I have had only one right brush, and the tip no longer points. It was in my father's desk, and we found it after he died. There is no way to know how old it is, or what brand. It is simply black with a brass sleeve to hold the hairs, which are lighter than those of many brushes. I knew the first time it was a right brush. The picture turned out to be so much better than my perceptions of my own ability would allow.
Harry Heron came into camp in a box. The first thing he tried to do was get cold and die. The second thing he tried to do was stab Jim's left eye out. He fell a little short of success in both cases. . . He smelled pretty bad, too, and it got worse. In fact, the more I try to remember what Harry was like, the grubbier he becomes. I will say this for him: he finally did become paper trained. He accomplished that when people moved him over to where the papers were and kept him there. All things considered, he was the filthiest, dumbest, ugliest, most bedraggled, hopeless case ever to arrive. . . Well, with all those things going for him, you couldn't help falling head over heels for Harry Heron.
Pops looked for a long time at the feather, the man off the highway, then back again at the feather. He finally took it gently, holding it in the light for a moment, turning it over and over, holding it back in the shaft of light, holding it over under the bulb by the cash register, flattening it against his palm, holding it up to the window to look through, and at last smiling.
"That's a yellowshanks feather," he said, "come off up by the wing."
Originally published by Harper and Row in 1985, On Becoming has now been re-issued in paperback by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE 68588-0484. A quote:
I am reminded . . . of some decidedly simple yet brutally honest and practical advice I received at the start of my doctoral work. I was on a tour through the National Institutes of Health in the tow of my mentor, Dr. J. Teague Self. I had at that point been Teague Self's graduate student for about two weeks. Walking down the hall, he cocked an ear at a blustery Irish voice emanating from an office, poked his head inside, then turned back to me and said
"How'd you like to meet Coatney?" [G. Robert Coatney, in his office with A. M. Fallis and J. F. A. Sprent.]
I can think of no time since in which I've seen any other student so suddenly flung alone into a room full of his heros. . . . Coatney issued the advice which put all idealism into perspective, the hindsight of a long and successful career, and which spoke of a hazard never imagined by the young.
"Always," said G. Robert Coatney, "be finishing something."
The fear of failure keeps so many thoughts inside a head, so many men and women in their chairs, silent, acceding, not wanting to be thought a fool, or stand out, or gather social species' hate for doing well, or poorly, or any other way but average. How much raw intelligence, ability, vision, lies fallow in such fear? A world and then a world, is how much. Such a load to place on ball. But . . . what's lost is gone, no matter what it is. If you want them badly enough to drain your mind and soul in front of screaming mobs and pounding drums, the points become all things lost through the ages: Pride, love, hope, and most importantly, the fear of failure itself.
I get the sense, from reading Pablo Martinez, that regular psychic interactions with landscapes such as that north of Cataviña had a way of building a shield between humans and the forces that sought to domesticate them. In my experience such sacred places still function in that manner. Natural scenery associated with difficult, but deeply satisfying, intellectual endeavor reminds me of the positive feelings that come with tangible accomplishments, with personal discoveries.
But the people who've walked into my laboratory are rational beings who have enormous faith in their own very human talents, and little use for prophets. They attack gigantic problems with only their minds and hands. They are models for a type of human being that takes pride in its brain, in its ideas, instead of in its weapons or power. So I've set about to tell their stories. We need to know where these kinds of people come from, how they are shaped, and how they think, with the hope that in the telling, we'll discover how to generate some more of them.
Ten Minute Ecologist (St. Martin's Press, 1997) is subtitled Twenty answered questions for busy people facing environmental issues. Each question is answered with a short, 5 or 6 page answer; chapter titles range from "How do humans view the world?" to "Why study islands?" and "Why do scientists argue?" The book includes a glossary, as well as a long list of suggested readings for those who want to explore ecological issues more thoroughly. TME has been translated into Italian and Japanese. A quote:
The third important property of dirt is its organic content, that is, living organisms and their products . . . A partial list of soil dwellers includes: bacteria, algae, fungi and their spores, amoebas, nematodes, earthworms, tardigrades, rotifers, mites, insects, rodents, tapeworm eggs, roots of surface vegetation, pollen, and seeds. . . A brief list of organic products includes bark, leaf pieces, cell wall pieces, egg shells, hair, and dead bodies. A common organic component of soil is feces. All animals, no matter how large or small, defecate regularly, and the overwhelming bulk of their feces ends up in dirt. In fact, insect and worm feces are among the most frequently encountered components of our environments.
Strange as it seems, some people like to eat dirt.
What would I do if I were a professor of English instead of invertebrate zoology? Where is that intellectual paradise for a teacher of modern fiction? Of poetry? And once I find it, how do I take its pedagogical power and give that power to my students. I'm going to step beyond my bounds and try to answer those questions, then step even further beyond those bounds and try to answer them for history, economics, engineering, music, and art. I believe that along with literature and science, these five fields encompass all of the basic domains of reality found in human scholarly endeavor. I don't have a professional's, or a professor's, knowledge of these seven disciplines. But if, with respect to these seven areas of intellectual pursuits, we ask the following questions: What is a fact? What is an observation? What evidence do we need in order to make a decision? How do we interpret information? What use do humans make of our products? And what is the fundamental nature of [our] prevailing paradigms? Then the answers will tell us most of what we need to know to build Eden.
Echinostoma trivolvus is distinguished by a rather remarkable list of definitive hosts, including several species of ducks, geese, hawks, owls, doves, flamingos, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, pigs, rats, and of course mice. . . For anyone who thinks all the world's systematic problems are solved or easily solvable, a journey through these discussions in the echinostome literature would be exceedingly educational.
The second piece of advice for males is to make sure you can speak the English language with simple grammatical rules in place. I don't know why males tend to use incorrect grammar more than females, and maybe my 40 years of college teaching and 20,000 grades awarded don't represent a good sample. But I can assure you that one of the quickest ways to create a bad impression on any teacher is to say "I've went . . ." or use the non-word "alot" in a written assignment. A chapter on dress may not seem like the best place to talk about grammar, but clothes and speech go together, and a male student who comes in to a faculty office wearing his cap on backwards and saying "I've went . . ." might as well be writing C or D on his grade sheet right now.
Thus I picked the ginkgo because it lets me imagine myself in a horror movie, with dinosaurs rampaging around on all sides, and discovering a ginkgo tree, then saying “gee, that’s the tree I picked for biology! How did it get inside this horror movie?” If the ginkgo could talk, it would probably be asking the same thing about me. Would the ginkgo think that the world I live in today is a horror movie? I don’t know. But sometimes it looks that way, doesn’t it? I have this disturbing feeling that maybe ginkgos remember the age of dinosaurs as wonderful, free, young and exciting times, and now consider the age of humans a terrifying, crazy, out of control time.
The Ginkgo is available as trade paperback from CreateSpace.com
Pieces of the Plains, (J&L Lee, Lincoln, NE, 2009) subtitled Memories and Predictions from the Heart of America, addresses the questions: Why do people decide to study nature? What do we learn from nature? How does our understanding of nature develop? And finally, what does a scientist's lifetime of interaction with our planet, and especially with the multitude of organisms that share Earth with us, tell us about our future? The setting is America 's heartland, our literal geographic center: the prairie landscape from Oklahoma to Nebraska. Characters range from a dying grandmother, to a father passing a beloved childhood toy to his son, to world-renowned scientists, to a horse in the Sandhills. As readers, we contemplate life from an intensive care unit, play the role of professional photographer, look through a microscope to see the world in a unique way, join a rogue prospector looking for uranium in unlikely places, participate in a branding, and step into the rarified atmosphere of Ivory Tower politics. In the end, this experience leads us to ask: What is a human being? and What will human life be like in two thousand years?
Indeed, these questions are the last two chapters, the “predictions” of the book's title. Pieces of the Plains can be considered a scientist's memoir because it draws on a lifetime's worth of my teaching, research, and writing, but throughout the book I try to step back from the personal history in order to place these experiences into a global context. Original drawings accompany each chapter. A quote:
Nothing, it seems, can live in this part of North America without showing evidence of having encountered Permian surface geology—soils laden with iron and derived from a period in Earth's history when oxygen levels were high. My grandfather's car was always dirty; red clay was always packed up under the wheel wells, splattered there along some muddy red road where he drove, like every wildcatter of the early oil boom days, walking around with his geologist's pick, convinced there lay a financial windfall of indescribable size and importance just beneath the next hill.
The windfall never comes. Instead, we have photographs. A group of men stands on a cut bank beneath a tarp rigged as a tent. To the far right is my grandfather. He's smiling, squinting at the camera. We also have his notes on the back. “First commercial carnotite find at Cement Caddo Co. Found in School gymnasium yard. Sold to Lucius Pitkin Inc. Grants N. Mex. 13 tons ore, averaging 2.66 assay brought $3417.00 and a $2400 bonus by the Atomic Energy commission. Stringer, was 70ft long—averaged less than 3 ft wide and two feet thick. Had the deposit covered an acre, would have brought over $400,000.00. Lister Brothers of Chickasha finders.” At the time—middle 1950s—$400,000 would indeed have been a small fortune for these men. Whatever geological vagaries had conspired to deliver this $6000 “ 70 ft ” shallow stringer of carnotite to a schoolyard in southwestern Oklahoma had also conspired to tease this group of explorers with the same mineral bait that had snagged oil boomers a generation earlier and land boomers a generation before that. All six men in the Caddo County photograph could not have been full time prospectors. Five of them are young enough to need a day job. Only my grandfather looks carefree, standing there in a plaid shirt with his hand on his hip, a man beside a stringer.
CONVERSATIONS . . . SATAN, subtitled Held During October, 2004, at the Crescent Moon Coffee House in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, Earth, Milky Way, is science fiction. The book is a biologist's response to military conflict arising from religious beliefs, exactly the kind of thing you read about in the daily newspaper and hear about daily on radio and television. CONVERSATIONS starts from first principles: both God and Satan are eternal, and God is all-knowing and all powerful, i.e., able to do anything, be anything, and go anywhere at a whim. The following exerpt has been included in Low Down and Coming On, an anthology of poetry about pigs published in 2010 by Red Dragonfly Press. A quote:
God was beginning to think that maybe people were not such a good idea after all because the planets that still had only dinosaurs and trilobites and giant dragonflies seemed to be doing just fine, so that maybe when He got tired of watching velociraptor types chomping down on gentle herbivores, instead of killing them off with a big meteorite, He'd just see if He could evolve them into pigs of various sizes and shapes. “I like pigs,” He said to Himself, and thought about the pleasure He felt when He was watching strange plants and animals evolve from other strange plants and animals, sort of like He'd created a circus over whose acts He had no control whatsoever.
“Birds,” said Satan, reading God's mind and reminding Him of His own operating principles. “You can't make pigs out of velociraptors. You can only make birds.”
“I forgot,” said God; “pigs are made out of something else.” God loved pigs because they were so honest and successful and, well, predictable. They simply acted like pigs, and even the various wild species He'd watched evolve out of some even-toed ancestor non-pig. All the pigs that had evolved out of their even-toed ancestors on millions of other planets also were great pigs and would probably have done just fine on Earth, even though they came in a variety of styles, sizes, and colors, including purple or iridescent chartreuse, depending on the galaxy. “You gotta admit it,” said God; “pigs are one of my Universe's best products.”
“It is amazing, isn't it,” replied Satan; “that people act like pigs but pigs never act like people.”
CONVERSATIONS is available in trade paperback from CreateSpace.com.
TUSKERS is science fiction. Aside from backstory, all the action takes place on the day of the OU vs. Nebraska football game, November 25, 2090; i.e., it's far into the future, OU has joined the Big Ten, and the Rose Bowl has been destroyed by an earthquake, so the national championship game again gets played in the Orange Bowl. However, to get to this game, Nebraska must beat OU. To complicate matters, Nebraska has not lost a football game in 10 years, but OU has developed some secret weapons. Thanks to the molecular biologists, the former Cornhuskers are now the TUSKERS, and their mascot is a wooly mammoth, yes, a real, live, mammoth resurrected from a frozen carcass, who could have no other name than Archie. In this scene, the Cornhuskers have yet to become the powerhouse TUSKERS, Nebraska is in the depths of a string of losing seasons, and Archie the wooly mammoth has been fixed up with a blind date who stands him up. Suzi, who will become one of the book's heroes, is still a college student.
So, one of the guys from the Beef Lab took Archie to the game. There were very few people around, and most of them were dressed in purple, not red. Even the Kansas State fans wouldn't travel to watch such a boring game. Archie didn't see anybody in red except the band and he knew that after his performance in the parade nobody in the band would go out with him. Finally two people wearing red showed up, but they were both male. Another person, the only female not dressed in purple or in the band, had on jeans and a brown leather vest. It was Suzi on her way to the museum and art gallery.
When Suzi saw Archie she stopped and stared. Even though Archie was six years old and seven feet tall, and Suzi had watched the mammoths from the public viewing area, she'd never been this close to one. By this time Archie was feeling pretty depressed, sad, and abandoned. Maybe Nancy doesn't like me because I'm big and hairy, he thought. If she only knew how intelligent and sensitive I am, she'd like me. The guy from the Beef Lab said “don't cry, Archie.” But Archie began to cry anyway, hanging his head, letting the tip of his trunk drag on the concrete, and blinking out tears that hit the sidewalk like water balloons.
Suzi was devastated. She could never have imagined the power that a crying mammoth could have over her deepest emotions. She walked up to Archie's handler and asked what was wrong. The man said “he was supposed to have a blind date but she stood him up because he's so big and hairy. Now he's all depressed.”
To which Suzi replied, “he's no worse than some of the football players.”
This wisecrack made Archie cry all the more, his massive body heaving with gigantic sobs and three feet of snot gurgling in his trunk. Suzi had insulted him terribly; he thought football players were barbarians. Then Suzi said “When I get depressed I usually kick the shit out of something. Usually something big. That makes me feel better.”
“Uh-oh,” said the guy from the Beef Lab. The only big thing around to kick was the Kansas State team bus, a superslick black-windowed silver coach with an abstract purple wildcat on the side.
Archie's ears perked up. Then he raised his head, wiped a tear with his trunk, blew out three or four gallons of snot, reared up on his hind legs and smashed the KSU bus. Metal and glass went everywhere. The two guys in red shirts stood off to the side. One of them said
“Wow! Tusker power!”
The other said “that's cute; Tusker power.”
The first guy yelled “ Tus-ker! ”
The second guy yelled “ Pow-er! ”
The two students looked at one another. Something out of their distant past, maybe something acquired by their grandparents, bubbled to the surface, as they began to chant: Tus-ker! Pow-er! Tus-ker! Pow-er!
TUSKERS is available in trade paperback from CreateSpace.com.