On the Acquisition of Aye-ayes

The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a lemur, a strepsirrhine primate native to Madagascar that combines rodent-like teeth with a long, thin middle finger to fill the same ecological niche as a woodpecker. It is the world’s largest nocturnal primate, and is characterized by its unusual method of finding food; it taps on trees to find grubs, then gnaws holes in the wood and inserts its elongated middle finger to pull the grubs out. From an ecological point of view the Aye-aye fills the niche of a woodpecker as it is capable of penetrating wood to extract the invertebrates within.  (Wikipedia, accessed July 16, 2010)

On the island of Jersey, in the English Channel, I met an aye-aye. It was in a dark enclosure; you had to walk through an airlock of sorts, or more accurately a lightlock, a bit like the entrance to a photographic darkroom. The zookeepers had shifted the circadian rhythm of the aye-aye, the world’s largest nocturnal primate, so that it would be awake while visitors were present during the day. No one goes to a zoo to see a sleeping aye-aye, obviously. The zoo (they didn’t want to call it a zoo, you understand) was the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Wildlife Park, founded in 1959 as the Jersey Zoo. It contained the private collection of a gentleman called Gerald Durrell (pronounced like “squirrel”), famed author of “My Family and Other Animals,” which chronicles a portion of Mr. Durrell’s fascinating and privileged childhood, spent on the Greek island of Corfu with an array of odd characters including his brother Lawrence Durrell, a literary giant in his own right.
Read more »


My Grandfather, sans Smartphone

My grandfather sits in his kitchen, in the house he’s always lived in, in the chair he’s always sat in. The television is on, baseball perhaps, maybe the major leagues, maybe the first game of the season, maybe the last. He doesn’t speak, he glances at his wife, a few tired neurons fire, maybe he remembers her name today. He wears a bib, he moves the spoon slowly to his mouth, he will need help in the bathroom later with his pants. No children will visit him to sing their songs. Only tape recordings of the massive church choirs that he used to direct. They sound like angels, he insisted on it, he remembers how they sang for him, for the congregation, for God.

I write about him here, thousands of miles away, in a posh cafe run by a lovely young couple. Art hangs on the walls, and trinkets of a bygone era — glass jars, old shells, moldering butterflies. My smartphone beeps, informing me that the president of Chile is now estimating 708 dead so far from yesterday’s earthquake. We have become so expert at collecting; will we remember to remember?

An argument for silence


Some Favorite Statistically Improbable Phrases

(Your words are here, authors. The internet has eaten them, digested, shat out the seed hulls and roughage. What remains is an esoteric vocabulary list, number your papers from one to 127 and copy the words down, etymologies, the definitions are due next Wednesday.)

absolute timing
addressing causative factors
anaesthetic revelation
autumn squash
behold yourself
belief environment
biloha extract
blindsight subjects
broccoli rabe
cerebral vascular insufficiency
cham dancing
chasteberry extract
childlike people
chronic candidiasis
chronic hives
cimicifuga extract
classic quality
cometary fragments
commercial mechanic
computer presence
conscious robot
control food allergies
crimson salamander
crude polypeptide fraction
debating courtyard
deflection technology

Read more »

10cm on Effective Microorganisms(TM)

There’s a kind, sweet woman in Austin named Katsumi, and she knows her stuff. I missed the bulk of her explanation of EM, but the 10cm notebook managed to capture these two intriguing words, vaguely Engrishy and ripe for googling. (With quotes, please…)

So, I’m not usually one to review/promote products, and it really made me cringe to put that (TM) up there, but this one just hits so many of my cultural/biological/ecological g-spots that I simply couldn’t help it.

In brief, you’ve got a guy, Dr. Teruo Higa from Japan, who somehow magically realized that bacterias and fungi and other tiny things are really good for, well, everything. So he gathers a bunch of them together, sticks ’em in a bottle, and sells the mix as EM-1. People use it on stuff and are amazed to find that cool things happen. Snake oil? Well, yeah, if snake oil had live cultures of lactobacteria in it and, you know, actually had some scientific basis for working.

Let’s break it down. Three major groups:
Read more »

A is for Aircrane. B is for Burnside. C is for Cooper.

Today on my walk home from a temp job at a trade show for Oregon nurseries and plant growers, I passed the following businesses: an unmarked bar that serves beer and cheese fondue, a hippo-themed hardware store full of old timey doorknobs, an art supply store, a museum of velvet paintings, the best music venue in town, a Greek deli, the offices of a guy with an aircrane business, a drum shoppe, and a local restaurant which purportedly has the best buffalo wings in town. While I was at the trade show, I spoke to a man who works for a company that manufactures waterproof notebooks which Read more »

A Love Letter to Portland

Yesterday (after trying to remind myself about the fundamentals of Ohm’s Law and the analogy between electricity and water pressure) I went to this guy Greg’s block party where there was a man dressed up in a tree costume ruling the top square in foursquare, and I played ping-pong in the middle of 48th Avenue with a 10-year-old while another guy with an amp on the back of his tricycle rode around playing guitar. At the end of the street is Belmont Station, Read more »

First Stop: Deep Moss

7,700 years ago: Mount Mazama, in what is now southern Oregon, erupts. It collapses in on itself, forming a deep crater which fills with melted snow over the next 600-800 years. Crater Lake, the seventh-deepest (592m) lake in the world, is born. It is a nutrient-poor lake with no inlets or outlets, preventing particulate matter from shading the depths below.

6,000 years ago (?): The lake becomes home to Drepanocladus aduncus, a species of freshwater moss which, thanks to the availability of sunlight in the lake, was able to establish itself nearly 600 feet below the lake’s surface.

Read more »

Conifers Here I Come

“If when you think of hiking here in the Pacific Northwest, you think of cool, dark, mysterious forests of huge conifers, you’ve got the right picture. The area made rainy by the Cascades, Olympics, and other Pacific coastal ranges is the Conifer Capitol of the World. This is the only large temperate-zone area where conifers utterly overwhelm their broadleaf competitors. It grows conifers bigger than anywhere else, and the resulting tonnage of biomass and square-footage of leaf area, per acre, are the world’s highest, even greater than in tropical rainforests.”

Excerpted from Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Daniel Mathews 1999

photo from here.

Magnetic North

There are certain climates which make bird migration seem completely reasonable. I have chosen to fly the 2,500 miles to Oregon so that I can reclaim via fern-gratifying mist some quantity of the gallons of sweat that I had been producing in Texas over the past twelve years. Some will say, “Too much rain!” or “Too cold!” or “Not enough sunlight!” … I will show these naysayers a dew-covered mushroom that has been nibbled upon by a newt, hand them the SPF 45 that I refuse to apply, and tromp off down some spongey trail in search of interesting bryophytes.