Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mothra vs. Sea Monster

I've spent many years researching various charismatic megafuana... the kind of characters the Sierra Club slaps on thousands of those return-address labels no one specifically asks for... big cats, wolves, grizzlies... I've also spent several seasons slogging around ponds catching frogs and toads in the daylight and in the dark, and counting tadpoles. 

This winter I am mixing it up. Keepin' it real. I'm doing some invertebrate taxonomy contract work for the USGS aquatics project here in Glacier. This basically amounts to sorting through a small mountain of summer stream samples under a fancy-schmancy Leica microscope, and picking out all the tiny, tiny bugs. And oh, what bugs! We're doing this to get baseline data on the community of alpine insects in high-elevation, glacier-fed streams, and to learn more about the life histories of some of the more rare species, including a type of sexy stonefly (Lednia tumana) that has been petitioned for endangered species status. Though it is decidedly less glamorous than a wet-nosed polar bear cub tickling itself, this stonefly is imperiled by the acceleration of melting glaciers, and is thus another would-be casualty of climate change.

It has been a very long time since I've spent any time around a microscope, and I am learning that there are certain given truths a lab jockey must accept: (1) your back will hurt constantly, (2) your eyes get totally wonky, (3) you get to listen to an endless stream of books-on-tape (Pollan, Gaiman, Franzen, and Eugenides last week), and (4) you will need a constant supply of warm beverages within reach at all times.

Oh, and (5) you will absolutely and literally see bugs when you close your eyes. This is about as creepy and annoying as it sounds. And they aren't butterflies and ladybugs you know... no, they are mushy, gray flatworms and thin, tangled nematodes. They are the ghostly white larvae of various caddisflies and the other flies: stone, damsel, alder, may, crane, and dragon. The perfectly-round-bodied water mites, their speckled yellow backs covering the curl of eight spindly legs. And so many midges. Mostly midges, each curved like a pudgy clipped fingernail. My favorite find so far has been these little bowling pin-shaped deals, punctuated by a head crowned with two frilled antennae that look like ridiculous party earmuffs. Whenever I found one of those I'd imagine it speaking in a British accent. Maybe like that bizarre scarf-wearing worm in the movie Labyrinth. G' day, govna! I was a little bummed to learn that my dandy friends were actually black fly larvae. They aren't exactly the easiest creature to love, but I am trying. But then most baby animals are more charming than their parents... and really, you should see these frilly deely boppers. It did remind me of learning years ago that who we were endearingly calling Fuzzy Willis for weeks was in fact mosquito larva, writhing in mass. It was kind of impossible to feel affection for those little guys after that realization. You've got to draw the line somewhere.

So I spend several hours a day going through just a few ounces of water and vegetation and muck, picking out the bugs with a pair of sharp silver tweezers, which by now feel like cold and nimble extensions of my own hands, to the point where I can actually feel the pressure of grasping a nearly microscopic creature between my "fingers". It is a truly crazy feeling. At the end of the day, all those bugs, hundreds even, fit into a small vial of alcohol, like some etymologist's crack stash. 

But the best thing about this work is that it allows you to peak into a totally different world. There is a magical little alternate reality in these tiny universes. Dragons and basilisks lurk behind branch and bush, reed and rush. Sea monsters lurk. Aliens burst forth from chest cavities. Crazy shit goes down. It never ceases to amaze me how much of the world we cannot see with unaided eyes. It's incredible. In a lot of ways, we have no clue what the hell is going on. I love that. I love wearing the emerald glasses for a while. I'm ready to be surprised. I'm ready to be dazzled. See you in Oz.

All in a day's work

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Be Like a Bird

So, I have been working on various art projects lately... I hadn't specifically drawn for a while, and was surprised how good it felt to pick up a pencil the other day. You wouldn't know because there is no color here, but this is a violet-green swallow. They always remind me of my friend Robert Michael Pyle. He and Thea know spring has arrived in Gray's River when the violet-greens return, swooping in to reclaim their nest under the eaves of the front porch. How magical it would be to be the harbinger who everyone looks for in the afternoon. But it is much, much too early to think of spring here, even as my dark hyacinths grow long and leggy across the kitchen table. No, for now it is better to think of the chickadees flickering through the winter wood, tittering over hidden seeds between thin branches. And if still, the blue begins to creep, think too of this little verse a friend passed along to me last year...

Thachycinta thalassina
Be like a bird, who, halting in her flight,
On a limb to slight, feels it give way beneath her;
Yet sings, sings, knowing she has wings;
Yet sings, sings, knowing she has wings.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Last Best Place

Well, we finally made it.
Sometime last month Montana's population tipped over the million mark.
Bumper sticker commentary is already out, decorating many a dusty pick-up and shiny Subaru, scrappy dog smiling out the back:

Montana is full. Go home. 

Read that with the menacing tone of bearded-weapons-stockpiling-recluse, and its nearly as good as my all-time favorite, first seen while I was actually working on the Yellowstone Wolf Project: Kill All the Goddamn Wolves and the People Who Brought Them Here. Read it in any other tone and it just sounds kind of bitchy, given that much of the population came here from inferior states in the first place.

I get it though. We love Montana for its expansiveness... for its rugged, open spaces, ornery cowboys, and charismatic megafauna. Subdivisions don't fit into that mystique. But still, on average there are under seven people per square mile in this big ol' state, the fourth largest in the country. New York City alone has and average over 27,000 people living in each of it's square miles, and a population of over eight million. Of course there isn't much use in comparing fat juicy oranges and small wild apples, but my point is, I think we can handle a million faces and still protect our resources without getting our undergarments too twisted up.

Knowing others vehemently disagree, to decrease my chances of being shot in the street for uttering such blasphemy, I give you this. Sure to turn away any would-be import, except perhaps for the most avid tossing-rocks-at-beavers enthusiast.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What You Will

Happy Twelfth Night everyone!

The last day of the Christmas dozen, a time for practical jokery, cake-eating, punch-guzzling, tree-thanking, and neighborhood wassailing. A few winters ago I was living in a small crawlspace in a crowded house in the Berkshires. One night, let's call it January 5th or 6th (for the actual Twelfth Night is contested), the phone rang. It was Susan Witt, keeper and queen of the then E.F. Schumacher Society (now New Economics Institute) where two of my housemates worked. She wanted us to come over and do a little wassailing around the orchard. This mostly amounted to caroling, banging on pots and pans, and drinking some sort of spiced mulled beverage. My roommates bundled up and headed out into the night, but I wasn't feeling well, and declined. This is something I have regretted ever since, and I'm not sure why.

I don't know much about the Twelfth Night or the wassailing that occurs then, but I like the sound of it. Here's what I do know:

The Hollyman
- It involves shenanigans. The Twelfth Night is an opposite day of sorts. Royalty and peasantry switch places. Women dress like men. You eat some special cake and if you find the magic bean you are king for the day. The fact that in some places that bean is shaped like a small baby symbolizing baby Jesus only makes it all the more rad.

- It involves weird alcoholic beverages. So you take some cider, or wine, or strong ale, or mead, or brandy, or whatever you've got hanging around that will give you a buzz, and you heat it up in a large pot (or hey, let's just call it a cauldron) and add sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves and what-have-you. Got some old fruit? Sure, throw it in there. Top it all of with some chunks of toast. Because who doesn't enjoying chewing their wine?

- If you want, you can dress up like this guy, and people will love it.

- It involves singing to trees. As a tree-hugger, I love the idea of serenading apple trees in the moonlight, chasing away evil spirits, and encouraging them to bloom and grow so that they may produce more fruit, for more cider, for more drunken midnight antics.

- It encourages tidiness. Yes, that's right. Bad luck if you don't take down your Christmas decorations by today. It's time to move on with the new year. Annnnd, the greatest part of this tradition is that you now get to eat those decorations! Finally! Back in the day, fruit wasn't always so easy to come by, so if you were going to put some oranges on a wreath, it was an investment. You were essentially just biding your time until the Twelfth Night. Granted, the invention of plastic has left a dubious haze on this particular tradition, but if you've got some popcorn chains or cranberry strings still dangling, now is the time to chow down.

- Oh, and this: Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty, Youth's a stuff will not endure.
Ah, William, you get the bitter with the sweet. Auld Lang Syne.

And a very Happy New Year to all.