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scientifically interesting

Book 1, January: “Braiding Sweetgrass”

“A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. ‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us.[…] This is the grammar of animacy.”

“What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn’t you dance it? Wouldn’t you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would be so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green lives.”

“Joanna Macy writes that until we can grieve for our planet we cannot love it — grieving is a sign of spiritual health. But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair.”

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

In college I got up at 4:30 am to stand in a cold spring marsh, listening for the sounds of migrating birds before breakfast in the dinning hall. I spent hours in a lab combing through the regurgitated pellets of cormorants, looking for the tiny white specks that were the inner ear bones of fish. I clambered over desert rocks with Cambrian fossils in my hands. I peered into petri dishes of plankton towed from the edges of ponds and over the side of a ship. I learned how to do 100-counts and use a transect, read a graph and write a paper. I kind of learned statistics, and I definitely learned what it feels like when a cold November river floods your waders up to your waist. What I didn’t learn in my scientist’s training was what to do with the despair.

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body/health ecology

I wrote a post a few days ago saying that I feel sometimes like I’m not getting anywhere, in terms of my physical and mental health.

But progress is happening… slowly.

There’s a concept in ecology that we call the shifting baseline syndrome, which was coined by a scientist named Pauly who was writing about monitoring fisheries. It essentially boils down to this: ecosystems can change substantially but gradually. Each generation has a new picture of what the world looks like–a new ‘normal’. We don’t necessarily know how to judge the health of an ecosystem because we don’t really know what it looked like in the past. We need to step back, research the past, and compare different snapshots of what that ecosystem looked like, to really know what’s going on.

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little finds

For the past year I’ve had the lovely privilege of working a few days a week near Harvard University’s Natural History Museum, and during my lunch breaks I sometimes go there for a quick walk around. It’s not a huge museum, but it is packed with interesting finds. I like to go in and spend a few minutes looking more closely at just a few things.

It struck me today that I could share with you my little little finds and do a little bit of basic internet research beyond the museum signage. I visit the museum most weeks so it could be a fairly regular series of blog posts.

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shelf (3/3) [includes a book review]

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Take a wild guess at what my interests are…

Shelf is easy. That’s where the books live!

Shelf is pretty self explanatory, and similar to desk in that the things it holds tell a lot about who I am. Since I recently moved, right now I have a baby bookshelf with just a few books. I only brought things that I hadn’t read yet. My collection favorite books will stay at my old bedroom at my parents’ house for the foreseeable future.

So, my present bookshelf is a little sad. It’s missing the stories I grew up with, and the books I want to re-read. But I’ve still been reading a lot. Right now I’m focusing on non-fiction, generally about science. I’ve been considering science journalism as a career path (though that hasn’t really been reflected in the writing I do for this blog), and right now I feel like absorbing as much as I can about scientific stories. I’m interested in how people tell these stories. How do they work in dialogue from interviews? Create timelines and structure? Present technical information? How do they weave in personal elements, like the voices of characters and a narrator? What kinds of connections do they make between different worlds?

I thought I’d share a little bit about a book I’ve finished reading recently. It isn’t science journalism, but it’s making big waves as a recently published book that fits somewhat into the category of nature-writing.

H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald (2014, Grove Press, NY)

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nest (2/3)

Owl feather, watercolor pencil, 2013.
Owl feather, watercolor pencil, 2013.

Nest, because I love biology, and because of what nests represent to us.

Many different animals make nests, though we typically seem to think of birds. And we often think of nests as being homes, even though birds who build nests don’t live in them year-round. These are not really homes in that sense, but they are are protective. When we curl up in cozy blankets, we feel like we’re nesting. We’re retreating inward, and nurturing ourselves. We’ve created a space where for a while, we feel safe. This is restorative.

We can nest in a lot of ways, aside from curling up in bed.

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