Archive for March, 2011

The Rilkean Imperative

Friday, March 18th, 2011

In the early years of the 20th century, a 19-year-old student began a correspondence with the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, seeking advice on his own poetic efforts.  Rilke’s responses, compiled in one of my favorite books of all time, Letters to a Young Poet, seem at times to dissuade the aspiring poet.  In his first letter, Rilke gave his correspondent a challenging litmus test to help him determine whether or not he should even attempt to live the writer’s life.

“[A]sk yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity.”  But if there is no clear “I must,” Rilke told him, then there is no question: he must not.

I have always felt myself to be balanced unsteadily on the fulcrum of this Rilkean imperative.  For Rilke, “I must” means literally: “I would have to die if I were forbidden to write.”  That is one uncompromising position.  And as much as I have always wanted to be a writer, so many days of my life I simply don’t write.  By Rilke’s standards, I likely lack the urgency and perseverance to make my life and my livelihood as a writer.  And now, more than ever before (thanks to a little person who takes up a large percentage of my thoughts, time, and heart), I lack the ability to “build my life” completely around writing.  I’m pretty sure that I fail Rilke’s test.

But not writing is almost always more complicated than poor time management or a lack of perseverance.  It’s caused not only by daily work, distractions, and lack of discipline, but also by the peculiarities of my own interior life.  More specifically, my very real lack of discipline is only compounded and amplified by my lack of courage.  Yes, I want to be a writer, but what if I can’t pull it off?  What if I just don’t have what it takes?

And then there is the simple reality that even in the face of an internal “I must,” it’s still work, after all!  In other words, in the “most silent hour” of my afternoon (that’s the scant 2-hours, if I am lucky, of the baby’s nap time), I ask myself: “must I write?”  And then I see the dishes and laundry and hoovering that need to be done.  More than anything, these other tasks are compellingly simple and satisfying.  I know that I can succeed as a homemaker; I love to make tidy lists of discrete tasks and cross them off as I accomplish them.  But as a writer, the tasks, the process, and the value of the final product are all a little too ambiguous.  I’ve learned that the surest way to open up a yawning abyss of uncertainty and potential failure in the middle of an otherwise fulfilling “to-do” list is to make task number one “start writing.”  That item always gets shunted to the foot of the list, if it’s included at all.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t feel natural and deeply right to be writing.  In fact, that’s another component of the problem; I have never been able to teach myself how to take something that feels so natural and turn it into a daily discipline.

In any case, how much can a poet’s test tell someone who wants to write non-fiction pieces about science and the history of science?  I’m not sure, since I have always struggled to understand how poetry fits in to the scientific or scholarly life.  But I do think that most writing, of any form, is a process of building connections.  Or else it is a process of observing the connections that already exist.  If this last sounds almost mystical to you, then you’ll love what I am going to divulge next.  For me, all writing seems just a tiny bit alchemical.  I just don’t know how it happens.  I don’t understand how images and experience and knowledge could possibly be transmuted, through the labor of composing sentences, into something more, something whole.  And yet, they are.

Moreover, in my experience, sometimes writing is done best in the complete absence of writing.  Writing is both a physical and mental labor, an intense effort to observe and build connections.  But when I use writing to look intensely at an object, interesting new connections are almost certain to appear in my peripheral vision.  And it’s not until I take a break from all of that intensity, step away from the computer or notebook, that I can begin see the whole picture.  In the vacuum created by stepping away, there’s freedom, room to breathe and think more fluidly.  Every time that I have spent a long time writing, I have felt a need to escape it.  It could be just a momentary escape, walking to the window or getting a glass of water.  Or it could be a break of a week or two.  And it’s almost always the case that when I return, something new emerges or a confused idea becomes clear.

You can probably see now that my slippery and quasi-mystical ideas about writing might be getting in the way of turning myself into a disciplined writer.

But I have come close in the past.  In fact, poetry was the medium that first brought me closest to daily disciplined writing.  As an undergraduate biology major, I took poetry workshops where I was required to submit my work for discussion and critique by the group.  The pressure of this public performance was enough to keep me writing more regularly than ever before.

More recently and more relevantly, I wrote my dissertation.  I thought this latter would be a true test of my commitment to writing, a demonstration of my capacity for disciplined work and my ability to live the writer’s life.  But just like the poetry workshops, there was always an audience waiting, readers with expectations, which helped fuel my discipline; hardly the “silent hour of your night” that Rilke requires.

And yes, I do think that the Rilkean silence and isolation of the night is important.  Of course it’s true that writers always have audiences.  But the longer I consider what it takes to become a writer, to live my life as a writer, the more convinced I become that a crucial element is the willingness and courage to plunge ahead without too much consciousness of the critical eye of the reader.  The reader demands and I may well produce to meet that demand.  But the free-market, supply-and-demand model of writing only takes me so far.

What if, instead, the demand for my writing originated within?  What if the drive was self-contained, rather than based upon a desire to please an external judge?  Granted, it doesn’t sound like the most lucrative approach to writing.  But there’s nothing lucrative in not writing, either.

Perhaps this is just what it takes, to ask myself: Must I? To answer: I must!

A day in the life of a field mycologist.

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

My husband is always pestering me, “Hey, you’re a historian of science—why don’t you study the history of mycology?” Or, “You want to write about science, right? The study of mushrooms is pretty cool, why don’t you write about mushrooms?”

Well, alright. After all, these elusive, mysterious fungal reproductive organs brought us here to Borneo, it seems only fair that I finally write something about them.

There you are, then, that’s something about mushrooms: A mushroom is the reproductive structure, also called the fruit body, of a fungus. Most fungi that you or I would recognize are, like plants, multicellular organisms with stiff outer cell walls—that’s the part that’s hard for our bodies to digest when we eat uncooked vegetables or mushrooms. Like all multicellular organisms, the work of living is divided up between different cells. Most of the “body” of a fungus exists where we cannot see it. That is the mycelium, a filamentous structure that grows underground or through a decaying log—wherever the fungus resides. It absorbs nutrients, exchanges gases, and expands the fungus’ territory; it’s in charge of all the stuff of daily life. But when a mushroom appears aboveground, it’s time for reproduction.

This is why mushrooms are so important to mycologists. Like a lot of other organisms on this planet, reproductive systems provide a lot of clues about the identity of an organism, how it’s related to other organisms, and its evolutionary history. One of the really wonderful (some would even say seductive) things about biology and evolutionary theory is its intuitive appeal, and this concept is no exception! If evolution is a matter of survival and reproduction over thousands of generations, then it makes a lot of sense that many biological questions and problems would revolve around understanding how cells and organisms produce the next generation. For example, if you have ever taken a course in botany, you know that basic plant identification begins with the reproductive organs, the flowers: the number of petals and the arrangement of the pistils and stamens, which are the flower’s sex organs, these are the keys to identifying flowering plants.

Another level of “identification” is the attempt to understand what a species is. This is a knotty issue, both philosophically and practically, but an inability to interbreed is used by many as a basic criterion for separate species. If two organisms cannot mix their genes to produce viable offspring, for whatever reason—it could be physical, behavioral, or genetic—they belong to two different species. You get the picture: sex is biologically important, thus biologists are often focused on reproductive organs.

In a practical, day-to-day sense, then, my husband spends a lot of time looking at fungal sex organs. And what does he see? In order to show you, I am going to take you for a walk in the muddy wellies of a field mycologist.

Here we are in Borneo, exploring a tropical rainforest. We are on the opposite side of the biological universe from the boreal forest of northern Minnesota, where my husband Bryn grew up. So how does Bryn know where to look for mushrooms? In a sense, the answer is: he looks everywhere. It’s true, and anyone who knows him will confirm it, he never stops looking! However, like any mycologist, my husband usually has some sense of where to head first…

As you walk through the rainforest, remember that mushrooms do not live in isolation. While much is made of the work that fungi do in decomposing dead forest debris (and certainly they are amongst the most important decomposers in the forest), a lot of fungi are not decomposers. Instead, many fungi live in symbiosis with plants, called a mycorrhizal association. To put this symbiosis in perspective: If all of the fungal partners in this marriage were to file for divorce tomorrow, almost all of the forested land in the temperate Northern Hemisphere would be treeless. Luckily, however, a complex exchange of nutrients and water makes this partnership sustaining and beneficial for both sides. Thus, the first thing Bryn looks for is a type of forest. Wherever we go, he has already learned as much as he can about the kind of trees we will find, and he knows which ones are most likely to have the kind of symbiosis with mushrooms that he is looking for. Here in Gunung Mulu National Park, we are seeking lowland tropical rainforest giants: the dipterocarps. This is a group of trees that are especially abundant and diverse in Asia—and especially here in Borneo.

Of course, because these trees are gargantuan, there’s an added difficulty: you can’t see the leaves, they are too high up! And many of the leaves in the tropical forest look very similar, so they are difficult to identify anyway. As Bryn has said, to be a mycologist in the tropics, you practically have to be a botanist as well—and, indeed, he spends a lot of time trying to identify trees and detect patterns of association between trees and mushrooms.

For your purposes, though, just start by looking for some very big tree buttresses, those huge wedge-shaped roots that tropical trees use to prop themselves up because they are so shallowly rooted. Yep, that means you have to go off the trail, so watch out for pit vipers and toxic, furry urticating caterpillars! Poke around in the crevices between these buttresses and you’re bound to turn up something.

Can you spot the mycologist? This is an especially impressive example of a buttress! This photo was taken on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Some mushrooms can be identified morphologically, that is, by examining their appearance, whether with the naked eye or under a microscope. There are all sorts of features that turn both the beautiful and the boring of the fungal world into recognizable species. Where you or I just see cap and stem and gills, Bryn makes fine distinctions. There’s an overall sense of the form of the mushroom that it takes years to develop.

 

 

Mycena. Like almost all of the mushrooms collected on this trip to Borneo, the species is thus far unidentified..

 

Before I went for a walk (or many walks, that is) in the woods with a mycologist, I wasn’t really aware of the sculptural quality of mushrooms. Now I have an appreciation for the beauty of their overall shapes and textures. But Bryn’s brain is like a code reader. From a distance he can judge if that tiny little thing on the log is a Marasmius or Mycena, based on the shape of the pileus (the cap), the width and bow of the stipe (the stem), and other general impressions that he probably cannot even articulate—the tacit knowledge that the scientist gains from years of direct experience.

 

 

 

 

The top of these Pluteus is beyond rugulous--those are some deep wrinkles.

 

Take a closer look now. Is the surface of the pileus velutinous (velvety) or glabrous (smooth)? Is it rugulose (wrinkled), pitted, or cracked? Better yet, it could be glutinous and covered in slime.

A glutinous Cortinarius.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tylopilus nigerrimus. Note the reticulation on the stipe.

 

Does the stipe have any interesting features, like a finely netted reticulation or patchy raised “scabers”? You might break a little piece of the pileus off with your fingernail and try to peel the top surface off—whether it peels easily is yet another field character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the one mushroom photo not taken in Borneo in the past 3 weeks. This was taken (like the buttress photo) on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica and it is (I think...I can't remember for sure and Bryn is now asleep, so I can't check) Boletus vermiculosis. I include it to illustrate the bluing color-change reaction on the pores.

 

Look under the pileus, and if there are gills, make a small slice through them with your knife: Does a white, yellow, red, or blue latex ooze out? Does it change color once the air oxidizes it? Keep an eye for color changes on the flesh of the mushroom as well. Is the pileus or stipe bruised where you have held the mushroom? Bluing reactions can be especially impressive, as you can see below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hydnum. A choice edible in this toothed genus is Hydnym repandum (this could be my wonky spelling of the species name, again, Bryn is sleeping...), known commonly as the sweet-tooth mushroom or the hedgehog mushroom.

 

Or perhaps it looks like a sponge, like you see on the left. Microscopically, the underside of the pileus is one of the most important parts of the mushroom, because this is where the reproductive cells are located. The sponge you see (look—a well-fed beetle larva just crawled out of one of the pores!) is made up of thousands of little tubes, packed in together. Like the gills, these tubes exist solely as the means to spread the mushroom’s spores. You may see a tint of color on the gills or pores here that hint at the color of the spores, which can be a very important character. The spores themselves can be extremely beautiful, but you won’t get a really good look at them until you are back in the lab with your microscope.

Leccinum, with a great view of the pores (or tubes) under the pileus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mushrooms may also identified using chemical characters. Some chemical tests must be done in the lab with droppers full of reagents that turn different mushrooms different colors; but there are plenty of chemical characters that can be tested right here in the field. The nose knows—and Bryn has an impressive nose, in both form and function! Does the mushroom smell raphanoid (like a radish or watermelon rind)? Or perhaps it smells like camphor or almonds or even like rotting flesh? Some mushrooms must be tasted to be understood, so beware the mycologist that hands you a tiny piece of fungus to taste in the field. It’s unlikely that he is trying to poison you, but he might be giving you a chunk of an acrid Lactarius that tastes as if you are chewing some especially hot peppercorns!

As you have learned, workaday mycology begins outside, in direct contact with the natural world. The attention that you paid to the forest around you and the detailed observations that you have made of the very fine Tylopilus that you found will pay off in dividends in the future. First, there is a cumulative benefit to be gained from today’s time in the forest. This is the practice of natural history: You draw continually from the knowledge that you’ve gained in past experiences in nature and in your study of others’ work, and you synthesize that knowledge with your immediate experience of the world around you today.

But what’s next for today? Fortunately, Bryn’s ready with a snappy mycological aphorisms for just this kind of occasion: Flash it, Smash it, and Dry it.

Tylopilus nigerrimus again.

“Flash it” is probably obvious: You must photograph your mushroom both before and after you collect it.  Get a nice picture in the field, showing the substrate on which it was growing, and later take a more artificial photo against a neutral background, to record color and scale, and morphological details.

 

“Smash it” is Bryn’s method of DNA collection.  Once upon a time we carried tiny little plastic tubes with preservative liquids into the field, into which we would plunge a fragment of each mushroom’s gills or pores.  Now the very same reproductive tissue gets smashed into a fancy kind of paper that preserves the DNA in a much more convenient form. Bryn has even made a very informative video of this method.

That last step, “Dry it,” kind of ruins the rhyme, but there’s no way around it, you can’t change what happens in a food dehydrator.  Before that lovely Tylopilus nigerrimus starts to deliquesce, better dry it out as soon as possible.

Now that you have flashed, smashed, and dried your mushroom, you’re ready to take your impressive knowledge of that mushroom’s natural history into the laboratory. Scientists who work with DNA may be derided as “gene jockeys”  when they have a myopic focus on DNA, at the expense of seeing the whole organism.  But you are already well on your way to becoming a natural historian and I know you won’t lose sight of that whole living mushroom and its associated tree when you finally get a peek at its DNA.

Making tracks in the wilderness

Monday, March 7th, 2011

In the sparkling new visitor’s center here at Gunung Mulu National Park in Borneo, an introductory film runs all day long, describing the unique limestone formations of the park, a million bats leaving the Deer Cave each night, the forest types and fauna of the park, and its recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Gunung Mulu, it intones, was a “trackless wilderness” before the park was formed in 1974.   And for the purposes of the tourist industry, that was indeed the case.  But for the local indigenous people, the settled Berawan who hunted in the area and the nomadic Penan, for whom Mulu was home, the “wilderness” was constrained even back then by paths.

I have been trying to picture these people subsisting in the forest around us and I still find, even after two weeks here, that my imagination is circumscribed by the civilized constructions that make the setting for the daily stuff of our lives here; eating in a café, sleeping in a climate-controlled room, walking on boardwalks.  I am aided by books written by previous visitors to this part of Sarawak, scientists who have provided photographs of Penan and Berawan as they were when this park was formed, almost four decades ago.  These give me a feeling of connection to them, for their faces are recognizable—they are certainly the ancestors of the people who work in the park today.

An elderly Penan woman with stretched earlobes plays a bamboo instrument at the craft market at Batu Bungon.

The shape of a jawline or brow reminds me of a park guide, the stretched earlobes that were once very common here remind me of an elderly craftswoman we met at a nearby market.  The photos show men in loincloths with tubes at their waist holding arrows for their blow-guns.  The women and girls wear sarongs, often only from the waist down, and I can’t help but imagine looking down to find a terrestrial leech (in addition to the rather large human leech that I already sustain!) on my breast.

The young Penan and Berawan who work in the park today, for all their facial resemblance to these grainy photographs, wear tight sloganed t-shirts and skinny jeans, and play badly aging club mixes on the café soundsystem when the park director isn’t paying attention.  Despite this discordance with our romanticized touristic notions of indigenous life, we have been granted a few chances to see the lingering influences of their cultural roots.

These chances have almost all come at a remove from the intense management of the park headquarters.  In order to find mushrooms, Bryn and his colleagues here have organized a number of trips to the outlying park “camps.”  These are rustic structures, placed at critical junctures along the main hiking trails, some of which were built in 1977 and 1978, during an extensive Royal Geographical Society expedition to the newly formed park.  Most have no potable water or any real facilities to speak of: they are platform with roofs, completed by cookstoves run on butane that must be hiked in to the camp.  To carry the cans of butane, as well as everything else you need to survive for your time at camp, you hire porters.  The porters that we met ranged in age from 19 to 39, but there were certainly older ones that we passed—or rather, that passed us—on the trails.

Porters distribute the weight, packing kiwa before the researchers head up the summit trail.

These tough men (for they are all men) carry cases of Tiger beer, kilos of rice and noodles, tins of sardines and tuna, bottles of drinking water, and cans of butane all on their backs.  And often enough, below their feet, they wear nothing!  Where this tourist employs all the ergonomic technology that I can muster to protect my tender muscles and tendons from a burden, carrying a pack fitted out with 20 different adjustable straps, contoured, breathable straps and back padding, and a waist belt molded to fit the particular shape of my very own hips, a porter carries a woven rucksack, called a kiwa (also known as a selabit or kiba or kibi, in various other local dialects), that is virtually identical to the ones his ancestors carried many generations ago: two shoulder straps of flat, woven rattan; an absolutely flat, stiffly woven back plate; and loosely woven netting on the sides, which is then laced together with more plant fiber, to accommodate loads of myriad shapes and sizes.  At one point on the trail, our entomologist friend Chris Darling needed a break from his own ergonomic hiking pack.  Naturally, the porter could not bear to carry this carefully engineered abomination of a backpack, and crammed it instead into his kiwa and carried on as before.

off the raised plank walkway, a real tropical rainforest trail awaits...

It is thus that we stand aside, shamed if we thought we were really tough, and are passed, sometimes in two directions, by rapidly moving, nearly naked, barefoot guys with 20-30 kilos strapped to their backs.  Off the beaten path—that is, off the raised wooden path, really—the trails are generally quite muddy.  They may also be rocky and steep, though the steep ones usually have the benefit of rooted stairs, the natural flights that form when rain and footfall repeatedly wear away the soil on a forested slope.

While the baby and I cannot really visit any of the more rudimentary camps, we had the pleasure of joining the scientists on a slightly tamer trek to Camp 5, a place that is more accessible, than the other camps.  A boat ride reduces the walking distance to 8 km.  Sleeping mats make for much more comfortable nights.  And the value of a small staff that keeps plenty of water boiled for drinking is self-evident.

The boat ride was one of the highlights for me and for the baby, who gets excited every time he sees a longboat or hears—and then mimics!—an engine buzz by the headquarters, just below the café.  Along the river, you see the scattered settlements of locals, for whom the river is life.  This seems like an obvious statement, for all humans tend to concentrate themselves near water.  But in a lowland tropical rainforest, the river is more than just an efficient means of transport—it is the connection to world beyond walking distance.  And walking distance means something different here, even for those accustomed to the rainforest; humans need trails, and to blaze a trail here in the era before chainsaws would have been both challenging and dangerous.

Which brings me back to that trackless wilderness.  Even today indigenous Borneans impress in their ability to negotiate the rainforest.  But by its very existence, this cultural heritage, of familiarity with and experience in the wilderness, belies the notion of the wilderness itself, now or 40 years ago.  When the researchers for the Royal Geographical Society expedition arrived here in 1977, it was a matter of hours before they found the remains of their first Penan settlement, clearly abandoned only days before their arrival.  Soon enough, exploring the nearby forest, they began to suspect that some of the forest was secondary growth.  In other words, parts of the forest had already been farmed and then abandoned, left for the forest to reclaim.  The head of this expedition recounts how he and a companion toiled, breaking a trail into a part of the forest they believed had never been visited by humans.  They broke through dense vegetation into a clearing with a stream, only to find two young Penan children splashing unconcernedly in the water—children they knew, in fact, because their family had settled near the researchers’ longhouse.

So, for all my previous pondering of “apartness” from nature and “immersion” in nature, I must admit, I do not really know what even I mean myself by “nature.”   The wilderness is full of mysterious, hidden lives, including those of humans; and even without raised wooden walkways, it is also full of tracks.  We humans perambulate, packing our babies and belongings up in woven rucksacks, moving from place to place, following food and opportunity.  And making tracks in the wilderness that lead home means that the wilderness has been, in a literal sense, domesticated.