2. Choosing Damsels
And I serve the fairy queen ,
To dew her orbs upon the green .
Scientific names remind me of foreign diplomats, suddenly cast into
the light by events half a world away. Duane Dunwoody hears odd voices on
television and accepts them as a necessary element of his now global
communications network. Other Sandhills families, even more physically
isolated than Dunwoody, do the same. So if we are to sit around the dinner
table and talk about political forces ripping at the human fabric, we must
mouth unfamiliar words. And if we're to talk about delicate beauty,
frailty battling the prairie gales, striking microscopic colors emerging
from a vile and smelly froth, Paleozoic patterns now resting on our
outstretched finger, we must also make our peace with ancient languages
spoken in exotic places. Tami handles such words easily; she's practiced
them daily for years.
" Ischnura verticalis ," she says, easily and smoothly, with the
softness of someone recognizing a tiny friend in a far off land. She slips
Ischnura verticalis into a hole in the lid of a plastic gallon jug.
" Enallagma civile ," she calls the next one, just as gently and easily,
just as instructively, and slips Enallagma civile into the same hole where
Ischnura verticalis disappeared. Tami is choosing damselflies, an activity
in which she can become totally, completely, absorbed in a world of her
own, progressing slowly through the weeds.
She flicks the net. A soft whisper of gauze brushing grasstop floats
across the glassy surface of Dunwoody Pond. She holds the fine white linen
up to the sunlight. Inside a pair of damselflies flutters against the
webbing. Their membranous wings sparkle in the glare, sending iridescent
flashes through the cloth. Tami reaches down into the flimsy bag,
carefully working her hand through the fold until her fingers press gently
on the wings. Death awaits Ischnura verticalis , for Tami is a businesslike
reaper. And as surely as she's chosen one I . verticalis out of the
thousands that rest, chase tiny prey, and seek mates along the shore of a
pond, she's also chosen a path into the next century, a path aligned
closely to the fates of her insects and the other animals that live inside
Her trek through the arcane jungles of Invertebratology began when she
was given a small card with another odd name on it: Siphonia tulipa . Go to
wonderland, she was told, and find Siphonia tulipa . But when she climbed
the shining marble staircase and pushed open the ancient creaking doors,
she found so many elegant items that she forgot Siphonia tulipa for a time,
and became lost among the rock leaves, stared back at the stone eyes
looking up at her from their beds of green felt, took a trip back four
hundred million years, riding there in the frozen writhing arms of a black
star, felt sadness for the crushed flowers that were not real flowers at
all, but sea lilies, from a far off time.
Around her feet the children played, and ran calling to one another to
come look at all the strange creatures made of rocks and epoxy and
information and the hard work of people who dug into the Earth for evidence
of past worlds. I must find Siphonia tulipa , Tami thought, eventually, and
when I do, it will be the most beautiful of all these wonders. She was
wrong. It was not the most beautiful, nor the most complex of fossils in
the museum, but it was hers, for upon the card she'd been given was not
only a lyrical name, but also an assignment: write a story, about Siphonia
tulipa , that will make one of these children want to grow up to be just
like me--forever young of mind, forever curious about the lives I cannot
live. She leaned over, then, staring closely through the glass, and asked
her questions of the rock: What is your secret? How do I make a person
choose an animal, then because of that choice, choose a life, just by
telling a story? What kind of a story might this one be?
Now, in the hot mid-morning, Tami stalks through the weeds with the
same sharp curiosity as she'd entered the museum. She's just as surrounded
by wonderland, just as aware of her ultimate task and the labor that
follows, and just as ready to ask the same questions of Ischnura verticalis
and Enallagma civile as she'd asked of the cold rock Siphonia tulipa : What
is your secret? But she's older now, five years down the road, and she
knows the secret: giant problems have giant powers of attraction. They
consume your thinking time, lead you into exotic dangerous places, turn you
into a monster your friends don't recognize. So you get new friends,
people who walk through the weeds and choose giant problems as easily as
they choose Ischnura verticalis .
And she knows, too, the kind of story she has to tell in order to make
some child choose a damselfly, or a fossil, or for that matter a beetle, a
worm, or a bird, as a guide to wonderland. The story cannot have an end,
only a beginning, then a middle with an infinite, branching, interconnected
maze of pathways. When the child enters the maze, expecting to find an
answer, an end, she sees only choices, and these in turn are never clearly
defined as right and wrong. Ahead lie many roads, all disguised as
something they are not, all leading into scenery that can shatter your
perceptions of a well organized universe. I was that child, once, Tami
thinks back, and smiles at the memory of a card with a magic name: Siphonia
tulipa . And I wrote my story, and it did make one kid want to become a
scientist. I'm that kid! She flicks her net, choosing damselflies, on the
shore of Dunwoody Pond.
But Tami's new tulip does not lie frozen in stone in a museum case.
Within her chosen damselflies live an astonishing array of other animals.
In the laboratory, she peels open an intestine, using her fine forceps to
tear a strip down one side, causing the rest of the tube to turn itself
inside out. Sometimes a dozen long white bodies then appear, their "heads"
buried into the gut wall, between the cells. These are the parasites that
Tami has picked for the topic of her mental labor. If she uses them
properly, they will open doors for her, carry her to a podium in a far off
city where she'll throw her ideas out for discussion to an auditorium full
of scientists waiting to see how well she succeeds as a member of their
club. And no matter what happens to her for the rest of her life on Earth,
these odd, elongate cells will sit beside Siphonia tulipa in her memory as
the pieces of nature she used to build her career.
But even as she cuts the tiny damselfly intestines, and gently teases
the parasites away from the gut lining, Tami knows that she faces two tasks
disguised as one. Her ultimate goal is to reveal the various mechanisms by
which these one-celled animals attach to the damselfly intestine. Before
she gets to that point, however, she must deal with several tongue-twister
names. Siphonia tulipa was lyrical enough to make her want to say the
words; Ischnura verticalis had a certain mixture of hard and soft sounds,
like chocolate and salt, that she enjoyed; Enallagma civile reminded her of
a relatively tame, but nevertheless entertaining, jigsaw puzzle. Except
for one species, however, the long one-celled parasites in the damselfly
intestines have no names. Instead of memorizing exotic words, Tami must
make some up then defend her reasons for assigning them.
"This is the one I'm going to call dunwoodii ," she says, leaning back
from the microscope. Duane Dunwoody, for all his bluster, has been a
friend whose help cannot be measured, nor adequately priced, nor even
repayed, except in the most respectful and quiet way: an honorific name,
published in a scientific journal, thus spoken forever, around the world,
whenever anyone talks about the animals that live inside damselflies that
carpet the shore of Dunwoody's.
In naming parasites after people who've been a significant part of her
life, Tami follows in the tracks of another young woman, Sarah, who also
came into the Nebraska Sandhills to study biology and ended up naming the
one species of damselfly parasite Tami recognizes. Sarah walked into my
lab one day and said: I'm here to do research, but it has to be on
something nobody else has ever worked on. At the time, Sarah was an
undergraduate at Brown University looking for field experience out on the
western Great Plains. Study the parasites of damselflies, I suggested, if
you really want to work on something that nobody else has studied. What
kind of parasites? she asked. They're called 'gregarines,' I replied, and
they're the most insignificant, unappreciated, mysterious, and economically
unimportant animals I know. Which is probably why nobody else has studied
the ones in damselflies, at least around here. But, I added, they're
beautiful, too, and reasonably captivating. How do I start? wondered
Sarah. Write fifty questions, I answered. About animals I've never seen?
She was getting the picture quickly--a positive sign! Well, go find some,
then write your fifty questions, I said, handing her an insect net.
Sarah, like Tami in the museum, went searching for her animals, which
she found by the thousands along the shore of a place called Martin Bay
Pond, about two miles away from Dunwoody Pond. Martin Bay Pond has long
since dried up; Sarah's two summers along its shore may have been a
singularity--an idyllic, highly instructional, emotionally captivating,
intense intellectual experience which can never be repeated because the
place she had it has disappeared. In fact, the disappearance of Martin Bay
Pond stimulated the search that led, eventually, to Dunwoody's. We'll come
back to Martin Bay Pond, or rather to the dried mud bed, later, when it's
time to talk of droughts, both natural droughts, which lay bare the land
and bring into prominence the hardiest, oldest, and most tolerant of
organisms, and droughts made of bad human decisions, which lay bare the
lands of opportunity and bring the most creative, resourceful,
individualistic, and blasphemous minds out into the open where they
flourish. But at the time of Sarah's explorations, Martin Bay Pond is
full, and damselflies-- Enallagma civile --blanket the tops of grasses
growing right up to the water's edge. With one sweep of her net, Sarah is
able to get a week's work. The first damselfly she cuts open has nearly
three hundred parasites.
"What are they?" asks Sarah.
"Probably members of the genus Actinocephalus ," I reply, looking
through the microscope, "but you have to discover what their spores look
like before you can be sure."
"What's the species?"
"I don't know. There's a lot of literature to consult, a lot of
measurements to make. Maybe you have a new species. Maybe you'll have to
publish a description."
A strange smile smile comes over Sarah's face.
"That would be great," she says, "before I came out here, I told my
sister I was going to name a parasite after her."
I don't pursue that line of conversation very far. The night she
discovers the spores, we celebrate with microwave burritos from Pro-Mart,
the 24 hour a day filling station that serves as the emergency ration
source when discoveries that need celebrated are made in the middle of the
night. The name of her undescribed species of Actinocephalus had been
decided before she'd caught her first insect. Her sister was about to
become immortalized in print.
"Carri Lynn, have I got a present for you!" says Sarah, taking another
bite of her microwaved burrito. After two years of dissection, counting,
measurement, and library research, she's convinced her species is a new one
and is ready to write her description.
Sarah's two summers studying the parasites of damselflies are of
significant help to Tami. Out of the five or six species of large
gregarines in damselflies along the shores of Dunwoody Pond, only one,
Actinocephalus carrilynnae , is familiar and identifiable. Sarah has gone
to Arizona to pursue other questions, but her contribution stays behind to
help those who follow in her steps. Actinocephalus carrilynae is one of
Tami's species whose status is, at least temporarily, defined and accepted.
The rest of these species constitute, as is sometimes said in the
profession, a "taxonomic mess."
The first time students encounter such a mess, right under their
noses, in some common and familiar place, the edifice of scientific
knowledge suddenly appears cracked, if not shattered. Few experiences
point so sharply, so quickly, and in such easily understood terms, toward
that vast sea of ignorance every practicing scientist knows is "out there,"
as being unable to identify an animal using available literature.
Parasites inside small animals are particularly unstudied. Of all the
millions of damselflies that scientists have watched, collected, put away
in museums, relatively few have been examined for parasites. And of those
that have been dissected by someone looking for parasites, three young
women from the prairies--Sarah, Aris, and Tami--are quickly accumulating
the world's overwhelming majority. Not surprisingly, the first thing they
discover is that they are suddenly among the world's experts. The second
thing they discover is that in order to answer any question of process,
they must first answer the question that plagues all ecologists at some
time in their careers: What is it?
The gregarine parasites of damselflies are relatively large, for
single cells, and their differences are manifested primarily in two
features: their anterior ends, with which they "hold" onto the damselfly
intestine, and their spores, more properly called "oocysts," by means of
which they get distributed throughout nature. Tami has decided to focus on
the first of these features, the holdfast structures, although in a larger
sense, she's actually studying evolutionary events that probably took place
a hundred million years ago between two species' cell membranes. Tami's
convinced that with the electron microscope, she can see differences
between species' solutions to a common problem: how to hold on to your
place and complete your life history in a turbulent, mushy, environment.
The unspoken assumption is that if she discovers how various species
accomplish this daunting task, then maybe she'll be able to apply such
knowledge to her own life history, hopefully to be lived out in academia--a
no less turbulent or mushy environment than one finds in a damselfly gut.
The names of her animals, however, remain in her head, instead of on
the journal page where they'd be of use, and furthermore, the names
themselves are neither fully formed nor firmly affixed to their respective
parasites. Back in the city, Tami consults another lab mate, Rich, who's
chosen beetles as his source of mystery, reputation, and career. Beetles,
as a group may be the most common animals on earth; there are a quarter of
a million described species. Most of these species contain their own
microfauna, and whereas the parasites of beetles are better known than
those of damselflies, still only a handful of parasitologists have looked
inside beetle guts. When these scientists have published their work, the
papers have often appeared in old, odd, and foreign journals that few
American libraries contain. Through patience and diligence, Rich has
accumulated file drawers of obscure and convoluted literature, as well as a
lexicon of scientific Greek and Latin words and their meanings. Together,
microscopic animals in one hand, this literature in the other, the two
young scientists search for the perfect syllables.
Euphonious and descriptive are Rich's personal criteria for names;
euphonious and published so she can get on with her work are Tami's. Their
search for perfect words reminds me of a Michael Lipman story-- The
Chatterlings in Wordland --that is among the treasured items remaining from
my childhood bookshelves. The Chatterlings were delightful little elves
dressed in red tailed jackets and pointed caps with a pair of feathers.
Their eyes were mostly white circles, i.e. wide open. The King informs
Prince Tip o' Tongue that he's ready to retire and turn the kingdom over to
Tip, but the Prince has to go get himself a crown. When the poor kid comes
back from the Royal Hat Maker, he has only a coronet. Of course as
punishment, Tip gets sent on a rambling search--not unlike Tami with
Siphonia tulipa --for the pair of words that means exactly the same thing.
The Chatterling-type search also leads to a history lesson. Among the
obscure scientists who'd cut open damselflies looking for parasites was an
Izushi High School teacher, Kinichiro Obata. Obata published descriptions
of many species of parasites from Japanese insects. Tami and Rich know
these insects; they've been at the microscope themselves, fine forceps in
hand, pulling out an intestine from some of the same species Obata studied.
Obata's published paper, however, contains a narrative that the young
scientists hope never to have to write in one of their own:
"I began the study of gregarines of insects in 1942, but I lost many
data and manscripts be the fire caused by the atomic bomb dropped on
Hiroshima. After the second World War, I came back to my work, and
ressumed [sic] some parts of my previous study."
Although the collections and manuscripts may have been lost, Kinichiro
Obata's papers tell us that damselflies, and their parasites, as well as a
person who studied them, survived a nuclear weapons attack. None of
Obata's assigned species names commemorate the war. He names a parasite
species tokonoi because its insect hosts were collected near Mt. Tokono;
another he calls ozakii and dedicates it to his "respectable professor" Dr.
Y. Ozaki. Others he names after prominent physical features, a decision
that Tami and Rich are somewhat inclined to repeat.
" Steganorhynchus doesn't sound quite right," I offer my opinion on the
pair's choice of complex words for the generic name. "That sounds like a
dinosaur instead of a parasite." The animal Tami proposes to name after
Duane Dunwoody not only is a new species, it's also a new genus. If the
descriptive paper is accepted by a scientific journal, the animal would be
known as Steganorhynchus dunwoodii .
Stegano - translates into "sheathed" or "covered," rather like a
lampshade; rhynchus translates into "nose." The Stegano - describes a
delicate, membranous, veil that adorns the end of this parasite's
attachment stalk. So to honor her local rancher, Tami picks a name that
means Dunwoody's Lampshadenose. What is a Dunwoody's Lampshadenose? A
one-celled animal with a long stalk at the front end and a membranous,
lampshade-like structure at the end of the stalk. Of course. No wonder
people think biologists are odd. Before her entanglement with one celled
animals ends, Tami and Rich will find names for the others. The names will
be, above all, colorful: Nubenocephalus nebraskensis ; this one has a tiny
attachment stalk that eventually disappears, whereupon the entire front end
of the animal becomes a sucker. Nubeno - means envelope; cephalus refers to
head; - ensis means "living in;" N . nebraskensis is an envelope-head living
I ask Tami and her co-author Rich if that particular name is also a
subtle honorific. They smile and answer no, reminding me that I once
suggested naming new species after politicians. The logic went something
like this: politicians are so enamored of glory that they'd be curious
about the animals they were named after. Such curiosity might heighten the
ecological awareness of those in positions of political power. This
heightened awareness might lead to more rational and enlightened policies
toward natural resources. But what happens if the politicians discover the
animals they've been named after are parasites? They might not appreciate
the honor, I agreed. In the end, we decide against the politicians as
honorees, concluding that the naming of species after individuals ought to
be reserved for people who truly deserve the honor, people whose names you
want entered permanently into the scientific literature. So Duane Dunwoody
gets his parasite. Some others, whose names you read in your daily
newspaper, do not. And if history is any guide to the future, people will
be saying Steganorhynchus dunwoodii for many years, if not centuries, after
the politicians' names have disappeared into oblivion.
Tami's final species is a member of the genus Hoplorhynchus . Hoplo -
is a tool, or a weapon; rhynchus is again nose. Hoplorhynchus is a weapon-
or tool-nose. Out of deference to the memory of Kinichiro Obata, and as a
reminder of the vulnerability of pure science for the love of science, Tami
prefers to think of weapons, rather than tools, when she sees a species of
Hoplorhynchus . This parasite's holdfast organelle has a crown of hooks.
Tami settles on acanthatholius for the specific epithet; acantha - means
spines; a tholia is a conical hat with a broad rim. Hoplorhynchus
acanthatholius will be a parasite whose weapon is a conical hat, perhaps a
dunce cap, with a broad rim of spines. Tami is especially pleased with
this name. Those who lead with weapons on their noses need to be reminded
that they're really wearing a dunce cap with thorns. Kinichiro Obata would
probably have appreciated this subtle symbolism contained in the name of an
inconsequential parasite of an insect of no economic importance but of
Speaking of names--not long ago, Tami's lab mate Rich got up in front
of a small audience and presented the results of some fairly sophisticated
experiments involving the physiological ecology of three species of
parasites that lived in beetles. In this audience were some of the most
successful scientists in the country, including several that had large
grants to study molecular biology and genetics. I had listened to many of
their talks, as well as other lectures by "modern" scientists studying the
expression of genetic information, genetic engineering, biochemistry,
immunology, and the like. Those experiences were often a painful struggle
for me, both intellectually and emotionally. Why, I kept asking, do I feel
so outdated, so ill-trained, so obsolete, listening to these fellow
scientists, when they never seem to reveal any feelings of inadequacy when
listening to me? Yet I'd been asked questions, and heard comments about my
work and that of my graduate students, that indicated my fellow scientists
had not understood what was being said, or else had superimposed their own
wishes and desires on my data. I looked around at the audience; everyone
seemed attentive, focused on Rich's talk. You'd never have suspected that
a ten minute talk on whole animals and reproduction had sailed right past
Yet after this presentation, during an intermission, one of the most
senior of these scientists commented in private on the paper involving
insect parasites. For a mixed audience, he said, the student should
simplify his jargon, and especially so if he [meaning the student] gives
the same material in a job interview seminar. I pursued the meaning of the
term "jargon," having heard plenty of jargon that nobody ever bothered
explaining to me being presented as cutting edge science. You know, he
said, all those names. Maybe he should just call them parasites A, B, and
C. The problem, it seemed, was in the scientific names used by this
student in front of an audience made up of biologists. How, I wondered,
can you speak to professional biologists if you can't use scientific names?
Then it dawned on me: the Latinized names of plants and animals are almost
symbols for Nineteenth Century biology--the Golden Age of Exploration.
Nobody talks that way any more unless, of course, they want to make sure
everyone else knows exactly what kinds of organisms are being discussed and
have some sense of the evolutionary histories and relationships involved in
At the other end of the spectrum of scientific education are the well
educated professionals--usually businessmen and their wives--who say to me,
at various social functions, comments like "John, I really couldn't make it
through your last book. I hope you understand. It was just so difficult
and so technical." Difficult and technical? I work so hard to make them
easy and non-technical. Compared to the junk bond, savings and loan, and
terrorist financing scandals of recent years, all reported extensively in
local newspapers, the life of a parasite is relatively simple and
straightforward. I usually tell my friends that. Then they get
apologetic. Oh you know, they say, all those complicated names. The
scientific names? I ask. Yes. Then I wonder if maybe their parents
should have bought them a copy of The Chatterlings in Wordland when they
But I'm usually polite enough not to express that wondering out loud.
Instead, I make a comment about my class roster. Every time I record
grades for two hundred students, I relive the colonizaton of America, the
survival through three and four generations of Eastern European, German,
Scandanavian, and Irish names, now carried with pride and a sense of
cultural continuity. But recently my class rosters have carried other
kinds of names, too--Hispanic, Indian, Pakistani, Asian, and especially
Vietnamese words, odd combinations of vowels and consonants that apply to
the bright and eager faces I see spread across a large auditorium. This is
the linguistic milieu into which Tami will be thrown if she is successful
in pursuit of her chosen career as a college professor. Her struggle with
names like Siphonia tulipa , Steganorhynchus dunwoodii , and Hoplorhynchus
acanthatholius , now seems to have been good training. It's taught her to
be patient with odd words whose meanings have significance for you
personally. Kinichiro Obata would likely have understood, and greatly
appreciated the value to Tami, of her etymological lessons delivered at the
hands of un-named parasites living in damselflies.
* * *
From the shores of Dunwoody Pond and the gallery filled with ancient
words, Tami retreats into darkness to answer her original question about
the animals that live inside insects: How do the cell membranes of
damselflies interact with those of this community of parasites? She sits
before a giant steel machine, her hands on its knurled knobs, her fingers
making delicate adjustments. Strange images pass across a screen whose
green light reflects off her face. She's at the end of her search, seeing,
at last, why she chose damselflies, spent those untold hours at the
microscope, cut open so many intestines, struggled with long words and wing
veins and markings that showed she'd caught the right species. In the
darkness she smiles at the naive questions ringing in her ears, the
questions strangers often ask: What good can possibly come out of your
work? Satisfied with a picture on the screen, she presses a button and
turns the image into a photograph. I chose an insect, and because of it,
became a child in wonderland, and will forever be a child in wonderland.
But what good comes from your work, they ask again, persistent,
unsatisfied. I have produced a child who will forever be in wonderland,
she says one more time, firmly, with a touch of new hardness in her voice,
losing some of her patience with people who continue to ask questions but
don't seem to want to hear the answers. The bandage is gone from the
finger that twists the knobs to move her specimen sealed away into a giant
vacuum cylinder. This single slice of biological material she's studying
represents a year of work and waiting. The bandage represented her lesson
in patience with herself. Her parasite is embedded in a block of plastic.
She needed to cut that block into a certain shape in order to slice off a
section so thin the plastic looks golden. Blocks are trimmed with glass
knives. Glass knives are made, broken from squares of quarter inch plate.
Glass knives are sharp as hell; eventually you cut yourself. Then you wait
while the finger heals. The diamond knife, used to slice off the golden
section, is also sharp, and unforgiving of those who've not learned their
first lessons with glass.
The waiting is nothing new. Tami waited until the plastic hardened,
and before that, she waited while her specimens took their journeys through
caustic chemicals and buffers, each step timed, each step a potential loss
of her year's work. Earlier she'd waited for her microscope lessons. On
the shore of Dunwoody Pond, she'd waited for summer, for the right species
of damselflies, and then for exactly the right species of parasites to
appear in the intestines. Then she waited for the parasites to produce
spores, and she waited for literature to be sent from across the ocean.
She was patient with her own mistakes. Before a specimen could begin its
trek from her lab bench to the electron microscope, it had to be fixed in
place, attached to the insect gut lining. In order to be of any value, the
parasite had to stay attached through all the processing and handling.
Many were lost along the way. By the time her parasites were embedded in
plastic, they were black, almost unrecognizeable versions of themselves.
She had no idea whether they would be satisfactory for her purposes. If
they were not, then she'd have to wait another year, for another crop of
damselflies and another generation of parasites to emerge from Dunwoody
Her finger healed, she had to wait for "time on the scope." Big
expensive scientific instruments are heavily used; she had to schedule her
hours far in advance. She spends her waiting hours writing. Once she had
an idea, she remembers, and decided to explore it, beginning with some
insects she'd caught on the shore of Dunwoody Pond and some questions that
came into her mind when she saw the parasites in the insect's intestines.
She knew early on that she'd eventually have much writing and waiting to
do. If she could return to that first day when she walked into wonderland
with her card-- Siphonia tulipa --and waded through the excited children
swirling around her knees, what would she say to herself, and to these
kids? Be patient. Science takes time. The distance from Dunwoody to the
dark room can be measured in many ways, by the lengthening list of
technical skills she's acquired, by the stack of obscure literature
accumulating in her files, by the roster of published names of parasites.
But the most telling measure of her success at converting herself into a
scientist is Tami's patience, her understanding of the strictly human
trait--patience--that permeates all work well done.
The lives Tami sees on the electron microscope screen are not so
easily analyzed as crushed midge parts in an adult damselfly's intestine.
She gets the distinct feeling that what she's seeing first appeared on
earth during the Carboniferous, that the cell membranes so delicately
pushed together are evidence of a relationship that's been kept alive,
through repeated encounters between damselflies and their internal
parasites, a sort of reaffirmation of a common need, for two hundred and
fifty million years. She focuses on the exact spot where Steganorhynchus
dunwoodii and Ischnura verticalis come together. The picture looks nothing
like she'd envisioned it earlier. Electron micrographs are impressionist
drawings, to be deciphered only if you have a clear sense of what you
started with; and electron micrographs of parasite membranes up against
their host's, when viewed at a magnification of ten thousand times, present
one with an additional problem: which one is the parasite, and which one is
In this case the question is fairly easy to answer. Magnified ten
thousand times, all those gregarine parasites with the elegant,
geographical, honorific and euphonius names are seen to have row upon row
of regular folds at their surfaces. As Tami turns the knobs and moves
these folds through the viewing screen, their marching patterns are almost
hypnotic. See? Here's where they've been pushed aside by the contact
with a damselfly cell; here's where they're cut so cleanly by the diamond
knife that you can see tiny tubes supporting each fold; and here's where
the spaces between the folds are filled with something dark, making you
think of glue, or other sticky secretions. In the electron microscope, a
damselfly looks like a beautiful stomach ache. Cells lining the intestine
are very tall, packed together like the stalks in sheaves of wheat, puffy
and fragile, especially at their globular top ends that appear to break
open, spilling enzymes into the gut. Tami turns the knobs still further,
following the marching parasite folds down into the sheaf of damselfly
cells pushed aside by the gregarine's neck. And at the end of the neck,
Dunwoody's Lampshadenose's nose: the lampshade is actually a fuzzy balloon
filled with mysterious granules. I wonder what those granules are? Tami
asks herself in the dark. After all this time, all this waiting, all this
work, she's still in the dark, both literally and figuratively, having
found only more difficult questions as answers. Once more she smiles. At
the end of a long and arduous search and all I find are more difficult
questions? Good; I must be on my way to becoming a scientist!
* * *
Six years after I hand her a card with the name Siphonia tulipa on it,
Tami hands me a book, non-fiction, bound in black, its title embossed in
gold, and containing 143 pages. This book has four chapters. The events
and situations described in those four chapters, as well as the physical
appearance of the characters involved, tell a formal story. In places, the
language is almost stilted, a requirement of the genre. In other places,
the sentences are long, complex, descriptions of pictures. The information
is not necessarily given in the sequence in which it was acquired; the
story has been arranged to guide the reader through the author's series of
tasks and thoughts. In the beginning, the main characters are described
and we learn something of their history. The second chapter tells about
these characters' homes, the environments where they live and die, the
disruptions they have to contend with daily. In the third chapter we get
involved in the characters' lives, see how they solve problems in their own
unique ways, and find what their common environment forces upon them in the
way of compromise. In the final chapter, we see inside these characters,
into their innermost secrets, the mysterious and unique traits that keep
them apart from other members of their families. Upon closer examination,
our impressions from chapter three are shown to be somewhat naive. By the
end of this book, a reader knows he's been taken on a journey to places no
one else has gone. Tami's name is on the front. My first reaction to
receiving it is to place the cover against my nose and breath in deeply.
Brand new bound thesis copies have a smell that is uniquely intellectual,
unquestioningly academic, the smell of major accomplishment.
"Thanks," I say, "let's go get a beer."
We adjourn to a local watering hole. A crowd gathers. Tami is on her
way to Texas, metamorphosed, like a damselfly, off to bigger ponds,
carrying her own versions of Steganorhynchus dunwoodii , Actinocephalus
carrilynnae , Hoplorhynchus acanthatholius , and Nubenocephalus nebraskensis .
Somebody asks her if she's going to miss her work, her insects, the high
plains wind, hot muggy mornings around Dunwoody's, and the nightime storms
over the prairie.
"Sort of," she says, then brightens. "But I've got a reminder." We
enter a long discussion about the proper sites for your research animal
tattoos. Small fish go on the ankle; beetles might be most effective on
the back of your hand; frogs are a toss-up; snails go on the wrist so
you'll see them every time you check your watch.
"So let's see it," someone asks.
Tami turns so the crowd can inspect the back of her shoulder, where
rests Enallagma civile , permanently.
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