega-dam project was halted.

I can’t claim more than a bit part, a grain of sand, but somehow all of the grains add up. Continue reading

A Book About Whales

A humpback whale spy-hopping.

A little before Christmas I saw a stage production of Moby Dick. It was a wonderful production, by the Lookingglass Theater Company from Chicago, so creative in how it showed the depicted life at sea and on land. Actors climbed around in the rigging and dangled by their ankles. While the ship’s crew was thoroughly male, women portrayed the whales and the sea.

I wanted to go for two reasons: I like seeing people tell stories in innovative ways, and Moby Dick is my favorite book. I’m not sure I read the same Moby Dick as everyone else, though.

As I watched the actor playing Captain Ahab emote at length about his lust for revenge or whatever, I realized that the person who adapted Moby Dick for the stage made a very common mistake: thinking Moby Dick is a book about revenge or madness or evil or something.

No, no, no. Moby Dick is a book about whales. Continue reading

Redux: Storia

22352352993_7076a83900_zIf you know a non-English European language, you probably know that “history” and “story” are often the same word.  I don’t know how this happened but it seems deeply wrong.  I was outraged. At the least, it seems to undermine the authority and credibility that history claims, as opposed to the making-shit-up that stories do.  Turns out I was wrong about everything, about the deeply-wrong part and especially about the authority-of-history part.  Sometimes I purely love being wrong.

Anyway, please enjoy my wrongness too.  The first wrong thing was originally published May 29, 2015.  The story it talks about was published September 14, 2015.  And the wrongness was finally put right, this time with experts, on August 25, 2015.

A Matter of Choice

Image by Emily Quintero

My friend, I’ll call her Anna, is dying today. She was dying yesterday, too, and tomorrow she’ll be even closer to death than today. That’s true of all of us, I suppose, but she’s on the fast track: Her gut is so clogged up with cancer that there’s nothing left to do for her but pump her full of powerful pain meds and wait. She is thirty-something and has a gentle husband and a daughter not yet four.

A couple of weeks ago Anna’s gut seized up like an engine drained of oil. Normally, smooth-muscle contractions known as peristalsis propel food in waves through the digestive tract. In Anna’s ravaged body that process, finally, shut down. She’d already endured the excruciating pain of intestinal blockage; her life had more or less become a series of agonizing bodily failures. To “cure” her this time meant abdominal surgery, her fourth since her original cancer diagnosis. The surgeon had to divert the stopped-up bowel by installing a tube to the outside with a pouch that would sit against her abdomen to catch waste. When I hugged her, she held back: “I’m disgusting,” she said, and averted her red-rimmed eyes. “This is such a nightmare.”

My poor friend had already been through enough misery, including round after round of chemotherapy. Chemo seems so barbaric, doesn’t it? A toxic mixture dripped into the veins to beat the crap out of cells—but it doesn’t know sick cells from healthy ones and so pummels indiscriminately. You get horrible side effects and no promise of a true cure. Researchers are starting to use more targeted therapies formulated exactly for an individual patient, but such drugs haven’t been terribly effective on colorectal-cancer patients. Still, Anna tried a combination of therapies for a short time, just in case. But no matter which treatment, one side effect was to exhaust her such that she could barely lift her daughter into her arms. Continue reading

The Last Word

December 26 – 30, 2016

Last week, Craig’s house lost power. And in the darkness, Craig reclaimed the winterI turned the place into a constellation of oil lamps and candles. The wood stove flickers, sending shadows across the globe and behind the rocking chair. This feels like the best way to witness the heart of winter rise up and blot out the sky.

Ann tells a story about particle physicist Sidney Drell, who died last week, and gives the world more reasons to miss him: Consideration of the moral questions begins when science suggests applications; but the considering must be done by society, in a social debate.   “And having a debate on these things,” Drell said, “that’s what I call the moral obligation of the community.”

If you are considering your options for a New Year’s Eve date, you might find advice in surprising places, like the animal guidebook Sarah found at a thrift store: The challenge is identifying just which kind of nocturnal creature you are encountering. This may not be the same kind of creature you thought you had swiped right on. “Note particularly the length of the tail and ears,” the book cautions “and the shape of the head and body.”

Guest Emily Underwood writes from Greece, where she is working on stories about mental health in refugee campsI asked a 24-year old literature student and poet from Damascus, Mohammed Abbas, what he gets out of his weekly appointment with psychologist Zoi Marmouri. Someone to talk to, to tell the private things he can’t share with his friends, he said. . . Does talking make him feel better, I asked? “A little,” he said.

Erik writes about that “placebo holiday,” New Year’s DayBut think about it, just like with a sugar pill, the first of the year is an arbitrary day that we have convinced ourselves has power and meaning. And just like the pill, it can actually have positive effects on our bodies. After all, what is New Year’s, if not a time for self-improvement?

See you in 2017.


Photo Credit: Jay Huang

A Resolution For A New Year That Doesn’t Exist

Tomorrow is the last day of 2016. And good riddance. Boy, what a mess 2016 was. 2017 is bound to be better. Like 2015 maybe – man that was great year. Way better than that pile of crap 2014.

No matter what our opinions of 2016 are, for most of us January 1st will feel like a whole new world – a new lease on life and a new opportunity to take the world by it’s short hairs and give it a tug. Time to lose weight, aim for that raise we’ve been wanting, maybe get serious about meeting someone special.

In my mind I even see January 1st as a different color than December 31st – sort of a whitish hue to December’s dark green. (All the months tend to have different colors in my mind. I’m not sure if this is from all the construction paper calendars I did in grade school or some bizarre form of synesthesia.)

But of course months don’t have colors and we all understand that January1st is just the same as the days on either side of it. December 31st could just as easily have ended up as the first day of January, had we set up our calendars differently. In fact, there is nothing special about January 1st. It’s not an equinox or a solstice or the first full moon after a solstice – it’s just a random winter day.

Which is why I love that it’s the first day of the new year. It literally has no significance beyond what we humans put on it. In other words, it’s a placebo holiday. Continue reading