Friday, December 18, 2015

A couple of excerpts from Pieces of the Plains, regarding microscopy.

If microorganisms could write, their story might also seem vaguely familiar to a work also laden with metaphorical baggage. With your lenses, you have fallen, Alice-like, into a round hole, and just as Alice-like, the results completely alter your perception of reality. At first, the denizens of this tiny world reveal no sense of purpose, no sense of direction, no awareness of past, present, or future, nothing that connects them to any familiar sign posts or behavioral traits by which we negotiate the realms of money, health, military adventure, agriculture, politics, sex, sports, or religion. You do not belong in this realm you have just entered; you have no idea what processes actually govern its existence, what its inhabitants do for a living, or how they got there.  Only your education prevents you from deciding, like long-ago ancestors would have done, that they simply appeared spontaneously. Slowly, very slowly, your evolved internal wiring, established neural circuits, and past experiences, begin to re-assert themselves. You are, after all, a human being; if you have any power at all, it is to impose your will on nature, at least in terms of interpretation. They eat; they mate; and, they fight, just like I do, you think. Suddenly they sort themselves out into a pattern you recognize: thousands of them, all vibrating and smacking into one another, have gathered around an air bubble. Oh, you think; they need air; they want air. You have absolutely no idea whatsoever what they need; they are incapable of want. Your conclusion is fantasy. Five minutes have now passed.  What you have seen through this lens is an irresistible drive to impose your own guiding mythology on the natural world and thus believe that you have, in fact, also imposed your will.
But you cannot control what happens in this jar of grass, water, and time without creating a human work of art. You can kill everything with heat or hydrochloric acid; you can change the community makeup by adding a handful of rice or fish food; you can decide whether to let the water evaporate or keep it filled to a certain mark; and, if you’re really a masochist, you can try to isolate one of the community members in “pure” culture. But once you perform any of these acts, you’ve created something that would not have otherwise occurred naturally. The blasé ease with which you add that handful of rice mimics our approach to nature in general, whether it be mowing the yard, planting trees, digging a ship channel through the Mississippi River Delta, or burning Amazon forest at the rate of fifty acres a minute, year after year. Eventually the infusion culture will collapse, no matter what you do. Eventually there will be no more movement under the lens. The difference between your jar and the tropical forest is one of the big take-home lessons: you can start another jar, generating that mystery at will, but you can never replace the biological diversity lost when that forest is gone.

The epigraph from chapter 4, Through a Lens
But what’s to come of it?  Nothing, as far as I know: because most students go there to make money out of science, or to get a reputation in the learned world. But in lens-grinding, and discovering things hidden from our sight, these count for naught. And I am satisfied too that not one man in a thousand is capable of such study . . . And over and above all, most men are not curious to know: nay, some even make no bones about saying, What does it matter whether we know this or not?
—Antony van Leeuwenhoek, 1715, in a letter to Gottfried Leibniz explaining why he is not training people to grind lenses.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

An exerpt from VERMILION SEA

I'm currently working on the e-book and print-on-demand versions of VERMILION SEA, the Baja California book from the early 1990s. My agent got all the rights back from Houghton Mifflin, so she will issue it as an e-book and I'll do the POD. The new versions should be available by early next year. Given the politics of our country nowadays, I thought these two paragraphs, from the last chapter, would be appropriate:

The navy base lies low on our left, sealed off from the harbor by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Several large, ominous pipes issue from beneath the military installation and empty into the harbor. These drains are rusted, about four feet in diameter, and strengthened by circular ridges. Our guide reviews the history of submarine security; the navy no longer uses underwater nets for protection against enemy submarines, she tells us. The man with the telephoto lenses continues to take pictures of helicopters and submarines, the latter at rest, almost like whales asleep, at their tenders. The guy in the Bears cap switches from humor to commentary on military equipment. Then I notice that all around me people are taking pictures of helicopters and sub marines. Everything from Instamatics to Polaroids to state-of-the-art Nikons, in the hands of men, women, and children, recording —— for what posterity? — United States Navy ordnance.
A pair of jet ghters passes overhead; more photographs. An older woman studies the war machines, her face solemn. She stares for a long time at the helicopters; I wonder if she knows someone whose ghter went down in the Tonkin Gulf and who was then rescued at sea. For this womans generation America is almost synonymous with surviving the Great Depression, victory in World War II, conquest of the Nazis and the unbelievable horror they wrote into human history, possession of an invincible nuclear arsenal, freedom, democracy, wealth, and Christianity. Studying her face, I sense that the whipping concussion of helicopter blades does not put
this older woman at ease. Instead it suggests a level of technology, especially in the military, that she doesn't understand. But neither she nor I can escape the sounds of the blades. They are as much a part of our audio culture as the pumping base of small pickups lled with speakers, the relentless pulse of rap, the lonely smoothness of Spanish, the shaved gentility of Chinese-English.
The crowd on the Avanti is as varied as the species; their presence is a reection of the changing colors of America, the human movements that are called political but are probably more fundamentally biological. In a crowded world, where cultures interact in many ways and the helicopter is a symbol for ight in all directions, neither the ow of genes nor the diffusion of ideas can be stopped. Yet we've all come together for an afternoon to watch whales; in three hours, no matter what our backgrounds, well have a common experience, something to talk about that all can agree upon. The tour guide calls our attention to Point Loma, a lighthouse put too far inland; ships, trusting its signals, ran aground. Sea lions are draped, snoozing, on red buoys.
(NOTE: All Janovy books are available via amazon. I recommend the Gideon Marshall Mystery  Series - BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER; THE STITCHER FILE; and THE EARTHQUAKE LADY)