Thursday, February 28, 2013

Emily Dickenson

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” 

Vegetable Voyaging

Sometimes a great, earth-shaking, new idea in science can be created in the most homespun ways.
Listen to my Morning Edition piece to hear how Charles Darwin and his butler dropped asparagus into a tub and how Darwin and his oldest son studied dead pigeons floating upside down in a bowl to test ideas about evolution.

These stories come from a short, elegant study just published by W.W. Norton, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen.

Quammen describes what happens when a meticulous, shy, socially conservative man comes up with a revolutionary, new, dangerous idea. Darwin gets so nervous thinking what he's thinking, yet he is so sure that it's a promising idea. He can't let it out but he can't let it go. Instead, he spends years, decades even, checking and double checking his evidence. He wanted to be surer than sure about his ideas on natural selection. But, of course, in science you can never know what you don't know, and so painfully, gingerly, and on occasion delightfully, he tried to anticipate his critics and get his idea ready. But it was slow to gestate. Very slow.

Here, in an excerpt, Quammen compares Darwin's launching the theory to a kiwi laying an egg:
The kiwis are small -- no bigger than an overfed chicken.…

A female brown kiwi weighs less than five pounds. Her egg weighs almost a pound -- constituting, that is, about 20 percent of her total weight. Among some kiwis, the egg-to-body weight ratio reportedly reaches 25 percent. A female ostrich, by contrast, lays an egg weighing less than two percent as much as herself. Certain other avian species -- hummingbirds, for instance -- lay more ambitious sing-egg packages than ostriches, but few if any match kiwis. Relative to her body size on a standard with other birds, the brown kiwi's egg is about six times as big as it should be. It contains also a disproportionate allotment of yolk, on which the chick will survive just after hatching. This egg takes 24 hours to develop and, once it has, fills the female like a darning egg fills a sock. Having gorged herself for three weeks to support the growth of such a large embryo, during the last two days she stops eating. There's no room in her abdomen for another cricket.
"Sometimes the egg-bearing female will soak her belly in puddles of cold water," according to one source, "to relieve the inflammation and to rest the weight." She is painfully replete with motherhood.

It seems impossible. How can she carry this thing? How can she deliver? Will it reward her efforts and discomforts, or rip her apart? …

The point is simply metaphor. Every time I see that X-ray of the mama kiwi, I think: There's Darwin during the years of gestation.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Next time you see an asparagus floating in a bathtub, as we all occasionally do, you will instantly think of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Because, as we're about to hear, floating asparagus contributed to Darwin's theory. This true story can now be told by NPR's Robert Krulwich.
ROBERT KRULWICH: A hundred and fifty years ago, when people asked how come you can go to Australia and there are kangaroos hopping, hopping around everywhere - but you go to places that look almost exactly the same, say on grasslands in Africa - and there are no kangaroos?
Now, why is that? Why don't the same kinds of places have the same kinds of animals? Well 150 years ago, there was an answer. It was simple one, says science writer David Quammen.
Mr. DAVID QUAMMEN (Science Author): God has made kangaroos and put them in Australia.
KRULWICH: So God did it. He decided?
Mr. QUAMMEN: That was what He wanted to do. God created every species individually and put them down wherever they are. And actually I call that special creation plus special delivery.
KRULWICH: So that was the explanation. Even among some of the most learned people around. But then, says Quammen…
Mr. QUAMMEN: Darwin came along and said wait a minute, I don't think that's the explanation. I think these things all evolved from common ancestors.
KRULWICH: So the reason you find kangaroos only in Australia and New Guinea, he said, it's not God's doing - it's because the earliest kangaroo ancestors evolved there and then they spread out but they couldn't get across the water that surrounds Australia. They went about as far as they could go. Every plant, every animal that you see, Darwin proposed, got where it is today, on its own.
Mr. QUAMMEN: Animals and plants must disburse. They must be capable of disbursing in order to explain what we see on the planet by way of evolution.
KRULWICH: So it was critical to Darwin's theory to show how living things got to where they are today. And this can get kind of tricky. For example, cabbages - you can find cabbage plants on islands near Antarctica. Now, how would a cabbage get there?
Mr. QUAMMEN: Well, either God put it there, or it got there on its own.
KRULWICH: Yeah, but how does a cabbage seed cross an ocean on its own?
Mr. QUAMMEN: Yeah. How?
KRULWICH: Well it turns out that Darwin obsessed about this question: vegetable voyaging. For years, he concocted experiments and experiments that were so delightful and so unlike what you'd imagine…
Mr. QUAMMEN: Exactly, exactly. You remember the old TV show Watch Mr. Wizard?
Mr. QUAMMEN: That was Darwin. That was Charles Darwin.
KRULWICH: Here's a perfect example. Darwin wondered: how might a radish travel?
(Soundbite of ocean)
KRULWICH: Well he imagined that a radish might accidentally get swept to sea on a windy day. But now, do radishes float?
Well Darwin had his butler, Mr. Parslow(ph) pour saltwater - kind of like ocean water - into a tub, and into that tub they plopped radishes. And carrots, and rhubarb, and celery. Mr. Parslow was - he was one of these proper English butlers?
Mr. QUAMMEN: Absolutely, yeah.
KRULWICH: I guess there aren't too many other butlers in the vicinity who happen to do this sort of thing?
Mr. QUAMMEN: Probably not. No.
KRULWICH: But Mr. Parslow also dropped in seeds …
(Soundbite of plopping)
Mr. QUAMMEN: He tried cabbage seeds, radish seeds, pepper, cress - as in water cress.
KRULWICH: And then they watched to see what floated, for how long and then they'd remove the wet seeds and they'd plant them to see if they would still grow. Some did better than others. With radish seeds?
Mr. QUAMMEN: He got 42 days worth of floating.
KRULWICH: And with cress?
Mr. QUAMMEN: Uh, 42 days plus a wonderful quantity of mucous, Darwin said, if I recall correctly.
KRULWICH: So it's stinky but it's in there.
Mr. QUAMMEN: Yeah, a slimy mess that still travels the ocean.
Mr. QUAMMEN: And that's typical of Darwin that he would not say, you know, a disgusting or a gross quantity of mucous. He would say a wonderful quantity of mucous, because everything about the natural world was wondrous to this guy.
KRULWICH: Okay, so that's 42 days for the radish, 42 days for the cress, how much now for dried asparagus seed?
Mr. QUAMMEN: Eighty-five days, they stayed afloat.
KRULWICH: Eight-five days.
Mr. QUAMMEN: And then he took them out and planted the seeds and they germinated.
(Soundbite of ticking clock)
KRULWICH: So let's do the math, Darwin did. If an asparagus seed can float for 85 continuous days and an ocean current moves roughly 38 miles a day. Let's multiply 85 times 38 - that means an asparagus can sail 3,230 miles across the sea. That's, that's like Magellan. Asparagus is king.
Mr. QUAMMEN: Well, at least among those Darwin looked at. Yeah.
KRULWICH: So yes, ocean crossing vegetables are possible.
But Darwin didn't stop there. One day, his eight-year-old son Francis said to him, you know, dad, did birds float, kind of like ships? And his father said, yeah.
Mr. QUAMMEN: He seems to have been a terrific father.
KRULWICH: So Francis said, well why don't we feed a bird some seeds, so that the seeds get inside the bird, and then, you know…
(Soundbite of a gunshot)
…shoot the bird? And then, you know, plop it in the tub, the corpse, and let it float for awhile?
Mr. QUAMMEN: So he suggested that, and Darwin said, you bet, Francis. That's a great idea.
KRULWICH: Then after a month or whatever, they opened up the dead carcass, and they pulled out the seeds inside, and they planted them.
Mr. QUAMMEN: And found that those seeds also germinated.
KRULWICH: Thereby establishing the principle that seeds can either float on their own or they can hitch a ride.
Mr. QUAMMEN: As passengers inside a bird, as passengers attached to the foot of a bird…
KRULWICH: Which then led Darwin back to animals and to the last science article he ever published, in which he proposed the possibility of flying clams. Now, at this point, Darwin wasn't so well.
QUAMMEN: He's suffering from degenerative heart disease, but he's still working. he's still very much alive, mentally.
KRULWICH: And one day he gets a letter from a shoe salesman, a young guy named Walter Crick. Now the way this story goes, you imagine Crick out in the woods collecting beetles when he just happened to see, it was a water beetle, and when he got down he looked real close…
QUAMMEN: And attached to one of the legs was a little clam. A little freshwater clam.
KRULWICH: A very little clam.
QUAMMEN: Yeah, very little. Small enough that the beetle scarcely noticed it.
KRULWICH: And Crick thought, hmmm…
QUAMMEN: That's kind of curious.
KRULWICH: So he wrote Darwin. And he said, you know, I think you might be interested in this, and sure enough Darwin wrote right back and he asked him all kinds of questions that Crick couldn't answer, because after all, he was in the shoe business.
QUAMMEN: So he did something better than, you know, fake it. He sent the beetle with the shell attached to Darwin. He mailed it.
KRULWICH: He just popped it into an envelope?
QUAMMEN: He popped it into an envelope, said…
KRULWICH: Was the clam still attached to the beetle?
QUAMMEN: It was. It was.
KRULWICH: So he says, okay, well you take a look for yourself?
KRULWICH: So a day or two later, the beetle and the clam did arrive at Darwin's house in an envelope. But they were separated now. And the beetle?
QUAMMEN: The beetle was dying by the time that he got there.
KRULWICH: It wasn't feeling very well.
QUAMMEN: It wasn't feeling very well.
KRULWICH: But right away, Darwin could see a possibility here.
QUAMMEN: This is very interesting. This goes back to the whole subject of dispersal, of how creatures can travel from one place to another.
KRULWICH: Maybe this little clam can fly from…
KRULWICH: …place to place.
QUAMMEN: Right. Because this beetle is a swimming beetle, but it can also fly.
KRULWICH: So maybe clams can fly from pond to pond, hitchhiking on a beetle. Darwin couldn't prove this because he felt kind of badly watching that little beetle he had suffer.
QUAMMEN: So this is why I mentioned it at the end of my book, because it's such a wonderful example of the kind of fellow this guy, Charles Darwin, was. He writes back to W.D. Crick and says, Dear Mr. Crick…
KRULWICH: As the wretched beetle is still feebly alive, I've put it in a bottle with chopped laurel leaves. Now he knew that those leaves give off a gas that would very gently help this beetle die.
QUAMMEN: And one of the very last acts of his life, he decided that he needed to put this beetle out of its misery. And then a few weeks after that, Darwin died himself.
KRULWICH: There is a postscript to this story. It turns out that years and years later, the shoe salesman, Walter Crick, has some grandchildren. And one of Walter's grandsons just happens to be…
QUAMMEN: Francis Crick, the co...
KRULWICH: Not the Francis Crick?
QUAMMEN: The Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA with James Watson.
KRULWICH: So, perhaps the greatest champion of evolution in the 20th century, who deciphered the structure and the code of DNA both, that guy's grandpa…
QUAMMEN: His grandpa was a pen-pal sharing beetle specimens with Darwin.
KRULWICH: And how strange and wonderful is that?
David Quammen's new biography of Darwin is called, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. I'm Robert Krulwich, NPR News, in New York.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: And one read an excerpt about that, from that book, here on the Web. It's about a kiwi. 

You can find it at
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again

"O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
   Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
   Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
   Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay
   Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
   Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
   Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire."

Friday, February 22, 2013

These are hard times for dreamers.

"Dig up her bones but leave the soul alone 
Boy with a broken soul 
Heart with a gaping hole 

Dark twisted fantasy turned to reality 
Kissing death and losing my breath 

Midnight hours cobble street passages 
Forgotten savages, forgotten savages 

Dig up her bones but leave the soul alone 
Let her find a way to a better place 
Broken dreams and silent screams 
Empty churches with soulless curses 
We found a way to escape the day 

Dig up her bones but leave the soul alone 
Lost in the pages of self made cages 
Life slips away and the ghosts come to play 
These are hard times 
these are hard times for dreamers 
And love lost believers 

Dig up her bones but leave the soul alone 
Let her find a way to a better place 
Broken dreams and silent screams 
Empty churches with soulless curses 
We found a way to escape the day 

Candybar creep show 
My highs hit a new low 
Marinate in misery 
Like a girl of only 17 
Man made madness 
And the romance of sadness 
A beautiful dance that happened by chance 
Happened by chance, happened by chance 

Dig up her bones but leave the soul alone 
Let her, let her, let her 
Let her find her way back home 
Broken dreams and silent screams 
Empty churches with soulless curses 
We found, we found 
We found a way to escape the day 
To escape the day 
To escape the day 
To escape the day."


In the first edition of: Texting With Tommy

Anthropocentrism at its finest

-Sheldon Krimsky, Biotechnics and Society: The Rise of Industrial Genetics

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Even If We Try

Like wine smoking

August 14, 1932 


Don't expect me to be sane anymore. Don't let's be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes—you can't dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Everything I do and say and think relates back to the marriage. I saw you as the mistress of your home, a Moor with a heavy face, a negress with a white body, eyes all over your skin, woman, woman, woman. I can't see how I can go on living away from you—these intermissions are death. How did it seem to you when Hugo came back? Was I still there? I can't picture you moving about with him as you did with me. Legs closed. Frailty. Sweet, treacherous acquiescence. Bird docility. You became a woman with me. I was almost terrified by it. You are not just thirty years old—you are a thousand years old.

Here I am back and still smouldering with passion, like wine smoking. Not a passion any longer for flesh, but a complete hunger for you, a devouring hunger. I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it all thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal. I feel somehow that it is a disgrace to do nothing, to just bide one's time, to take it philosophically, to be sensible. Where has gone the time when men fought, killed, died for a glove, a glance, etc? (A victrola is playing that terrible aria from Madama Butterfly—"Some day he'll come!")

I still hear you singing in the kitchen—a sort of inharmonic, monotonous Cuban wail. I know you're happy in the kitchen and the meal you're cooking is the best meal we ever ate together. I know you would scald yourself and not complain. I feel the greatest peace and joy sitting in the dining room listening to you rustling about, your dress like the goddess Indra studded with a thousand eyes.

Anais, I only thought I loved you before; it was nothing like this certainty that's in me now. Was all this so wonderful only because it was brief and stolen? Were we acting for each other, to each other? Was I less I, or more I, and you less or more you? Is it madness to believe that this could go on? When and where would the drab moments begin? I study you so much to discover the possible flaws, the weak points, the danger zones. I don't find them—not any. That means I am in love, blind, blind. To be blind forever! (Now they're singing "Heaven and Ocean" from La Gioconda.)

I picture you playing the records over and over—Hugo's records. "Parlez moi d amour." The double life, double taste, double joy and misery. How you must be furrowed and ploughed by it. I know all that, but I can't do anything to prevent it. I wish indeed it were me who had to endure it. I know now your eyes are wide open. Certain things you will never believe anymore, certain gestures you will never repeat, certain sorrows, misgivings, you will never again experience. A kind of white criminal fervor in your tenderness and cruelty. Neither remorse nor vengeance, neither sorrow nor guilt. A living it out, with nothing to save you from the abysm but a high hope, a faith, a joy that you tasted, that you can repeat when you will. 

All morning I was at my notes, ferreting through my life records, wondering where to begin, how to make a start, seeing not just another book before me but a life of books. But I don't begin. The walls are completely bare—I had taken everything down before going to meet you. It is as though I had made ready to leave for good. The spots on the walls stand out—where our heads rested. While it thunders and lightnings I lie on the bed and go through wild dreams. We're in Seville and then in Fez and then in Capri and then in Havana. We're journeying constantly, but there is always a machine and books, and your body is always close to me and the look in your eyes never changes. People are saying we will be miserable, we will regret, but we are happy, we are laughing always, we are singing. We are talking Spanish and French and Arabic and Turkish. We are admitted everywhere and they strew our path with flowers. 

I say this is a wild dream—but it is this dream I want to realize. Life and literature combined, love the dynamo, you with your chameleon's soul giving me a thousand loves, being anchored always in no matter what storm, home wherever we are. In the mornings, continuing where we left off. Resurrection after resurrection. You asserting yourself, getting the rich varied life you desire; and the more you assert yourself the more you want me, need me. Your voice getting hoarser, deeper, your eyes blacker, your blood thicker, your body fuller. A voluptuous servility and tyrannical necessity. More cruel now than before—consciously, wilfully cruel. The insatiable delight of experience.


(Henry Miller)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"They decided I should be punished against my brother's crime,"

After Mukhtar Mai was gang raped on the orders of a tribal court in Pakistan in 2002, local tradition dictated she was expected to commit suicide.

She defied her attackers and fought for justice. More than a decade on, she is still fighting for women's rights in Pakistan and inspiring many around the world.

Sam Spade knows how to take care of business

I don't care.

"When it comes to happiness, 
I want my share 
Don't try to rearrange me 
There's nothing can change me
'Cause I don't care!"

Friday, February 15, 2013

You're not ready for this adorable.


"There was a Poet whose untimely tomb 
No human hands with pious reverence reared,
But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds
Built o'er his mouldering bones a pyramid
Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness:
A lovely youth,--no mourning maiden decked
With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,
The lone couch of his everlasting sleep:
Gentle, and brave, and generous,--no lorn bard
Breathed o'er his dark fate one melodious sigh:
He lived, he died, he sung in solitude. 
Strangers have wept to hear his passionate notes,
And virgins, as unknown he passed, have pined
And wasted for fond love of his wild eyes.
The fire of those soft orbs has ceased to burn,
And Silence, too enamoured of that voice,
Locks its mute music in her rugged cell.

By solemn vision and bright silver dream
His infancy was nurtured. Every sight
And sound from the vast earth and ambient air
Sent to his heart its choicest impulses. 
The fountains of divine philosophy
Fled not his thirsting lips, and all of great,
Or good, or lovely, which the sacred past
In truth or fable consecrates, he felt
And knew. When early youth had passed, he left
His cold fireside and alienated home
To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands.
Many a wide waste and tangled wilderness
Has lured his fearless steps; and he has bought
With his sweet voice and eyes, from savage men, 
His rest and food. Nature's most secret steps
He like her shadow has pursued, where'er
The red volcano overcanopies
Its fields of snow and pinnacles of ice
With burning smoke, or where bitumen lakes
On black bare pointed islets ever beat
With sluggish surge, or where the secret caves,
Rugged and dark, winding among the springs
Of fire and poison, inaccessible
To avarice or pride, their starry domes 
Of diamond and of gold expand above
Numberless and immeasurable halls,
Frequent with crystal column, and clear shrines
Of pearl, and thrones radiant with chrysolite.
Nor had that scene of ampler majesty
Than gems or gold, the varying roof of heaven
And the green earth, lost in his heart its claims
To love and wonder; he would linger long
In lonesome vales, making the wild his home,
Until the doves and squirrels would partake 
From his innocuous band his bloodless food,
Lured by the gentle meaning of his looks,
And the wild antelope, that starts whene'er
The dry leaf rustles in the brake, suspend
Her timid steps, to gaze upon a form
More graceful than her own.

His wandering step,
Obedient to high thoughts, has visited
The awful ruins of the days of old:
Athens, and Tyre, and Balbec, and the waste
Where stood Jerusalem, the fallen towers
Of Babylon, the eternal pyramids,
Memphis and Thebes, and whatsoe'er of strange,
Sculptured on alabaster obelisk
Or jasper tomb or mutilated sphinx,
Dark Æthiopia in her desert hills
Conceals. Among the ruined temples there,
Stupendous columns, and wild images
Of more than man, where marble daemons watch
The Zodiac's brazen mystery, and dead men
Hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls around, 
He lingered, poring on memorials
Of the world's youth: through the long burning day
Gazed on those speechless shapes; nor, when the moon
Filled the mysterious halls with floating shades
Suspended he that task, but ever gazed
And gazed, till meaning on his vacant mind
Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw
The thrilling secrets of the birth of time..."

A Lament

"O World! O Life! O Time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more -Oh, never more!

Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight:
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more -Oh, never more!"


The Pianist

"There is a storm coming."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Carve our days into me

Hugo explained his ambitions for the novel to his Italian publisher:

     I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: Open up, I am here for you.

Toward the end of the novel, Hugo explains the work's overarching structure:
     The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end. 

Happy Valentine's Day, from Harry Potter

Wednesday, February 13, 2013



"I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thomas Hardy

"One point in her, however, you did notice: that was her eyes. In them was seen a sublimation of all of her; it was not necessary to look further: there she lived." 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

All time

"That I would love you 
was written in the cracks of bones 
pulled from a fire 
ten thousand years ago. 
It’s been spoken of 
in whispers and in rhymes 
throughout all time."

Franz Kafka

"And I would hide my face in you and you would hide your face in me, and nobody would ever see us any more."


"Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad."

Poem Peregrine

"Sometime in the night,
we wake up in ancient Greece.
We’re wearing sheets,
coyotes yip and howl nearby,
raising the dogs’ hackles.
Light moves in a low candle
and your eyes are all dark.
You smell of sleep
and your hair and body pour
from you into my blood.
Later, the day comes
and it’s modern times again.
We kiss goodbye
like I’m off to fight Xerces
and jackals run on your lips."

"But now is black beauty's successive heir, and beauty slandered with a bastard shame."